This Day In Literary History
On September 12th, 1846, the legendary English poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped. They were forced to elope because Barrett's father disliked Browning and believed him to be a good-for-nothing looking to marry her for her money.
Elizabeth Barrett was born to a wealthy, aristocratic English family. The Barretts lived in a lavish 20-room mansion near Durham, England. A sickly child with weak lungs, Elizabeth was in chronically poor health and spent most of her time in her room.
When her beloved brother died in 1840, Elizabeth became even more of a recluse, but maintained a connection to the outside world via her extensive correspondence. She also took up writing poetry.
Elizabeth Barrett's first poetry collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems, was published in 1838. Her second collection, Poems by Elizabeth Barrett, appeared in 1844.
In addition to being a respected poet, Barrett also established herself as a literary critic. When most other critics trashed Dramatic Lyrics (1842), a poetry collection by an up and coming poet named Robert Browning, Barrett publicly defended it in a glowing review.
Touched by Elizabeth's praise, Robert Browning wrote to thank her. In his letter, he also asked to meet her in person. The reclusive Elizabeth Barrett turned him down at first, but he kept writing and begging to meet her. She finally relented.
When Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met, it was love at first sight. They courted and determined to marry, but her father denied her permission. Browning came from a working class family and didn't have much money, so Elizabeth's father assumed he was after hers.
There was another reason that Elizabeth's father forbade her and his other children from ever marrying, and it had to do with the lineage of the Barretts, a wealthy, aristocratic family that 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.
Her 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 was repulsed by the idea that Negro blood may be running through his family's veins.
All of his children were white, but he feared that they might one day produce dark skinned offspring. That's the real reason he forbade them all from marrying under the threat of being disowned and disinherited.
The fiercely liberal Elizabeth Barrett didn't share her father's racism, and she wasn't about to let his ignorance and intolerance stand in the way of her marrying her true love.
So, on September 12th, 1846, a day when she was left home alone, she sneaked off to meet Robert Browning at St. Marylebone Parish Church. The couple was married, and Elizabeth kept it a secret, returning home for a week before fleeing with her husband.
For marrying without his permission, Elizabeth's father angrily disowned and disinherited her, but she still had her own money, which she'd earned from her writings. Her surviving brothers cut all ties with her.
The Brownings settled in Italy, where they lived for fifteen years and remained happily married. In 1849, after suffering four miscarriages, they had their first and only child, a son whom they nicknamed Pen. They continued their writing careers and published more classic poetry collections.
Although Robert Browning's works were overshadowed by his wife's at first - critics snidely referred to him as "Mrs. Browning's husband" - later, he began to receive the recognition he deserved.
Sadly, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning's great love affair would come to an end. Though she had regained her health at the time she gave birth to her son, nearly ten years later, her lungs grew weak again and began to fail.
In 1860, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published her last great poetry collection, Poems before Congress, a political work which resulted in British conservative magazines labeling her a fanatic. She had sided with Italy during the Second Italian War of Independence - and against England.
A year later, she died in her husband's arms at the age of 55. Robert Browning and his son would return to England after her death. Scholars speculate that her death was caused by both her chronic pulmonary issues and the opiates she used to relieve the pain.
Quote Of The Day
"What is art but life upon the larger scale, the higher. When, graduating up in a spiral line of still expanding and ascending gyres, it pushes toward the intense significance of all things, hungry for the infinite?" - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Today's video features a reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's classic poem, If Thou Must Love Me. Enjoy!