On this day in 1846, Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett married Robert Browning, a move that caused her to be disinherited by her father, wealthy owner of acres of Jamaican sugar plantations, as well as rejected by her brothers. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most wildly popular poets of the 19th century, and her husband started out as one of her fans.
Barrett Browning was born in 1806, and though frail, most mark the beginning of her life as an invalid as 1821, when a doctor prescribed opium for a nervous disorder. Many speculate what her particular health issues were. She reportedly suffered from exhaustion, intense responses to heat and cold, heart palpitations, and an inability to recover quickly or completely from common complaints, like a head cold. Most agree that her use of laudanum likely exacerbated her issues.
In 1844, Barrett Browning published a collection of poems that inspired writer Robert Browning to write to her. A sampling of his correspondence—which you can read for yourself in Baylor’s digitized collection of their letters—via the New York Times:
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…
A mutual friend named John Kenyon arranged for them to meet in May of 1845.
Robert Browning was six years younger than her, but he still seemed impossibly worldly to the reclusive Elizabeth, who remained skeptical of his interest. During their correspondence and courtship she wrote the Sonnets from the Portuguese, which includes the famous Sonnet 43:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The two finally eloped, after being married in St Marylebone Parish Church, London, and went to live in Italy. Under “Condition” on their marriage license, it reads Bachelor and Spinster.
In addition to her poetry, Barrett Browning was outspoken about abolition—especially notable considering the source of her family’s wealth—and the rights of women. Her epic Aurora Leigh deals with social justice and the struggle to be a creative woman in society. It was a great inspiration to Virginia Woolf, who said of the heroine “with her passionate interest in the social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age.”
They had one child, whom they called Pen, when Elizabeth was 43.
Elizabeth and Robert lived in Italy until 1861, when she died in his arms on June 29. It is said that her life was extended by his care and the fact that they moved south to a warmer climate. In his early letters to her, he wrote, “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett... fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought.”