Margaret Forster

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography Summary

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography is a 1988 biography of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning by English novelist, historian, and literary critic Margaret Forster. Forster makes extensive use of a trove of recently discovered historical artifacts, including papers, letters, and diaries written by and exchanged between Barrett Browning and her friends, family, and colleagues. These resources are particularly useful in forming a better understanding of her early life, before the encounter with her future husband, Robert Browning, which propelled her to fame. Forster challenges the popular myth that the poet was in constant poor health and kept indoors by a domineering father. In its place, she argues that Barrett Browning, intellectually vibrant but fiercely private, was responsible for her own solitude. The biography is generally considered the most objective and research-based take on Barrett Browning’s illustrious and difficult life.

Forster’s biography of Barrett Browning has much of its basis in evidence uncovered by historian Philip Kelley between the late 1950s and its time of writing. Elizabeth Barrett met Robert Browning in 1845, just before she turned forty. The first section of the book deals with the time before they met. Supposedly, a mysterious juvenile disease troubled Barrett Browning well into adulthood. Forster rejects the veracity of the disease story: Barrett Browning’s recently discovered medical records make it clear that she was never diagnosed with a serious illness. In fact, Barrett Browning had a vibrant childhood. She was nurtured and educated by her mother, Mary Barrett, who taught her to read and understand basic subjects at a very early age.

Forster also rejects the myth that Barrett Browning’s father, Edward Barrett, subjected her to confinement in the family home on Wimpole Street in London. Letters containing both primary and secondary references to Barrett Browning’s relationship with her father characterize it as warm and loving. Barrett Browning and her father seem to have had very similar personalities, and only grew apart after she and Robert Browning met and fell in love. Though Elizabeth Barrett’s life was solitary before this meeting, Forster demonstrates that it was certainly self-imposed. Forster also reveals a second possible lover of Barrett Browning’s: Hugh Stuart Boyd, a married man and scholar with whom she likely had an affair, in the romantic if not sexual sense, in the 1930s.

The final section of the biography details the span of time after Barrett Browning’s marriage. She and Robert Browning moved to Italy, where they intended to live an idyllic pastoral life. This plan was interrupted when Barrett Browning experienced a string of devastating miscarriages that haunted her for the remainder of her life. While sympathetic to her struggles, Forster does not paint an overly moralistic picture of the poet. She routinely underpaid and mistreated her female servants, and was not sympathetic to their struggles as poor servicewomen. She seems to have mistreated one of her maids, Elizabeth Wilson, after Wilson became pregnant, an event that Forster contends might be connected to her anxiety about her own reproductive health problems.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography is an illuminating portrayal of the female poet and a refreshing addition to a genre dominated by biographies of men.