Elizabeth Barrett Browning—isolation and the artist
Elizabeth Lovett Colledge
Jacksonville, Florida, United States
|Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Evert Duykinck Via Wikimedia.|
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is perhaps best known for the poem “How do I Love Thee,” addressed to her husband Robert Browning, as well as their courtship, elopement, and subsequent years together in Europe. However, one might revisit her life and prolific work in light of the many years of illness and isolation that both frustrated her and fostered her productivity. Can we find similarities between the restrictions forced on us by the Covid-19 pandemic and those forced upon her by illness and the strictures of her tyrannical father? Edward Barrett disowned the three of his daughters who dared get married and leave his home (wisely, none of his sons married until after their father’s death). But prior to their estrangement, his primary focus was on his brilliant eldest daughter Elizabeth.
Lacking the normal distractions of girlhood, Elizabeth turned her focus inward toward the writing of poetry and prose. Encouraged and abetted by her father, she became a popular and successful author, advocating causes as diverse as the abolition of slavery, the reform of child labor laws, and in her later years, the struggle for the independence and unity of the Italian state. Having read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, she became an outspoken proponent of women’s rights.
Many of us can quote the first two lines of that perpetual wedding poem favorite, “How do I Love Thee?” In her own time, Elizabeth was far better known for Aurora Leigh, the nine-volume novel in verse narrative of a young female artist struggling to find her voice and place in the world, and for her collections of poetry and political prose.
The medical experts of her time could not agree on diagnoses of her many health issues. An accident while saddling her horse resulted in spinal and head pain and debilitating muscular spasms. Months in a spinal sling left her with lifelong issues. Then in 1821 she began to suffer increasing headaches, dizziness, and weakness in her lungs, as well as episodes of syncope. At the time she was prescribed laudanum, a common remedy for “female” maladies, fostering a life-long addiction with deleterious effects on her overall constitution. Her weak lungs were attributed to the tuberculosis so common at the time; now medical experts suggest that she may have suffered from a combination of asthma and chronic bronchitis, her death resulting from pneumonia brought on by the confluence of the two.
Over the decades, scholars and scientists have offered numerous conjectures about the source of her weakened constitution, ranging from neurasthenia, poliomyelitis, and paralytic scoliosis to opium addiction and even mental illness, including anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia. Did being ill, whether feigned or not, allow her to escape the limitations of her environment and create a writing life, much as her heroine Aurora Leigh did? Regardless of the origins of her illnesses, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a preternaturally gifted girl. Homeschooled in classical history, literature, and languages, including Greek and Latin, she began to compose poems at the age of six and verse drama at ten. Her first publication, a poetic reenactment of the Battle of Marathon written at the age of fourteen, was privately printed by her father. And up to her initial bout with ill health, she led a relatively active life, given the constraints of being an upper middle-class female in the Victorian age.
Subsequently, her life was marked by isolation from those outside the family circle, or in today’s parlance her “bubble” of father, aunt, and siblings. Contact with the outside world came through the post—letters, magazines, various printed materials, and books. In our present time, the solitude enforced by Covid has had deleterious effects upon the mental health of many. Yet in the case of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, isolation may have provided the time and lack of distractions that enabled her copious output.
In 1838 her family moved to Torquay, a small resort town in Devon noted for the healthful quality of the sea air and the sunshine, despite the absence of any significant medical treatments outside the remedies of the time—cupping, leeching, and various homeopathic and herbal cures. Her letters from Torquay express frustration at isolation and longing for London, prefiguring today’s laments for society during the pandemic. Following her brother’s drowning in 1840, she retreated into her bedroom for the next five years. Nevertheless, or perhaps thanks to this retreat, she continued to write. In 1844 she published Poems, the collection which stimulated Robert Browning to get in touch with her.
Most students of British literature know the romantic story of the Brownings’ courtship and elopement, how more than 600 letters passed between them prior to their initial meeting. After their marriage, they wandered throughout Europe, ultimately settling in Italy, where the mild climate, warm sunshine, and their mutual love seemed to foster better health for Elizabeth. Revived to an amazing extent, she continued to write, publish, and advocate for political causes. Her devotion to the unity and independence of the Italian state won her so many admirers that she received the equivalent of a state funeral in Florence.
The question continues to arise: did her ill health actually enable her writing and subsequent success, while fostering the image of the delicate lady poetess, confined to her chambers and ultimately rescued by the dashing poet Robert Browning? Or, from a deep determination within, did she persevere in her self-chosen career despite illness? After she escaped the confines of home and was free with Browning to travel and live in Europe, she rejoiced in her freedom much as those released from months of Covid quarantine now thrill in their own travels. Yet she did not simply enjoy her new life, but continued to work as hard as ever, writing poetry and prose and revising earlier work.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning met many of the prominent writers of the day and had a strong influence on them and others, including the even more reclusive Emily Dickinson, who hung a picture of her on her bedroom wall. She influenced writers as diverse as Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf (the last partially responsible for the twentieth-century revival of interest in her work). Upon William Wordsworth’s passing in 1850, she was even considered a candidate for Poet Laureate, although that honor did not devolve upon a woman poet for another 259 years (Carol Ann Duffy in 2009).
Her letters, full of longing for London, offer windows into her isolation. This past December, an 1839 letter addressing her loneliness at Torquay sold at Bonham’s auction house for almost 5,000 pounds. Like those in isolation today who have created a life on Instagram, TikTok, blogs, or Zoom, she was an influencer, using her fame and readership to advocate against the social injustices of the age; her medium was the printed page. Released from the traditional constraints of Victorian female life (a conventional early marriage might have silenced her voice forever), she embraced freedom of thought and the freedom and rights of others. Elizabeth Barrett Browning serves as a fitting role model for the writers of the Covid age. Isolation need not mean stultification; rather, it can foster inspiration.
ELIZABETH LOVETT COLLEDGE, PHD, holds a B.A. in English from Wellesley College (1974) and a Ph.D. from the University of Florida (1991), with the dissertation Wordsworth’s Challenges to Gender-Based Hierarchies. She taught high school English and worked as a freelance editor for individuals and non-profit institutions. Elizabeth served as an assistant editor for Narrative and is currently an editor for Hektoen International, a journal of medicine and the humanities. She studied the craft of writing with Joyce Maynard, Tom Jenks, Sohrab Fracis, and Billy Collins and published poetry in several literary journals, including Time of Singing, Kaleidoscope, Hektoen International, Literary Brushstrokes, and Voices de la Luna.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022
Fall 2021 | Sections | Literary Essays