Friendship Poems

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett, born on March 6, 1806, in Coxhoe Hall, in County Durham, was one of the most prominent and important poets of the Victorian era. She was the eldest of 12 children, eight boys and four girls, born to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke. All 12 children survived to adulthood except for one girl who died at the age of four, when Elizabeth was eight. Each child in her family had a nickname: Elizabeth’s was “Ba”. The Barrett family, who were part Creole, had lived for centuries in Jamaica, where they owned sugar plantations and relied on slave labor. Elizabeth’s father chose to raise his family in England while his fortune rapidly grew in Jamaica. Elizabeth’s mother’s family the Graham-Clarke’s were as wealthy as the Barrett family.

Although records show that Elizabeth was baptized in 1809 at Kelloe Parish Church, she had already been baptized by a family friend during her first week of life. Her family moved to Hope End when Elizabeth was very young. She loved the garden where she tended white roses in a special arbor by the south wall and it is speculated that her time at Hope End would inspire her to write Aurora Leigh later in her life.

As was the custom at the time Elizabeth was educated at home, and attended lessons with her brother’s tutor. This, however, gave her a good education for a girl of that time, and she is said to have read passages from Paradise Lost and a number of Shakespearean plays, among other works, before the age of ten. Elizabeth was reportedly very close to her siblings while playing the maternal role. She also had great respect for her father, having claimed that life was no fun without him, and her mother agreed, probably because they did not fully understand what the business really was that kept him when his trips got longer and longer.

Her first known poem was written sometime between the ages of sixteen-eighteen. The manuscript is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The exact date is controversial because the “2” in the date 1812 is written over something else that is scratched out. Essays of the Mind were published in 1826, at her father’s expense.

At the age of 20, Elizabeth began to battle a life-long illness, which caused her to be frail and weak; the medical science of the time was unable to diagnose. She had begun to take morphine for the pain, and eventually became addicted to it. Consequently, Browning composed her poems primarily in her home.

In 1828, Elizabeth’s mother died suddenly. The death of her mother hit her hard, which, for a time, greatly diminished her creative thought process. In addition, the abolition of slavery in the early 1830s reduced Mr. Barrett’s finances, forcing him to sell Hope End, and although the family was never poor, the place was seized and put up for sale to please creditors. The investment which had provided them revenue in Jamaica also ceased with the abolition of slavery.

The family then moved several times before settling permanently on Wimpole Street. It was here that Elizabeth would write most of her large body of work.

Her 1844 Poems had made her one of the most popular writers in the land at the time and inspired Robert Browning to write to her, telling her how much he loved her writing. It was arranged for Browning to meet Elizabeth in May 1845, and so began one of the most famous courtships in literature. The courtship and marriage between Robert Browning and Elizabeth were carried out secretly. Being six years his elder and an invalid, she did not believe that the vigorous and worldly Browning really loved her as much as he professed to. Finally, after a private marriage at St. Marylebone Parish Church, Browning imitated his hero, Shelley, by spiriting his beloved off to Italy in August 1846, which became her home almost continuously until her death.

Mr. Barrett disinherited Elizabeth, as he did each of his children who married. As Elizabeth had inherited some money of her own, she and her husband were reasonably comfortable in Italy, and their relationship was happy. Elizabeth grew much stronger, and, in 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, who they called Pen. He later married but had no legitimate children.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died of unknown causes on June 29, 1861. Though her beautiful words live on, the beloved poet was widely mourned and buried in Florence.

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