Professor's Fresh Look at the Life and Times of the Brownings; the Brownings - Robert and His North-East-Born Wife Elizabeth - Were a Celebrity Couple of the Victorian Era When Their Poetry Was Eagerly Snapped Up by Fans. IAN ROBSON Speaks to a Retired Professor of English Literature Fascinated by Their Love Story and Who Has Written a Novel Imaging What They Would Have Written to Each Other over Their Loved but Wayward Son

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WHAT does a retired professor of English literature do when he no longer has to go to work? If he's Terry Wright, formerly of Newcastle University, he immerses himself in the world of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Terry spent more than three decades teaching students about the love-struck pair and, since quitting the academic rat-race, has continued his fascination with two giants of Victorian poetry who had a secret wedding and then eloped.

He has just completed a novel based on imagined letters between Browning and his wife, who was born in the North East, about their lives together.

The Browning Papers is fiction, he is at pains to point out, but firmly rooted in fact gleaned from more than 30 years of teaching and research.

Terry is 61, married to his German wife Gabriele, to whom the book is dedicated, with two grown-up children, Catherine 27, and Andrew, 22, but he has no plans to put his feet up too much.

"I have always written as an academic but one of the things about taking early retirement is that I wanted to write creatively," he said.

"This is my first novel but I used to teach about both Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

"I knew their work well and obviously knew about their lives, but somehow it seemed more appropriate to write a novel about them than to write critical stuff.

"When I tell people about what I am writing now, I tell them I like not having to have footnotes.

"When you write academic work you always have to check your references, make sure you have the right page number, and all the rest of it.

"Obviously I try to be accurate about the lives of the Brownings but I don't have to cross every T and dot every I these days."

The couple were two of the most important poets of the Victorian era with Browning courting a frail Elizabeth in secret before they eloped together against her father's wishes.

They had a son, nicknamed Pen, on whom they doted but who was asked to leave Oxford University in disgrace and was rumoured to have fathered an illegitimate child.

Terry's novel imagines the family history from recently-discovered secret letters written by Elizabeth and Robert to each other. A final chapter, written from Pen's point of view, tells of his surprise at finding the memoirs. The book coincides with the 200th anniversary of Robert's birth and the 100th anniversary of Pen's death. "

When you read Elizabeth Barrett's letters, and there are a lot of them, you can tell how she loved her son," Terry said. "They called him Pen through he was actually christened Robert. "Elizabeth was no spring chicken when they eloped - she was in her 30s - and had been an invalid suffering from severe depression. "And then it all changed, she fell in love, she went abroad, she had a child, they really loved little Pen and her letters are full of lovely stories about him, some of which I have included in the book."

Elizabeth had been born in 1806 at Kelloe, County Durham, of Edward Barrett Moulton and Mary Graham-Clarke. She was given the family nickname Ba. The family had made their fortune from her maternal grandfather who owned sugar plantations and a number of ships which traded between Newcastle and Jamaica. But she suffered from ill-health and was kept a virtual prisoner by an overbearing father who refused to let any of his children marry and disinherited those who did. The family moved several times after Elizabeth's mother died before settling in London. During this time the poet became ill with an unspecified condition which doctors were unable to explain. It resulted in intense head and spinal pain and affected movement but was kept under control by opium and morphine. She became addicted in later life because she had used the drugs since childhood.

All of this, said Terry, is mentioned in his novel. …


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