The Browning Letters

January 10: On this day in 1845 Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, so inciting one of the most legendary of literary love stories. Although partly poet-to-poet fan mail—a rising thirty-two-year-old addressing one just six years older but already internationally famous—Browning's letter goes beyond praise for Barrett's "fresh strange music." After confiding that he is addressing "your own self," and that "for the first time, my feeling rises altogether," Browning takes this leap off the romantic deep end: "I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too…."

 

Barrett soon granted Browning's request for a meeting, but she had every reason not to regard it as auspicious. Her wealthy father had made it clear that none of his eleven children would be allowed to marry, on pain of banishment. The reasons for this were dark and unspoken, perhaps literally: some believe that Barrett's grandfather, one of the biggest landholders in the West Indies, had not only passed along his fortune made on rum and sugar but some mixed blood, and that Barrett's father felt so shamed by this, and so fearful of dark-skinned grandchildren, that he would do anything to prevent it. But Elizabeth, now in middle-age, must have long regarded this tyranny as irrelevant. Tuberculosis or something like it had dominated her life since the age of fourteen; most of her adult years had been spent as a housebound, often bedridden, invalid, and she could not at this point be expecting much in the way of relationships.

 

But nor could she have expected Robert Browning. Over twenty months, five hundred and seventy-five letters passed between them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later describe her physical improvement over these months as a resurrection, a shedding of the "graveclothes" in which she had allowed her illness and morbidity, and her father's marriage constraints, to dress her. One of the last poems she wrote before eloping was the sonnet to Browning in which she asks, "How do I love thee?" and then counts the ways; the first poem written in her miracle, second life as Elizabeth Barrett Browning was called "The Runaway Slave."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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