The Poetess and Dr Love; Answers to Correspondents
QUESTION: How was supposedly bedridden poetess Elizabeth Barrett able to leave the house in Wimpole Street unaided to elope with Robert Browning?
THERE may have been some psychological aspects to Elizabeth Barrett's invalidism and some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that her illness was purely psychosomatic and that she was miraculously 'cured' when she found love and hope with Robert Browning.
But this is a sad misrepresentation of a courageous woman who struggled through most of her adult life with illness and worked tirelessly, despite her debilitated state.
Elizabeth was a healthy, tomboyish girl until she was 14, when she caught measles, which seems to have been followed by a mysterious illness that damaged her lungs.
While the family lived in the Herefordshire countryside she enjoyed an almost normal life. But when financial reasons obliged them to move to London in the 1830s, the air was so polluted that anyone with a respiratory weakness was vulnerable.
Elizabeth fled to Torquay, but a family bereavement brought her back to London where she simply expected to die. Grief, laudanum, seclusion and lack of exercise in her virtually sealed room in Wimpole Street hardly made for a healthy life.
Her one reason for living was her writing.
Robert Browning helped her recover from her grief, encouraged a more positive way of life and finally took her to the sunshine and warmth of Italy. She was still frail and there was no miracle cure, but she lived a further 15 years and had a healthy son at the age of 43.
She wrote compulsively whatever the illness and adversity, not just poetry but the most entertaining and lively letters.
Her health gradually deteriorated until even Florence wasn't warm enough during the winters, and the couple would then move to Rome.
She died in Florence at the age of 55. Her condition was probably something like bronchiectasis, which is now treated by antibiotics and sometimes surgery.
Mairi Rennie, Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Texas.
QUESTION: What do our eyes do when we are asleep?
BEFORE the Fifties very little was known about sleep and scientists considered it to be one continuous dormant period.
In 1953 experiments led to a new understanding of sleep, which is now split into four or five stages.
In stage one, the eyes roll slowly on falling asleep and are finally quiescent somewhere around the midline. Temperature, heart rate and pulse slow down, and the person may easily wake up. In stage two, the eyes are quiet, there are few body movements and vital functions slow down further.
Stages three and four are deep sleep stages. Again the eyes are quiescent, vital functions slow down further and there are increased levels of hormone secretion.
Stage five sleep is distinguishable by changes in physiological states, including the characteristic rapid eye movements (REM). Here, muscular, hormonal and brain activity is heightened, the person may experience dreams and the eyes flicker back and forth. …