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December 15, 2017

Browning, Barrett, Love

On this day in 1845 Robert Browning wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, so inciting one of the most legendary of literary love stories. The letter belongs to the 'fan mail' category -- the praise of a thirty-two-year-old up-and-comer for one just six years older and already internationally famous -- but it was more than just poet-to-poet. After commending "the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought," Browning confides that he is addressing "your own self," and that "for the first time, my feeling rises altogether":
    I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart -- and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing -- really seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning 'Would you like to see Miss Barrett?' then he went to announce me, -- then he returned . . . you were too unwell, and now it is years ago, and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels, as if I had been close, so close, to some world's-wonder in chapel or crypt, only a screen to push and I might have entered, but there was some slight, so it now seems, slight and just sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be?
Elizabeth Barrett soon granted this request for a meeting, though she had every reason not to regard it as auspicious. Her wealthy father had made it clear that none of his eleven children would be allowed to marry, on pain of banishment. The reasons for this were dark and unspoken, perhaps literally: some believe that Barrett's grandfather, one of the biggest landholders in the West Indes, had not only passed along his fortune made on rum and sugar but some mixed blood, and that Barrett's father felt so shamed by this, and so fearful of dark-skinned grandchildren, that he would do anything to prevent it. But Elizabeth, now in middle-age, must have long-regarded this tyranny as irrelevant. Tuberculosis or something like it had dominated her life since the age of fourteen; most of her adult years had been spent as a house-bound, often bed-ridden, invalid, and she could not at this point be expecting marriage, let alone children.

But nor could she have expected Robert Browning. Over twenty months, five hundred and seventy-five letters passed between them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would later describe her physical improvement over these months as a resurrection, a shedding of the "graveclothes" in which she had allowed her illness and morbidity to dress her. Her family must have felt so too on that day in January, 1846 when she suddenly appeared downstairs: she had hardly been out of her room in six years, and even then only when carried. Eight months later, after she and Browning had eloped to Florence, the men in the family would virtually rebury her: her brothers refused to communicate for years; her father refused forever, returning her letters unopened, rejecting her son, and cutting her from his will. One of the last poems she wrote as Elizabeth Barrett was the sonnet to Browning in which she asks, "How do I love thee?" and then counts the ways; the first poem written in her miracle, second life as Elizabeth Barrett Browning was called "The Runaway Slave."

All but one of the Barrett-Browning letters would eventually be published by their son fifty years later. The missing letter was one Browning wrote the day he and Barrett first met, after almost five months of romance by Royal Mail. It was so passionate -- and, presumably, dangerous -- that Barrett had returned it with instructions for burning.

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