Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

You've probably heard of Mary Shelley & Percy Bysshe Shelley, the husband and wife literary duo who pushed the conventions of the Romantic writing scene. But have you heard of literary power couple Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning? Their passionate love compelled them to write hundreds of letters, flee their country, and immortalize one another in poetry. Read on to learn more about social activist, independent thinker, and romance poet extraordinaire Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

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Table of contents

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning: biography

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Biography
    Birth:6th March 1806
    Death:29th June 1861
    Father:Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett
    Mother:Mary Graham Clarke
    Spouse/Partners:Robert Browning (m. 1846-1861)
    Cause of death:Long illness.
    Famous Works:
    • 'How Do I Love Thee?'
    • Aurora Leigh
    • Sonnets from the Portuguese
    Literary Period:Victorian

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was one of the most well-known and prolific English poets of the Victorian era. She was popular in both Britain and the United States during her lifetime. Her most famous works are Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), a collection of love poems about her early relationship with her husband, and Aurora Leigh (1857), an early feminist text.

    Barrett Browning was born in 1806 to a wealthy family, whose fortune came from sugar plantations in Jamaica. She had a happy childhood at her family's mansion in Worcestershire, England. She was educated at home, where she read several of Shakespeare's plays, passages from Paradise Lost, and other great works before the age of 10. She learned some Greek and Latin from a tutor the family hired to teach her brother, but otherwise she taught herself entirely by reading books.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning, portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Elizabeth Barrett Browning would become one of the most prolific writers of her day.

    By the time she was 12, Barrett Browning had written The Battle of Marathon, her first 'epic' poem composed of four books of rhyming couplets. The endeavour was funded privately by her father. In 1826, Barrett Browning anonymously shared her work with the public for the first time in her collection An Essay on Mind and Other Poems.

    By 1832, the family's wealth from the sugar plantation had dried up due to an increasing push for the abolition of slavery and the mismanagement of funds in Jamaica while the Barretts were living in England. From the time she was 15, Barrett Browning was afflicted by a lung illness and a spinal injury that affected her throughout her entire life. In an effort to improve her health, Elizabeth, her father, and her ten siblings moved to a coastal town and rented various cottages when they lost their estate. After three years of living by the coast, they moved back to London permanently.

    Her 1838 collection The Seraphim and Other Poems earned her recognition in literary circles, and it was the first time her name appeared on the title page of any of her publications since The Battle of Marathon. Soon after the publication of The Seraphim and Other Poems, Barrett Browning's physician recommended she leave London and go to a warmer climate because her lungs were in such bad condition.

    The poet then moved to Torquay, on the south coast of Devonshire, for three years. She was visited by her siblings there. When her favourite brother died in a boating accident at Torquay she moved back home and isolated herself from outside visitors.

    For the next five years, Barrett Browning stayed mostly in her room at her father's London home. Her father was deeply protective and despotic, not wanting any of his children to marry or leave home. Nonetheless, she continued writing and in 1844 published her collection Poems in two parts. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and caught the attention of poet Robert Browning, whom Barrett Browning had praised in her collection.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning's marriage to Robert Browning

    In 1845, Elizabeth Barrett and Browning met and fell in love. She was six years older than him and a much bigger name in literary circles at the time. Browning wrote to thank Barrett for speaking highly of him in her Poems collection, saying,

    I love your verses with all my heart … and I love you, too.1

    They met for the first time in the summer of 1845 and courted in secret for 20 months, during which they exchanged 575 letters. Fearing her father's wrath, the Brownings secretly married in September 1846 and moved to Italy a week later. Her father disowned her when he found out about the marriage, and she never saw him again.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photograph of Robert Browning, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Elizabeth Barrett married fellow poet Robert Browning in 1846.

    The Brownings resided in Florence, Italy for most of their marriage, but they moved a lot due to financial challenges. Barrett Browning's health improved drastically in Italy.

    Each of the Brownings wrote love poems for the other: one of Barrett Browning's most famous works, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), was a collection of love poems that she wrote for her husband during the first few years of their marriage. For his part, Browning broke his vow of objectivity and wrote 'One Word More' (1855) about his love for his wife.

    Robert Browning's collection of poems Men and Women (1855) was also a product of his romance with Elizabeth Barrett. Although the poems were commercially unsuccessful and did not further his poetic career at the time, Men and Women is now regarded as some of Browning's best poetry.

    Sonnet: A poem that is 14 lines long with a regular rhyme scheme and a formal rhythm structure (usually iambic pentameter).

    Iambic Pentameter: A line of writing with ten syllables, one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.

    Starting in 1959, Barrett Browning's lifelong condition worsened once more, and she died in her husband's arms in 1861. After her death, her husband returned to England and prepared her Last Poems (1862) collection for publication.


    In 1849, at the age of 43, Elizabeth gave birth to her only son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning. Robert later grew up to become a successful painter and sculptor.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning: poems

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning was famous, even during her own lifetime, for her poetry. Most of her reputation rests upon the success of her sonnets and love poems. However, Barrett Browning also used her writing for social activism: she often spoke out against slavery and child labour, wrote extensively about Italian politics, and was not afraid to discuss the male domination of women. Her political opinions decreased her popularity, but her opinion was heard and valued.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning: sonnets

    Published in 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese is a collection of 44 love sonnets that Barrett Browning wrote between 1845-1846 as her relationship with Browning began and developed. The tone of the sonnets shifts as her relationship with her future husband grows, starting out hesitant and guarded yet becoming increasingly more passionate and hopeful.

    Barrett Browning was hesitant to publish the poems because of how personal they were. she eventually titled the collection Sonnets from the Portuguese - an effort to maintain some privacy by pretending the sonnets were simply translations from a foreign poet. 'Sonnet 43' is the most well-known poem of the collection, beginning 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.'

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning Book with a heart StudySmarterFig. 3 - Barrett Browning became famous for her love sonnets.

    Aurora Leigh

    Aurora Leigh (1857) is Barrett Browning's longest work, an epic poem/novel spanning more than 11,000 lines. Its nine books are written in blank verse, and it is the first feature-length poem in English to place a female artist as the heroine and centre of the plot. The heroine, Aurora Leigh, offers a first-person narrative of her youth, self-education, and pursuit of a literary career. The heroine is a highly independent woman who refuses her cousin's marriage proposal and instead focuses on building her career.

    Although Aurora Leigh eventually realizes she is in love with her cousin, the main focus of the poem is on her professional life and her friendship with another woman. The poem features themes such as oppressive social roles, gender-based violence (especially in relation to prostitution), and 'the woman question.'

    The woman question, translated from the French term 'querelle des femmes,' refers to the debate around whether women needed greater economic, political, and educational freedom, or should continue their roles as mothers and housewives.

    In Aurora Leigh, the heroine chooses her career over a marriage. Barrett Browning sides with female liberation from the constricting social values which placed women's needs below those of their husbands and children.

    Epic Poem: A long, narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds and historical events that are significant to the poet's culture.

    Blank verse: Verse written in unrhymed lines, but with a set rhythm (usually iambic pentameter).

    Themes in Barrett Browning's works

    The main themes in Barrett Browning's works are gender roles, industrialisation, and love.

    Problems faced by women

    As showcased in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning was deeply concerned with women's place in society. Growing up, she valued Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), the influence of which shines through in much of Barrett Browning's own writing.

    Much of her poetry illustrates the issues that women faced in Victorian society, from unequal opportunities in jobs to their own marriages. She was especially concerned with marital power dynamics, showcased in Aurora Leigh and even to some extent in her sonnets, where she expresses hesitancy about getting married.

    This theme of reluctance around marriage was influenced by Barrett Browning's time period, in which women had very few rights of their own and were basically controlled by their husbands and fathers. Barrett Browning herself was an outlier, becoming a huge name in literature when most women were never given the chance to write anything for the public sphere.

    Evils of industrialisation

    As stated above, Barrett Browning was ardently opposed to slavery and child labour. During her time period, cities were becoming increasingly more industrialized, tending towards horrible working conditions that were dangerous and filthy.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning Smokestacks StudySmarterFig. 4 - Barrett Browning spoke to the issues of industrialization in her poems.

    Barrett Browning spoke out against these conditions in her 1843 poem 'The Cry of the Children,' which depicts children being forced to work in horrible conditions and dying young. She condemned progress and industrialization at the expense of children's safety. Barrett Browning uses religious imagery to juxtapose the morality of Christianity with the conditions and atrocities that are being allowed simply so the rich can earn more money.


    There are many ways Barrett Browning explored the theme of love in her poetry.

    1. Romantic love

    2. Spiritual love: Barrett Browning was deeply religious and her poetry often explores the idea of love as a divine force, such as in 'Aurora Leigh' where the protagonist's spiritual journey is intertwined with her search for love.

    3. Maternal love: Barrett Browning's poetry often reflects her own experiences as a mother and her deep love for her children, such as in 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' which were written to her husband and express her love for him and their child.

    4. Self-love

    5. Unrequited love: Many of her poems deal with the pain of unrequited love, such as 'If Thou Must Love Me' where the speaker implores their lover not to love them out of obligation or pity.

    6. Love as a transformative force: Barrett Browning's poetry often portrays love as a transformative force that can change and elevate individuals, as seen in 'Aurora Leigh' where the protagonist's love for her art and her relationships helps her to grow and develop as a person. This is also a form of self-love, where the speaker acknowledges their flaws and insecurities but ultimately finds solace in the love of their partner.

    Browning: facts

    Here are a few remarkable facts about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her life.

    1. Elibath Barrett Browning was the first woman to be nominated for Poet Laureate after the death of William Wordsworth. However, she lost the post to Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1850.
    2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning secretly married Robert Browning at the age of 40, in 1846. Since Elizabeth Barrette Browning's father opposed any of his children getting married, he disinherited Elizabeth soon after their wedding. The two did not speak to each other ever again.
    3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fondly named her famous sonnet collection Sonnets from Portuguese (1850) after Robert's nickname for her: 'my little Portuguese.'
    4. Since Elizabeth dedicated most of her poetry to the Italian struggle for reunification, she was given a public funeral in Florence following her death.
    5. Although Elizabeth Barrett Browning's illness was not diagnosed by doctors at the time, many modern doctors liken her symptoms to that of chronic fatigue syndrome, polio, or hypokalemic periodic paralysis, which are all muscle-weakening genetic disorders. However, this is just mere speculation as her ailment remains unidentified today.

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Key takeaways

    • Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an important English poet in the Victorian age who was born on 6th March 1806 and died on 29th June 1861.

    • She suffered a spinal injury when she was 15 and had a lung ailment that impacted the rest of her life.

    • She married fellow poet Robert Browning in secret and was disinherited.

    • Her most well-known works include Sonnets from the Portuguese and the epic poem Aurora Leigh

    • Some of the themes she's most well known for are problems faced by women and the evils of industrialization.

    1 'First Letter Robert Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett Browning,' Project Gutenburg (2005).

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabeth Barrett Browning Biography

    What is Elizabeth Barrett Browning best known for?

    Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for her love poetry. Her collection of 44 love sonnets, Sonnets from the Portuguese, was written for her husband during the first two years of their relationship. Aurora Leigh, a story about a girl who turns down a marriage proposal to focus on her literary career, is considered an early feminist text. 

    What did Elizabeth Barrett Browning suffer from?

    She was afflicted by a spinal injury that she got when she was saddling her pony at 15. She also had a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, that affected her entire adult life. 

    What is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous poem? 

    Her most famous poem is in Sonnets from the Portuguese. It is Sonnet 43 or more commonly known as 'How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways." It was written for Robert Browning. 

    What was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's style?

    She is most famous for her love sonnets. They are written in iambic pentameter. 

    How did Elizabeth Barrett Browning die?

    Her lifelong condition worsened for two years and she became weaker and more ill. She died in her husband's arms. 

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