Much of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (1806–1861) poetry goes on to establish her as a typically Victorian literary figure. Through her works, she condemns social injustice and takes up the cause of the children labouring in the mills and factories as “hands”, slave trade in America, the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians and the hypocritical stance that society had adopted in their treatment and portrayal of women in the nineteenth century. Browning’s sensibilities were clearly Victorian, and she was extremely influenced by Rousseau, Voltaire and Mary Wollstonecraft. Browning herself, however, was rather fortunate when it came to her childhood and her years growing up.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fame as a poet far exceeded Robert Browning’s, even after they were married. She was the obvious attraction at social gatherings, and her literary fame was not limited to their personal circles. She was being read and acclaimed not only in England but also America.
The Barrett family had derived all their wealth from sugar plantations in Jamaica. Her father was the proprietor of a 500-acre estate called “Hope End,” and it was in this peaceful setting, with its farmers’ cottages, gardens and woodlands that Elizabeth lived the life of the daughter of a wealthy country squire.
To say that Barrett was extensively well read would require some elaboration. Before she was ten, she had already perused some verses from Paradise Lost, and several of Shakespeare’s plays. She felt an urgent need to master herself in more languages, and she started lessons in Greek and Latin with her brother’s tutor.
In 1826, at the age of twenty, she anonymously published An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems. She later acknowledged the amateurish nature of this volume, which is what the critics, at the time of publication, had decreed this work to be. Some found the themes barren and strewn; others simply felt it was pretentious with no real literary significance or consequence.
In 1832, after a severe blow to their financial stability, the Barrett family moved to Sidmouth. Elizabeth’s health was failing. In 1835, they moved to London, which became their permanent residence. At first, Elizabeth was disillusioned by the squalor and filth of the industrial city, and she confined herself to her home. This came as blessing in disguise, as it gave her the opportunity to finally focus on her literary aspirations and decide what kind of a poet she would like to be. Barrett made her name known in literary circles with The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838). She felt that the volume was the first true expression of her individuality. The reviews that appeared in England and America hailed her as a young poet of extraordinary ability.
Letters started to be exchanged between poet Robert browning and Elizabeth once he had read her volumes. Mr. Barrett expressed disapproval at their courtship, but despite his interruptions and her Elizabeth’s deteriorating health, they were married in secret on 12 September 1846. They moved to Florence where Elizabeth was to remain till her death. Browning came across her forty-four sonnets and was so moved that he persuaded her to publish them in her new edition of Poems in 1850. Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh was so widely appreciated and critically acclaimed that it made her a contender for the poet-laureateship after the death of William Wordsworth.
After Elizabeth Browning’s death, much of her poetry lost its acclaim, and she was remembered for only a handful of her poems. However, her reputation stands not only on the strength of her sonnets, but also on her liberal and humanistic approach to social causes, and primarily as a feminist.