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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Moulton)
(March 6, 1806 – June 29, 1861)
6 March 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, between the villages of Coxhoe and Kelloe in County Durham, England.
Her parents were Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham Clarke; Elizabeth was the eldest of their 12 children (eight boys and four girls).
All the children lived to adulthood except for one girl, who died at the age of three when Elizabeth was eight.
|Education and Early Life
She was educated at home and attended lessons with her brothers' tutor.
During the Hope End period, she was an intensely studious, precocious child.
She writes that at six she was reading novels, at eight she was entranced by Pope's translations of Homer, studying Greek at ten and writing her own Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon.
Her mother compiled early efforts of the child's poetry into collections of "Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett".
Her father called her the 'Poet Laureate of Hope End’ and encouraged her work.
The result is one of the largest collections of juvenilia of any English writer.
On her 14th birthday her father gave the gift of 50 printed copies of the epic.
She went on to delight in reading Virgil in the original Latin, Shakespeare and Milton.
By 1821 she had read Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and she became a passionate supporter of Wollstonecraft's ideas.
She watched her brothers go off to school knowing that there was no chance of that education for herself.
The child's intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was reflected in a religious intensity which she later described as "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast".
The Barretts attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Edward was active in Bible and Missionary societies.
Elizabeth was very close to her siblings and had great respect for her father:
She claimed that life was no fun without him, and her mother agreed.
At about age 15 Barrett Browning began to battle with a lifelong illness, which the medical science of the time was unable to diagnose.
All three sisters came down with the syndrome although it lasted only with Elizabeth.
She had intense head and spinal pain with loss of mobility.
Apocryphally it was told that she fell while trying to saddle a horse or was creating the illness but there is strong evidence that she was seriously sick.
The illnesses of this time were, however, unrelated to the lung disease she suffered in 1837.
This illness caused her to be frail and weak.
Mary Russell Mitford described the young Barrett Browning at this time, as having "a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam".
She began to take opiates for the pain, Laudanum (an opium concoction) then morphine, commonly prescribed at the time.
She would become dependent on them for much of her adulthood; the use from an early age would have contributed to her frail health.
Biographers such as Alethea Hayter have suggested that this may have contributed to the wild vividness of her imagination and the poetry it produced.
At Wimpole Street Barrett Browning spent most of her time in her upstairs room, and her health began to recover, though she saw few people other than her immediate family.
One of those she did see was Kenyon, a wealthy friend of the family and patron of the arts.
She received comfort from her spaniel named "Flush", which had been a gift from Mary Mitford.
Virginia Woolf later fictionalised the life of the dog, making him the protagonist of her 1933 novel Flush: A Biography.
Between 1841–4 Barrett Browning was prolific in poetry, translation and prose.
The poem "The Cry of the Children", published in 1842 in Blackwoods, condemned child labour and helped bring about child labour reforms by rousing support for Lord Shaftesbury's Ten Hours Bill (1844).
At about the same time, she contributed some critical prose pieces to Richard Henry Horne's A New Spirit of the Age.
In 1844 she published two volumes of Poems, which included "A Drama of Exile", "A Vision of Poets", and "Lady
Geraldine's Courtship" and two substantial critical essays for 1842 issues of The Athenaeum.
Since she was not burdened with any domestic duties expected of her sisters, Elizabeth could now devote herself entirely to the life of the mind, cultivating an enormous correspondence, reading widely".
Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate in 1850 on the death of Wordsworth.
The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly as she and her siblings were convinced their father would disapprove.
Six years his elder and an invalid, she could not believe that the vigorous and worldly Robert Browning really loved her as much as he professed to.
After a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church, they honeymooned in Paris.
Browning then imitated his hero Shelley by spiriting his wife off to Italy, in September 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death.
Elizabeth's loyal nurse, Wilson, who witnessed the marriage, accompanied the couple to Italy.
In 1860 they returned to Rome, only to find that Elizabeth’s sister Henrietta had died, news which made Elizabeth weak and depressed.
She became gradually weaker, using morphine to ease her pain.
She died on 29 June 1861 in her husband's arms. Browning said that she died "smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl's. … Her last word was—… 'Beautiful'".