On this day in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browing.
Barrett was already a respected poet who had published literary criticism and Greek translations in addition to poetry. Her first volume of poetry, The Seraphim and Other Poems, appeared in 1838, followed by Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (1844). Born in 1806 near Durham, England, at her father’s 20-bedroom mansion, she enjoyed wealth and position, but suffered from weak lungs and tended to be reclusive in her youth. She became even more so after the death of her beloved brother in 1840. However, her poetry was well received, and she met with Wordsworth and other renowned poets.
Meanwhile, Robert Browning, the son of a bank clerk, had studied at the University of London and continued his education at his parents’ home, reading extensively and writing poetry. His early work was harshly criticized. While trying his hand at drama, he discovered the dramatic monologue, which he adapted to his own poetry in Dramatic Lyrics (1842). While most critics rejected the work, Elizabeth Barrett defended it. Browning wrote to thank her for her praise and asked to meet her.
She hesitated at first but finally relented, and the couple quickly fell in love. Barrett’s strict father disliked Browning, whom he viewed as an unreliable fortune hunter, so most of the courtship was conducted in secret. On September 12, 1846, while her family was away, Barrett sneaked out of the house and met Browning at St. Marylebone Parish Church, where they were married. She returned home for a week, keeping the marriage a secret, then fled with Browning to Italy. She never saw her father again.
The Brownings lived happily in Italy for 15 years. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s weak health improved dramatically, and the couple had a son in 1849. She published her best-known work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in 1850. The sonnets chronicled the couple’s courtship and marriage. In 1857, her blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh became a bestseller, despite being rejected by critics. During her lifetime, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s reputation as a poet overshadowed that of her spouse, who was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Browning’s husband,” but his work later gained recognition by critics. Elizabeth died in her husband’s arms in 1861. He returned to England with their son, where he became an avid socialite. In 1868, he published The Ring and the Book, a 12-volume poem about a real 17th-century murder trial in Rome. Browning died in 1889.