Two-Way Mirror: The Life Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
by Fiona Sampson
Review by Brian Morton
Virginia Woolf said: “Fate has not been kind to Mrs Browning as a writer. Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.” One might argue that Mrs Woolf wasn’t very kind to her, either; when she turned her mind to Elizabeth Barrett Browning it was to write a biography of her dog Flush, and one wonders what, exactly, she means by “her place”.
But the better part of a century later, her basic point is beyond argument. No-one reads EBB now; no-one reads poetry, whose public gamut starts with Armitage and ends with Zephaniah. Perhaps now and again, some young swain hoicks “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” out of an online dictionary of quotations for Valentine’s Day, but that’s it.
No-one else was much kinder to her. Two of the big beasts of modern criticism (both male, obviously) almost entirely excluded her from the Oxford Anthology of English Literature. EBB – as she liked to be called – comes down to us as a round-faced hypochondriac and self-willed invalid, stuck at home with unfulfillable ambitions, who eloped with one of the big beasts of Victorian poetry, Robert Browning, and then lived in his shadow for the rest of her life. Those same critics, Lionel Trilling And Harold Bloom murmur sniffily that “Mrs Browning’s enthusiasms … gave her husband much grief”. An embarrassment, then.
It takes a biographer of Fiona Sampson’s lateral brilliance to re-argue EBB’s importance and to put her verse novel Aurora Leigh (a kind of poetic autobiography) back where it belongs among the great works of the period. She does by very carefully framing not just the life, which is far more vivid and complex than usually supposed, or than the awful The Barretts of Wimpole Street (you probably watched it, half asleep, after Sunday lunch once, when the world was black and white) made out.
Virginia Woolf said that what a woman writer needed was “a room of her own”. Elizabeth Barrett had one, which sounds ideal until you discover that she was confined in it and to a crippling harness that was supposed to correct a spinal problem that may well have been something viral. It could even be that EBB’s much-derided vapours were the result of something like long Covid, not hypochondria. So the health issues were real and Sampson is superb on how much EBB’s work is, in that overworked but valid feminist trope, “written on the body”.
Woolf actually said that if a woman were to write, she would also need money. The Moulton-Barretts had plenty of that, most of the time, but unfortunately, it came tainted with slavery. The family had returned from Jamaica, leaving EBB with the disturbing illusion – and it was an illusion – that she was of mixed race. Browning called her his “Portuguese”, hence in part the title Sonnets From The Portuguese. The health and even the colour of the body she was writing with would have been problematic to Elizabeth.
And then, from what sounds like a rural idyll, she was taken to London and a new set of gilded cages. Having spent her emerging years in strange, flirtatious communication with older men (all of them somehow modelled but different from her melancholy father), pompously correcting their Greek scansion, offering up her own early attempts for approval, she fell into a literary circle that allowed her to believe that she, too, could be a writer. She had admirers and detractors, supporters and gaolers, and they tended to be the same people.
It takes a certain effort of will now to pick up Aurora Leigh, but armed with Sampson’s complex portrait, with its multiple frames and mirror effects, it’s possible not just to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning again, but, more important, to let her read us. She has come suddenly up to date.