In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Elizabeth Barrett Browning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Autobiography
  • Letters
  • Early Criticism
  • Gendered Approaches
  • Robert Browning
  • Politics
  • Religion, Spiritualism, and Mesmerism
  • Classical Heritage
  • Slavery
  • Afterlives

Victorian Literature Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Anna Barton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0006


Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett was born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall in County Durham, the eldest of the twelve children of Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett, who was from a family of plantation owners, involved in the rum and the sugar trade, and Mary Graham Clarke. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at Hope End, the family home in rural Herefordshire. She read widely and voraciously from an early age and, according to her own account, began writing poetry at the age of four. She was encouraged in her literary endeavors by both her parents and received private tuition in classical Greek alongside her favorite brother, “Bro.” In 1819 she published her first major poem, The Battle of Marathon, a four-book epic, and by 1821 her poetry was being published in the New Monthly Magazine. Her early adulthood was marked by the deaths of her mother and then her brother, and by the onset of the undiagnosed illness that stayed with her for most of her life. She moved with her family to Devon and then to Wimpole Street in London. Throughout this time, E. B. B. continued to compose and publish. The Seraphim and Other Poems, the first collection to be published under her own name, appeared in 1838. Following that, Poems, in two volumes, which included “A Drama of Exile” and “The Dead Pan,” was published in 1844. Her poetry increasingly engaged with contemporary British and European politics. “The Cry of the Children” (1842), for example, responded directly to the publication of a report concerning the working conditions of children in factories and mines. In 1845 she began the correspondence with Robert Browning that led to their elopement and move to Italy the following year, where they lived for the rest of her life. Living in British expat communities in Florence and Rome, she developed a deep interest in the politics of the Risorgimento; gave birth to her only son, Robert Wiedemann Browning; and wrote those poems for which she is best known: “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (1848), Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Sonnets from the Portuguese, and Aurora Leigh (both in 1856). The final volume to be published during her lifetime was Poems before Congress (1860), which included “A Curse for a Nation.” She died in Florence in 1861, having gained a considerable reputation in both Britain and Italy, and she is now recognized as one of the most significant poets of the Victorian period.

General Overviews

Despite her popularity during her lifetime, Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not enter the Victorian canon until well into the second half of the 20th century. This was, in part, due to interest in her as a biographical subject: her overbearing father, her invalidism, and the mythologization of her clandestine marriage to Robert Browning. Her recovery was the work of feminist criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, which reasserted her literary significance, drawing attention to her classical scholarship, her interrogation of Victorian femininity and feminine poetics, and her engagement with 19th-century politics. The powerful claims made by the first feminist rereadings of Barrett Browning have been qualified and challenged in various ways in subsequent critical introductions and biographies. Stone 1995, for example, challenges the claim put forward in Mermin 1989 that “Elizabeth Barrett Browning is for most practical purposes the first woman poet in English literature” (p. 1) by placing greater emphasis on E. B. B.’s own literary heritage. Nevertheless, Mermin 1989 is essential reading and sets the tone for the majority of Barrett Browning scholarship, which remains broadly feminist in its approach. Three other significant recuperative introductions—Leighton 1986, Cooper 1988, and Stephenson 1989—mark the late 1980s as a significant moment for Barrett Browning scholarship and remain both relevant and influential. The critical introduction of Avery and Stott 2003, which surveys E. B. B.’s recent critical heritage, also provides a good starting point, but all the works included here provide accessible introductions to E. B. B.’s life and work, and they would be suitable for students, teachers, and researchers.

  • Avery, Simon, and Rebecca Stott. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Longman, 2003.

    Diverse and engaging study that covers work up to and including Aurora Leigh. Stott and Avery move away from explicitly feminist recuperations of the poet by emphasizing her rich intellectual inheritance and her engagement with Victorian social and political history. The chapters are organized by theme and include lucid introductions to Barrett Browning’s poetics and the form and genre of her work. Also includes a detailed chronology.

  • Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    A feminist, “gynocritical” critique of poems from The Seraphim to Aurora Leigh that follows the work of Elaine Schowalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar, focusing on the anxiety of female authorship and tracing the struggle for articulation within individual poems and throughout Barrett Browning’s career.

  • Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Key Women Writers. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1986.

    Another important contribution to the feminist reappraisal of Barrett Browning and a precursor to Leighton’s seminal Victorian Women Poets, Writing Against the Heart. Leighton employs the theme of the disinherited daughter throughout a series of biographically situated, critically astute appraisals of the major poems.

  • Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

    Mermin’s critical biography of E. B. B., which provides an account of Barrett Browning’s life alongside scholarly contextualized readings of all her major poems, is a significant and influential work of recovery that identifies E. B. B. as the founding mother of a female poetic tradition and reestablishes her place in the 19th-century poetic canon.

  • Stephenson, Glennis. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. Nineteenth-Century Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1989.

    A less “general” introduction than other works in this section, Stephenson’s study focuses on Barrett Browning’s love poems, from her early ballads to Last Poems, and writes to counter the powerful romantic myth surrounding the composition of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Stephenson stresses the difficulty and complexity of Barrett Browning’s dramatic representations of herself as lover and beloved.

  • Stone, Marjorie. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Macmillan, 1995.

    The most important monograph on Barrett Browning to be published in the nineties, Stone’s concise, accessible study assesses E. B. B.’s work in relation to its Romantic inheritance. Rejecting the argument that E. B. B. continues a feminine tradition, Stone focuses on the poet as a (mis)reader of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, demonstrating how her poetry renegotiates a Romantic ballad tradition and sage discourse from within a Victorian, feminine sphere.

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