Monday, January 10, 2011
Today in Literary History - Robert Browning Writes the First Letter to Elizabeth Barrett
On January 10, 1845, the most legendary of all literary love stories was born when poet Robert Browning, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett’s 1844 edition of Poems, wrote the first of his famous love letters to the female poet. Although Browning began his letter as praise for the older (Barrett was six years older than the thirty-two-year-old Browning) and, at that time, more famous poet, there is no doubt that this was, indeed, a love letter as Browning concluded with the words, "I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too...."
In his letter, Robert Browning requested a face-to-face meeting with Elizabeth Barrett, which she granted in May of 1845. At the time, however, she had little hope for a true romance, much less a marriage. Barrett’s grandfather had become quite wealthy due to his large sugar cane plantations in the West Indies and the manufacture of rum. Barrett’s father used his inherited wealth as leverage over his eleven children, forbidding any of them to marry on pain of banishment from his life and disinheritance from his will. Some people believe that Barrett’s grandfather had passed along, not only his fortune, but also mixed blood, and that Barrett’s father feared having a "dark" grandchild so much that he would do almost anything to prevent it.
Even had Barrett’s father been overjoyed at the prospect of her budding romance, she had long ago written marriage out of her life’s possibilities. Tuberculosis, or a similar disease, had been a daily part of her life since the age of fourteen. As a result, Elizabeth Barrett spent most of her adult years housebound, often bedridden. She was an invalid, and she did not expect much in the way of personal relationships, and she certainly didn’t expect a romantic suitor like the vigorous and worldly Browning.
Robert Browning, however, was truly in love. Over the next twenty months, Browning and Barrett wrote five hundred and seventy-five letters to each other. Their courtship, which improved Barrett’s health so much that she termed it a "resurrection" was, for the most part, carried out in secrecy due to Barrett’s father’s objections to any romantic relationships on the part of his children. Nevertheless, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were married at St. Marylebone Parish Church, and in August 1846 the groom, imitating his hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whisked his bride off to Italy. Barrett’s nurse, Wilson, who had witnessed the marriage, accompanied the newlyweds to the South. The Brownings eventually settled in Florence, and Italy became their home for the rest of their lives.
True to his word, Barrett Browning’s father did disinherit her, as he did all of his children who married, but as Elizabeth had inherited some money independently of her father, she and Robert Browning were able to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Both of the Brownings were well respected in Italy and were considered famous even then, long before their work had been given the great acclaim it enjoys today. In 1849, at the age of forty-three, Elizabeth Barrett Browning had grown so much stronger and healthier that she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, fondly known as "Pen." Although Pen did marry, he had no legitimate children, and today, there are no direct descendants of the two famous poets.
At Robert Browning’s insistence, Barrett Browning published a second edition of her volume, Poems and included her love sonnets. The sonnets were popular with the public, and as a result, Barrett Browning’s popularity and critical regard were both greatly increased. In 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth, it was proposed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning be named Poet Laureate of Britain, however the position went to Tennyson.