This Day In Literary History
On January 10th, 1845, the famous English poet and playwright Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, a fellow poet who would become his soul mate. Ironically, at the time they first began corresponding, it was unlikely that Elizabeth would become anybody's anything.
As a young girl, Elizabeth Barrett was both intellectually gifted and physically weak. By the age of six, she was reading novels and writing poetry. At fifteen, she was struck with an illness that doctors were unable to diagnose.
Some have speculated that it was a debilitating heart condition that causes pain and weakness, such as angina. All three of her sisters contracted the illness as well, but for them, it didn't last long. They recovered quickly, but Elizabeth did not. She had a severe case.
Whatever the illness was, it and the opiates she took to relieve the pain made Elizabeth pretty much an invalid. She spent most of her time in her room, either in bed or writing at her desk. She earned a modest income writing poetry, essays, and literary criticism.
She saw few people except for her family, but she had a lot of family to keep her company - three sisters and seven brothers. Despite her illness, Elizabeth Barrett became one of the greatest poets of her generation.
When her classic poetry collection Poems was published in 1844, she became one of the most famous poets in England. Although she saw few visitors, she kept up a huge amount of correspondence.
One of Elizabeth Barrett's greatest admirers was the poet Robert Browning. Not only did he love her poetry, but she was one of the very few literary critics who had given his first poetry collection, Dramatic Lyrics (1842), a good review. A glowing review, in fact.
So, Robert wrote to thank her - and to proclaim his great admiration of her poetry. "The fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought" is how he described her talent. Then he proclaimed his love for her:
I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart... and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing - really seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning "Would you like to see Miss Barrett?" then he went to announce me... then he returned... you were too unwell, and now it is years ago, and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels, as if I had been close, so close, to some world's-wonder in chapel or crypt, only a screen to push and I might have entered, but there was some slight, so it now seems, slight and just sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be?
Thus, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett began a correspondence that would result in nearly six hundred letters exchanged between them. It would also result in a courtship, and a miraculous improvement in Elizabeth's health.
Though she would not recover completely from her illness, she would regain her strength, leave her invalid's bed, marry, have a child, and live to the age of 55 - far longer than was expected for someone with her condition.
Elizabeth's courtship with Robert Browning had to be carried out in secret, as her father, a domineering tyrant, had forbidden all his eleven children from ever marrying under penalty of disinheritance. Why? The answer lies in the family history.
The wealthy, aristocratic Barrett family came from a long line of plantation owners. Elizabeth Barrett's grandfather, who owned sugar plantations and other businesses in the West Indies, was known for his humane treatment of his slaves.
He was also known to take slave women as his mistresses. Elizabeth's father, Edward Barrett, believed that his father may have adopted the light skinned babies of his slave mistresses, and that he may have been one of them.
Politically conservative and a virulent racist, Edward Barrett was greatly shamed by the thought that Negro blood may be running through his and his children's veins. His children were white, but he feared that they might one day produce dark skinned offspring. So he forbade them all from marrying.
Elizabeth Barrett was the polar opposite of her father. A liberal intellectual, she despised slavery, wrote abolitionist poetry, and rejoiced when England outlawed slavery completely in 1833. This resulted in a huge rift between father and daughter.
Elizabeth never gave much thought to her father's decree forbidding marriage because she figured that her illness rendered her too sick too marry. She didn't plan on falling in love with Robert Browning. When they eloped, her father disinherited her and never spoke to her again. Her brothers didn't speak to her for years.
The happy couple settled in Italy, where Elizabeth regained her strength and after several miscarriages, bore their only child, a boy named Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, but known by his nickname, Pen.
Many years later, the Brownings' son published all but one of their letters to each other. The one missing letter was believed to have been burned by Robert Browning at Elizabeth Barrett's insistence because it was so passionate that she feared he might be arrested for sending it through the mail.
Quote Of The Day
"Love is the energy of life." - Robert Browning
Today's video features a reading from the first letter of Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett. Enjoy!