Elizabeth Barrett

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Biography of Elizabeth Barrett, one of the most respected poetesses of the Victorian period. With her literary work she campaigned for the abolition of slavery.

She significantly helped reform English legislation regarding child labor.

Elizabeth barrett against child labor
Elizabeth Barrett fought against child labor in England and in the colonies. Credit: web nuevatribuna.es

Elizabeth Barret’s childhood and family

Elizabeth Barrett was born on March 6, 1806, at Cochoe Hall, near Durham, England.

Her father, Edward Barret, owned a plantation he had inherited, in Jamaica.

Elizabeth’s mother was called Mary Graham-Clark, she came from a wealthy family from Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Furthermore, she was a descendant of King Edward III of England.

Durham Elizabeth Barrett
City near Elizabeth Barrett’s birthplace. Credit: Pinterest

Like all wealthy girls at the time, Elizabeth Barrett and all her sisters and brothers were homeschooled (the Hope End mansion) by a tutor, Mr. Daniel McSwiney.

Elizabeth started writing from a very young age

She was a precocious girl and at the age of 4 she began to write verses.

At 6 years old, she became excited reading novels. Very soon she began to read Homer’s works and to study Greek; at age 12, she was encouraged to write an epic poem about the Battle of Marathon.

Her mother patiently compiled all the poetry that the girl wrote. She titled them “Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett“.

Edward Barrett, her father, named them with the name of the family mansion: “The Poet Laureate of Hope End“.

These children’s works by Elizabeth are preserved as one of the largest youth collections written in the English language.

Elizabeth Barret’s sick health

At this time, Elizabeth began to fight a disease that could not be diagnosed, and that was manifested by severe pain in the head and spine, as well as loss of mobility.

All three sisters fell with the same syndrome although it only persisted in Elizabeth.

To ease the pain, doctors prescribed opiates, laudanum, and morphine.

For much of her adult life, she was dependent on these drugs, which further weakened her fragile health.

Some of her biographers suggested that this may have significantly activated her already natural, vivid imagination.

Beginnings of her interest in feminism

In 1821, at age 15, Elizabeth read the book “Vindication of the Rights of Women“, written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792.

The author, born in 1759, was an English philosopher and writer, and argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so because they do not receive the same education.

In that book, Mary Wollstonecraft laid the foundations for modern feminism and became one of the most popular women in Europe at the turn of the century.

Elizabeth Barrett was a fervent defender of the ideas propagated by the author of this book.

Mary Wallstone
Portrait of the famous writer who stimulated in Elizabeth the ideas of equality between women and men. Credit: John Opie

Barret family difficulties during childhood

In 1828, her mother died; the family was left to her aunt Mary Sarah Graham-Clarke. This aunt was in charge of taking care of her sister’s children, twelve in total: 4 girls and 8 boys.

In Jamaica, after a series of bloody revolts, slavery was abolished in 1834.

As a result, Elizabeth’s father suffered large financial losses that forced him to sell the Hope End mansion, to satisfy creditors.

After this hard blow, the family moved to the “Belle Vue” mansion in Sidmouth, in the southwest of England.

The place is currently called Cedar Shade; a blue plaque at the entrance testifies to Elizabeth Barrett’s passage through the town.

Town where Elizabeth Barrett recovered some of her illness. Credit: Wikipedia

Transfer of the Barret family to London

In 1835, the family moved to an apartment located in Gloucester Square in London.

Two years later, they settled at 50 Wimpole Street, also in London.

Young Elizabeth’s blood vessel ruptured, severely affecting her lungs.

The doctors insisted on the family regarding the absolute convenience of a climate change.

Consequently, the Barretts moved again; this time, Torquay, on the Devonshire coast, known as the “English Riviera” for its healthy climate.

Some tragedies seriously affected her health

In 1840, two other tragedies struck the family. Her brother Samuel died of fever in Jamaica.

Soon after, her brother Edward drowned in a boating accident in Torquay.

These misfortunes severely affected Elizabeth’s health.

Also, for the whole family, Torquay lost its charm. This motivated everyone to return to 50 Wimpole Street in London.

The Cathedral of Saint Paul, in London, one of the most beautiful in the world. Credit: Wikipedia, Diego Celso

There, Elisabeth Barrett spent most of her time in her upstairs room, seeing few people outside her immediate surroundings.

Elizabeth herself described how she felt and how this situation of loneliness and disconnection with the world influenced the development of her passion for writing: “I have lived only inwardly or sadly, because of a strong emotion.

Before this seclusion of my illness, I was also confined and among the youngest women, there will be few in the world who have not seen more, heard more, known more about society, than I, who can hardly be considered Young”.

Beginning of her most important creative stage

The liberation of the domestic tasks that supposed her illness, allowed her to focus and develop her intellectual and creative facet.

For this reason, she was able to maintain a large epistolary correspondence, writing and reading a lot.

In the period from 1841 to 1844 she had an intense activity dedicated to poetry, translation and prose.

The poem “The Cry of the Children“, published in 1842, in which she condemned child labor, helped bring about legal reforms by supporting Lord Shaftesbury’s “Ten Hour Act“.

In 1844, she published two volumes of “Poems“, which included “A Drama of Exile“, “A Vision of Poets” and “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship“.

In addition, she sent two important critical essays for the literary magazine “The Athenaeum“.

The “Poems” were highly successful, drawing the admiration of playwright and writer Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barret married Robert Browning

This writer started a secret correspondence with her, which culminated in a secret marriage for fear of the disapproval of Elizabeth’s father.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth were married in a clandestine ceremony at St Marylebone’s Church in London.

Shortly after the link, her father found out about the marriage and disinherited her.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning husband of Elizabeth Barrett. Credit: Wikipedia

In a reduced aristocratic society, where everyone knew each other and met frequently in meetings, the normal coexistence of newlyweds became unsustainable.

Elizabeth Barret and her husband left England

On September 19, 1846, they decided to leave London and travel to Paris, where they had a short honeymoon.

Shortly thereafter they resumed their journey through Orleans and Avignon, until reaching Florence, the city of destination.

In Florence, thanks to their friendships, they were able to reside magnificently in the “Guidi Palace”, in an apartment on the first floor.

They soon reached an agreement with the owners to sign a long-term lease; they renamed the apartment “Casa Guidi”, a less pretentious and more familiar name.

Elizabeth Barrett House
House or palace of residence of Elizabeth Barrett and her husband Robert Browning. Credit: Wikipedia

The Browning-Barretts resided in Florence for 15 years, which, Elizabeth reported to a relative in London, was for both of them “not only a period of supreme happiness but also of intense literary production; much of which was so profound due to the influence of circumstances and the Italian atmosphere.

It really was not for less, being so close to the grave of the great Michelangelo and being able to admire every day the magnificent buildings and monuments of one of the most beautiful cities in the World”.

David Statue
Statue of David, by Michelangelo, in Florence. Credit: Wikipedia

Elizabeth wrote: “The elaborate grace of the Cathedral of Pisa is one thing, and the massive grandeur of that of Florence is another thing even better. I am stunned, with a feeling of sublime architecture.

In Pisa we said, “how beautiful”; we don’t say anything here. It is enough to breathe. The mountains of solid marble overwhelm when looking, like a weight on the soul.

The tessellated marble (the green of the elaborate pattern with the faint yellow, is the general tint of the structure) rises to the sky, crowned with that marble wonder that is the dome.

It has seemed to me one of the wonders of architecture”.

Florence’s influence on the poet Eilzabeth Barrett

Her new experience in Florence and in Italy as a whole were to be inextricably woven into the work of Elizabeth Barrett.

In her poetry, she mentions: the Brunelleschi church, the silhouette of the Duomo, the windows of the Casa Guidi, Giotto’s amazing bell tower.

In one of her poems, she recalls the “ancient images of Florence” and offers an idea of what a Florence that was much more than a workplace really meant for these two poets in love (Elizabeth and Robert Browning).

The consequence of all of which had an impact on Elizabeth’s improved health.

Duomo Florence
Impressive cupola of the Duomo of Florence, work of Filipo Brunelleschi. Credit: Pixabay

Just looking out the window on her first wedding anniversary was extremely inspiring to her.

Her passionate support for the liberation and unification of Italy, in-depth knowledge of the city and who was associated with it.

All of this included of course Dante and Michelangelo. Elizabeth transmitted it with passion, especially in the poem “The windows of Casa Guidi“.

She particularly empathized with the figure of Dante, of which she said: “Or passionate / Poor Dante, Florentine banished, / austere at the banquets of the greats“.

In 1847, she began to write the poem “The windows of the Casa Guidi“; it was published in two volumes, in 1851, simultaneously in English and in Italian translation.

Elizabeth Barrett expressed her disagreement with the arrival of the Australian troops in May 1849, which she and her husband witnessed from their apartment.

The Italians always thanked them for their support of the Tuscan fight for freedom.

During her stay in this city Elizabeth Barrett became very close friends with the British poets Isabella Blagden and Theodosia Trollope Garrow.

In 1848 their only child was born, Robert Browning Barrett.

Elizabeth Barrett’s best-known works

Her best-known work in Spain is “Sonetos del portuguese“, a collection of 44 love sonnets, written between 1845 and 1848.

In them, Elizabeth relates her own love story; she published them in 1850, included in an enlarged edition of the “Poems“.

The most famous of them, number XLIII begins with one of the best-known opening phrases in the English language: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways … / How do I love you? Let me tell you the ways I love you…

In 1856, “Aurora Leigh” was published. Elizabeth considered it to be her most mature work, “that which contains my highest convictions about life and art“.

It is a book that was brewing for many years, even before she met her husband, who shared with her the ideas and wishes expressed there.

Aurora Leigh” is written in nine volumes and takes place in Florence, England and Paris; Elizabeth poured into this work the knowledge acquired from her childhood in reading the Bible in Hebrew, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Apuleius, Dante, Langland, Madame de Stael, and George Sand.

Florence Baptistere
Baptistery of San Juan, next to the Duomo of Florence, famous for its three bronze doors. Credit: web saltaconmigo

In the words of the writer Virginia Woolf:her speed and energy, as well as her frankness and absolute security, captivate the people who read the text… .. that one of the most penetrating impressions when reading this work is the feeling of presence of the author, that through the voice of the character Aurora, resonate in our ears with the character, the circumstances, the peculiarities of Elisabeth Barrett“.

Aurora Leigh” was one of the works most appreciated by the public at the time. In 1873, seventeen years since its publication, 13 editions of this book had been made.

Regarding this one, Elizabeth wrote: “At this moment, my main intention is to write a kind of novel-poem … entering the center of our conventions, and breaking into living rooms and similar places, where angels they are afraid to tread; and thus approaching, face to face and without mask, the humanity of the time, clearly telling the truth about it. That is my intention“.

Ponte Vecchio Florence
Old Bridge or Ponto Vecchio in Florence, where Elizabeth Barrett was walking. Credit: vivetoscana website

In 1860 a complete edition of her poems came to light with the title “Poems before Congress“.

The last years of her life

A few months later, Elizabeth’s health worsened severely, the doctors could do nothing, and she died on June 29, 1861, at the age of 57. She was buried in the English cemetery in Florence.

Her husband Robert Browning published, shortly after, a collection of her latest poems. Elizabeth Barrett was considered by many to be the greatest English-speaking poet.

Elizabeth Barrett’s works are full of tenderness and delicacy, but they also denote strength and depth of thought.

Her own sufferings, combined with her moral and intellectual strength, made her a defender of the oppressed wherever she found them. Elizabeth’s talent was primarily lyrical, although not all of her work takes that form.

Her literary production had a great influence on prominent writers of the time, including Edgar Allan Poe and the poet Emily Dickinson.

The Italian government and the Florence Commune celebrated their poetry with commemorative plaques at Casa Guidi, where the Browning family lived during their fifteen years of marriage.

Lord Leighton designed her grave in the English cemetery. Francesco Giovannozzo made her sculpture in Carrara marble. In 2006, the Florence Commune placed a laurel wreath on this tomb to celebrate the two hundred years since its birth.

Church St. Helena
Church of Santa Helena, where Elizabeth Barrett is buried. Credit: web co-curate.ncl.ac.uk

In Kelloe’s church, where she was baptized, there is a plaque describing her as a “great poet, noble woman, devoted wife“.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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