Writing and Responsibility: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poetics – An Exhibit Curated by Fiona Sampson

Introduction: A Kind of Echo Location

I’m acutely aware that a curatorial visit to the Browning archives is just that. This is not the painstaking work of conservation, verification or cataloguing that comprises true curatorial practice. Instead it’s a kind of raid on what are, for me, hitherto-unvisited resources, mysterious with capacity. How much more so when that visit is purely digital. T.S. Eliot famously wrote, in ‘East Coker’, about poetry and thought conducting ‘a raid on the inarticulate.’ A curatorial visit feels a little, to this biographer at least, like ‘raiding’ material that may still be waiting to be articulated – perhaps not having been brought quite to light even by the subject herself. 

The size and range of the Armstrong Browning Library holdings is a reminder that a whole cloud of things unknown floats around the biographical subject, just as it does around every individual. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had her own dreamy hinterland of unshared experiences and – sometimes unconscious – thoughts and desires. These aren’t necessarily captured in the archives, despite the many intimate notes to self, letters and even doodles stored here. But the sheer volume of such intimate material is a salutary reminder of how much of the individual we study will remain always unknown: and how life-like this unknown is. 

The curatorial visit is a raid of another kind, too. It seizes individual holdings and brings them out of their archival context, in which they’re properly ordered by type of holding, or chronology. At its worst, it imposes a kind of archival disorder, seizing highlights of the collection and presenting them out of context. Much like one of those archaeological raiders among EBB’s contemporaries, cherry-picking curios to bring home, of whom Lord Elgin is only one of the most notorious. At its best, of course, this kind of raid tries to place archive materials in a fuller context than that of straight classification by surrounding them with additional original research.

I’ve tried to do something slightly different, setting archival materials in dialogue with each other. I’m fascinated by connections. Indeed, they’re fundamental to my biographical method, which is to try and bring individual facts – such as dates or addresses – to life by as it were triangulating them with a third fact. A date means more if I know what else happened then; an address comes to life if I can find out about its architect, or the neighbours, or what could be seem outside its windows. On the scale of full-length study, that means I want to locate Elizabeth Barrett Browning in relation to the world she wrote from and to. What were patterns of popular readership? Costs of living? International distances, measured in the actual days taken to travel by carriage or boat? 

So the raids I’ve been privileged to make on the Armstrong Browning archives during the month of my digital fellowship are efforts, not fully to contextualise EBB – that would take another full-length study – but to locate her. They are, in a sense, echo locations: local soundings which give a sense of how we might think about aspects of our subject, rather than a filled-in map. In each case, materials held by the Armstrong Browning archives are arranged in small clusters that I hope allow them to triangulate, or at least speak to, each other. I hope they also remind us of how experience itself is a network of connections: between memory and the present, between an absorbing interest and something practical, domestic or immediate that demands our attention, between emotion and intellect. Our feelings for – even research into – the Brownings are made up of such links; and so of course was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own experience.

Fiona Sampson, credit Ekaterina Voskrensenkaya

The House That Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett Built

The house Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett built in the Herefordshire countryside, at Hope End outside Ledbury, was destroyed by subsequent owners. There’s a particular irony to this since the mansion, which took seven years to construct, itself replaced the older, plainer Georgian house which he had bought with the 472 acres of the estate in 1809, and which he turned into a stable block. Paradoxically, of all his ambitious building works it’s the minareted stables that have survived – and are now private housing. 

So Henrietta Barrett Moulton-Barrett’s pencil sketch of the house, ‘View Taken from the other side of Alpine Bridge’, dated 25 June 1831, has a dream-like quality that comes partly from the artist’s gifted amateurism, and partly from our being unable to visit the house itself. (Incidentally, a contributory factor must also be its delicacy and its crowded botanical foreground: both have more than a little in common with the fantastical sketches and watercolours on mythical themes – Christian, Arthurian or from the Mabinogion – that helped establish the Anglo-Welsh Modernist poet and artist David Jones’s reputation a century later.) Were it not for the description in the notice of sale prepared by the Regents Street auctioneer ‘Mr Reid’ in the same year as Henrietta did her drawing, and a photograph of the same façade now held by Balliol College, Oxford, we might be tempted to dismiss her work, too, as fantasy. But it’s not just the house’s subsequent disappearance that gives it an air of too-good-to-be-true paradise. This sketch must also have been a work of mourning, made at a time when the family’s financial losses and their need to sell up were becoming a reality. An advertisement for Hope End’s sale by auction would appear in the London Morning Post just six weeks later, on 4 August.

In fact the auction, on 25 August, failed to make the reserve price, and the house and much of the estate would be sold privately by Moulton-Barrett a year later. Perhaps this was because the house that was completed when Elizabeth Barrett was eleven was, though luxurious, not to everyone’s taste. Orientalism might have been the coming style, but it had not yet fully arrived. John Nash’s trend-setting iron domes would not appear on the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton Pavilion until 1815-21. The mansions of Sezincote in Gloucestershire, and Hafod Uchtryd in Ceredigion, were other early architectural outliers, but Elizabeth’s father had visited neither. What he wanted to do was so new that he did not even employ an architect, instead he consulted with a local landscape architect over his idiosyncratic combination of gothick and circular windows, minarets, turrets and curved facades.

Sezincote, domed like Hope End, was built in Neo-Mughal style in 1805 for siblings returned from making their money with the East India Company. Hafod Uchtryd was designed by Thomas Baldwin, first in 1785 and again after a catastrophic fire in 1807, in Gothick style. Its second incarnation involved a large tower, orientalist dome, finials and wings in various styles. So unusual was this that tradition had it that in 1797 the Hafod inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had passed close by on a walking tour three years earlier, to compose ‘Kubla Khan’. Alas, at that time the house had not yet been rebuilt; in any case, Coleridge’s walking companion Joseph Hucks gives the game away in his A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales: in a series of Letters of 1795, describing the ‘miserable hole’ in nearby Tregaron where the young men lodged.

Today, what principally remain from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s childhood are Hope End’s rolling, landscaped grounds. From their highest point, at Oyster Hill, the view stretches forty or fifty miles west into Wales, while to the east the Malvern Hills rise a mere six miles away. This idyllic landscape would remain with Elizabeth all her life. And although she could never bear to revisit Herefordshire, a quarter century after Henrietta sketched the house from beyond the Alpine Bridge she would reconstruct the view from her Hope End bedroom. In Book One, lines 575-611, of Aurora Leigh:

You could not push your head out and escape

A dash of dawn-dew from the honeysuckle,

 But so you were baptized into the grace

And privilege of seeing. . .

                                       First, the lime,

 (I had enough there, of the lime, be sure,—

 My morning-dream was often hummed away

 By the bees in it;) past the lime, the lawn

 Which, after sweeping broadly round the house,

 Went trickling through the shrubberies in a stream

 Of tender turf, and wore and lost itself

 Among the acacias, over which you saw

 The irregular line of elms by the deep lane

 Which stopped the grounds and dammed the overflow

 Of arbutus and laurel. Out of sight

 The lane was; sunk so deep, no foreign tramp

 Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales

 Could guess if lady’s hall or tenant’s lodge

Dispensed such odours,—though his stick well-crooked

 Might reach the lowest trail of blossoming briar

 Which dipped upon the wall. Behind the elms,

 And through their tops, you saw the folded hills

Striped up and down with hedges, (burly oaks

 Projecting from the line to show themselves)

 Through which my cousin Romney’s chimneys smoked

 As still as when a silent mouth in frost

 Breathes, showing where the woodlands hid Leigh Hall;

 While, far above, a jut of table-land,

 A promontory without water, stretched,

 You could not catch it if the days were thick,

 Or took it for a cloud; but, otherwise,

 The vigorous sun would catch it up at eve

 And use it for an anvil till he had filled

 The shelves of heaven with burning thunderbolts,

 Protesting against night and darkness:—then,

 When all his setting trouble was resolved

 To a trance of passive glory, you might see

 In apparition on the golden sky.

What this describes is much more a landscape than garden. Though Hope End did have gardens – described in the sales particulars as ‘Beautiful pleasure-grounds, Shrubbery, an Alcove, Productive Walled Garden, Grapery , &c’ – the sheer acreage of the estate, with its ‘Grass and Meadow, Arable, Wood Land, Hop Garden and Plantation,’ represented a huge amount of open space for a small child, and must have offered both opportunity and challenge. Playing in these grounds was, however enormously privileged, no cosy toddle across a lawn. It meant taking on a terrain of steep slopes, thick underbrush, woodlands and plenty of places to fall, whether from a pony or while climbing trees. In other words, it must have taught the Moulton Barrett children a certain physical confidence; and Elizabeth, as the first-born, would have had to develop particular robustness. 

She would later evoke this courageous ‘tomboy’ version of herself, who could ‘run rapidly & leap high’, as ‘Beth’, the ten year-old subject of the Untitled Essay she’s thought to have been written sometime in her thirties, probably as a gift for a child cousin. We can hear the actual voice of this confident little girl in a note Elizabeth wrote to her mother when she was eight:

Madam

I request you to accept this little story for 3s & if you would buy this yourself & write copys to be sold for the public. I am Madam your most obedient humble Servant

Elizabeth Barrett

You owe me 8d for other things

These are lines full of the assurance that comes from a loving parental relationship: assurance that her mother will humour Elizabeth both with some extra pocket money, and by undertaking what we might call secretarial duties. I especially like the firmness of the postscript. This note, more than any record of remarkable architecture, is what lets us truly glimpse the house that Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett built, and that he did not do so in vain. For it suggests – somewhat against the grain of popular fiction – a Hope End filled, at least in the early years, with happy family life. 

Learning the Art of Political Argument

In October 1817, the eleven year-old Elizabeth was already passionately engaged by political causes. Two drafts, possibly both written this month, survive of a letter addressed to John Somers Cocks, 2nd Baron Somers and couched in highly emotional, political rhetoric. Somers was a member of the House of Lords, and the Lords’ secret investigation into the potential for insurrection in London had led, in March this same year, to the passing of a Bill suspending Habeas Corpus, the right to be present when tried: in short, to a fair trial. Also this year, Somers had published A Defence of the Constitution of Great Britain and Ireland, a pamphlet which argued against both universal (male) suffrage and the need for parliament to sit every year. 

Hardly a democrat, then, as Elizabeth didn’t hesitate to point out: 

in spite of all the laudable exersions [sic] of your Lordship & the Ministers there is still a spark unquenched which enables us to despise our Tyrants & to drop the silent tear of gratitude to Sir F. Burdet and to those who have bent their exertions for the recovery of our lost liberty tho their endeavours have proved vain they do no less merit our grateful and sincere thanks But I do not wish to sound in your ears praises which your Lordship does not aim at possessing neither will [I] endeavour to revenge our fallen liberties for we are already revenged and your Lordship is the only instrument of the ceaseless shame which now polutes your name

Sir Francis Burdett had spoken in opposition to the March Bill. Elizabeth showed herself equally knowledgeable about its advocates, who included Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth:

Lord Sidmouth & the Ministers operated powerful changes indeed changes which we could not have believed magic to effect–

Her reproofs don’t stop here. On 28 October, Somers became the Lord Lieutenant of Herefordshire, a post he would hold until his death in 1841. The eleven year-old – thanks, we can assume, to her family – was already well aware of this succession as she wrote, and her letter  accuses Somers both of disingenuousness in his lobbying for the appointment – ‘pretending to be guided by liberty, tho’ in the Eyes of Europe a confirmed Tory, and for what I blush to relate:—to be made lord leuftenant [sic] of the county of Hereford’ – and of having ulterior motives even for the his interest in the role itself: ‘allowing room for the recurring prospect of an Earldom.’ In 1821 he would indeed become Earl Somers and Viscount Eastnor.  

Eastnor was a neighbouring country estate; Eastnor Castle lies only about four miles south east of the site of Hope End mansion. Elizabeth was addressing someone who was not only arguably more powerful than her father, but who was the family’s immediate neighbour. She wasn’t doing so without her family’s connivance, either. The second of these drafts is dated in her mother’s hand, which means that Mary Moulton-Barrett at least knew about the text soon after Elizabeth worked on it, and probably formally or informally filed it in her collection of Elizabeth’s childhood writings. Moreover the first draft has corrections in Mary’s hand. Which it certainly needs, because Elizabeth’s eleven year-old spelling is still idiosyncratic. Among other words she couldn’t yet render are ‘perfered’ for preferred, and ‘exersions’ for exertions.

So the family knew Elizabeth’s feelings about Lord Somers’s political causes; these include the bold statement that she is ‘a whig’. Indeed, her mother’s markings-up served specifically to encourage their articulation. Yet the Moulton-Barretts would have understood the social costs likely to flow from allowing their precocious first child actually to send such a j’accuse to their powerful neighbour. My suspicion is that Mary must have known it could never be sent; and must have encouraged its composition as a kind of practice in essay-writing – whether or not her daughter was aware of this. For Elizabeth clearly wanted to get her letter right. The two drafts differ radically in their approach, though not in the beliefs they articulate: the second is a much more generalised statement of principles, and contains less in the way of personal attack than the first. We should remember that this may not be the order of composition, though what we might call the rhetorical tact of the second makes me suspect it is; but it is the order of their discovery. These differences show Elizabeth finding ways to master her material, to divorce it from her feelings, and assemble a more effective argument than ad hominem attack. It’s an insight into her very early writerly development.

We get an interesting glimpse of the family’s political and social awareness – despite their own ambiguous, monied status. By declaring herself a Whig Elizabeth, who would never be able to vote because of her gender, was simply aligning herself with her family’s political beliefs. But even more interesting is that, by supporting her in articulating moral and political disapproval of Somers’s regressive, antidemocratic stand, her family were making principles personal. They were helping their daughter to identify an individual, someone she knew at least by sight, who illustrated the abstract principles of democracy and justice. ‘The personal is political’ would become a cliché of 1960s feminist thought, most famously articulated by Carol Hanisch in 1969. But this strategy of illustration, applied both to political realities and more widely, would become central to the adult Barrett Browning’s poetic method. She maintained that verse could, and should, illustrate what was abstract, and in doing so make ideas and principles both accessible and persuasive. Her well-known poems protesting against child labour (‘The Cry of the Children’) and slaving (‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’) are narratives, peopled with oppressed individuals who get to speak and feel. She summed up this approach at twenty, in the Preface to An Essay on Mind:

As Tacitus has it, materia aluntur. Thought catches the light reflected from the object of her contemplation […] [W]e behold in poetry, the inspiritings to political feeling […]. Poetry is the enthusiasm of the understanding. 

Finding Like Minds: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Ruskin

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s mentor and friend, Mary Russell Mitford, seems to have had a tremendous appetite for literary community. Her correspondence, posthumously edited by Alfred Guy Kingan L’Estrange, extends to three volumes of her own letters (The Life of Mary Russell Mitford: told by herself in letters to her friends (1870)) and nearly 500 pages of letters received (The Friendships of Mary Russell Mitford: as recorded in letters from her literary correspondents (1882)). L’Estrange’s title is justly chosen: these pages do indeed tell the story of a full literary life. 

Mitford’s generosity towards Elizabeth – for example in publishing her in anthologies she edited, including Findens’ Tableaux – was part of this same work of literary connection-making. We could view it not so much as networking as creating the kinds of dialogue and community that allow fellow-feeling and the exchange of ideas between writers. Twenty first century writers still crave the kind of conversation that fills Mitford’s letters, ranging as it does from gossip to literary news or world affairs. In non-pandemic times, contemporary writers may satisfy this human yet intellectual appetite face to face, in literary festival green rooms or bars; certainly, they can do so regardless of gender. But in mid-nineteenth century London the coffee houses, pubs, clubs and literary supper parties that allowed their male contemporaries to do just that were relatively closed to literary women. Mitford, and later Elizabeth, had to rely chiefly on salons, at-homes and correspondence for literary conversation.

We can see something of this hunger to meet and talk in Elizabeth’s first surviving note to the writer, artist, art historian and social reformer John Ruskin. Written on 16 October 1855, when she was in the full flush of personal distinction, it’s contorted throughout by a surprising note of appeal. It seems full of the desire to please, even to charm: and above all, to stay in touch. Alongside mention of repeatedly frustrated attempts to call on Ruskin is a sense that the meeting the Brownings have managed on this London trip did not go quite well enough. Elizabeth seems to feel she that she turned away what Ruskin had to say about her writing – perhaps, his deeper engagement with her work – through a clumsy shyness. The transcription repays reading in full: 

13 Dorset Street

Tuesday morning [16 October 1855]

My dear Mr Ruskin

I cant express our amount of mortification in being thwarted in the fulfilment of the promise you allowed us to make to ourselves, that we would go down to you once more before leaving England. What with the crush rather than press of circumstances, I have scarcely needed the weather to pin me to the wall. Sometimes my husband could not go with me,—sometimes I could’nt go with him—and always we waited for one another in hope, till this last day overtook us. Tomorrow (DV) we shall be in Paris. Now, will you believe how we have wished & longed to see you beyond these straight tantalizing limits? how you look to us at this moment like the phantasm of a thing dear & desired .. just seen & vanishing? What! Are you to be ranked among my spiritualities after all? Forgive me that wrong.

Then you had things to say to me, I know .. which in your consideration, & through my cowardice, you did not say, but yet will!

Will you write to me, dear Mr Ruskin, sometimes, or have I disgusted you so wholly that you wont or cant?

Once, I know, somewhat because of shyness & somewhat because of intense apprehension .. somewhat, too, through characteristic stupidity, (no contradiction this!) I said I was grateful to you when you had just bade me not. Well– I really could’nt help it– That’s all I can say now. Even if your appreciation were perfectly deserved at all points .. why, appreciation means sympathy—and sympathy being the best gift nearly which one human creature can give another, I dont understand (I never could) why it does not deserve thanks. I am stupid perhaps .. but for my life I never could help being grateful to the people who loved me .. even if they happened to say “I cant help it! not I!”–

As for Mr Ruskin, he sees often in his own light. That’s what I see & feel.

Will you write to me sometimes? I come back to it. Will you—though I am awkward & shy, & obstinate now & then .. and a wicked spiritualist, to whit .. a realist in an out-of-the-world sense .. accepting matter as a means .. (No matter for it otherwise!)

Dont give me up, dear Mr Ruskin! My husband’s truest regards, & farewell from both of us!– I would fain be

Your affectionate friend

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Our address in Paris will be 102 Rue de Grenelle[,] Faubourg St Germain.

What might Ruskin have wanted to say to Barrett Browning, that autumn in London? We get a glimpse in a letter he sent eighteen months before to Mary Russell Mitford, who had evidently written to him about the younger woman’s poetry – presumably Poems 1853, where all six poems he mentions appear. On 23 April 1854, he noted:

I have had one other feast, however, this Sunday morning in your dear friend’s poems—Elizabeth Browning. I have not had my eyes so often wet for these five years. I had no 

conception of her power before. I can’t tell you how wonderful I think them. I have beenreading the ‘Valediction’, and the ‘Years Spinning’, and the ‘Reed’, and the ‘Dead Pan’, and ‘Dead Baby at Florence’, and the ‘Caterina to Camoens’,and all for the first time ! I 

only knew her mystical things—younger, I suppose—before.

It’s the first note of a literary enthusiasm that was to endure and deepen. By 27 November 1856, Ruskin was calling Aurora Leigh, ‘the greatest poem in the English language: unsurpassed by anything but Shakespeare—not surpassed by Shakespeare[’]s sonnets—& therefore the greatest poem in the language.’ Again, though, he would express that enthusiasm not to Elizabeth herself, but in a letter to her husband. 

Elizabeth’s note of excuse from the previous year had been written during one of the visits she and Robert made to London from Italy. But by 1854, Ruskin’s own relationship with Italy was deeply developed and well-known. He had published the first volume of The Stones of Venice in 1851, the year that Elizabeth published Casa Guidi Windows. An archived sketch shows the author at work: a mind rapidly configuring the argumentation of the text, with the illustrations that are part of that argument marked by placeholder sketches for more highly worked images. These placeholders have been tipped-in with red sealing wax, rather than done at the time of writing: suggesting they were torn from the sketchbook in which Ruskin first noted what he observed – and that those first notations could be very much a shorthand. The author illustrated his own books with characteristically delicate watercolours and engravings, some worked up from onsite daguerreotypes also taken by him. 

In fact the whole page is a rough, since this draft text doesn’t appear in so many words in the finished work. The three volumes of The Stones of Venice would appear between 1851 and 1853. Casa Guidi Windows, though a much slimmer work, also took time to emerge. Part 1, written in 1847 under the title ‘A Meditation in Tuscany’, was turned down by Blackwoods magazine on the grounds that it was of little interest to British readers. Something not yet obvious was being worked out in both books, each of which would be widely read and influential. Yet these two English approaches to mid-century Tuscany seem at first glance not so much to overlap as to complement one another. One is an art and architectural history – of the Italian Gothic, and Venice in particular – while the other evokes the political needs of the contemporary population of Elizabeth’s home city of Florence. Both, though, are animated by a sense of place and people as interconnected: as shaping each other. Ruskin’s definition of the overwhelmingly human characteristics of Gothic ornamentation in The Nature of Gothic is well-known. He identified the “characteristic or moral elements” of Gothic art and craft achieved by individual creativity among stonemasons and carpenters and so springing from the qualities of those individual makers:

As belonging to the builder, they would be expressed thus: – 1. Savageness or rudeness. 2. Love of Change. 3. Love of Nature. 4. Disturbed Imagination. 5. Obstinacy. 6. Generosity. 

Barrett Browning makes the same connection, though proceeding from the opposite direction, in Casa Guidi Windows. Part 1, Ll. 1-13, 148-174, portrays the Italian Risorgimento revivifying the ancient stones: 

This understanding of mid-nineteenth century Italy as both historical built environment and lived reality was a sensibility shared by two individuals who, if they never became really close friends, perhaps understood themselves to be kindred spirits. It was also a ramifying aspect of their parallel projects of culture-making, the effects of which were felt throughout Victorian culture.

The Writer’s Political Influence

On 3 June 1859, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to John Ruskin, by now an old friend and trusted ally, about the widening gulf between Italian political reality and its British reception. Her letter rings with emotion, and excoriates government and society at large: 

not […] her Derby government only, but […] her parliament, her statesmen, her reformers, her leaders of the liberal party, her free press […]. Dear Mr Ruskin, England has done terribly ill—ignobly ill, which is worse– That men of all parties should have spoken as they have, proves a state of public morals lamentable to admit– Alfred Tennyson abetting Lord Derby? That, to me, was the heaviest blow of all. […] [T]he Times newspaper builds up its political ideas on the broadest foundation of lies

Lord Derby, the off-again-on-again Conservative Prime Minister then serving, who was also the vastly wealthy 14th Earl of Derby, was in fact to lose a vote of No Confidence the following week, and would dissolve his government on 11 June. Elizabeth was not wrong that a certain ambivalence over Italian independence marked the foreign policy of successive British governments in these years. But she was wrong, perhaps, in her reading of what motivated that policy. In the still more vehement, intimate family letter she wrote to her sister Arabella, also on 3 June, she dreamt that, ‘If we had a liberal ministry in England (so called—it is the difference between twiddledum & twiddledee somebody said—but twiddledee is better) the war would be restricted to Italy, & over perhaps, in a good measure, before the autumn closed.’ 

In fact British political opinion was not, as EBB assumed, intuitively pro-Austrian: ‘For, oh Arabel, England has behaved ignobly– Government, parliament, press, people, .. you are all covered with dishonor—& now you have only to clench it & go on to fight on Austria’s side–’ she hectored her sister. Parliamentary correspondence in fact reveals some intuitively pro-Italian feeling, but also the desire to balance this against successive administrations’ belief in the importance of a balance of power, and also stability, in Europe. (If this sounds as cynical as it does idealistic, powerful states have asked weaker communities to sacrifice themselves the greater good of an international order since the days of the Roman Empire.) Derby’s brief government of 1858-9 had indeed formulated most conservative response to the cause of Italian reunification, holding to the 1815 Treaty – at least in part because to break any international treaty would be to break the European Treaty System – and declaring that it would remain neutral in the event of war.

Nevertheless on 4 May 1859, a month before Elizbeth composed her letters to Arabella and to Ruskin, Foreign Secretary James Harris, the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, wrote to the British ambassador to France, Henry Wellesley, 1st Earl Cowley, that Derby’s government would accept whatever was the decision of the Italian people on independence. This was perhaps a more conveniently flexible position than supporters of Italian independence could have hoped, since it left space for the public argument that independence from Hapsburg control was not in fact what ordinary Italians wanted. That was precisely the argument the Times correspondent was making, and which Barrett Browning protested to Ruskin was untrue: 

Indeed there is a wonderful unanimity, calm, & resolution everywhere in Italy– […] For instance, while the very peasants here [in Tuscan Florence] are giving their crazie [small denomination coinage], .. the very labourers [volunteering] their day’s work (once in a week or so) while everyone gives, & every man almost (who can go) goes .. the Times says that Piedmont has derived neither paul nor soldier from Tuscany–  

On 30 June, three weeks after the Derby-Malmesbury administration had fallen, William Gladstone the new Chancellor, reduced this political wiggle room, recording in a Cabinet memorandum that he did not believe ‘that British interests would suffer from the creation of a kingdom of North Italy stretching from sea to sea’. And by the following spring, after an interview with Prime Minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, the Piedmontese ambassador Massimo d’Azeglio would be able to write home to Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, on 14 April 1860, that Britain saw ‘nothing better than for us to annex the whole peninsula.’ 

The same d’Azeglio appears in Elizabeth’s June 1859 letter to Ruskin. The diplomat had visited the Brownings in Rome and presented them with a picture of the Risorgimento as the opposite of hasty revolution, a return to what had first been rehearsed in 1848: ‘It is forty eight with matured actors.’ Which itself strikes us as a piece of ‘matured’ diplomacy, since d’Azeglio and Cavour knew well the influence Brownings had on British popular, but also establishment, opinion. Robert had dined with Cavour in Paris in 1856; during the Brownings’ recent stay in Rome, not only did they meet d’Azeglio, but in mid-March Robert had dined with, and briefed, the Prince of Wales. The consummate success of Elizabeth’s Aurora Leigh, which had appeared in 1856, meant that her pro-Risorgimento Casa Guidi Windows, published 1851, continued to be widely read.

One effect of all this was Barrett Browning’s next collection, her last to be published in her lifetime. Poems Before Congress appeared in March 1860; and took its title from a proposed international Congress that would address the European ‘problem’ of Italy. Once again, British government correspondence indicates a Cabinet that was less anti-Italian than Elizabeth believed. When they eventually refused to participate in the Congress they did so not because they refused to come to Italy’s aid but on the contrary because they worried that the rest of Europe would side with Austria against Italian independence. 

Elizabeth, however, could not know this; and her Preface to the book, which she added in February 1860, is her most public excoriation of a British policy that she saw following what ‘is good for your trade; this is necessary for your domination; but it will […] hurt a people further off; it will profit nothing to the general humanity.’ British reviewers of the book were almost universally hostile: but that’s another story. What’s of interest, as we read this Preface in the context of these June 1859 letters, is the extent to which, when she wrote that, ‘Non-intervention does not mean, passing by on the other side when your neighbour falls among thieves,’ Barrett Browning knew she was a mouthpiece for nationalist sentiment. How far had she moved into polemic, and away from the lessons she first learnt in childhood, about the persuasive power of illustrative, narrative, descriptive writing? 

A Curse for a Book

At the start of January 1860 Elizabeth, though preoccupied with Italian politics and British foreign policy, found time to write to the Brownings’ friend Isa Blagden about her own forthcoming book:

I have now your letter. This has been waiting by me for two or three days, because I am swallowed up of business in getting off a thin slice of a book called ‘Poems before Congress’. Containing the ode on Napoleon—the poem on Villafranca, & one or two besides.  People will hate me in England—but, never mind. And by way of being strictly impartial I take the opportunity of reprinting my “Curse for a Nation” (for America.) It has only been printed in flying leaves by the Abolitionists, & will come in well in relation to the bad, bad Brown affair. 

That ‘bad, bad Brown affair’ was the execution a month earlier of John Brown, an American abolitionist, after he had led a group including ex-slaves in an initially successful raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what was then Virginia. If the name sounds familiar, that’s more than coincidental. He became a cause célèbre and the song that keeps his memory alive, ‘John Brown’s body lies a’moulderin in his grave’, seems to have emerged as a marching song among Union troops during the American Civil War. The death of John Brown was taken up as a symbol of their cause. According to 2 August 1861 edition of The Liberator, a Unionist newspaper published in Boston, Mass, the soldiers of the 29th New York Infantry Regiment, then stationed in Charles Town in what is now West Virginia, where Brown was executed, ‘Daily visit the spot [of the hanging] by hundreds, singing a song, the refrain of which is:

May heaven’s smiles look kindly down
Upon the grave of old John Brown

As Elizabeth was writing to Isa, that war was still over a year away; but enslavement (largely in the South) and abolitionism (promulgated chiefly by the North) would be one of its key triggers. Meanwhile her letter, which mentions how there had already been a broadsheet edition of her anti-slavery poem, ‘Curse for a Nation’, passes lightly over both the poem and her own abolitionism as old-established fact. As in a sense both are. The poem first appeared in the abolitionist fundraising annual The Liberty Bell back in 1856; where her first published abolitionist poem, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point’, had appeared earlier still, in 1848. Now, in early 1860, Elizabeth was more preoccupied with British than American reception of her forthcoming book, and more concerned with another cause than abolitionism. The reactions she feared were to what she had to say about Italy rather than America. 

She was right to worry. Although this was her first new book after phenomenal success of Aurora Leigh in 1856 and the following years, when it appeared in 1861 the critical reception of Poems Before Congress was brutal. Her fame seemed to guarantee no more than that this reception  would be widespread. Blackwood’s spoke for the consensus when it concluded that ‘women should not interfere with politics.’ Writing in the equally influential Athenaeum, for which EBB had often written and which, in 1850, had sponsored her nomination for Poet Laureate, H.F. Chorley misread ‘A Curse for a Nation’ as an attack on British foreign and imperial policy. His review speaks of ‘vainglory’ and ‘the blaze of [Barrett Browning’s] own infallibility as regards Italian men and affairs,—French relations,—English abominations, and every grave, intricate question which makes men weigh, wait and suspend the sledge-hammer or—the curse.’

Given that Barrett Browing had in fact, as she told Isa Blagden, viewed including the poem as a way to deflect such patriotic criticism, this was ironic. The poet seems also to have viewed it is clumsily ill-informed. Her responding ‘Letter to the Editor’ is an elegant deconstruction of Chorley’s piece. In it, the precision of her writing and argumentation trumps political bad faith – from either side:

I cannot attribute even to my critic that “blaze of infallibility” which he most wrongfully accuses me of claiming for myself, while I find in his remarks the extraordinary mis-statement, that the poem called “A Curse for a Nation” refers to England.

Yet I am almost sure that it is unnecessary for me to appeal from this critic’s sense of justice to the public’s, and that, when he has read the poem in question once fairly through, he will admit that it can only point to a “country over the western sea”, “a land not mine,” and to a national sin from which, I thank God, England has nobly relieved herself–

This poem was in fact, written and printed several years ago for the Anti-slavery Society of the United States,and is well-known among American readers, who, with a characteristic intelligence and generosity, neither mistook the writer’s motive in it, nor withdrew their sympathy from her in consequence.

First Farewells: Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Isle of Wight

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Elizabeth, so in touch with the Victorian zeitgeist, should have visited the Isle of Wight. This 150 square mile, chalky island off the south coast of England was already a fashionable resort by the time she and Robert stayed there in late summer 1856. Queen Victoria had built Osborne House on the Island between 1845 and 1851. The Royal Yacht Squadron, of which Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son Percy Florence was by now a member, had been organising an annual regatta at Cowes since the 1820s. For the last two years it had occupied Cowes Castle, in a central position on the Esplanade – still its home today. In the year of Elizabeth’s visit her old rival and peer Alfred Tennyson had bought Faringford, the mansion above Freshwater Bay in the West Wight that he had rented for the previous three years. Soon, Julia Margaret Cameron would settle her family in Freshwater itself, at a villa called Dimbola Lodge, and there develop her new form of artistic photo-portraiture. 

Disappointingly, Cameron never photographed Barrett Browning. But, nine years after the couple’s visit to the Island, she did capture Robert, in a sitting from which he emerges looking rather like Johannes Brahms, though not, as he ruefully admits to her in a letter of 24 July 1866, like ‘Nireus, most beauteous of all Greeks that went to Troy.’ In the print owned by Occy, Elizabeth’s eighth and youngest brother Octavius, he looks away from us, and his left eye, the one nearer the camera, seems to gaze into a profound distance. Yet the carefully trimmed triangle of beard and bouncing, curly hair scarcely disguise a cheerful-looking, rubicund face. These images have helped define our understanding of the widower poet: flattered or not, Robert wrote back to Cameron the following summer. 

In 1856, however, the Brownings spent a first fortnight at Ventnor, on the island’s south-east coast, and then another two weeks in its north-west, right on the fashionable Esplanade where Cowes faces across the racing Solent to Southampton. In fact they had chosen neither address. A pattern had emerged for the Brownings’ trips back to England. They would take a house in Marylebone, near Elizabeth’s family, at which point her estranged father would often suddenly decide that his Wimpole Street household needed a few weeks out of London. The late summer of 1856 was no exception. Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett rented Melbourne Villa, overlooking the Channel from the sunny but crumbling cliffs of Ventnor. As Elizabeth wrote to Sarianna Browning on 28 August:

You see, we had to come to the island—that was a necessity,—[…] poor Arabel standing there, .. almost kneeling .. with her beseeching eyes,—& the advantage to Penini being obvious. He had all but let off eating in London,—

On 23 August, Elizabeth and Robert had taken rooms in Milanese Villa:

Thirty five shillings a week for an acorn of a sitting-room, a bedroom & dressing room, & Wilson’s room upstairs. And it’s to be dearer presently, in the winter—the winter being the season here. But I like the place much. The country is very English & beautiful of its class—& I enjoyed to my heart, the green dewy shadows yesterday.

If it was joyous to spend time with her siblings, it was horrible to part from them on 6 September; although when the Brownings moved on it was only to Cowes, and the summer home of Elizabeth’s mentor and relation, John Kenyon. These visits to Kenyon, a feature of the couple’s returns to London, were normally something Elizabeth enjoyed greatly. Indeed, they had been staying in his Marylebone house before coming south across to the Island. But in 1856 Kenyon was dying, and everyone knew it, despite the brave protestations in Elizabeth’s letters. On 12 September, she reported to a mutual friend, Anna Jameson, the art historian who had helped the newly married Brownings with their first journey to Italy:

At first, dear Mr Kenyon struck me as much better than I expected to find him—he looks occasionally like himself .. and his kindness & generous, patient sweetness are always himself, or more– But there are changes—he is feeble, and he suffers the burden of life painfully, .. and I grow gradually sadder about him– Still, if he were younger, I should hope. There is no proof of organic disease of the heart, though abundant proof of symptomatic disarrangement of it. The want of breath is very painful—& plainly it is no asthma. He dines with us everyday, but has never been out since we came,—& complains of increased feebleness, &, every now & then, desires aloud to pass away & be at rest– 

A fortnight later, on 27 September, Elizabeth wrote to Jameson again. This time, writing from her sister Henrietta’s home in Taunton, Somerset, she allowed herself to be more sanguine:

Dear Mr Kenyon’s medical man says he will recover to a certain point, & with care last a long time,—though of course, added he, ‘to make an old man young is not possible’– Our visit was deeply saddened by the sight of this beloved friend’s suffering—only, towards the end, he was relieved by the medecines, & talked almost like himself those two last days. To be with him, was sad—to leave him, sadder. Still, I have hope. 

Reading these two letters, I wonder whether Elizabeth wasn’t reassuring herself as much as her old friend. She had had to leave Kenyon in order to spend a week in Somerset with Henrietta, Surtees and their young family before the autumn closed in – and with it the possibility of escaping the British winter. In fact this was also the last time she would see Henrietta, who would die of cancer in late 1860. In 1856 Elizabeth had no way of knowing this; but she did know she was unlikely to see Kenyon again. Possibly she felt guilt, however unfounded, mixed in with a sense of loss. 

She had one way to make good what must have seemed as though it was being broken apart. Throughout her stay on the Isle of Wight, Elizabeth had been correcting the proofs of Aurora Leigh, and she chose to dedicate this book, which is in many ways an ars poetica and a summation of her work, to him: 

The words ‘cousin’ and ‘friend’ are constantly recurring in this poem, the last pages of which have been finished under the hospitality of your roof, my own dearest cousin and friend;—cousin and friend, in a sense of less equality and greater disinterestedness than ‘Romney’’s.

Ending, therefore, and preparing once more to quit England, I venture to leave in your hands this book, the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered: that as, through my various efforts in literature and steps in life, you have believed in me, borne with me, and been generous to me, far beyond the common uses of mere relationship or sympathy of mind, so you may kindly accept, in sight of the public, this poor sign of esteem, gratitude, and affection, from your unforgetting E. B. B. 

This dedication of course acknowledges how much Barrett Browning owed Kenyon: his lifelong moral support, the annual cheque with which he subsidised her marriage, the literary introductions – to Mary Russell Mitford, to William Wordsworth and even, indirectly, to Robert himself – with which he helped define her life. It might also stand for wider feelings about family, belonging and separation that had marked the author’s summer. 

Kenyon himself survived the Brownings’ departure from Cowes by another three months. When he died, on 3 December, his legacies to the couple would ensure their long-term financial security. But he lived just long enough to see Aurora Leigh, published on 15 November, triumphantly sell out its first edition; and to sign and send the gift copies he himself had ordered in a final gesture of loving support for the ‘cousin and friend’ he had first met and encouraged in rural Herefordshire, three decades before.

About the Curator

Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet, published in thirty-eight languages, who has received a number of international awards in the US, India and Europe. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, of the English Association and of the Wordsworth Trust, she’s published twenty-nine books and received an MBE for Services to Literature. Emeritus Professor, University of Roehampton, she has served on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature and is a Trustee of the Royal Literary Fund. Other honours include the Newdigate Prize, Cholmondeley Prize, Hawthornden Fellowship, and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and of Wales, Society of Authors, Poetry Book Society and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as well as various national Book of the Year selections. She recently received three major European prizes: Naim Frashëri Laureateship (Albania and Macedonia, 2019), European Lyric Atlas Prize, Serbia (2020) and Wales Poetry Book of the Year (2021). She’s also a broadcaster and newspaper critic, librettist and literary translator, and was editor of Poetry Review 2005-12. Her internationally acclaimed biographies are In Search of Mary Shelley (2018), shortlisted for the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Prize, and Two-Way Mirror: The life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (2021). She served as Digital Fellow of the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum in September 2021.