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The poetic prisoner of Wimpole Street

Posted in Animals, English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, picture, image, illustration

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her cocker spaniel Flush, by Jamesd E McConnell

On a chilly autumn morning in 1846, few people gave a second glance to the middle-aged woman and her maid, walking slowly down Wimpole Street in London, towards Marylebone Church. Even when the woman almost fainted and had to be revived by her maid with smelling salts, no bystander took more notice than to raise a sympathetic eyebrow.

They might have done, if they had known that the woman was Miss Elizabeth Barrett, whose poetry was already well known in both Britain and America, and that she was on her way to the church to marry another poet, Robert Browning.

Earlier that morning, Elizabeth had crept silently out of her father’s house in Wimpole Street, without even telling her sisters about her wedding. Knowing that although she was already forty and an established poet, her father would not allow her to marry Browning, they had decided to marry in secret.

Elizabeth had been an invalid most of her life, forced to remain indoors almost continually because of her ill-health, and the walk to the church was a great strain on her weak lungs.

She almost fainted, and, although revived by her maid, arrived at the church looking more dead than alive. However, the wedding took place and the bride returned home, creeping quietly up to her bedroom.

A week later, still without telling her family that she was now Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, she left the house, never to return.

Elizabeth was born in 1806 and, unable from an early age to play outdoors with her ten brothers and sisters, spent most of her time writing, often in her favourite spot, lying under the dining-room sideboard.

By the age of ten, she had already written several tragedies in both English and French.

At thirteen she wrote an epic poem about the battle of Marathon, the battle in which the Ancient Greeks defeated the invading Persians. Her father, who seems to have treated his children with the cruel intolerance of a master dealing with his slaves, was, however,delighted, and had fifty copies of the poem printed for circulation among his friends.

As a young woman her fame as a poet spread, and she won many friends and admirers with whom she kept up a flow of correspondence.

So she was accustomed to receiving envelopes in unfamiliar handwriting, and one morning she opened a letter which began: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett”. She was delighted to discover that it was from a young poet named Robert Browning, whose work, though not widely known at the time, had already aroused her interest.

After many letters and, later, occasional visits, Browning’s friendship blossomed into love.

But Elizabeth had led the life of a recluse. Her ill-health had kept her a prisoner in her own home and her doctor insisted that she should receive medicines daily to keep up her vitality.

In addition, her tyrannical father was fiercely opposed to her friendship with Browning. He had already refused to let her brother Edward marry, and when her sister Henrietta gave an understandable display of grief at having to give up a proposed husband, “her knees were made to ring on the floor,” Elizabeth wrote.

This was no home for young lovers. “My father is a very peculiar person,” Elizabeth wrote to Browning. “For him – he would rather see me dead at his foot than yield the point: and he will say so, and mean it, and persist in the meaning.”

They delayed for some time, but eventually decided to marry in secret, which they did on 12th September, 1846.

A week later, she left the house taking only her dog, Flush, to start a new life with Browning, in Italy.

Her father cast her off forever. For the rest of his life he acted as if she were dead. Even when, years later, he met her only child, he ignored the boy when he learned that he was Elizabeth’s son.

In Italy, Elizabeth’s health improved, but it was never good and she remained an invalid.

First in Pisa and later in Florence and Rome, they were visited by famous writers and artists from all over the world.

Together, Elizabeth and Browning wrote poetry which was to bring them both lasting fame. Elizabeth’s zest for writing taxed her health savagely, but she refused to give up. She wrote articles for encyclopaedias, magazines and literary journals to pay the household bills, then returned to her serious work as a poet.

After writing Aurora Leigh, a complete novel in blank verse, she won world-wide acclaim.

When she died on 30th June, 1861, the shops around her home in Florence shut their doors, and an Italian newspaper announced the death of “the greatest woman poet”. Today she is, perhaps, better remembered for her romance with Browning that for her poems.

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