lizabeth Barrett was a legend before she ever met Robert Browning. In his first letter to Barrett in 1845, Browning compared her to 'some world's-wonder in chapel or crypt', recalling how he had almost been introduced to her three years earlier. She ironically replied to this rather tactless comment, 'BUT ... you know ... if you had entered the "crypt", you might have caught cold, or been tired to death' (RB-EBB I :4-5). As every schoolgirl knows, Browning did enter the 'crypt' and he was not 'tired to death'. Elizabeth Barrett, the legendary poet-recluse, was transformed into Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the legendary heroine of a romance chaste enough to be safely enjoyed even by the proverbial Victorian 'young person'. It is a romance summed up in five famous words.
Just as it is sometimes difficult to approach Shakespeare because he is an institution, it is difficult to approach Barrett Browning because she is a legend. The romantic story of her elopement and marriage has become so much a part of our culture that we are collaborators in it against our will, just as we are complicit in the ideological forces that have nurtured it for over a century now. Let us count the ways in which we have encountered 'How do I love thee?' In [1/2] Valentine cards, of course. On tea boxes, if not yet on cereal boxes. On the American children's television show, 'Sesame Street'. In movies like the 1964 Peter Sellers comedy, The World of Henry Orient, where two zestfully romantic pubescent girls pursue the pseudo Byronic lover played by Sellers as he pursues his amours. In a Canadian Post Office advertisement featuring 'a dreamy-eyed teenage girl' posting a letter, with the superscription, ' "How shall I mail this? Let me count the ways", (Stephenson 2). In a bathetic advertisement for ladies' fashions, 'How shall I glove thee? Let me count the ways'.1
Louise Bernikow's witty parody captures the sentimental scenario trailing in the wake of this too famous sonnet:
Enter the legend: sweet, invalid, dear Miss Barrett. ... Doll's face, those ringlets round her head. Dear Miss Barrett, lying there the day long, wasting away, waiting for — at last, it comes, the life-force incarnate, virile Robert Browning! ... Miss Barrett runs away with Mr. Browning, into the warm sun, cured. Somewhere along the way she commits to paper [the Sonnets from the Portuguese, expressing] the sum of what is on her mind. [29-30]
At least in some popular versions, Miss Barrett is granted the legs to run away with the Perseus who rescues her, like Andromeda chained to the rock, from her dragon of a father — Mr Barrett, the patriarchal tyrant of Wimpole Street. Another late nineteenthcentury version makes her passivity absolute. In Francis Thompson's words, Robert 'Browning stooped and picked up a fair-coined soul that lay rusting in a pool of tears'. Daniel Karlin's The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, which cites Thompson (10), reveals how insidious the romantic legend [2/3] enshrouding Barrett Browning can be. No other critic has more subtly and incisively analysed the myths surrounding the Brownings' courtship. Yet Karlin reinscribes some of the most deeply rooted of these myths by emphasizing the miraculous transformation in Elizabeth Barrett brought about by Browning's 'strong and self-possessed identity' (11), and by considering Barrett the poet only in a supplemental chapter that perpetuates the traditional image of the pining recluse.
Thompson's version of the Brownings' romance is a striking example of the 'poetics of rescue' Adrienne Munich explores in Andromeda's Chains, her wideranging study of the multiple images of bound women and chivalric male saviours in Victorian literature and art. As its stubborn vitality in our own century attests, however, the legend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's romantic rescue does not reflect a cultural paradigm that is merely Victorian. Nor is it a paradigm as benign as its chivalric trappings might suggest. Barrett Browning herself acutely noted the 'contempt of the sex' discernible in those who depicted women as languishing lilies passively waiting to 'be "defended" by the strong and mighty' men around them (LMRM 3:81 ).
Since ideology itself is inescapable, the only way out of such gender-inflected ideologies is through ideology. In the last two decades, feminist scholars engaged in what might be termed a 'critics of rescue' have done much to counteract the 'poetics of rescue' casting England's first unequivocally major female poet as a weeping coin rusting in her own tears or an Andromeda chained to the rock of her father's house. Most notably, the recovery of lost traditions of women's writing initiated in the 1970s restored Aurora Leigh to its central place in Barrett Browning's canon. After [3/4] Cora Kaplan's 1978 edition of Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, it was no longer possible to overlook the fact that the woman who penned 'How do I love thee?' was also the author of a feminist novel-epic that went through over twenty editions between 1857 and 1900. As the reception of Aurora Leigh suggests, Barrett Browning does not fit the common profile of the woman writer who has been excluded from literary history because she was constrained by economic or educational limitations, or because she wrote principally in marginalized or unpublished forms. On the contrary, Victorian reviews of Barrett Browning's works and her impact on other writers indicate that she was widely viewed as a major poet, in England, America and some European countries from the 1840s - well before the publication of Aurora Leigh — up to the 1890s.
How do we reconcile Barrett Browning's fame and critical stature as nineteenth-century author with the virtual disappearance of most of her canon in our own century? This key question gives rise to the particular mix of critical approaches I mobilize in considering how her texts entered into and altered literary and social history. Feminist and new historicist critical approaches that emphasize particular historical contingencies and acknowledge the critic's own position as a historical subject seem especially helpful in the case of Barrett Browning. 'All inherited works of literature have it in their power to force a critical engagement with any present form of thought ... by virtue of the historical differentials which separate every present from all the past' (14), McGann observes in The Romantic Ideology. Reconsidering Barrett Browning's unprecedented career entails an examin"ation of present critical ideologies not only because, in McGann's words, a 'good deal' of Aurora Leigh 'still [4/5] seems ideologically advanced to this day' (157), but also because in this instance the 'historical differentials' — the conflicts between nineteenthcentury and twentieth-century assessments of her achievement — are so stark and unresolved. The 'new historicism' advocated by McGann and many others has much in common with the 'third phase' of feminist criticism delineated by Elaine Showalter in The New Feminist Criticism (pp. S-8). Feminist criticism in this phase moves beyond the exposure of sexist stereotypes typical of the early 1970s, and the subsequent drive to rescue buried women writers, to 'a radical rethinking of the conceptual grounds ofliterary study'.4 Rather than seeking to insert recovered texts into a pre-existing order of cultural 'monuments', it systematically deconstructs the embedded assumptions shaping canon formation and literary histories. 'Third phase' feminist criticism is a logical extension of the 'new women's history' of the 1970s which, as Judith Lowder Newton points out, fostered many of the postmodern assumptions of the 'new historicism', a critical movement too often artifically separated from the women's movement that helped to generate it. Newton observes that 'a number of critical practices', including feminist practices, had long been informed by the 'postmodern' assumptions of the new historicism: the assumptions, for instance, that 'human subjectivity is constructed by cultural codes', or that 'all our representations of the world, our readings of texts and of the past, are informed by our own historical position', or that' "history" is best told as a story of power relations and struggle' (152-53) Such conceptualizations rapidly became a part of feminist literary histories in part because of the 'new French feminism', with its philosophical focus on deconstructing the symbolic systems of cultural representation; [5/6] and in part because, as Sydney Janet Kaplan notes, the Anglo-American recovery of women writers led to the redefinition of 'traditional parameters' used to define historical periods.6
Despite the numerous cultural forces propelling feminist criticism generally into this 'third phase', the questioning of 'traditional parameters' has remained less fully developed than might have been expected in the growing body of work on Barrett Browning. Ever since Ellen Moer's Literary Women (1976), critics have focused primarily on Aurora Leigh's place in a gynocentric tradition, not on the reframing of nineteenth-century literary history that is called for when we consider the prominence and influence of Barrett Browning's entire canon in her own time. Cora Kaplan's analysis of Aurora Leigh as an 'overlapping sequence of dialogues with other texts' (Introduction 16) treats it more as a text rupturing the nineteenthcentury literary tradition than as a work revealing the need to deconstruct the tradition itself. Angela Leighton's Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1986) offers a ground-breaking rereading of the complex sexual and textual politics involved in Barrett Browning's courting of the muse throughout her career; Helen Cooper's Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist (1988) perceptively traces the evolution of Barrett Browning's woman-centred poetics; and Glennis Stephenson's Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love (1989) provides close readings of a wide range of love poems. Yet all of these studies focus principally on Barrett Browning's contributions to a tradition of women writers, to genres particularly associated with women writers, or to her development as a womanpoet. In a more direct challenging of canonical formations, Leighton's Victorian Women Poets (1992) argues for the inclusion of Barrett Browning and seven [6/7] other 'major' women poets in anthologies and literary studies of nineteenth-century poetry (2).7 Nevertheless, her principal focus remains Barrett Browning's place in a separate tradition of women poets writing 'against the heart'.
Dorothy Mermin's Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (1989) is the only recent reinterpretation that contextualizes Barrett Browning's achievement in 'the male Victorian line' of 'major' poets, to use her words (2). Drawing at times on the earlier scholarship of Alethea Hayter, Mermin links Barrett Browning to Tennyson, Browning, Clough, Meredith, Swinburne and the Rossettis in comparisons threaded throughout her comprehensive study. In making such comparisons, however, Mermin acknowledges the difficulty she initially experienced in matching Barrett Browning's works 'up with the grids through which [she] was accustomed to read Victorian poetry'. This difficulty was resolved only when she found an 'entrance' to the 'obscure but richly attractive world' of Barrett Browning's oeuvre in the struggle of 'the first of English women poets' to find 'woman's place in the central tradition of poetry' (8). This struggle is Mermin's focus, not the ways in which Barrett Browning's writings, which were far from 'obscure' in her own time, reveal the limitations of the 'grids' themselves, or the transformations in these grids between the mid-Victorian period and the present. Cooper similarly alludes to the difficulty of reconciling Barrett Browning's works with the grids of literary history in concluding that her writings were dismissed because they 'did not fit with the periodization and concerns of male literature' (4).
Much in this study moves towards a contrary conclusion. I argue that many of Barrett Browning's works 'fit' very well in the generic, thematic and [7/8] stylistic grids constructed by literary historians, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century. In many cases, only the sex of their writer disqualifies them. Significantly, many of these grids were not established or consolidated until the early twentieth century, during the period in which literary studies was established as a discipline, when a growing body of professional male academics were reacting against the inroads of the nineteenth-century 'women's rights' movement and the wave of women writers accompanying it. In this climate of backlash, the 'schools' referred to by earlier critics (the 'Lake School' of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the 'Satanic School' of Shelley and Byron, the 'Tennysonian School') were replaced by the discursive fields of Romantic and Victorian poetry, structured by gender exclusions still operative today.
While such gender exclusions in themselves help to explain the disappearance of much in Barrett Browning's canon, including Aurora Leigh, they often interact in complex ways with exclusionary genre and period paradigms. The chapters that follow indicate how intersecting ideologies of gender and genre, sometimes compounded by the artificial barriers of historical periodization, have acted to obscure or conceal Barrett Browning's poetical achievement in a range of poetical or literary modes. Throughout I draw on nineteenth-century assessments of her texts because they often reveal strikingly different presuppositions concerning generic categories, period boundaries and traditions of writers than those that prevailed in our own century.
As 'third-phase' feminist criticism and new historicist approaches alike emphasize, such a project remains incomplete if it focuses only on the past. It should also illumine the 'ideological involvements of the criticism, [8/9] critical theory, and reading we practice, study, and promote' (McGann 160). Barrett Browning's canon and her poetical influence in her time remain important in our own because they expose the underpinnings of metanarratives which remain very influential despite the critiques they have in some cases provoked: among them, Harold Bloom's history of Romantic revisionism and histories of the nineteenth century ballad that completely exclude not only Barrett Browning but women poets collectively. As Margaret Homans observed in 1980 (7), and the author-editors of Engendering the Word have more recently confirmed, the fields of poetry and poetics have proven to be particularly resistant to feminist critiques (xxi, 52). The extent to which Barrett Browning's canon remains excluded from literary histories and anthologies is a telling example of such resistance. One would not expect, of course, to find Barrett Browning included along with Browning in the male line of Romantic revisionists Harold Bloom constructs, given his relentlessly male-centred poetics. But her works have also been passed over by those feminists who have radically critiqued androcentric constructions of Romanticism or the Romantic tradition, including Homans herself. Joanne Feit Diehl largely disregards Barrett Browning's role in the transmission of Romanticism, even though she is deeply concerned as Homans is with Emily Dickinson's response to the Romantic poets and Barrett Browning was the primary female medium of Romanticism for Dickinson. In Anne Mellor's Romanticism and Gender (1993) Barrett Browning is not mentioned, although Mellor moves 'beyond the historical confines of the Romantic period (1780-1830) into the mid-nineteenth century' in considering Emily Brontë (186), and generally calls for more investigation of 'the continuity in British [9/10] literary culture from 1750 to 1900' (211). In studies focusing on Victorian poets or on Barrett Browning alone, her connections with the Romantics have been similarly neglected. Critics typically approach the transition between Romantic and Victorian poetry through the earlier works of Tennyson and Browning, not through hers — despite the fact that she had a profile almost as high as Tennyson's and higher than Browning's by 1844.
By resituating Barrett Browning's works in their historical context and by considering previously neglected manuscripts, this study reconstructs her poetical development not only in light of the particular conflicts she experienced as a woman-poet, but also in light of the traditions we associate with Romanticism - both Romanticism as it has been defined in the past and as it is now being redefined. Chapter 2 argues that, like the Romantic poets, Elizabeth Barrett was fascinated by the mysteries of consciousness and the power of the mind in meditation, and that many of her texts are more remarkable for their Romantic audacity of authorship than for any peculiarly female anxiety of authorship. Since many of Barrett Browning's earlier works foreground the continuities rather than the discontinuities between Romantic and Victorian poetry, they point to the spots of blindness created by period paradigms. As much as the young Robert Browning and more than Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett was drawn to major Romantic poetical forms such as the lyrical drama and the visionary poem incorporating an internalized quest romance. And more than either of the two poets she clearly regarded as her greatest rivals, her writings reflect the continuing attraction of Romantic Prometheanism, the Romantic cult of transcendent artistic genius, Romantic tropes of the sublime and the revisionary struggle with Milton and [10/11] Dante. Barrett Browning clearly subscribed to many Romantic ideologies, as McGann and others have defined them. But she was also led to question many of these, given the critical distance fostered by her gender.
The continuities between Romantic and Victorian poetry are also manifested in Barrett Browning's ballads, which were enormously popular and critically praised in her own time. Many of her ballads have female protagonists and some of them were first published in annuals. But, as Chapter 3 indicates, there is little evidence in Barrett Browning's own comments about the Romantic ballad tradition, in the intricate intertextuality of her ballads, or in the response of her contemporary readers to support the customary categorization of them in a separate female genre — a categorization ironically perpetuated in recent feminist cntIcIsm. Ideologies of gender, combined with ideologies of genre privileging certain forms of the ballad over others, have obscured the influence Barrett Browning's widely disseminated ballads had in the period between the Romantic ballad revival and the later ballads of the Pre-Raphaelite poets.
Barrett Browning produced a significant body of dramatic monologues as well — poems that help to uncover the gender and genre ideologies underlying the many histories of the form focusing principally on the innovations of Browning and Tennyson. Like some of Tennyson's works, Barrett Browning's dramatic monologues draw attention to prototypes of the form in Romantic and pre-Romantic forms that tend to have female speakers, such as the ballad, the monodrama and the complaint. Because her many published and unpublished experiments with the dramatic monologue demand more detailed treatment [11/12] than I can give them here, they are not included in this study. For different reasons, I do not consider the Sonnets from the Portuguese, in part because they already have a very high profile in histories of the Victorian sonnet sequence, in part because they have been ably analysed by Leighton, Stephenson, Mermin and Agajanian, among others. Unlike the famous Sonnets, Barrett Browning's volumes of polemical political poetry, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems before Congress, remain unjustly neglected — despite the important work of Julia Markus and Helen Cooper in rescuing the former text and in interpreting it in light of its historical context. But since I have already addressed the political poems in another context (see 'Cursing' ), Chapter 4 of this study is completely given over to Barrett Browning's greatest work, Aurora Leigh, while Chapter 5 analyses the critical tradition that erased it from literary history along with most of her other writings.
Aurora Leigh has typically been approached as a Kunstlerroman reflecting Barrett Browning's own poetical development. While there is much to support this approach, it is also a generic classification that has tended to perpetuate the traditional focus on Barrett Browning's life rather than her art, meanwhile obscuring two important dimensions of her greatest work: first, the narrative sophistication apparent in Barrett Browning's dramatic representation of Aurora's consciousness and formation; and second, the extent to which Aurora Leigh was written and read as a work of polemical 'sage discourse' in the tradition of Carlyle and Ruskin's prophetic writings on the tribulations of their times. As a work with a dramatic speaker whose reliablity is in doubt more often than critics have assumed, Aurora Leigh grows out of Barrett Browning's experimentation with dramatic speakers in her [12/13] published and unpublished work of the 1840s. As a work of prophetic sage discourse, it subverts the phallocentric tradition it energetically enters both by destabilizing the infallible authority typically assumed by the Victorian sage, and by comprehensively deploying the gynocentric emancipatory strategies developed in Barrett Browning's earlier works. 'Emancipatory strategies' is Patricia Yaeger's term In Honey-Mad Women, and it is my contention in much of this book, but especially in the chapter on Aurora Leigh, that Barrett Browning is very much a 'honeymad' woman in Yaeger's sense of the term. Indeed, in the graphically sensuous 1844 poem 'Wine of Cyprus', with its striking similarities to Emily Dickinson's 'I taste a liquor never brewed', Barrett presents herself as literally honey-mad, as she transforms a gift of Cyprian honey wine from her classical mentor Hugh Stuart Boyd into a symbol of the classical heritage she has lustily downed in her studies with him. More importantly, Barrett Browning employs almost all of the emancipatory strategies Yaeger identifies. Thus, to name just a few, she de-centres masculine metaphors and myths; she transfors silent or marginalized women into speaking subjects, as in the 1838 dramatic monologue, 'The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus'; and, anticipating the insights of feminists like Teresa de Lauretis and Lynda Boose, she represents women short-circuiting a male economy in which they function as objects of exchange.11
Barrett Browning's use of these emancipatory strategies has been passed over by some prominent contemporary feminist theorists — Rachael Blau DuPlessis and Alicia Ostriker, for instance — in part because of the tendency, even among postmodern feminist critics, to construct historical metanarratives [13/14] contrasting nineteenth-century women writers with their twentieth-century counterparts, usually to the disadvantage of the earlier writers. Rita Felski comments on the way in which 'the feminist application of poststructuralist thought is frequently underpinned by a vague periodization of culture' which represents 'a notion of the "modern" or "postmodern" understood as a radical rupture with the conceptual frameworks of the past', including the 'tired fictions of patriarchal bourgeois humanism'.12 These presuppositions have contributed to a sometimes dismissive view of Barrett Browning as an essentially conservative writer, despite the undeniably progressive and feminist dimensions of Aurora Leigh. Most notably, ever since Mary Jane Lupton's popularizing study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was issued by New York's Feminist Press in 1972, critics have reiterated the view that Barrett Browning 'remained basicallly detached from the struggle for women's liberation' (Lupton 56), and they have emphasized as Cora Kaplan does the limitations of her liberal bourgeois subject position. In fact, however, both the composition and the reception of Aurora Leigh point to Barrett Browning's close ideological affiliations with Victorian feminist activists. Moreover, the apparently conservative and class-bound elements of her writing need to be viewed in the context of surrounding textual ironies (like the man she married, she is often an intricately ironic writer), and in the larger historical context mediating the production and reception of her works. Felski's comment on contemporary feminist debates and their relation to social praxis applies very well to the example of Barrett Browning. 'If it is the case that a supposedly conservative subject-based politics has been a powerful and effective force in mobilizing large numbers of women to assess critically and change [14/15] aspects of their own lives, then it is important for feminism to develop an analysis of the subject which is not theoretically inadequate, yet which is able to account for the emancipatory potential of the women's movement as a politics that has been strongly grounded in the dynamics of everyday life' (54).
Since we cannot appreciate how Barrett Browning became the most influential woman-poet of her age without some understanding of the dynamics of her own 'everyday life', the remainder of this chapter takes a closer look at the woman behind the myths. In place of the usual biographical survey, however, I provide a reconstruction of Elizabeth Barrett the poet as she lived, thought and wrote in the years leading up to the publication of her 1844 Poems. This approach is a tactical one, designed to counteract both the persistent myths obscuring Barrett Browning's achievement and the relative neglect of the works that first established her fame. The 1844 Poems, together with the letters and the poetical manuscripts from the same period, dramatically reveal the misrepresentations perpetuated by the romantic story I began with: the legend casting Elizabeth Barrett as a pining recluse rescued by Robert Browning. The story behind the 1844 Poems is very different from the legend. It is the story of a woman writer fighting for life and fame in the face of personal tragedy and broken health. It is the story of a woman writer empowered by a matrix of other women writers. It is the success story of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett — to use the double-barrelled name that appeared on the title page of her 1844 Poems (in contrast to the less forceful 'Elizabeth B. Barrett' that had graced the title page of her 1838 volume). The 1844 Poems established Elizabeth Barrett Barrett as Tennyson's rival in the eyes of many of her contemporaries. These two volumes are to her career [15/16] what Tennyson's 2-volume 1842 Poems are to his, and should be recognized as such. Yet, despite the recovery of Aurora Leigh, many of the widely influential works in Barrett Browning's 1844 Poems remain unread or unappreciated.
Such neglect is a lingering legacy of the process of textual transmission traced in my final chapter, but it cries out to be repudiated as vigorously as Aurora repudiates her cousin Romney's patriarchal legacy in Aurora Leigh. In anthologies and literary histories after 1900, where the poetical achievement of 'Elizabeth' or 'Mrs Browning' was relegated to footnotes or to supplementary sections of chapters on Browning, the originality, the range and the critical success of Barrett Browning's 1844 Poems were completely eliminated, along with Aurora Leigh. In effect, Elizabeth Barrett Barrett the poet was erased, and replaced by the woman chiefly known as one man's daughter and another man's wife. Who was the woman who published two famous volumes under this name, and who signed her manuscripts with the initials 'EBB' before she became Elizabeth Barrett Browning? How did she live? How did she think? What were some of the most important influences on her formation as a poet increasingly in possession of her own powers? 'I shd like to know what poets have been your sponsors, ... — and whether you have held true to early tastes, or leapt violently from them — & what books you read, & what hours you write in. How curious I could prove myself', Barrett wrote early in her correspondence to Browning (RB-EBB 1: 15). The same questions have too seldom been asked of her.
We can begin reconstructing Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, [16/17] woman and poet, by emphasizing what she was not. Unfortunately, the myths surrounding her life are perpetuated even in revisionary feminist criticism. In Christine Battersby's Gender and Genius, an illuminating study of the gendering of genius as male in Romantic and post-Romantic culture, the debilitating effects of nineteenth-century constructions of femininity are illustrated by 'Elizabeth Barrett lying on her sick-bed, awaiting Robert Browning's invigorating presence'. Barrett had so 'internalised the models of her age "condemn[ing]" her to freakishness, to (fatal) sickness, and to maleness for her pretensions of genius' she was psychically maimed, Battersby implies. 'The doctors made Elizabeth Barrett Browning into a morphine addict' who employed 'the euphoric side-effects of her medicine to counter the discouragement . .. doled out to female authors' (88-90).
Battersby's vision of Elizabeth Barrett is another rendition of the legend of the 'crypt', only in this case Victorian doctors lurk as villains in the antechamber and the 'world's wonder' is a helpless addict. However much of an invalid Barrett may have been, we can be sure of several things about the woman and the poet who produced the 1844 Poems. Barrett was not a woman who turned to opium because she was demoralized by the response to her genius. She was not a woman whose genius was denied. She was not a neurotic female expending her creativity in tearful poems, although she was well aware that, in Cheryl Walker's words, woman's sorrow is 'literary capital' (36); and she furthermore believed with Keats and Emily Dickinson that real poetic power necessarily involves the experience of human suffering. She did not consider herself a freak, although her lively sense of humour made her quick to see and sometimes mock eccentricities in others. She was not awaiting the [17-18] 'invigorating presence' of Robert Browning or any other man. She was far too busy reading and writing' in a horizontal posture' when necessary (Be 4:222), which she had long found 'very useful in enabling an invalid to get thro' a good deal of writing without fatigue' (Be 4:81).
The letters of the early 1840s make it plain that Barrett suffered between 1838 and 1841 from a debilitating tubercular illness that left her bedridden and spitting blood for a period of over two years (Be 6:144, 187). She did not, as some versions of the legend suggest, exploit a lingering psychosomatic complaint, although there is no doubt that her illness was intensified by psychological trauma and that she converted the deprivations of her bedridden state into opportunities for her creativity. The greatest psychological blow was the death of her beloved brother Edward by drowning in July 1840, at Torquay, where he had gone to accompany Elizabeth in her illness. 'That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness', Barrett wrote a year later to the older, established woman writer Mary Russell Mitford, who became her closest correspondent in the early 1840s. 'The mind seemed to myself broken up into fragments. And even after the long black spectral trains ... had gone back from my bed, — to understand, to hold on to one thought for more than a moment, remained impossible' (Be 5:83).
Barrett, already gravely ill, came very close to death in the summer and fall of 1840. But out of the despair of that period came some of her finest early sonnets, including 'Grief. Her use of the combination of morphine and ether she called her 'elixir' (Be 5:222) may have contributed to the 'spectral trains' she experienced after Edward's death, but it was not an addiction she turned to because of discouragement as [18/19] a poet. Morphine was a standard prescription for a variety of ailments, given to Barrett, it seems, because of the insomnia that was no doubt aggravated by the series of medical regimens that did not permit her to get out of bed, and that afflicted her with leeches, blisters and a variety of medications (Be 4:52, 236). Clearly the morphine led to a form of addiction, but what one very rarely sees mentioned in studies of Barrett Browning, aside from Alethea Hayter's, is how, like Samuel Coleridge or Thomas De Quincey, she converted opium-enhanced reverie into an additional source of poetical creativity. Similarly, she nourished her creativity by using her long hours in bed to engage in omnivorous reading of Greek and Latin texts, poetry, contemporary periodicals and novels. Far from being deterred by the medical advice that warned her against aggravating her illness by unfeminine reading and exertion, Barrett continued to read her volume of Plato, which fortunately looked like 'a novel on the outside'; and she continued to write poetry expressly against the warnings of one of her physicians, Dr Barry (Be 4: 131, 94). The long Gothic ballad, 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie', was written covertly against Dr Barry's orders in the summer of 1839. 'The Brown Rosarie' is hardly the kind of poem likely to seem safe to Dr Barry. Barrett called it her 'wild and wicked ballad', and amusingly described the scene in which Dr Barry discovered her with 'a pen guilty of ink' by her side: ' "In the very act, Miss Barrett! In the very act! ' " (Be 4:169, 174).
While Barrett's physicians warned her that writing poetry might endanger her life, she literally wrote herself back to life, spurred on not by romance but by that last infirmity of noble minds, the love offame. She thought seriously of Napoleon and Joan of Arc as [19/20] possible subjects for a major poem in the early 1840s (Be 5:171-3,228), and she displays something of the ambition and heroic ardour of both. For instance, in an 1843 letter to Mitford, she expresses her intense desire for fame by echoing the old ballad of Chevy Chase in which the hero fights upon his stumps after his legs are cut off. Likewise, Barrett tells Mitford, she will' "fyghte" (write) upon [her] stumps' to win fame. 'Oh 1 confess it!' she declares. ' ... so little has aspiration been crushed by sorrow & ill health — To fighte upon my stumps, remains to me in a certain sense, & I do it' (Be 6:299). This fighter 'on her stumps' wrote to the painter Benjamin Haydon in April of 1843 saying that she lived only for poetry — 'in other respects the game is up' — but the poetry in her 'is like a will to be written' (Be 7:84). The fighting spirit finds another outlet in the spirited epistolary debates that Barrett carried on with her various regular correspondents in the early 1840s. Sharpening the rhetorical skills later apparent in Aurora's debate with Romney in Book 2 of Aurora Leigh, Barrett debated with the Greek scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd concerning points of classical scholarship, politics, and the abilities of women; with Mitford concerning the merits of a multitude of authors, the value of fame, the character of 'pen and ink' people versus non-authors, and a range of other subjects; with the poet, dramatist and critic Richard Hengist Horne concerning her theories of rhyming, and what and what not to include in the survey of contemporary writers she collaborated on with him in 1843-44, A New Spirit of the Age; and with the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon concerning the nature of genius, his friendship with Keats and the greatness of Wellington versus Napoleon.
Barrett's comments in her letters to Haydon and [21/21] others reveal that, like many of her contemporaries, she attributed genius to women as well as men - despite the anxieties about the nature of female genius reflected in her famous 1844 sonnets to George Sand. Her letters thus imply that genius was not so consistently gendered as male in this period as Battersby claims. Discussing her 'hero-worship' of genius with Mitford, Barrett says, 'I cd. kiss the footsteps of a great man — or woman either — & feel higher for the stooping' (Be 4: 185). And in a letter to Henry Chorley, she ranked George Sand as 'the first female genius of any country or age' (LEBB 1 :233). Haydon, who in his own case took the Romantic cult of genius to grandiose and finally tragic extremes, clearly thought of Barrett, his 'invisible' correspondent, as a genius like himself, and found 'something so original in a couple of Geniuses corresponding ... yet never seeing each other' (Be 6:291) that he had his 'immortal Urn', in which he had made tea for other geniuses like Keats, sent to her home so that she could drink from it, before having her name engraved on it along with the other 'immortals' (Be 7:78).
Often in the letters of this period we see the boldness that led Barrett to read the French novels by Sand and Balzac no respectable woman was supposed to touch, and that made her 'insolent with a pen in [her] hand" " in the words of her cousin and friend John Kenyon — words that she took great delight in quoting to other friends (Be 7:57). She initiated the older Mitford into what she called her 'lion and tiger hunting with Lajeune France' (Be 6: 191), and shared wi th her an admiration of the works of Beaumont and Fletcher, despite the fact that they had been condemned by the critic Christopher North as '"fit reading for the stews"', and by an eminent historian as unsuitable for any' "woman of common respectability" '. 'So we will [21/22] hold our respectability to be uncommon — like our reading', Barrett quipped to Mitford (Be 6:173) . Along with reading voraciously and widely, she also repeatedly expressed a Ulyssean desire for travel and for experience of other countries, especially Italy, as she fought her way back to life in 1842. In June of that year she defended against Mitford's criticisms the 'continental wandering' of their mutual friend Kenyon, and confessed her longing to do 'the exactly same sinful thing. Think of the German pinewoods! & again, those of the Appenines! — Think of the Alpine glories — thrusting into the sun's face their everlasting snows!' (Be 6:23). Some of the unpublished manuscript poetry from this period reveals that Barrett was fascinated by the idea of travelling to Italy well before she knew Browning or thought of escaping there with him. In a 77-line fragment beginning 'Italy! World's Italy!' in one of the Berg notebooks, she imagines hurling herself in spirit 'from one elm top to the next', 'up the rocks' and acwss the peaks of the Alps to sing in Italy of the English poets whose songs 'ceased upon thy shore / From their English evermore'.14 The fragment, which may be the opening of a projected long poem, is remarkable for the energy of aspiration it expresses. Its central images subsequently appear in the passage in Book 5 of Aurora Leigh in which Aurora prepares to leave England for Italy: 'if we could ride with naked souls', Aurora says, 'I would have seen thee sooner, Italy, / For still I have heard thee crying through my life, / Thou piercing silence of ecstatic graves' (11.1191-5).
Just as Barrett heard Italy 'crying through' her life before she corresponded or met with Browning, she also began translating Petrarch and writing love poetry well before their meeting, suggesting that the roots of the Sonnets from the Portuguese may have been as [21/22] hold our respectability to be uncommon — like our reading', Barrett quipped to Mitford (Be 6:173) . Along with reading voraciously and widely, she also repeatedly expressed a Ulyssean desire for travel and for experience of other countries, especially Italy, as she fought her way back to life in 1842. InJune of that year she defended against Mitford's criticisms the 'continental wandering' of their mutual friend Kenyon, and confessed her longing to do 'the exactly same sinful thing. Think of the German pinewoods! & again, those of the Appenines! — Think of the Alpine glories — thrusting into the sun's face their everlasting snows!' (Be 6:23). Some of the unpublished manuscript poetry from this period reveals that Barrett was fascinated by the idea of travelling to Italy well before she knew Browning or thought of escaping there with him. In a 77-line fragment beginning 'Italy! World's Italy!' in one of the Berg notebooks, she imagines hurling herself in spirit 'from one elm top to the next', 'up the rocks' and acwss the peaks of the Alps to sing in Italy of the English poets whose songs 'ceased upon thy shore / From their English evermore'. 14 The fragment, which may be the opening of a projected long poem, is remarkable for the energy of aspiration it expresses. Its central images subsequently appear in the passage in Book 5 of Aurora Leigh in which Aurora prepares to leave England for Italy: 'if we could ride with naked souls', Aurora says, 'I would have seen thee sooner, Italy, / For still I have heard thee crying through my life, / Thou piercing silence of ecstatic graves' (11.1191-5).
Just as Barrett heard Italy 'crying through' her life before she corresponded or met with Browning, she also began translating Petrarch and writing love poetry well before their meeting, suggesting that the roots of the Sonnets from the Portuguese may have been as [22/23] and from the minor Italian love poet Felice Zappi appear in one of the Berg notebooks and in the 'Sonnets Notebook' now in the Armstrong Browning library. IS This particular Berg notebook was given to Barrett in 1840, and includes many poems published in the 1844 Poems. The 'Sonnets Notebook' similarly dates from the 1842-4 period. A third notebook at Yale, the 'Poems and Sonnets' notebook, also includes several published and unpublished love poems, some of them dated 1844 in Barrett's hand. Two intriguing fragments in this notebook — 'We are not equal' and 'I dared to love' — may reflect an initial response to Browning's ardent profession of love. But the earlier love poems in the Yale notebook and her Petrarch translations pre-date Browning's first letter, indicating that Barrett was interested in love as a poetic subject before he entered her life.
The love poetry of the early 1840s is one of a number of signs suggesting that Barrett experienced a physical and a poetical rebirth two years before she first met Browning on 20 May 1845. In October of 1842, she expressed her hope of being 'really & essentially better' (Be 6:118). She later looked back on the spring of 1843 as the time when this hope began to be fulfilled: in May of 1845 she wrote to the American writer Mrs Sigourney that 'for the last two years' she had been 'gradually & essentially better' (Be 10:191). Barrett's sense of new life is vividly recorded in a May 1843 letter to Mitford in which she vividly describes her intense love of the colour green, her girlhood penchant for dressing in green, and her desire to furnish a room entirely in 'leaf-green' — like the room she was later to give to Aurora Leigh (Be 7: 113). Although she goes on to say, 'My green leaf has fallen away', she records in the same letter how [23/24] she has risen from her sickbed to walk from her room across the threshold of the adjoining room (her father's). By July of that year, she was leaving her own room, her father's room, and the Wimpole Street house for afternoon outings in a carriage, and writing to the American poet Cornelius Mathews, 'The bright sunshine is reviving me, & I seem to be putting out leaves' (Be 7:218).
Earlier letters from Mitford to Barrett indicate how important a role the older woman played in helping the younger woman she called 'almost a daughter' turn again to life and to high poetic aspirations (Be 6:217). Regularly sending Barrett flowers for her sickroom in 1841 and 1842, Mitford also sought, in vibrantly descriptive letters, to woo the younger woman towards the gardens and fields she gathered them in: 'My dear Love', she cried out in one such letter of June 1842, 'how I wish we could transport you into the garden where they grow!' (Be 6:8). Mitford also played a vital role in fostering Barrett's ambition — in effect, 'mothering' the poet's mind in Ruth Perry's sense of the term, as the Brownings later did for each other (Mermin, Mothering). In one extraordinary letter of March, 1842, Mitford writes: My love and my ambition for you often seems [sic] to be more like that of a mother for a son, or a father for a daughter (the two fondest natural emotions), than the common bonds of even a close friendship between two women of different ages and similar pursuits. I sit and think of you, and of the poems that you will write, and of that strange, brief rainbow crown called Fame, until the vision is before me as vividly as ever a mother's heart hailed the eloquence of a patriot son . (Be 5:275) Barrett Browning's turn towards human and con- [24/24] mystical and abstract subject matter of her 1838 volume The Seraphim, and Other Poems, has often been attributed to Browning's influence. But the letters and the poems themselves show that much in her own nature and experience led to that change, and that Mitford significantly contributed to it well before Barrett ever met Browning. For instance, in praising Barrett's ballad, 'The Romaunt of the Page', Mitford entreated her 'to write more ballads' and poems of that order: 'that is to say, poems of human feelings and human actions' (Be 5: 135).
The poems Mitford pictured Barrett writing in her vision of the younger woman's future fame began to appear with amazing plenitude by the spring of 1843. In February 1843, Barrett wrote the lyrical Wordsworthian quest romance, 'The Lost Bower' (Be 6: 334), turning back to happy memories of her girlhood. These were days of 'tree-climbing & wallclimbing' that she had described as being 'too hard to look back at now' in an 1841 letter to Mitford (Be 5:67). But near the beginning of 1843, she was looking back and finding in the child the mother of the reborn woman and poet she was to become. Leighton's insightful analysis of 'The Lost Bower' (1986, 70-5) shows how the 'little water Naiad' (1.180) in the elusive fountain of music at the bower's centre is' an incarnation of Barrett's muse, reflecting the growth in her of a female poetic identity no longer fostered principally by the male-centred tradition that had dominated her earlier works. Signs of the same new growth appear in the embodiment of wild and spontaneous girlhood Barrett created in her hauntingly resonant semi-autobiographical essay about the tenyear- old Beth, also written in the early 1840s (Be 1:360-2). [25/26] Like the majority of nineteenth-century women writers discussed by Valerie Sanders in The Private Lives of Victorian Women, Barrett Browning's selfwriting is fragmentary, unpublished, mediated by fiction and marked by self-censorship. But the 'Beth' essay, which Sanders does not consider, is the most revealing of her several surviving autobiographical fragments, perhaps because it is the most indirect. It seems to have been written in the same period as Barrett's autobiographical sketch for Horne (Be 7:352-5), perhaps in part to amuse Barrett's young cousin Elizabeth or 'Ibbit' Hedley, a beautiful and spirited child born in Florence who may have suggested some features of Aurora Leigh. Like 'My Own Character ', which Barrett wrote when she was twelve, and 'Glimpses Into My Own Life and Literary Character' , written during her fourteenth and fifteenth years (Be 1 :347-56), the description of Beth's character reveals Barrett's girlhood ambition and force of personality. But more overtly than either of the two earlier essays, it also conveys the fiery feminist spirit of the girl who desired to be ' the feminine of Homer' and Byron, while at the same time despising ' the word "feminine" ': 'Beth thanked her gods that she was not & never wd. be feminine. Beth could run rapidly & leap high' (Be 1:36 1).
Taken together with 'The Lost Bower' and the manifestations of poetical activity that soon followed it, the 'Beth ' essay indica tes that the awakening Barrett experienced in 1843 follows the classic pattern defined by Susan Rosowski in her well known essay on Kate Chopin's The Awakening and parallel texts.16 That is, it was clearly an awakening growing out of a resurgence of her repressed girlhood ambitions and desires, and an experience of rebirth with psychological, sensual, spiritual and creative dimensions. [26/27] Significantly, soon after writing 'The Lost Bower' Barrett went on to write 'The Dead Pan, in which she symbolically bids goodbye to the classical literary heritage her Greek studies with Boyd had Immersed her in. The end of 'The Dead Pan' calls for a poetry of the present and 'the Real' (1.249) which she fails to achieve in that poem itself, where the classical past IS evoked with graphic sensuality compared the wooden and abstract evocation of the ChnstIan present. But her turn to a poetry of the present is strikingly manifested in her famous poem of social protest, 'The Cry of the Children, written in, the summer of 1843 and published in Blackwoods in August. . . Barrett's 'poetical fit', as she termed it, continued through the summer and fall of 1843. In mid-July she wrote to Mitford, 'I am writing such poems ... allegorical-philosophical — poetical-ethical: (Be :242). These poems included the main part of A vision of Poets', a major and still neglected work reveahng her affinities with the Romantic 'visionary company' of poets, and expressing her intense aspirations fo: poetic fame. The manuscript of ' A Vision of Poets' in the sections in three notebooks now in the Berg CollectIOn _ indicates that Barrett probably began writing it in 1838 before her serious illness. The fact that she was able to take it up again and complete it in 1843 is one more sign of her poetical rebirth.
The fame Mitford had prophesied in 1842 began to come to Barrett even before the publication of her 1844 Poems. The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838) had revealed her originality and the impressive learning already glimpsed in her 1833 translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. Wordsworth was only one of the many who thought highly of the 'Genius and attainments' revealed by her 1838 volume (Be 4:347,338). [27/28] Between 1838 and 1844, poems published in annuals and periodicals in England and America fuelled the growing interest in this new 'genius'. Two of her romantic ballads published in the 1839 and 1840 issues of Findens' Tableaux, the annual edited by Mitford, attracted particular attention: 'The Romaunt of the Page' and 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie' (entitled 'The Lay of the Brown Rosary' in its heavily revised form in the 1844 Poems). Because Findens' Tableaux, resembling expensive modern coffeetable books in its format, was difficult to obtain, 'The Legend of the Brown Rosarie' circulated in manuscript copies among the circle of Barrett's American admirers that included James Russell Lowell and his poet-wife Maria, Sophia Peabody (later Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife), and the American feminist transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. During this period Lowell, Cornelius Mathews and other American writers solicited contributions from Barrett for American periodicals such as the shortlived The Pioneer. Her letters to American admirers such as Mathews and Lowell, eager to promote their own literary reputations in England through her assistance, reveal her acumen in cultivating her growing fame in America. She was adept in 'doing literary business', like the American women writers considered by Susan Coultrapp-McQuinn; and, as Robert Gladish observes, she 'seemed to keep amazingly well abreast of all that was published on both sides of the Atlantic'.17
Two substantial critical essays appearing in 1842 in the Athenaeum — 'Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets' and 'The Book of the Poets', the latter a remarkably wide-ranging survey of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the Romantics — further contributed to Barrett's stature among her contemporaries. Anna Jameson, the art historian and women's [28/29] rights advocate who was to become such a close friennd of Barrett after her marriage, read the Greek Chnstlan Poets' with' "great pleasure"'; while Browning sent a copy of it with his comments to Barrett through their mutual friend John Kenyon, expressmg his desire to meet her (Be 5:303; 290).
Although Browning did not gain the introduction to Barrett he desired in 1842, his admiration for her powers continued to grow. Karlin rightly emphasizes that Browning 'recognized Elizabeth Barrett's "genius" long before he had any personal motive for doing so' (44). Like Harriet Martineau, Browning saw 'The Dead Pan' in manuscript in 1843 when Kenyon was circulating the poem among numerous writers and scholars and described it as 'most noble!' — praising in particular the irregular experimental rhymes subsequently censured by reviewers (Be 7:137, 269). Kenyon also sent part of 'The Dead Pan' to Wordsworth, who sent Barrett part of an unpublished poem of his own (Be 7:55, 23).
Another index of Barrett's increasing fame in 1843 appears in her dealings with Edward Moxon, the publisher of Tennyson's 1842 Poems and her 1844 Poems. In December of 1842, when Barrett first broached the publication of a volume of miscellaneous poems with Moxon, he refused because of the losses he had suffered from poetry (Be 6:254). But by the spring of 1843, Barrett heard through Kenyon of Tennyson saying to Moxon, '"There is only one female poet whom I wish to see . . . & that is Miss Barrett"' ,· meanwhile Moxon himself was sending repeated messages through Kenyon that he would be happy to consider publishing any new volume of Miss Barrett's poems (Be 7:4, 2, 37).
When the 1844 Poems appeared, many works in them won high praise not only from the reviewers, but [29/30] also from political organizations like the Anti-Corn Law League, and from writers like Thomas Carlyle and Margaret Fuller. The response in America was particularly enthusiastic. In its obituary on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harper's Magazine recalled that her 1844 volumes 'had a more general and hearty welcome in the United States than any English poet since the time of Byron and company'. In her review for The Tribune, Fuller ranked the writer of the 1844 Poems 'in vigour and nobleness of conception, depth of spiritual experience, and command of classic allusion, above any female writer the world has yet known'.18 With characteristic flamboyance, Edgar Allen Poe dedicated his 1845 volume The Raven and Other Poems to Barrett, whom he proclaimed the 'noblest of her sex ' despite his mixed review of her 1844 volumes. This led Barrett to quip to Kenyon, 'What is to be said, I wonder, when a man calls you the "noblest of your sex"? "Sir, you are the most discerning of yours", (LEBB 1: 249).
Browning too first wrote to Barrett in January of 1845 to declare not his love for 'dear Miss Barrett', but his love for her 'great living poetry' with its many excellencies: 'the fresh strange music, the affiuent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought' (RB-EBB 1:3). The 'I love you too' Miss Barrett was an enthusiastic addition, evidently prompted by a renewed desire to 'see' this legendary poet, as he put it, in a phrase modern feminist theorists of the male gaze might find ominous. Browning first addressed Barrett as a peer and a rival. It was critics and biographers, chiefly after the turn of the century, who transformed her into the muse who inspired his poems, the wife who confessed her chaste love in the Sonnets from the Portuguese, the 'of Robert' subsumed in the tale of his genius, to use the [30/31] patronymic form familiar to readers of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The strength of will and energy manifested in the 1844 Poems are also apparent in Barrett's famous flight with Browning to Italy in September of 1846. One popular biography of the Brownings, Frances Winwar's The Immortal Lovers (1850), entitles the chapter on their secret marriage and flight 'Fugitive Angel', after the cloyingly sentimental portrait of the infant Elizabeth complete with wings that was her father's favourite. This image infantilizes Barrett Browning in a passivity characterized by dependency on her father, only to be replaced by dependency on her husband, when in fact her action was more akin to the flight of the fugitive black woman she dramatically depicted with such fierce intensity in 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', one of the first poems completed after her marriage.
Between 1844 and 1850, Barrett Browning published a number of poems — most notably, her 'Runaway Slave' poem in the 1848 Boston abolitionist annual The Liberty Bell, and a group of seven poems in Blackwood's in 1846. But it was largely on the basis of the 1844 Poems that her name was proposed in the Athenaeum for the Poet Laureateship on Wordsworth's death in 1850. Moreover, she clearly was regarded by many as a suitable candidate, contrary to Margaret Forster's suggestion that the Athenaeum proposal was not made 'entirely seriously' (245). The publication of a new and expanded collection of Poems in 1850 further consolidated her reputation. The extent of Barrett Browning's fame before Aurora Leigh appeared in 1857 is apparent in the quotations from reviews used as advertisements in the first American edition of that work — quotations concerning her previous publications. 'Mrs. Browning is entitled to dispute with [31/32] Tennyson the honor of being the greatest living poet of England', the Illustrated News declared. Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Barrett Browning's lyrical epic on Italian liberation, added to her fame in some quarters (chiefly in America). But her position as Tennyson's rival at mid-century remained principally based upon the 1844 and 1850 editions of her collected poems. Aurora Leigh seemed to ensure Barrett Browning a permanent place in literary history. Swinburne wrote in his 1898 preface to the work that had passed into more than twenty editions by then: 'The advent of Aurora Leigh can never be forgotten by any lover of poetry who was old enough at the time to read it. Of one thing they may all be sure — they were right in the impression that they never had read, and never would read, anything in any way compara ble with that unique work of audaciously feminine and ambitiously impulsive genius. It is one of the longest poems in the world, and there is not a dead line in it.' In his 1857 The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin praised Aurora Leigh as 'the greatest poem which the century has produced in any language'. George Eliot paid tribute to it in the Westminster Review, and in her letters revealed that she had read it three times because no other book gave her 'a deeper sense of communion with a large as well as beautiful mind'. Gaskell took her epigraph for The Life of Charlotte Brontë from Aurora Leigh, just as she had taken many of her chapter epigraphs in the earlier North and South from Barrett Browning's 1844 and 1850 poems. And Susan B. Anthony carried Aurora Leigh with her in her trunk as she crisscrossed America lecturing on women's rights, inscribing in her copy of it her wish that women might grow 'more and more like Aurora Leigh.19
Women did grow more and more like Aurora Leigh over the next century, but at the same time Aurora Leigh [32/33] disappeared from literary history, along with the poet viewed in her own time as Tennyson's rival. Irene Cooper Willis' 1928 book on Barrett Browning in the 'Representative Women' series dismissed the work that had inspired Anthony as a book once approved by the 'Mammas of England' and 'nowadays . .. starred as suitable reading in the syllabuses of "Literature" classes in young ladies' finishing schools' (92-93). In our own time, women readers are far more likely to share Anthony's response to Aurora Leigh than Willis'. Gilbert and Gubar's description of it as 'an epic of feminist self-affirmation' is representative (575) . Although Aurora Leigh was followed by two additional volumes of poetry, the polemical political sequence Poems before Congress (1860) and the posthumously published Last Poems (1862), it is now typically read as the culminating expression of Barrett Browning'S unprecedented gynocentric poetics.
Understandably, then, the question of how this poetics was formed has attracted much interest — particularly since it seems to be singularly absent in Barrett's first published writings, The Battle of Marathon (1820) and An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems (1826). Far from embodying an incipient gynocentric poetics, these works of juvenilia acutely manifest the metaphorical transvestism or male impersonation' that Gilbert and Gubar read as a reflection of the nineteenth-century woman writer's 'anxiety of authorship' (66) . Moreover, elements of male impersonation persist even in some of the works Barrett Browning included in her 1844 Poems, reflecting the formidable difficulties she experienced in her attempts to enter a male poetic tradition. Consequently, as Deborah Byrd notes (24), critics have focused on the ways in which Barrett Browning 'draws upon or swerves from male [33/34] professed her reverence for in the famous 1845 letter to Henry Chorley in which she cried, 'I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none' (LEBB 1 :232). There is far from unanimous agreement, however, on the nature of Barrett Browning's relationship to these poetical 'grandfathers', or on the extent to which she in fact developed a fully gynocentric poetics. Whereas some stress the extent to which she remained in the shadow of her male precursors, others stress the revisionary 'swerves' that transformed her into a grandmother herself for subsequent women poets. Leighton's Lacanian conflation of Barrett Browning's poetical grandfathers with Edward Barrett, the poet's father, is one important instance of the former approach. Even in her later works, Leighton argues, Barrett Browning's 'poetics depends on an intimate and highly biographical relation to the figure of power that represents her muse' — the father whose inspiration she never ceased to court (1986, 14).
My own examination of the poetry Barrett Browning published in the 1840s bears out the opposing emphasis of critics like Mermin, Cooper and Byrd, who discern a distinct movement away from male perspectives and influences in Barrett Browning's writing during this period. In the published works, one of the first striking manifestations of this shift is the focus on Eve's experience in A Drama of Exile. It is even more visible, however, in the manuscripts of the 1840s: most notably, in a fragment associated with A Drama of Exile, in the love poems of the early 1840s, and in the preliminary version of 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim 's Point'. All of these not only reveal Barrett Browning shifting from male to female perspectives, but also give some indication of when and why this important shift occurred. [34/35] As Chapters 2 and 3 suggest, one of the principal catalysts contributing to Barrett Browning's 'swerve' away from her poetical grandfathers was the revisionary poetical practice she inherited from the Romantics. But her biographical formation and other aspects of her cultural milieu also played vital roles in her increasingly woman-centred consciousness. The influence of her mother and other family members has been underestimated, along with the influence of her many female friends and correspondents. Given the importance of many of these women in mid-Victorian culture, personal and cultural influences often overlap for Barrett Browning. But there also existed an entire matrix of women writers whom she did not personally know who shaped her consciousness and textual practice.
Her mother's influence came first, as Barrett Browning later indirectly acknowledged in Aurora Leigh: 'But still I catch my mother at her post / Beside the nursery door' (1: 15-16). Leighton's Lacanian readings of many of Barrett Browning's poems indicate that Mr Barrett, pater familias, still looms large over reconstructions of the poet's career, even when the focus shifts from her life to her art. While Edward Moulton-Barrett undoubtedly did strongly influence his daughter's poetical development, however, Forster has persuasively shown that Mary Moulton-Barrett was also actively concerned in educating her eldest daughter and in encouraging her childhood literary endeavours. Forster's reconstruction of their relationship is supported by manuscripts from the period of Elizabeth's childhood, now in the Armstrong Browning Library. Elizabeth's mother even developed a game in which she played the part of her daughter's 'publisher' (Be 1:286).
The influence of Barrett Browning's mother has [35/36] been easily overlooked not only because of her early death when her eldest daughter was only twenty-two, but also because, for a long period of her artistic formation , Elizabeth seems to have overlooked her first 'publisher' herself. As she became increasingly successful in her juvenile literary endeavours, her father took a strong interest in them, arranging the publication of The Battle of Marathon when she was only fourteen. The idealization of a powerful father figure was a natural consequence for the young Elizabeth, but she also developed an equally important psychological alliance with her brother Edward, born a year after her in 1807.
In fact, it might easily be argued that Elizabeth's mother was displaced less by the poet's father than by the poet's closest brother Edward, following the pattern of intense 'fraternal alliance' (43) that Marianne Hirsch discerns in a number of nineteenth-century women novelists in The Mother-Daughter Plot. Inheritor of his father's name, Edward was the firstborn male in a family of twelve in which, as Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke note, the four daughters did not count in the line of eight sons Mr Barrett ended by naming Septimus and Octavius (CW I :xii). Long before the premature death of Elizabeth's mother in 1828, Edward had become his older sister's closest confidant in the Herefordshire home, Hope End, where they passed their childhood. He was affectionately known as 'Bro' to the elder sister who herself was called 'Ba' by family members, and it is little wonder that his death by drowning in 1840 left her prostrate with inexpressible grief.
In a reversal of the intense brother-sister relationships characteristic among the Romantics — William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Byron and his half-sister Augusta, Shelley's Laon and Cythna in The Revolt of Islam [36/37] — Bro came to function as muse and second self for the young Elizabeth Barrett, while her mother, immersed in child-bearing, receded in importance. The autobiographical fragments, 'Glimpses Into My Own Life and Literary Character' and 'My Character and Bro's Compared ' (BC 1 :348-58), reveal the trauma Elizabeth endured at fourteen when the brother she identified with so strongly left home for the formal schooling and opportunities denied to her. After Bro's death in 1840, she turned to another brother, George, as her chief poetical confidant, and not simply to her father as the often reprinted dedication to the 1844 Poems, 'To My Father', implies. Indeed, she was bitterly observing by 1843 that 'Papa ... does not believe in poetry, & wd. drive me sometimes "distract" with melancholy, if I believed him' (BC 7:206). In the same period, her letters to George are fill ed with details of her poetical activity and aspirations.
Despite the pattern of fraternal alliance noticeable in Barrett Browning's case, the mother did not remain displaced in either her life or her works. The 1843 awakening that brought the resurgence of Barrett's girlhood energy and ambition was accompanied by a return of the repressed mother. Critics writing in the early 1980s discerned a woman-centred poetics in Aurora Leigh that remained pervaded by 'mother-want' (Steinmetz), or by the attempt to reclaim the 'iconic' visionary maternal face that haunts Romantic and Victorian poetry (Rosenblum, 'Face to Face', 322). Such approaches reflect the general focus on the daughter's perspective and the elision of the mother's experience typical of feminist criticism produced In these years — when many critics were primarily daughters themselves (Hirsch 19). But, as Sandra Donaldson demonstrates, it is a focus Barrett Browning [37/38] developed beyond, both in Aurora Leigh where she presents Marian as both mother and daughter, and in powerful late works like 'Mother and Poet'. Casa Guidi Windows as well is, in Mermin's words, 'a hymn to progress and human possibility that is also, and not coincidentally, a song of motherhood' (173). Nevertheless, Barrett Browning'S representations of maternal subjectivity are by no means unambivalent: significantly, some of her most dramatic mother figures are indirectly or directly asssociated with murder or cursing (Phelps 232) . What fascinate her, as 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' indicates, are the convolutions of the maternal passions. The shift in focus to the mother's experience in Barrett Browning's life and writing is accompanied by intensifying alliances with her own sisters, Henrietta and Arabella, and with other women — alliances that may have grown stronger in part because of tensions in her marriage. As her letters to Mrs David Ogilvie, Anna Jameson and Isa Blagden suggest, relationships with other women remained very important to Barrett Browning after her marriage. One particularly intense relationship she formed with the American medium Sophia Eckley in the late 1850s ended in disillusionment when she began to suspect Sophia as a charlatan. In Through a Glass Darkly, Katherine Porter attributes Barrett Browning's relationship with Sophia to the fascination with spiritualism that she shared with many of her contemporaries in the 1850s. But evidence also points to possible intervals of relative alienation from her husband leading Barrett Browning to turn to intimacy with other women, and to the consolations that spiritualism seemed to offer.
'So ended on earth the most perfect example of wedded happiness in the history ofliterature', Frederic Kenyon wrote in 1897, describing Barrett Browning'S [38/39] death in her husband's arms (LEBB 2:452). No doubt the Browning marriage was 'extremely happy' much of the time (Mermin 5). Yet perfect 'wedded happiness' exists only in fairy tales. In the Brownings' case, there may be traces of a more complicated human story in Barrett Browning'S late dramatic monologues of passionately possessive women betrayed by love, such as 'Bianca Among the Nightingales', and in the manuscript of 'My Heart and I', another monologue of betrayal included in Last Poems — not to speak of Browning's powerful representation of a marital breakdown in 'James Lee's Wife'.22
Cultural context is certainly as important as personal experience, however, in accounting for the intensely woman-centred perspective we encounter in so many of Barrett Browning's works from the 1840s on. Ellen Moers was among the first to situate the author of Aurora Leigh in the matrix of a female literary tradition that included Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Stael, and George Sand, all of them powerful precursors for the woman who could find no poetical 'grandmothers'.
Compelling evidence for the direct impact of Wollstonecraft at a formative stage in Barrett Browning's development appears in an 1842 letter to Mitford in which she ironically explains her incompetence in needlework. 'I ought to have been well whipped at six years old', she observes, '& then - that is, now — I shd. whip [i.e. do the whip stitch] better'. But, as she points out, she never learned 'the duties belonging to [her] femineity' [sic] because needlework was never put to her as a duty. 'And then', she adds:
I was always insane about books & poems — poems of my own, I mean, — ' & books of everybody's else [39/40] and I read Mary Wolstonecraft [sic] when I was thirteen: no, twelve! . . and, through the whole course of my childhood, I had a steady indignation against Nature who made me a woman, & a determinate resolution to dress up in men's clothes as soon as ever I was free of the nursery, & go into the world 'to seek my fortune'. 'How', was not decided; but I rather leant towards being poor Lord Byron's PAGE. (BC 6:42)
The 'whip' pun suggests how much Barrett Browning's light wit conceals here, coming from someone aware as she was of the abolitionist controversy concermng whipping on the West Indian slave plantations that had created her own family's wealth. There were, she later wrote to Browning, 'infinite traditions' in her family of how her great-grandfather Edward Barrett had 'flogged his slaves like a divinity' (RB-EBB 2:759). The parallel between women and slaves was one that Wollstonecraft and Barrett Browning's female contemporaries often drew. The woman-slave parallel is made more explicit in what may be the most dramatic manifestation of Barrett Browning's youthful adherence to what her mother called 'yours & Mrs. Wolstonecrafts system' [sic] (BC 1:132): the 'Fragment of an "Essay on Woman"'. Although the attribution of this fragment has been questioned by Margaret Reynolds (AL 61), It appears to have been written around 182~ when Barrett was sixteen, but not published until 1984 (Hoag). Modelled on Pope's 'Essay on Man', the fragment scornfully criticizes men for smgmg of their own powers, while praising women only for their weakness:
Imperious Man! is this alone thy pride.
T 'enslave the heart that lingers at thy Side? [40/41]
And bid Ambition's noblest throb expire?
Pinion the wing, that yearns for glory's light,
Then boast the strength of thy superior flight?
Kay Moser has shown how imbued the 'Fragment of an "Essay on Woman'" is with Wollstonecraft's diction and arguments. But with the exception of some unpublished remarks by Tricia Lootens (29), the connections between Wollstonecraft's writings and Barrett Browning's mature works remam unexplored. The importance of Madame de Stael in Barrett Browning's poetical development likewise remains relatively unexplored, despite Kaplan's analysis of the many echoes of Corinne in Aurora Leigh ('Introduction', 16-21 ). The Romantic woman of letters is among the women of genius saluted in the 'Essay on Woman', but Mermin suggests that de Stael never could have a roused 'a very passionate enthusiasm' in the young Ba rrett (27). This assumption is not supported by Barrett's later description of de Stael, along with Sand, as one of the two great women writers produced by France; or by her defence of the same writer to Mitford as a woman of genius, compared to a woman of talent such as Fanny Burney (BC 6:252, 196-97). In the 'Beth' essay, de StaeI is the only woman the militant young heroine does not despise (BC 1 :361). Elsewhere, Barrett metaphorically associates her hero worship of the poets she staunchly defended and Mitford decried with hiding in 'Madme. de Stael's petticoats ' (BC 4:249). And she declared Corinne, the work about a doomed female genius that also influenced Byron and Sir Walter Scott, an 'immortal book' , deserving to be read 'three score & ten times' (BC 3:25). [41/42] George Sand's impact on Barrett Browning's thinking about women and writing was even greater than de Stael's. Patricia Thomson and Sandra Donaldson have explored her liberating 'love affair' with her great French contemporary; while Cooper has pointed out the subversive significance of Barrett's use of the sonnet form to address Sand (63). Relatively early in her correspondence with Browning, Barrett vigorously defended Sand's novel Consuela against his criticisms. Where he saw only a lack of dramatic power, she saw a 'female Odyssey', written by an author who was 'man and woman together' (RB-EBB 1: 160, 159). After seeking an introduction to Sand in Paris in 1852, Barrett Browning noted how she 'seemed ... to be the man' in the circle of respectful younger men that surrounded her (LEBB 2:56). Aurora Leigh is named in part after Sand, whose maiden name was Aurore Dupin; and like Sand, who appeared one evening in Paris wearing ivy around her brows (LEBB 2:230), Aurora Leigh crowns herself with a wreath of 'headlong ivy' (Book 2:46). Sand's contribution to the bold feminism of Aurora Leigh is furthermore indicated by Barrett Browning'S interest in her 'views upon the sexes' in 1855, when she was at work on her own 'female Odyssey' (LEBB 2:222).
Barrett Browning found no woman writer to match Sand's genius among her English precursors and contemporaries. But her letters make it clear that she read very widely among the hundreds of women writers who, as Mellor points out (1), 'produced at least half of the literature published in England between 1780 and 1830'. Maria Edgeworth, Anna Seward, Amelia Opie, Ann Radcliffe, Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) , Mary Shelley, Joanna Baillie, Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon and many others, indeed almost all of the most influential Romantic [42/43] women writers explicitly named by Mellor (2), are discussed in Barrett Browning's correspondence - particularly her correspondence with Mitford, who was personally acquainted with many of these authors. For example, in one extended exchange, she disagreed with Mitford's high estimate of Jane Austen, whom she saw as at best a graceful 'Dutch painter' of English 'middle life', whose 'Iadyhood' was 'stronger than her humanity' (BC 7:214). Reflecting the Romantic sensibility that led her to prefer de Stael to Burney, her response to Austen strikingly resembles Charlotte Brontë's famous description of Austen's novels as a 'carefully fenced' garden with 'neat borders', but with 'no open country, no fresh air' (cited Moers 48). Other references to Romantic women writers reveal her interest in the buried lives of women such as Seward. After reading a life of William Hayley, she remarked to Mitford, 'how little is said of Miss Seward "the Muse"! It disappointed me. Is there a life of her?' (BC 5:244).
Barrett Browning's references to women writers are also characterized by a spirit of internationalism and a marked interest in French and American authors. When Mitford mentioned an anthology of women writers she had been asked to contribute to in 1842 Barrett asked 'why not include all the female writers of Europe' in 'this blue book as people are sure to call it'. 'Germany Spain & Italy wd. fill as many pages as our England — & it wd. give a completeness & interest to the work' (BC 5:228). She also read 'a long dynasty of French memoirs' by women (LEBB I :235). These French memoirs and her curiosity 'beyond the patience of [her] Eve-ship' were in fact what led her to begin reading Sand (BC 6:162). Proleptically, she was greatly moved by one Frenchwoman's memoirs, recounting the intense anguish, joy, and internal [43/44] conflicts of a late-life marriage, deferred because of the man's imprisonment (BC 7:240).
She developed particularly close connections with the American antebellum feminist abolitionists considered in Jean Fagan Yellin's Women and Sisters, as 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' indicates. 'The Runaway Slave' was published in the Boston abolitionist annual, The Liberty Bell, like the later abolitionist poem 'A Curse for a Nation'. Yellin's discussion of the sonnet 'Hiram Powers' "Greek Slave", reveals how this poem too incorporates the tropes and the concerns of the American feminist abolitionists (123-4). Among individual American writers, Barrett Browning came to know Margaret Fuller well in Italy before the latter's death by shipwreck in 1850, and admired the force of genius that she did not find fully reflected in Fuller's writings (LEBB 1 :459-60). And she praised Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, as a writer who had changed the world with a book before she came to know and admire her as a woman whose religious speculations revealed not a 'deep thinker' but one 'singularly large and unshackled' (LEBB 2:424). Barrett Browning's turn to socially controversial issues in the 1840s may have been influenced in part by the American feminist abolitionists, in part by the long tradition of English women writers who were pioneering figures in the nineteenth-century discourse of social protest. Harriet Martineau, one of the most important women in this tradition, is the English woman writer whom Barrett most admired in the 1840s along with Anna Jameson. She termed Martineau 'the noblest female Intelligence between the seas', and noted that both Martineau and Jameson had a 'European reputation' (BC 7:302; 8:86). Barrett read other important writers contributing to social protest [44/45] literature as well: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna for instance (BC 6:62). 'The Cry of the Children,' has invariably been attributed to the influence of Barrett's correspondent Horne and his parliamentary 'Report on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Mines and Manufactories' (CW 3:362). But the impact of works by women writers like Martineau and !onna in the 'hungry' l840s may be an equally important influence on its genesis.
One of the highly topical social issues in the 1840s was the education and rights of women. In an 1845 letter, Barrett described herself as 'not . . . a very strong partizan on the Rights-of-Woman side of the argument', and stated, 'I believe that, considering men & women in the mass, there is an inequality of intellect, and that it is proved by the very state of things of which gifted women complain' (LMRM 3:81). The few passages reflecting views of this sort in Barrett Browning's letters have often been cited as proof of Barrett Browning's antipathy to the feminist activists among her contemporaries, usually without acknowledging the contexts that complicate their import.
The case for Barrett Browning's ideological opposition to the Victorian women's rights movement has been made most fully and intelligently by Deirdre David. Foregrounding the contradictory and conservative elements in Barrett Browning's ideological practice, David has interpreted her as a 'traditional intellectual' in Antonio Gramsci's sense of the term and argued that she was 'smugly scornful of the intellectual capabilities of women unlike herself' 'barred by illness from participation in any female or feminist community', deprived of a 'sustaining female ilterary tradition', 'androcentric' in the sexual politics reflected In her letters, and indifferent to 'the struggles [45/46] for cultural and social equality in women'.23 David's exclusive focus on the conservative elements in Barrett Browning's thought usefully corrects simplistic idealizations of her as a feminist foremother. But the appreciation of the complexities of Barrett Browning's ideological practice is not furthered by fitting her into the straitjacket of a Gramscian traditional intellectual, which itself does not allow for contradiction or change. Barrett Browning's comments on the capabilities and rights of women, both in her letters and in Aurora Leigh, typically appear in dialogical or ironic contexts. In the letter in which she comments on the 'Rights-of-Woman', for instance, she expresses great anger at men who exaggerate the weakness of women 'in order to parade their protection', and who use both the chivalric theory of woman's glory and the 'puddingmaking and stocking darning theory' to discourage women from expressing themselves as writers and social critics. Barrett Browning's thinking about the rights of women also changed quite substantially between the 1840s and the 1850s. Certainly by the 1850s she had closer ties with British feminist activists than is generally recognized, in part through her friendship with Anna Jameson. In 1855, Barrett Browning signed the petition for reform of the marriage laws circulated by Barbara Leigh Smith (later Barbara Bodichon) and her committee; while in 1858 she encouraged her friend Mrs Ogilvie to contribute to England's first periodical published entirely by women, the newly established English Woman's Journal edited by Bessie Parkes.24 Her affiliations with mid-Victorian feminist activists help to explain the enthusiastic reception of Aurora Leigh among the Langham Place group, which included Bodichon, Parkes and Frances Power Cobbe. Barrett Browning's connections with the major [46/47] women novelists among her contemporaries - Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot - form a complex web of interactions and affiliations most apparent in the traces of Ruth, Jane Eyre, and Villette in Aurora Leigh, and in the many traces of Aurora Leigh in Eliot's works. As for women poets among her precursors and contemporaries, Barrett Browning read them with a keenness intensified by her search for poetical 'grandmothers', a shrewd awareness of the critical double standard they encountered, and an often uneasy sense of identification and rivalry. Byrd notes the importance of Barrett Browning's interaction with women poets such as Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, Mary Howitt, and Caroline Norton, although her claim that Mitford's encouragement first led Barrett to study such women is somewhat inaccurate (30). The 1824-26 Wellesley notebook indicates that, long before she met Mitford, the young Barrett was reading Landon and comparing her to Hemans with 'an acute consciousness of issues of gender', as Mermin notes (31). For instance, Barrett observes in her notebook that the Literary Gazette praised Landon relative to other female authors only; and she criticizes Landon for casting her thoughts into the 'prettiest attitudes' — but too much 'the same attitudes' - revealing her uneasiness about the poses making some women's poetry resemble the 'attitudes' made fashionable by Lady Hamilton in the late eighteenth century. In her maturity, Barrett Browning remained acutely aware of 'the ordinary impotencies & prettinesses of female poets ' (LMRM 3:412). But it is fallacious to assume that she responded to women's poetry as a 'body of texts' with common tropes and rhetorical strategies, rather than entering into dialogical relationships with a ' particular poem' or 'a specific female precursor' (Byrd 31). She did both, but modern [47/48] readers tend to miss the individual dialogical relationships because we are no longer familiar as Barrett Browning's contemporaries were with particular poets and poems. For instance, she emphatically described Joanna Baillie as 'the first female poet in all senses in England' (LEBB 1:230). At the same time, however, she did not see herself or Baillie as writing in a female tradition distinct from the mainstream of English poetry.
There is much to be gained from the ongoing endeavour to reconstruct Barrett Browning's complex connections with a female literary tradition in the 'epic age' of women writers (Moers 14). But since Barrett Browning was not an underground writer in her own age or a writer always marginalized by her gender, it is also important to conceptualize her achievement in the context of a poetic tradition conventionally defined in terms of predominantly male writers. As Battersby points out in her discussion of artists such as Hannah Hoch, a woman artist remains buried in the 'insignificance' of 'Otherness' until we construct a narrative that binds her 'output together into an oeuvre' and anchor that narrative in the 'chains of influence and inheritance out of which "culture" is constructed' (142-3). In her own poetical development, Barrett Browning overcame the debilitating sense of otherness reinforced for nineteenthcentury women writers by their exclusion from the position of 'the speaking subject as male' and their identification with nature (Homans 12). Criticism needs to follow suit in exploring how her poetic output enters into and alters the narrative of nineteenth-century literary culture that we ourselves have inherited.
Last modified 11 May 2014