January 16, 2018

The Brownings: "Dared and Done"

On this day in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning married secretly. For dark and unspoken reasons, Edward Moulton Barrett, Elizabeth's father, had forbidden any of his eleven children to marry -- one plausible theory being that he was ashamed of the family's Jamaican blood, and didn't want it perpetuated. Until she received a fan letter from Browning, Barrett showed every sign of compliance; additionally, she was 39, and a tubercular, bed-ridden invalid. But over the next 20 months -- eventually, 575 letters and almost daily visits from Browning -- Barrett would gradually gain the strength to shed her "graveclothes" and walk out of the bedroom she hadn't left for six years except when carried.

The elopement plan did not have the two leaving for Florence for several days, so the romance by Royal Mail continued unabated, even through the marriage day. Browning's letter just after the ceremony shows no regrets: "I look back, and in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every silence -- you have been entirely perfect to me. . . . You have given me the highest, completest proof of love that ever one human being gave another." Barrett's response later that afternoon reports her rested, and having successfully deflected her sisters' "grave faces" and inquiries as to her whereabouts earlier in the day: "And so, to complete the bravery, I went on with them in the carriage to Hampstead . . as far as the heath, -- and talked and looked. . . . It seems all like a dream! When we drove past the church again, I and my sisters, there was a cloud before my eyes."

The sisters would soon forgive the deception, but Barrett's 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 must have been to her father: it was called "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point":
    I stand on the mark beside the shore
    Of the first white pilgrim's bended knee,
    Where exile turned to ancestor,
    And God was thanked for liberty.
    I have run through the night, my skin is as dark,
    I bend my knee down on this mark . . .
    I look on the sky and the sea. . . .

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