Husband Robert Browning
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (née Moulton-Barrett, 6 March 1806 – 29 June 1861) was an English poet of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime.
Born in County Durham, the eldest of 12 children, Elizabeth Barrett wrote poetry from about the age of six. Her mother's collection of her poems forms one of the largest extant collections of juvenilia by any English writer. At 15 she became ill, suffering intense head and spinal pain for the rest of her life. Later in life she also developed lung problems, possibly tuberculosis. She took laudanum for the pain from an early age, which is likely to have contributed to her frail health.
In the 1830s Elizabeth was introduced to literary society through her cousin, John Kenyon. Her first adult collection of poems was published in 1838 and she wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation and prose. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in the child labour legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Elizabeth's volume Poems (1844) brought her great success, attracting the admiration of the writer Robert Browning. Their correspondence, courtship and marriage were carried out in secret, for fear of her father's disapproval. Following the wedding she was indeed disinherited by her father. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had one son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. She died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to her sister Arabel in 1852 about meeting Matilda Hays and Charlotte Cushman: “I understand that she & Miss Hayes [sic] have made vows of celibacy & of eternal attachment to each other— they live together, dress alike . . . it is a female marriage. I happened to say, ‘Well, I never heard of such a thing before.’ ‘Haven’t you?’ said Mrs Corkrane [sic], . . . ‘oh, it is by no means uncommon.’ They are on their way to Rome, so I dare say we shall see a good deal of them. Though an actress . . . Miss Cushman has an unimpeachable character.” Barrett Browning’s informant was the wife of journalist John Frazer Corkran, a correspondent for the Morning Chronicle.
Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning spent time not only with Cushman and Hays but with several other women whose charged same-sex relationships included giddy flirtations, tempestuous infatuations, short-term love affairs, and long-term partnerships. The Brownings’ letters recount numerous dinners, picnics, and excursions with Harriet Hosmer, Isa Blagden, Kate Field, and Frances Power Cobbe, as well as with Cushman and Emma Stebbins.
Elizabeth's work had a major influence on prominent writers of the day, including the American poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. She is remembered for such poems as "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43, 1845) and Aurora Leigh (1856).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was taken with the household of Matilda Hays and Charlotte Cushman at via del Corso 28: There’s a house of what I call emancipated women, she wrote to a friend. She met Harriet Hosmer in 1853; the two were drawn to one another until the poet’s untimely death in 1861. In her semiautobiographical verse novel, Aurora Leigh, of 1856, Barrett Browning, using her popularity as a poet, gave voice to women’s struggles and championed the talented women who surrounded her in Italy. Her protagonist, Aurora, is based in part upon the fictional character Corinne and the young Hosmer. Barrett Browning touted Hosmer’s liberated lifestyle in Rome, writing that she “emancipates the eccentric life of a perfectly ‘emancipated female.’” She continued, “[Hatty] lives here all alone (at twenty-two); dines and breakfasts at the cafés precisely as a young man would; works from six o’clock in the morning till night, as a great artist must, and this with an absence of pretension and simplicity of manners which accord rather with the childish dimples in her rosy cheeks than with her broad forehead and high aims.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), a nine-book narrative poem that combines epic, kunstlerroman, poetic treatise, and social novel, emphasizes the dilemma marriage poses to a woman who craves love, but dreads that marriage will hinder her artistic ambitions. Barrett Browning’s poem is a first-person account of a writer’s development, and criticism of Aurora Leigh has focused on the tensions between its portrait of the artist as a young woman and its ending, in which Aurora finally accepts her cousin Romney, the man she has resisted loving. Readers often focus on Barrett Browning’s decision to inflict blindness on the male suitor, but attending too singlemindedly to how Romney must change to become marriageable obscures the importance the poem assigns to Aurora’s relationship with another woman. The last four of Aurora Leigh’s nine books focus on the friendship between Aurora and Marian Erle, a working-class woman introduced as the prospective bride of Romney Leigh, who has proposed to her in an attempt to enact his social ideals. Just before their wedding, the duplicitous Lady Waldemar, herself in love with Romney, persuades Marian to flee the country with a woman who orchestrates a rape that results in Marian’s pregnancy. Aurora eventually finds Marian on the streets of Paris, hears her story, and the two women move to Italy together where they form a household with Marian’s son. So central is Marian to Aurora Leigh that the story of her life up until her engagement to Romney takes up most of books three and four, and the story of her suffering after she leaves England much of book seven.
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