Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton-Barrett) was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era. She was born on March 6, 1806 in Durham County, England to Edward Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke. Her father was a wealthy landowner who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. Elizabeth was the oldest of 12 children, although only six siblings survived to adulthood.
At a young age, Elizabeth became an accomplished student and a voracious reader. She started writing poetry from the age of 6. However, in 1821 at age 15 she suffered a spine injury and nerve damage which left her with chronic pain for the rest of her life. She also began suffering from lung problems which sometimes left her unable to travel or leave the house.
Education and Early Interest in Literature
Despite her illnesses, Elizabeth continued her education, learning Hebrew, Greek, Latin and other subjects from private tutors. She read voraciously and educated herself from her father’s extensive library which included a wide range of literature.
By her teenage years, Elizabeth had written her first book “The Battle of Marathon,” an epic poem about the Greek victory over the Persians. While still a teenager, Elizabeth read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which was highly influential in shaping her strong feminist views going forward.
|Number of Languages Studied
|Age First Book Published
|Greek, Latin, Hebrew
From 1830 to 1833, Elizabeth self-published two more books – “Prometheus Bound,” a translation of the play by Aeschylus, and “The Seraphim and Other Poems”. While the collections had little commercial success, they did help establish Elizabeth as a poet within London literary circles.
Relationship with Robert Browning
In 1845, Elizabeth published a collection titled simply “Poems”. While modestly received, it captured the attention of poet Robert Browning, six years her junior, who wrote to her expressing his admiration.
What began as a literary correspondence quickly blossomed into a romantic one. At the time, Elizabeth’s overbearing father disapproved of her corresponding with figures like Browning and did what he could to restrict her relationships and independence. Despite this, the pair’s courtship continued in secret for over a year through their letters.
Marriage and Escape from England
In 1846, against her father’s wishes, Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning and the pair were married in secret at St Marylebone Parish Church in London. Shortly afterwards they escaped to Italy where they resided for the next 15 years in Florence and Rome. Elizabeth described her flight from England and her controlling father as feeling like “Italy has saved me”.
The relocation and companionship with Robert resulted in a massively productive period for Elizabeth’s writing. Away from her father and the chronic illnesses associated with the English weather, her health also prospered. Between 1847-1856 she wrote prolifically, composing such renowned sonnet sequences as Sonnets from the Portugese, a series of love poems dedicated to her husband and life in Italy.
In 1850 Elizabeth Barrett Browning completed one of her most critically acclaimed works, a verse novel entitled Aurora Leigh. The 9,000 line epic tackles themes of politics, social reform, education and gender roles. Controversial at the time, Aurora Leigh would later greatly influence reformers and feminists.
Some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poems include:
- Sonnets from the Portugese
- Aurora Leigh
- Poems Before Congress (1860)
- “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways”
Earning admiration in both England and America, Elizabeth Barrett Browning cemented her status as one of the most prominent poets and intellectuals of her time. She continued writing and publishing collections of poetry up until her death in 1861 at the age of 55. Her work went on to have significant influence over prominent writers such as Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling, and Virginia Woolfe.
Later Life and Death
Despite her success and popularity, Elizabeth’s health remained fragile as she grew older. She suffered a series of lung-related illnesses in the late 1850s. On June 29, 1861, Browning died in her husband’s arms in their apartment in Florence, Italy. She was 55 years old. The cause is believed to have been complications related to her lifelong lung condition.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was buried in Florence’s English Cemetery of Florence. Her husband, Robert Browning, whom she described as her life’s “blessing”, was later buried beside her body.
Funeral and Burial
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in the arms of her beloved husband on June 29, 1861 in Florence, Italy. She was 55 years old and had suffered from lifelong lung issues.
Browning was buried in the famous English Cemetery of Florence, also known as the Protestant Cemetery. Her husband Robert Browning requested to be buried beside her when he passed later, which was granted.
Despite her relatively short life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning left an enduring legacy. Through her poems, she gave voice to themes of injustice, social reform and feminism in a period where women had minimal public voice.
Her works were widely popular on both sides of the Atlantic during her lifetime. After her death luminaries such as Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolfe all owed inspiration to her pioneering literary achievements.
Over a century and half since her death, Barrett Browning’s profound writings continue to elicit admiration and scholarly study. Several biographical works of her relationship with Robert Browning have also been produced, including a Broadway play and a filmed motion picture.
In summary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a pioneering English poet who overcame lifelong illness and the restrictions imposed by Victorian society to become one of the most prominent literary figures of her age. Born in 1806, she wrote prolifically despite poor health, publishing her first book at just 12 years old.
After conducting a secret romance with fellow poet Robert Browning for over a year, the pair eloped in 1846 triggering immense outrage from her disapproving father. Her subsequent move to Italy at 40 years old finally granted Elizabeth physical freedom from illness as well as independence from patriarchal control.
In the following 15 years she entered her most creative prolific period, composing beloved verse such as Sonnets from the Portuguese and the epic poem Aurora Leigh. Earning fame in Western literary circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s legacy as an early feminist icon and literary innovator lived on through the inspiration of her works for such later luminaries as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
Though she died in Florence in 1861 aged just 55, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s profound influence as a poet and revolutionary spirit for gender equality endure through the centuries.
When and where was Elizabeth Barrett Browning born?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born on March 6, 1806 in County Durham, England. She was the eldest daughter of wealthy landowner Edward Moulton-Barrett.
What kind of education did Elizabeth Barrett Browning have?
Despite suffering from lifelong illnesses, Elizabeth was a very dedicated student. She learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew and many other subjects from private tutors. She read extensively from her father’s vast library from a very young age.
How did Elizabeth meet her future husband Robert Browning?
In 1845 Robert Browning wrote Elizabeth a letter expressing his admiration for her recent book of poems. This sparked a literary correspondence between the two, which quickly turned romantic.
How did Elizabeth’s father react to her relationship with Robert?
Elizabeth’s father strongly disapproved of her corresponding with Robert Browning. He tried to restrict her independence but despite his efforts, Elizabeth and Robert continued their secret courtship through letters for over a year.
When and how did Elizabeth marry Robert?
In 1846 Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning and the couple were married in secret at a small church in London. Soon after the wedding they escaped from England to Italy where they lived for 15 years.
Why was Elizabeth’s move to Italy such an important transition?
The relocation to Italy significantly improved Elizabeth’s previously poor health which had plagued her in the cold and damp English weather. Italy also granted her independence from her controlling father which fueled a massively productive creative period in her writing.
What were some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous works?
Some of Browning’s most renowned works included the verse novel Aurora Leigh, Sonnets from the Portugese dedicated to her husband, and Poems Before Congress published in 1860. She also wrote famous shorter poems like How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.
When did Elizabeth Barrett Browning die?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence, Italy on June 29, 1861 at the age of 55. The cause is believed to have been complications related to her lifelong lung condition.
What was the lasting influence of Elizabeth’s writing after her death?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing had a huge impact on later poets and literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Her works went on to influence writers such as Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolfe, as well as reformers and activists for decades to come.
How long did Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s courtship with Robert last?
Elizabeth and Robert’s secret courtship through letters lasted over a year before they eloped. Despite her controlling father’s disapproval, the pair continued corresponding, their mutual affection growing through poetic exchanges as well as declarations of love.
How did Elizabeth’s father react to her elopement with Robert?
Edward Barrett was furious when Elizabeth eloped secretly with Robert Browning to get married. He disinherited Elizabeth and never spoke to her again, refusing any communication. Her escape with Robert ultimately granted her independence from the domineering patriarch.
Was Elizabeth estranged from her entire family after her marriage?
While Elizabeth’s father Edward refused contact with her, her brothers and sisters did keep in touch, particularly her brother George and sister Arabel. Some of her siblings even occasionally visited Elizabeth and Robert in Italy over the years.
How many children did Elizabeth have?
Despite suffering numerous miscarriages, likely due to her lifelong illnesses, Elizabeth was ultimately able to have one child – a son named Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, nicknamed “Penini” by Elizabeth. He was born in 1849 in Florence.
What reception did Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s works receive?
In England and America Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry generated significant popularity and acclaim. She was admired for her passionate verse and willingness to engage in social issues considered controversial for women at the time regarding politics, injustice, women’s rights, and more.
Her renown in literary circles granted her esteem and influenced a generation of writers. Virginia Woolf declared “I used to worship her from afar off.” Emily Dickinson was also profoundly impacted reading a collected volume of Barrett’s work in the 1850s which she said “influenced my life long”.