Although her poetry, letters, and diaries reveal a profound ambivalence about love, Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems, despite some difficulties, to have enjoyed a very happy relationship with her husband, Robert Browning. According to Kathleen Blake, Robert Browning was practically "a one-man refutation of virtually all of her anxieties." The following account of their relationship is drawn from Blake's book,
Robert Browning was emphatically unlike the doctors humorously described by E.B.B., who carried the inkstand out of her room as part of the cure because if poetry involves malady for men, "for women it was incompatible with any common show of health under any circumstances".
Their relationship began in his admiring her poetry. His audacious first letter moves from loving her books to loving her. E.B.B. was alarmed by his "extravagance", and worried that he might substitute lioness-worship for real feeling, with something of Aurora Leigh's distaste for merely literary adulation.
Much of E.B.B.'s hesitation came from knowing that love can bring injury as well as boon. She had suffered such injury. With great pain did she finally recognise that her father's strangely heartless affection would have buried her her sickroom, for how else could she interpret his squelching of her plan to travel south for health in 1846, when doctors practically ordered the journey to Italy as a last hope? E.B.B. had had previous experience of one-sided affection, as we see in her diary of 1831-3, which concerns her relationship with the Greek scholar H.S. Boyd. For a year her entries calculate the bitter difference between his regard and her own, and she wonders if she can ever hope for reciprocation. In fact she finds her womanly capacity for feeling a liability and wishes she could feel less — "I am not of a cold nature, & cannot bear to be treated coldly. When cold water is thrown upon a hot iron, the iron hisses. I wish that water wd. make that iron as cold as self."
Besides being hurt in love, E.B.B. also felt she had done hurt, and this too made her cautious. She felt that she had actually caused her brother's death by wanting him to be with her, and done violence to a tight-knit family. She fearfully questioned what sort of a gift her heart would make to Browning since she was not young (thirty-eight), six years an invalid, broken-spirited in guilt and sorrow. So for a long time Robert Browning had to accede to her formula, urged in the Sonnets, that he loved her for nothing at all, just because he loved her. But once he had overcome her mistrust, he began to campaign for his right to include her poetic gift among his reasons for being smitten: "How can I put your poetry away from you?" She must keep up writing her writing for "Ba herself to be quite Ba". He worried that she might scant her own work in order to help him and write him letters, for her knew how self-sacrificing affection could make her. She answered that she felt better and stronger for his interest and did not grow so idle as he thought. She was composing the Sonnets during their letter-writing courtship, and she also outlined her rough idea for Aurora Leigh. Browning comments that he would like to undertake something as ambitious himself, and "you can do it, I know and am sure."
Though E.B.B. did not do a great deal of work for a year or so after her marriage — as she says, before she could go forward she had to learn how to stand up steadily after so great a revolution — the intermission was brief and the follow-through impressive. Before her death in 1861: Poems of 1850, Casa Guida Windows (1851), Aurora Leigh, Poems before Congress (1860), and her last Poems. Bearing a son put no stop to her enterprise. She writes in 1850, "As for poetry, I hope to do better things in it yet, though I have a child to stand in my sunshine,' as you suppose he must; but he only makes the sunbeams brighter with his curls, little darling". A charming picture emerges of the Brownings' mutual aid, to the pouring out of the coffee. She benefited from their unconstraint, their regimen of hard work, their interchange of encouragement.
Browning was a helpful critic from the beginning, for instance, from his earliest letter commenting on her translation of Prometheus Bound. But E.B.B. was not easily influenced and often stood up for her originality even when people thought it amounted to eccentricity, as they more than once did. On her controversial Poems Before Congress she says, "I never wrote to please any of you, not even to please my own husband". She did not emulate Browning directly because she thought she shouldn't and because she thought she couldn't anyway. As Susan Zimmerman has shown, the Sonnets differ from the traditional sonnet sequence in praising the beloved — Browning — as a singer far beyond the speaker in power — he is a "gracious singer of high poems", while she is a worn-out viol (IV; XXXII).
In breaking the traditional identity between lover and poet, E.B.B. forecasts the split between woman-in-love and artist developed in Aurora Leigh. At the same time, her awe of Browning as a specifically masculine poet discouraged her in a way that also guaranteed integrity because it put imitation out of the question: "you are masculine' to the height — and I, as a woman, have studied some of your gestures of language & intonation wistfully, as a thing beyond me far! and admirable for being beyond."
Browning's benefit to her work went beyond encouragement, criticism and provision of a model to study but not to copy. E.B.B. had felt the limits of her own experience as limits to her poetry. She had known a filial and invalid exaggeration of feminine enclosure. Browning gave her Italy, gave her travel, gave her experience. Her letters in marriage run over with the high spirits of a wanderer and observer
Besides expanding her material, Browning also restored her to her own aesthetic. E.B.B.'s ars poetica stressed self-expression, made it a first principle to "looke in thine heart, and write" according to her Essays on the English and the Greek Christian Poets. Yet in the reduced state in which Browning found her, she experienced separation between her inmost feelings and her poetry — her own being had become so nearly defunct that she could not produce poetry except from a factitious personality.
Browning refuses to value even ministration to others over authorshiphe did not want her to care for others more than for herself and her writing. He did not promote the conflict that forms the theme of Aurora Leigh.
Last modified 1991