Married against father's wishes, they became the power couple of Victorian poetry – but it was Elizabeth who was the radical Browning, writes A.N. Wilson
When she died in her husband's arms in Florence, in 1861, the glossy-eyed, tiny, black-ringleted poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was just 55-years old. There was an upsurge of grief in her adopted Tuscany. All the shops near her house, Casa Guidi, were closed as a mark of respect, and many of the Catholic or communist Florentines followed the coffin of this English poet to the Protestant cemetery.
They honoured her, not only as a poet, but as a European woman who shared their idealistic vision that Italy might one day shake off the tyranny of the Austrian Empire, discard the anomaly of a papal monarchy, and recover the national identity of which Dante Alighieri had only dreamed.
In her native England, Barrett Browning's reputation was more chequered. Poetry-lovers and radicals admired her, but her last poems were denounced in the Tory press. She was regarded as unpatriotic for daring to ask her fellow-countrymen to dream of a Europe liberated from despotism. "I confess that I dream of a day when an English statesman shall arise with a heart too large for England". This sentence sounds strangely contemporary to us in our post-Brexit world. It is to be found in the preface to her last poems, Poems Before Congress – the manuscript of which is to be offered by Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts Sale in New York in March.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a natural radical. Some of her earliest published poems denounced such abuses as the exploitation of children, forced into factory labour in Britain. The verses in Poems Before Congress confronted the struggles of the American slaves. And the whole volume breathes with the enthusiastic support of Italian nationalism, which had informed one of her most famous political poems, Casa Guidi Windows:
I heard last night a little child go singing
'Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella libertà, o bella!
Her verse novel, Aurora Leigh, is a feminist romance. Aurora could have had a comfortable life, by marrying her rich cousin Romney Leigh, but although he is satisfyingly left-wing in his espousal of radical causes, he is unenlightened enough to make clear that, in a wife, he wants "a helpmate not a mistress". Barrett, like her creation Aurora, was not content with that. Her marriage to Robert Browning was a partnership between two writers who respected one another's work. His first, and most famous, letter to her, written when she was kept virtually a prisoner by her father in Wimpole Street, began "I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett".
The love story of Robert Browning and his invalid wife Elizabeth Barrett was seen at the time as one of the great real-life romances of the 19th century. No wonder it was made into a play, and a number of films.
My own favourite will always be the 1934 version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with the wonderfully sinister Charles Laughton playing Elizabeth's father Edward Moulton-Barrett. Laughton wants to keep his eldest daughter an invalid and a prisoner. A modern director might very well spoil things by making overt what was buried behind Mr Barrett's piety and obsessive desire to avoid his daughter's death: namely, his buried quasi-incestuous sadism. He was not quite 21 when Elizabeth was born. Elizabeth, the eldest of ten children, was only 21 when her mother died, and her father regarded her not only as his favourite, and his protégée, but also as his friend and companion, a role which few daughters fully wish to play. Nevertheless, a true Cordelia (one who loved her father, but not to the exclusion of other loves), she dedicated her first Poems (1844) to him.
Browning himself, the thoroughly inspired author of Dramatic Monologues, knew as much about mixed motives and moral ambiguity as did the novelists Henry James and George Meredith, just some of those who learnt from Browning's poems. His love for Elizabeth was completely genuine, but was it also mixed with the conviction that the doctors and Mr Barrett were right – that Elizabeth was a dying, presumably consumptive, woman who might not survive the long journey to Italy?
In fact, their marriage lasted not a few weeks, as the doctors would have warned, but 16 years, producing their much-loved (if slightly absurd) son Pen Browning. It was a great literary partnership, and they both grew into it. Of the two, Elizabeth was perhaps the more deeply engaged in the current political debates engulfing Europe – and Britain. Browning, like many writers of his own and later times, was a somewhat automatic supporter of political progressivism. His poetry, however, is overwhelmingly the story of personal lives which transcend the political. Hers is the reverse. All her major works – Aurora Leigh, Casa Guidi Windows and the posthumous Poems Before Congress – draw on specific political and social situations, and the verse is crafted out of her political commitment. She is far more radical than her husband, and it is only in our own day that she has been fully understood, in the academic study of Victorian poetry, as the original figure she was.
Her radicalism, like that of many British political figures of the left, had its roots in the Nonconformist chapel. Her earlier work was, on the surface at least, religious. One of the most fascinating items being offered at Bonhams is the manuscript of The Seraphim, a dramatic dialogue between two angels who were present at the Crucifixion: no one could accuse the budding poet of shying away from large themes. Equally revealing, in a different way, is the manuscript – also part of the Bonhams sale – of her version of Prometheus Bound. It is a free(ish) translation from Aeschylus. She would say (in all seriousness, for – like her father – she was a committed Christian) that the original English verses she published alongside the translation – "may be worth a little perhaps; but they have not so much goodness as to overcome the badness of the blasphemy of Aeschylus".
Like her future husband, she was an ardent student of Greek, and her invalid years in Malvern and Sidmouth (before the Barretts moved to their celebrated London address: 50 Wimpole Street) were spent reading the New Testament, the Fathers of the Greek Church, as well as the great Athenian dramatists.
The manuscripts offered at auction reveal how profoundly Barrett Browning was steeped in the work of her predecessors. She copied out lines from Shakespeare and the Greeks that impressed her. And she was a fierce critic of her own work. These precious leaves – in her crabbed, scratchy hand – reveal many a crossing-out, many a rethought and reconsidered line.
Nothing brings home to us a poet's life so vividly as the working draughts of their work. In seeing them struggle to perfect their original thoughts and visions, we watch them putting on immortality.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from the time that she became an invalid at Sidmouth, in her very early 20s, was confronted by the spectre of her own early death. She faced it with calm courage, but also with defiance. The end was inevitable, whenever it would come. Two things, however, she could hold up against its destructive advance: her work and her experience of love. She felt
a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair,
And a voice said in mastery while I strove, ...
Guess now who holds thee?' 'Death', I said, But there
The silver answer rang... 'Not Death, but Love'.
A.N. Wilson, author of 50 books, is working on a biography of Darwin.
Sale: Fine Books and Manuscripts
Thursday 9 March at 10.30am
Enquiries: Tom Lamb +1 917 206 1640