The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volume I

Have I mentioned before that I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning? It is not just her poetry that I find fascinating, although Aurora Leigh will always be one of my all-time favourite texts, but her life and relationships are so intriguing to me. Two summers ago, I was reading the letters which detailed the start of the relationship between herself and Robert Browning, and I drove my family up the wall with my constant quoting it whilst I was on holiday. We struck a deal: I could quote as much as I wanted to them over breakfast, but then I wasn’t allowed to mention it for the rest of the day. It was just so exciting for me to enter this world of literature, in-jokes, and thoughtful discussions, and to see their relationship developing before my eyes. So I was naturally very excited when I was given two more volumes of Barrett Browning’s letters last Christmas, and having no internet whilst travelling gave me the perfect excuse to finish of the first of these volumes.

I will admit that I did not read the Preface to the collection at first, but after a few questions were raised in my mind as to which letters had been excluded from the collection, I went back to find out how the letters had been compiled. I was surprised to discover that this particular collection of her letters is actually a new printing of an old collection: the date from the Preface is July 1897 and there are several mentions of names being omitted because some of those mentioned were still living. This made the collection even more intriguing to me, and certainly explained the absence of some of Barrett Browning’s now more famous correspondences, such as those with Robert Browning or her sisters. It is entirely possible that the compiler (a mysterious F.G.K.) did not have permission at the time to include those more personal letters in this collection.

This first volume of the letters follows Barrett Browning from 1828 to 1851, and covers: the publication of her first poetry collections; her illness; her marriage to Robert Browning; their subsequent removal to Italy; and the birth of their son. It was a period of dramatic change for Barrett Browning, and it was a fascinating read as she moves so suddenly from isolation in England to having her own family in Italy. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was still gripped as the details of it all were worked out in front of me.

One of the reasons that I love reading letters is that, as a reader, you are able to build up a picture of who the writer really is: not just seeing them through the things they say publicly, but in the way in which they related to those around them on a personal level. In reading her letters, Barrett Browning seems as real as a person you could correspond with now, and that person is compassionate, humble, funny, with strong principles, and high literary ambitions. Her conversations with her friends are full of literary references, jokes about her dog, and the struggle of being taken seriously as a female poet in Victorian society. This collection definitely endeared her further, and I followed her frustrations, dreams, and joys as if they were those of any of my friends.

This was one of the few books I was able to really take my time with and enjoy doing so. I am looking forward to reading the second volume soon, and I hope to get hold of a copy of Barrett Browning’s letters to her sisters before long. If you have even just a vague interest in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victorian poetry, or literary letters, I would definitely recommend looking up some collections of her letters. They really do offer a fascinating insight into the circles of Victorian writers and how interconnected they all were. Above all, they provide an insight into the life of a fascinating, influential writer.

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