Dared & Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus
I was quite surprised at myself when I bought two biographical, non-fiction books in quick succession earlier in the term. However, I was not at all surprised that one of those was a study of the marriage between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning; I will freely admit that I am more than a little bit in love with their love. It is not the great secrecy of their romance that attracts me, nor the dramatic removal to Italy, but the details you read in their letters of why they loved each other: discussions on the latest literature; comparisons of their experiences as writers; patience in hearing out personal trials. I have very much enjoyed spending the past couple of weeks being immersed in not just their courtship, but also their marriage in the years that followed.
Markus splits the Brownings’ relationship into four parts, detailing their initial correspondence; the early years of their marriage; their trip from Italy to France and England; and the final years before Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death. She draws on the many letters sent by both Elizabeth and Robert, as well as documents other writers had written about them. After reading Sophie Waldegrave’s The Poets’ Daughters, I struggled a little to adjust to Markus’ much more traditional biographical style; however, I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and so it didn’t take me long to become invested in this book.
The main aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was getting to delve in so much depth into the years after the Brownings’ marriage and removal to Italy. Having read their courtship letters, I was very familiar with the story leading up to their secret marriage, but I have found that there is less information collated about how their relationship developed once they were married. Markus clearly explores not just the joys and challenges of their marriage, but their struggles with the families they had left behind and the ups and downs of their writing careers. As a reader I was completely engaged with Robert’s disappointment at the apparent failure of Men and Women and Elizabeth’s attempts to write more political works in a male-dominated industry; it was compelling, too, to see how they supported one another through all of this.
I always struggle to be objective about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I could see this reflected in the way Markus writes throughout Dared & Done. Whilst Robert gets a handful of sections from his perspective and detailing the emotional beats of his life, the majority of the book is focused on Elizabeth and her relationship with her family. Partly, I’m sure, this is simply because the Barretts were a complicated family and the Brownings much more straight forward; however, from reading Elizabeth’s letters, it can easily be seen how important Robert’s family were to the married couple. Much as I love Elizabeth, I would have appreciated seeing more of a balance between the background information about Robert and Elizabeth. As someone who has studied Elizabeth Barrett Browning in much more detail than Robert Browning, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed finding out more about him and his struggles as a poet.
This was a very enjoyable look into one of the most famous literary marriages in history, and there are more themes running throughout the book than I can hope to pick up on in a review. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Victorian literature, as it weaves the changing landscape of the literary world in with the story of the marriage. It is clear that Markus has a love for this period and for this couple, something that only serves to make the reader more invested too. I think this is a book I will come back to in time, whenever I want to step back into the wonderfully literary world of the Brownings.