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ARTICLE: A Victorian love affair

August 05, 2012

The first letter sent by Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett in January, 1845, on display in Wellesley College.
It begins: "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett."

By Syed Amir

ON December 13, 1889, one and a quarter centuries ago, The New York Times carried the obituary of the famed Victorian poet and playwright, Robert Browning, and noted that “He had many traits that attracted friends, but it was Mrs Browning, more than her husband, who kept so many charming friends about them.”

Elizabeth Barrett, even before she knew Robert Browning, had established herself as a preeminent poet of the Victorian period. Especially after the publication of her collection Poems in 1844, her fame had spread widely. While literary critics continue to debate whether Elizabeth Barrett or her husband, Browning, was the greater poet, there is no disagreement that the 573 passionate love letters they exchanged during their courtship over a period of some 20 months (January 1845-September 1846) have enormously enriched English literature. Notably, they provide some fascinating insights into the start, evolution and denouement of their love affair.

These letters have been the property of WellesleyCollege in Boston, which has a historic bond with Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. The college founder, Henry Durant, considered Elizabeth a strong role model for female students. Aware of its special relationship to Elizabeth, after her death Robert Browning donated to the college a hand-written copy of her poem, “Little Mattie”. In 1930, Wellesley College’s then president, Caroline Hazard, purchased the entire collection of letters and donated them to the college library where they have been housed since then. And while the transcripts have been available for some time, the original letters, because of concerns for their preservation, have been accessible only to a few, such as research scholars.

This was changed recently when, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2012, the college released the digitalised version of the letters. For the first time, anyone interested in researching them or viewing them could do so, with all their blemishes, faded sentences, corrections, and cross-outs visible. The very first letter from young Browning sent in 1845 effused “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett”. Yet, five months were to pass before they would meet face to face for the first time.

Browning had grown up in a family involved in literary pursuits and finer arts. His father was an avid collector of rare books while his mother was an accomplished musician. Browning authored a book of poetry when he was 12 years old, but was discouraged when he failed to find a publisher for it. He struggled to get recognition among the literary elite for many years but with scant success. Critics initially found the references he employed obscure and hard to appreciate. His most celebrated works remains The Ring and the Book, published in 1868. The epic-length poem, over twenty-thousand lines long, is about a murder in Rome in 1698, involving romance, jealousy and a trial.

Browning’s life took a dramatic turn when he got romantically involved with Elizabeth Barrett, a poet six years his senior, an invalid and living under the influence of her authoritarian father. Already a well-established and a prolific writer, she was acutely concerned about the wide social disparities of Victorian England. Her poem, “The Cry of the Children”, published in 1842, draws attention to the inhumane child labour practices of the time.

Soon after they met, she wrote in a letter addressed to him, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. The line later became the part of a famous sonnet included in her collection Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband. It is credited as being one of the most popular love poems in the English language.

Browning and Barrett were married in September 1846 in secret against the wishes of her father who disinherited her.

As she had been in ill health for a long time, they opted for the warm, salubrious Italian climate which had attracted several 18th century English romantic poets, among them, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. After Browning and Barrett moved to Florence, Italy, hoping that the warm winters would improve her health. The years they spent there were the happiest and probably the most creative period of their lives. Her long novel in poetry, Aurora Leigh, depicting the difficultiesy of a female writer valiantly trying to balance her work and love life, mirrored her own story.

The story-book romance of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning ended when she died on June 29, 1861. She had suffered for years an untreatable lung disease, undiagnosed at the time. Following her death, Browning abandoned his residence in Italy and travelled extensively. He received major recognition when, in 1881, the Browning Society was formed in England as a tribute to his prolific literary contributions. He died in 1889 in Venice, Italy, but his final wish to be buried in Florence close to his wife could not be realised and he was interred, instead, in Westminster Abbey in London.