The Uncertain Literary Afterlife of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Fiona Sampson on the Vicissitudes of the Male Viewpoint
That life develops from within.”
In my favorite portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning she simultaneously turns away and looks back over her shoulder at us. Of course in one sense every historical figure does this: glancing over their shoulder towards the future where we’re watching them, even while they face away from us into their own time. But Barrett Browning makes the gesture particularly provocative. Her wide, sensual mouth dips and rises in a curly bracket. Skeptical, even teasing, her gaze has a directness that seems startlingly modern.
Which is an irony, since it’s an image that has been constructed by thoroughly old-fashioned means. The frontispiece for the fourth British edition of her bestselling verse novel Aurora Leigh is an engraving after an ambrotype taken specifically for this purpose. On the afternoon in September 1858 when a shutter falls on the poet’s half smile, in a stuffy studio on Le Havre harbor-front, photography is understood to be neither artistic, nor detailed, enough for portraiture. It will be another half-dozen years before Julia Margaret Cameron starts to produce her famous, markedly Pre-Raphaelite images of friends and family. And so the portrait that eventually results from this sitting won’t be created by the photographer, but by a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood itself.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a friend of “EBB,” as his celebrated subject likes to style herself, and of her husband and fellow poet Robert Browning. He’s a poet himself, and from its outset a decade ago the Brotherhood has placed literature, philosophy and the book arts—illustration, fine printing, binding—at the heart of its work. This commitment is combined with a personal acquaintance that surely makes Rossetti the safest of hands for the urgent refashioning of Barrett Browning’s public image.
But his are not to be the only hands her image passes through. First it’s engraved by a less stellar craftsman, Thomas Oldham Barlow. The artist edits the result:
The hair brought a little more down more over the forehead, and the parting line not left quite so raw. More tone on the forehead and indeed all over the face. The mouth is considerably in need of correction […] by adding a line of shadow all along the top of the upper lip, thus lessening the curve upward at the corners.
Notes and sketches sprawl over Rossetti’s offprint from the engraver’s block. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this creator of sultry images of his own lovers—dreamy Lizzie Siddal, heavy-lidded Jane Morris—would like to “correct” the poet’s appearance. But far from disparaging her, Rossetti wants his engraver to be more faithful to the “photograph portrait” they’re both working from, for example by removing “a sort of smile not in the photograph & not characteristic of the original.”
He’s had plenty of chances to study this “original” at the Brownings’ home, “an evening resort where I never feel unhappy”. In the two years since the hugely successful appearance of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth’s pioneering, nine-book Bildungsroman which is the first to tell the story of a woman becoming a writer, Rossetti has admired her work and become eager to paint her. Initial impressions—”as unattractive a person as can well be imagined. She looks quite worn out with illness, & speaks in the tone of an invalid”—have turned to admiring protectiveness. Now he replaces the photographer’s stock studio furniture with a symbolic writing desk, and instructs Barlow to “darken” their subject’s hair and enlarge her signature dark eyes in order to make her look a little younger and less “worn out with illness.” After all, this portrait’s whole purpose is to “extinguish” what her husband calls “certain horrible libels on humanity published as portraits of her in America”: portrayals all too similar to Rossetti’s own first impressions.
Earlier, shipping the photograph to Aurora Leigh’s American publishers, Robert has assured them just a shade too urgently that, “What you receive, is the sun’s simple truth without a hair’s breadth of retouching.” Well. Up from Italy to spend summer 1858 with Elizabeth’s English family, the Brownings have picked out Le Havre as a halfway meeting point. On the very last day of what turn out to be two unsatisfactory, tiring months at the Normandy port, Robert finds a ‘clever man’ to conduct a photographic session with his camera-shy wife. But the result seems to justify her resistances. Jean Victor Macaire-Warnod and his brother Louis Cyrus Macaire, who share the waterside studio, are renowned technical pioneers. Yet the photographic image that will briefly see commercial distribution in North America, and be so proudly donated to the Authors’ Club of New York by littérateur Richard Henry Stoddard, is an oddly unclear and generic image. The poet’s publishers, C.S. Francis & Co, do not use it themselves.
Look closer though and, for all Robert’s insistence that there isn’t “a hair’s breadth of retouching,” the picture turns out to have been clumsily overpainted. In fact within two sentences his letter contradicts itself, framing Macaire-Warnod as “the Artist” who’s worked up detail that got lost in making this copy. Yet with its brushstroke hair, torso straight as a ruler, and expressionless face, this naïve rendering is hardly the work of a professional. Who apart from Robert—who is a keen amateur artist—could have a motive for intervention so strong that it overrules plain sight and common sense like this?
We can’t be absolutely sure we’ve caught him red-handed. The great American photographer Mathew Brady seems to have been authorized to sell prints of the image Francis & Co received, for $3 a pop, though it’s hard to believe that he would have retouched so clumsily. But what we do know is that, luckily, Robert has kept back an untouched original. It’s this version that Barlow and Rossetti use, and we can see a detail of it in copies taken by British photographers Elliott and Fry. In it, the unexpurgated Elizabeth Barrett Browning has a dark shadow of tiredness or pain under her left eye, and the greying of her hair is difficult to assess, but she’s every bit as characterful as Rossetti’s recreation. This real-life woman has dark eyes and arched, dark eyebrows. Her nose is long; so is her upper lip, with its sexy overbite. Her face is asymmetric. Cover the right side and the left seems soulful and focused; cover the left and the right appears amused.
In the 21st century we recognize instantly the Brownings’ anxiety about this key publicity shot, and their need to control the image of the international celebrity that 52-year-old Elizabeth Barrett Browning has become. As readers we like to feel, with Elizabeth’s fictional alter ego Aurora Leigh, that “This special book […] stands above my knowledge, draws me up.” Yet we also expect a glossy, artfully posed author photo; it’s almost as if we need an ideal appearance to embody the mind we idealize as we read. In our own post-postmodern times, the Romantic cult of the visible and what it can express seems gobbled up by its own children, the visually framed identities that “are” our social media selves. Elizabeth’s struggle with her portrait reminds us that this process is nothing new.
The irony is that, despite being so anxiously aware of the ramifications of image-making, she’s destined to become a notorious object lesson in how distorted ideas about famous individuals get established. The Brownings would have been astonished and mortified to see myths about their private life obscure first her work, and eventually even her identity. Let’s remind ourselves that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a pivotal figure, changing the direction of English-language poetry and influencing both her contemporaries and subsequent generations of poets and readers. In her lifetime, acknowledged as Britain’s greatest ever woman poet, she receives international critical acclaim and attracts a huge readership. Yet within 70 years of her death, popular culture will have reduced this figure—who when she died was mourned as a public, political heroine in revolutionary Italy—to a swooning poetess in whose little, couch-bound life only a tyrannical father and an ardent poet-lover contribute drama.
The damage will be done above all by Rudolf Besier, author of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a man of whom it’s probably safe to say that he makes no particular study of how women emerge as writers: though he seems happy to incorporate gossip to gee up this drama. In the 1980s Lady Anne Holland-Martin will recall to the Browning scholar Philip Kelley how, at the after-party for its premiere at the Malvern Festival Theatre, “It was felt [Besier’s] play needed a dramatic impact. During the conversation, those who had lived in the community for generations recalled in vivid terms the handed-down memories about Edward Moulton-Barrett … the rest is history.” Three film versions follow Besier’s 1931 Broadway hit: a Norma Shearer and Charles Laughton vehicle (1934), 1957’s remake with Jennifer Jones and John Gielgud, and the 1982 TV movie with Jane Lapotaire and Joss Ackland. There are also no fewer than seven further remakes for television of Besier’s domestic melodrama.
By the 1970s—when Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike crowd the book charts—the roaring boys of North American literary criticism will go a stage further, maligning Elizabeth Barrett Browning as relevant to the history of literature only through marriage or, worse, as hindering that real writer, her husband. In 1973’s Oxford Anthology of English Literature, handsome paired volumes designed as an authoritative student resource, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom pronounce:
Miss Barrett became an invalid (for still mysterious reasons) from 1838 to 1846 when […] she eloped with the best poet of the age. Her long poem Aurora Leigh (1856) was much admired, even by Ruskin, but is very bad. Quite bad too are the famous Sonnets from the Portuguese […] Though the Brownings’ married life was reasonably happy, Mrs Browning’s enthusiasms […] gave her husband much grief.
But perhaps the tendentiousness of this is unsurprising. The Anthology’s editors print just one minor poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; but then the only other writing by women to feature in its more than four and a half thousand pages comprises one minor poem each by Edith Sitwell and Stevie Smith, two by Emily Brontë, and passages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s private journals: in total, fewer than two dozen pages, or around 0.5 per cent of their “canon”. Literary revisionism on this scale is strenuous stuff. Excluding all of the Brontë novels, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf can be neither innocent nor accidental; and it illustrates vividly how literary canons are not born, but made.
Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. It’s probably no coincidence that the melodramatic exploitation of her life story comes to an end in the 1980s as women’s writing becomes more widely read, rediscovered, taught. Half a century earlier, when The Barretts of Wimpole Street was already a cultural phenomenon, Virginia Woolf (who went to see Besier’s play) summed up the poet’s then standing:
Passionate lovers, in curls and side-whiskers, oppressed, defiant, eloping—in this guise thousands of people must know and love the Brownings who have never read a line of their poetry. […] But fate has not been kind to Mrs. Browning as a writer. Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.
Yet Woolf was herself complicit. Her comments date from the year she published Flush: A Biography, her own version of the famous costume drama—written from the point of view of Elizabeth’s pet spaniel.
Today, we can’t ignore how central the construction of identity is to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story; and how this holds as true for her life itself as for the myth-making that surrounds it. Hers is a story about how a writer becomes—and that’s what this book tries to mirror. Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self. John Keats’s early death, or the 17-year-old poet-suicide in Henry Wallis’s “The Death of Chatterton,” are moving because they remind us that a dead poet falls silent. But life imposes its own limits on the writer. For every Lord Byron or Malcolm Lowry, seizing the day in ways that their work celebrates, there is a John Clare or a Primo Levi trying to write experience away.
Writers’ bodies create resistances, forcing interplay between self and world. Elizabeth Barrett Browning turned 12 in 1818, the year that Frankenstein’s creature first found out how deeply the wearer of a body can be changed by what happens to it. And perhaps it’s no accident that he is the creation of another woman writer. There are so many reasons why women may find that their bodies define their lives to a greater extent than do men’s that it’s surely no surprise if they chose to write about embodiment.
Excerpted from Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Copyright (c) 2021 by Fiona Sampson. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.