Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By Stone, Marjorie | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Stone, Marjorie, Victorian Poetry


Surveying canonical transformations in the forty-four years since establishment of the journal Victorian Studies, Edward H. Cohen notes, as one significant change, that there are now "almost as many" bibliography entries each year on Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Robert Browning ("'Victorian Bibliographies'" VS 44 [2002]: 630). This year's essay covers a full-length study, several books with substantial sections and/or essays on EBB, assorted articles, and a major new web resource mounted by the Armstrong Browning Library. While work on Aurora Leigh continues to appear, it no longer dominates the scene. Casa Guidi Windows and Sonnets from the Portuguese figure prominently once again, but critics are increasingly considering lesser known works as well. Political, national, and religious identities are attracting as much, if not more interest, than gender issues; other topics include EBB's response to Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon, trans-Atlantic abolitionist networks, genre, sculpture, metrics, and connections between Flush and fascism.

Among new books, this year has brought Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott's wide-ranging study, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2003), published in the same Longman series as John Woolford and Daniel Karlin's Robert Browning (1996). Avery and Stott describe themselves as "particularly interested in Barrett Browning's relations to, and participation in, nineteenth-century intellectual history, her engagement with key social and political debates of the period, and her examination of the power relations and struggles" within both society and the individual (p. 20). Although their book is a collaborative production, the chapters are solo compositions, not co-written analyses. Clearly, however, the two authors have complementary views. Avery notes Deirdre David's reading of EBB as "conservative and essentially anti-feminist" (p. 17) in his introductory survey of changing critical approaches. But the poet and intellectual who emerges from Avery and Stott's book is cast in a more heroic mold. She is an iconoclast, an innovator, and a politically engaged liberal reformer. In Avery's words, she is "a strong, powerful, dissenting thinker who frequently resisted established ideologies" (p. 40); in Stott's, she is "a woman in full possession of her 'poetic I' from the moment she ventured into print as a young girl," an author who is "consistently ambitious and audacious" (p. 66).

One of the most significant contributions of this book is the attention its co-authors give to the Whig politics and the non-conformist religious discourses that shaped both EBB's youthful formation and her mature writing. Avery emphasizes the politics, in particular, in treating the formative years of the "Poet Laureate of Hope End." He makes very good use of H. Buxton Forman's edition of Hitherto Unpublished Poems (1914), and The Brownings' Correspondence to demonstrate the Whig sympathies and political activism of the Barretts (including Samuel Barrett, EBB's paternal uncle, who became a Whig Member of Parliament for Richmond in Yorkshire in 1820). A brief treatment of the Barretts' colonial connections with slavery under the rubric of "Skeletons in the Family Closet" is more problematic. This section relies principally on Julia Markus' popular biography Dared and Done (1995), with its thesis concerning mixed blood in EBB's father's line of the Barretts. Avery only too aptly describes this as "rather a tentative theory" (p. 40). Unfortunately, however, it is not presented as such by Markus in her otherwise innovative biography of the Brownings as a literary couple. For a critique of Markus' claims and speculations, readers should see Richard S. Kennedy's "Disposing of a New Myth: A Close Look at Julia Markus' Theory About the Brownings' Ancestry" (BSN 26 [2000]: 21-47), covered in the 2001 "Year's Work" essay (p. 33).

Much more original and substantial than the account of "Skeletons in the Family Closet" is Avery's illuminating analysis of EBB's first three published earlier volumes within their historical and political contexts.

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