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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Long Swoon of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How an influential, vital artist was reduced to a passive pile of ruffles in the cultural consciousness
Image: (Photo by Elliott & Fry/Otto Herschan Collection/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
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Fiona Sampson’s latest book, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is available now.

What does the name Elizabeth Barrett Browning evoke for you? For me, it’s the battered high school desk in which, on my very first day of Big School, I found an abandoned poetry book. For the rest of that year, reading this stained volume furtively under the desk lid helped me deal with classroom boredom and all the social upsets of a new school. When one day I discovered that it included a woman, it was like stumbling on a private sign that the world of writers and writing could be open to me, too. Ever since that first encounter with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I’ve believed in the power of role models. The women who went before us pass us the baton with a nod and wink of recognition, a handshake of complicity.

Yet all too often Barrett Browning’s name evokes nothing more interesting than ringlets, Victorian lace, and life on a chaise longue. The powerful figure of this pioneering social advocate and literary innovator, who in her relatively short life from 1806 to 1861 achieved the nineteenth-century equivalent of international celebrity, has been largely erased from public awareness. The real-life writer so fiercely admired by peers and literary successors from John Ruskin to Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson to Rudyard Kipling, Emily Dickinson to George Eliot, has vanished. Her replacement reclines on the Freudian couch, vanquished by emotion, wearing immaculate makeup and a succession of lavish frocks, one of the cultural clichés of the second half of the twentieth century. The Swooning Lady poetess (I’m using the diminutive advisedly) lodges in the pantheon of popular cultural archetypes, alongside Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s creature and the apotheosis of Bonnie and Clyde.

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Image: W.W. Norton

The real Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on the other hand, born almost exactly mid-way between Mary Shelley (1797) and Charlotte Brontë (1816), was a precociously gifted bundle of energy: her first book was published on her fourteenth birthday. Despite family wealth, conventions of the time forced her to be something of an autodidact from the start, “borrowing” her brother’s tutors and reading round her father’s library. Despite the patronizing reactions of critics who “congratulate […] women, competent to …spell,” in 1850 she was the first woman nominated to be the UK’s Poet Laureate, 159 years before one was actually appointed. Along with Alfred Tennyson (appointed in her stead), she was pioneering the shift from Romanticism to a new kind of writing. This exciting, accessible poetry was less concerned with radical abstract ideas than feelingful storytelling; not so elevated in diction but more discursive and descriptive. Her younger husband Robert Browning, whom she married at forty, would learn from these techniques and carry them forward after her death. 160 years later, Barrett Browning is still Britain’s leading woman poet and her “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (1850) include what is officially the Nation’s Favourite Poem, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her 1856 verse novel Aurora Leigh was the first in the influential, originally Romantic genre of the bildungsroman, that intimate story of how personhood develops, to be written by and about a woman. In fact, Aurora Leigh is also the first woman’s künstlerroman, telling the story of how a woman becomes an artist. This late masterpiece is feminism avant la lettre: a subplot protests the trafficking of women, understands forced prostitution as rape, and supports a mother’s right to raise the child of that rape as a single parent.

Bold material for a woman writer in Victorian England; as bold in its way as putting her own name on the title page. Barrett Browning always did so, although most of her distinguished women contemporaries preferred a male pseudonym (the Brontë sisters as the Bell brothers, George Eliot, George Sand) or anonymity (“the author of Frankenstein” or, in Jane Austen’s case, “a lady”). There’s a kind of standing up for what one believes in this. Barrett Browning was a woman of strong convictions, actively engaged with the religious debates of her time, from congregational worship to Swedenborgism and even Spiritualism, who believed in the ethical role of poetry. She addressed a new mass reading public, and—unafraid of unpopular causes—helped shift popular opinion on child labor, abolition (in the US), and Italian republicanism, the subject of two of her books, Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860). When she died in Florence in 1861, she was buried with civic honors as a heroine of the Risorgimento. 

It’s inspiring stuff, and would make a great movie; yet for nearly a century this public, active life has been turned inside out by a simpering caricature. The fictional “Elizabeth Barrett Browning” has been played by a constellation of women stars: Norma Shearer, Jennifer Jones, Katharine Cornell, Jane Lapotaire; their vehicle, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a ‘Comedy in Five Acts’ by a Dutch-British playwright called Rudolf Besier.

Swoony rehearsals for Robert and Elizabeth.
Swoony rehearsals for Robert and Elizabeth.
Image: Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Besier may have been something of a one-hit wonder: but a success his 1930 “comedy” certainly was. After its British premiere, at the Malvern Festival Theatre, Cornell brought the play to Broadway in 1934. It was a hit, as were two subsequent productions. The film versions that followed included two by Sidney Franklin. In 1934, his Elizabeth was Norma Shearer; not content with this, his 1957 remake used the exact same script but substituted Jennifer Jones and, in a weak gesture towards authenticity, was filmed in a UK studio. By the time Jane Lapotaire starred in a 1982 made-for-TV movie, there had been seven TV productions of the play in the UK and the US, and—worst of all, I’d argue—a musical. Opening in 1964, Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar’s Robert and Elizabeth was a West End hit which ran for more than 900 performances. Now Elizabeth was played by June Bronhill, and the story told in such numbers as “Want to be well” and “Pass the eau-de-Cologne.” The glamour shot on the cover of the Original Cast Recording shows the shingled Bronhill clutched by a Robert Browning (John Clements) with Teddy Boy sideburns.

It’s glorious camp. But my point in all this isn’t pop culture geekery. This is cultural myth-making in action, and watching it happen to a key historical figure is both fascinating and frustrating. (So much so that I recently found myself writing the first full-length literary biography of Barrett Browning since the 1980s.) As Mel Brooks demonstrated in 1967’s The Producers, there’s no better way to draw the sting of something you fear than reducing it to kitsch. Putting a woman writer in her place may not be as audacious as performing “Springtime for Hitler and Germany,” and Robert and Elizabeth, like the Besier play it’s based on, is full of ostensibly straightforward sentiment. But that all these versions were so successful points to something going on.

The real Elizabeth Barrett Browning detested “feminine” women’s “littlenesses called delicacies, their pretty headaches, & soft mincing voices, their nerves and affectations.” At sixteen she asked, in an unfinished “Essay on Woman”:

Are vases only prized because they break?

Then why must woman to be loved be weak?

Today, we know enough to ask what’s going on when such “littlenesses” have to be advocated, and advocating feminine frailty is clearly still popular. Adapting the real facts of Barrett Browning’s life into something that plays better isn’t quite history “being written by the victors.” (Itself a glorious example of its own principle in action, this useful phrase we generally credit to Winston Churchill may in fact be his paraphrase of Hermann Göring.) But the poet’s story has been overwritten by people who trumped her simply by being alive after her death. Rudolf Besier, and indeed Katharine Cornell and Sidney Franklin, persisted with their fictional version of Barrett Browning because they knew that they’d dreamed up just the sort of thing audiences love.

The story of the vulnerable daughter oppressed and effectively imprisoned by her father, until she falls in love with the young poet who carries her off, is pure fairy tale. Change the costumes and it’s Sleeping Beauty; it’s the princess in the tower and the Prince Charming who must rescue her from the irascible old King. And though Besier presumably thought himself very modern when he implied an incestuous motive for that paternal immurement, the resolution that his version of “Elizabeth” announces with the line, “I don’t belong to [Papa] any more. I belong to my husband” is hardly one to gladden the heart of the pioneering author of Aurora Leigh, and political works like Casa Guidi Windows. 

These works would have been significant socio-political inventions from any equally leading writer of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s day. Besier’s comedy at least serves to remind us that the woman who made them was excluded from education and could neither vote nor, once married, own property. In fact, she vaulted barriers of more than merely gender. She suffered from a sense of shame about what she believed to be her own Black heritage, as the descendent of Jamaican slavers. Her internalized racism was an accurate reflection of the prejudices of her own society. And her belief was realistic, given the sexual exploitation which often accompanied enslavement; and given that she had first cousins, and eventually nieces, whose mothers had been enslaved Black women. There’s even an element of historical truth to the Electra romance of her father’s possessiveness. Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett refused all his adult children permission to marry, and the three who did so anyway were all disowned.

Most significantly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning did indeed spend months, sometimes years, at a time living in what we today call lockdown, confined to her room by acute respiratory illness. That parental couch was the compromise that often saved her from being completely bedbound. Today, her actual Wimpole Street chaise longue has been moved from the London address where she in fact lived for fewer than six years, to Casa Guidi, Florence, her home for more than twice as long. Here it loiters palely in the far, frescoed room that became her husband’s study: mnemonic of life-long struggle, in the decades before proper diagnosis, antibiotics or steroids, with the chronic disease that would eventually claim her life.

The real Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived with disability and often life-threatening illness her whole adult life. This was the background she wrote against the grain of: and which, by so doing, she managed to contain. In this, as in her marriage and late motherhood, her political advocacy and religious search, she refused the easy options of conventional behavior. Far from swooning ineffectually away, Barrett Browning forced circumstance into the shapes her beliefs and her gifts required. That she did so even while sequestered, and to such public effect, already makes it important to return her to her rightful place among the leading cultural figures of her era.

But ultimately, unless Barrett Browning was the major poet she hoped to be, all this historical actuality is so much special pleading. Virginia Woolf—“Nobody reads her”—and those Bad Boys of late twentieth century lit crit, Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling—“much admired […] but […] very bad”—could be allowed to have the last word. But Emily Dickinson wrote, on her death, ‘Silver – perished—-with her Tongue’, and Barrett Browning is not just a significant figure in literary history, a useful transition point in the long march from Shelley to Browning. She is an essential poet in her own right. Her companionate, highly readable verse, with its living, flexible metre, performs a kind of cognitive embrace, and with such a light touch that it’s easily missed. She equals her hero William Wordsworth for matter-of-fact description, and her peer Tennyson for mythologizing. Her directness makes her the most enduringly contemporary of the nineteenth-century masters, able to help us, “understand /That life develops from within.”

Fiona Sampson is the author of twenty-eight books of poetry and nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including an MBE for services to literature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Wordsworth Trust, and English Association, she is professor emerita of the University of Roehampton and lives in on the Welsh borders.