Grand Voyages in 19th Century

By Losos, Reviewed Joseph | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 16, 1995 | Go to article overview

Grand Voyages in 19th Century


Losos, Reviewed Joseph, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


DARED AND DONE The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning By Julia Markus 339 pages, Knopf, $30 CHARLES DARWIN, A BIOGRAPHY Volume I: Voyaging By Janet Browne 543 pages, Knopf, $35

THE ACTIONS and passions of the Victorian epoch are familiar subjects, seemingly so different from the events of our time and yet amazingly cogent when closely considered. So much that happened 150 years ago reminds us of the latest news or speaks to current controversies; the subjects of these two books demonstrate that.

The courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, and their subsequent marital life, is not merely one of the great romantic sagas of the Romantic age, while the pathway to the publication of Darwin's "Origin of Species" is celebrated as one of the most notable developments in the history of human thought.

There are, of course, numerous treatments of these famous stories. Julia Markus remarks in her introduction on the significance of the 1930 play "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," a successful drama that has dominated the popular view of the great poetic romance. As to Darwin, nothing has so fittingly survived, and flourished, as works on the life and thought of perhaps the most famous scientist in history. Indeed, Janet Browne remarks that she thought to label her book "Darwin: Another Biography." Why indeed do we need these new studies?

The answer, as usual, does not involve any remarkable discovery of new documents. The salient feature of the books is the application of a very contemporary sensibility, combined with careful scholarship, to old icons.

Markus does not throw out the highly charged traditional story. Of course the alliance of two famous middle-aged poets was an unusual occurence. What made it especially so was the circumstance in which Barrett lived - a women noted for her sensitive poetry more or less imprisoned by a tyrannical father who strangely demanded that all of his many children abstain from marriage. Elizabeth, evidently in response to this pressure, became an invalid. But Robert Browning, like a fairy-tale knight, found his way into her room and her heart, eloped (more or less) with her, and the pair lived happily ever after in Italy. …

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