Magazine article The World and I

Love Lost and Found - the Lives of Elizabeth and Robert Browning

Magazine article The World and I

Love Lost and Found - the Lives of Elizabeth and Robert Browning

Article excerpt

Michael Timko is professor emeritus of the City University of New York. His article "Queen Victoria and Mrs. Brown" appeared in the May 2002 issue of The World & I.

THE LOVE AFFAIR OF ELIZABETH BARRETT AND ROBERT BROWNING, TWO ALMOST FORGOTTEN nineteenth-century poets, deserves to be better known to our generation, whose idea of love has been nurtured by watching Friends. While their story might seem quaint, even curious, to many today, from the time of their first exchange of letters in 1845, when Elizabeth was a 39-year-old invalid, to her death in 1861, there was never a moment of uncertainty by either that they were meant for each other. Robert, the "rescuer," like Saint George of myth and legend, arrived to snatch Elizabeth from her dragonlike father. They eloped and resided happily in Italy. He lived on after her death until December 1889, but, true to the vow he made to her on her deathbed, he never remarried.

Elizabeth, the oldest of twelve children, was born March 6, 1806, at Hope End, her parents' 500-acre estate in Herefordshire. A precocious child, she managed to get her own way in everything except control of her own life. Like her siblings and her mother, a patient, passive woman, Elizabeth was a prisoner in her father's home. He loved all his children dearly but, as a typical autocratic and authoritarian Victorian father, was convinced from his reading of the Bible that he was, in fact, the sole judge of what was right for his family. Elizabeth spoke of it as a doctrine of "passive obedience, particularly in respect to marriage." It was, she wrote, "monomania."

Elizabeth was active and bossy as a young girl; one biographer has called her "something of a tomboy, given to fisticuffs, strenuous activity, and to throwing things about the house." Always, though, she worked hard to please her father in every way, especially trying to write the kind of poetry he liked. A brilliant student, she learned Greek and Latin at an early age. Her only complaint was that her brother was allowed to go to a private school to continue his studies, while she, just a girl, was kept at home. She made up for it by finding ways to compensate for the lack of a formal education. A voracious reader, she enjoyed both the classics (Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope) and the popular literature of the day. She especially liked "romantic" fiction and in her adult life admired George Sand. The controlling force throughout her life before she met Robert, however, was the emotional and psychological domination of her father. To her, he was the source of all knowledge, power, and pleasure.

Her early poetry, serious and learned, reflects this domination; her father encouraged her to write poetry and called her the poet laureate of Hope End. When she turned fourteen he arranged for the printing of fifty copies of The Battle of Marathon, an epic she had written in the manner of Alexander Pope, the eighteenth-century poet. From that time on she dedicated her life to the writing of poetry. In 1826, when she was twenty, she published, at her aunt's expense, An Essay on Mind, With Other Poems. The title poem was, as The Battle of Marathon had been, highly imitative of Pope and Milton; but the shorter poems, fourteen of them, were more characteristic of her later verse: The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838) and Poems (1844). It was only after her marriage to Robert that she was to publish her best-known works, Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850) and Aurora Leigh (1857). These two works, especially the sonnets, reflect themes closer to her own life, especially those of thwarted love, frustrated lovers, and, rarely, love finally consummated. Aurora Leigh, a poem dealing with a woman writer, can be seen as an early feminist document, one that asserts the right of any one, even a woman, to be an author.

Elizabeth's life was further complicated by her illness, or, perhaps more accurately, illnesses. …

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