Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), English poet, wife of the poet Robert Browning, was born probably at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, for this was the home of her father and mother for some time after their marriage in 1805. Her baptismal register gives the date of her birth as the 6th of March 1806, and that of her christening as the 10th of February 1808. The long misunderstanding as to her age, whereby she was supposed to have been born three years later, was shared by her contemporaries and even for a time by her husband. She was the daughter and eldest child of Edward Barrett Moulton, who added the surname of Barrett on the death of his maternal grandfather, whose estates in Jamaica he inherited. His wife was Mary Graham-Clarke, daughter of J. Graham-Clarke of Fenham Hall, Newcastle-on-Tyne. She died when her illustrious daughter was twenty-two years old. Elizabeth's childhood was passed in the country, chiefly at Hope End, a house bought by her father in the beautiful country in sight of the Malvern Hills. "They seem to me," she wrote, "my native hills; for though I was born in the county of Durham, I was an infant when I went first into their neighbourhood, and lived there until I had passed twenty by several years." Her country poems, such as "The Lost Bower," "Hector in the Garden," and "The Deserted Garden," refer to the woods and gardens of Hope End. Elizabeth Barrett was much the companion of her father, who pleased himself with printing fifty copies of what she calls her "great epic of eleven or twelve years old, in four books" - The Battle of Marathon (sent to the printer in 1819). She owns this to have been "a curious production for a child," but disclaims for it anything more than "an imitative faculty." The love of Pope's Homer, she adds, led her to the study of Greek, and of Latin as a help to Greek, "and the influence of all those tendencies is manifest so long afterwards as in my Essay on Mind [Essay on Mind and other Poems, 1826], a didactic poem written when I was seventeen or eighteen, and long repented of." She was a keen student, and it is told of her that when her health failed she had her Greek books bound so as to look like novels, for fear her doctor should forbid her continuous study.
At this time began her friendship with the blind scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd, with whom she read Greek authors, and especially the Greek Christian Fathers and Poets. To him she addressed later three of her sonnets, and he was one of her chief friends until his death in 1848. In 1832 Mr Barrett sold his house of Hope End, and brought his family to Sidmouth, Devon, for some three years. There Elizabeth made a translation of the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, published with some original poems (1833). After that time London became the home of the Barretts until the children married and the father died. The temporary dwelling was at 74 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, and in 1838 the lease was taken of the final house, 50 Wimpole Street.
It is in the middle of the year 1836 that Elizabeth Barrett's active literary life began. She then made the acquaintance of R.H. Horne, afterwards famous for a time as the author of Orion, but perhaps best remembered as her correspondent (Letters to R.H. Horne, 2 vols. 1877), and this acquaintance led to the appearance of rather frequent poems by Miss Barrett in the New Monthly Magazine, edited by Bulwer (Lord Lytton), and in other magazines or annuals. But the publication of The Seraphim and other Poems (1838) was a graver step. "My present attempt," she writes in this year, "is actually, and will be considered by others, more a trial of strength than either of my preceding ones." There was at that date a lull in the production of conspicuous books of poetry. Wordsworth had ceased, Browning and Tennyson had hardly begun to write their best. Miss Barrett's volume was well reviewed, but not popular, and no second edition was required; of the poems afterwards famous it contained three, "Cowper's Grave," "My Doves," and "The Sea-Mew," the first impassioned and the other two very quiet, which a fine taste must rank high among all her works.
The Quarterly Review (September 1840), in an article on "Modern English Poetesses," criticizes The Seraphim with Prometheus, and treats the former with respect, but does not lift the author out of the quite unequal company of Mrs Norton, "V," and other contemporary women. In the previous year Elizabeth had made the memorable acquaintance of Wordsworth. "No," she writes, "I was not at all disappointed in Wordsworth, although perhaps I should not have singled him from the multitude as a great man. There is a reserve even in his countenance; ... his eyes have more meekness than brilliancy; and in his slow, even articulation there is rather the solemnity and calmness of truth itself than the animation and energy of those who seek for it ... He was very kind, and sate near me and talked to me as long as he was in the room, and recited a translation by Cary of a sonnet of Dante's - and altogether it was a dream." With Landor, at the same date, a meeting took place that had long results. At this time, too, began another of Elizabeth's valued friendships - that with Miss Mitford, author of Our Village and other works less well remembered. Mr John Kenyon also became at about this time a dear and intimate friend.
He was a distant cousin of the Barretts, had published some verse, and was a warm and generous friend to men of letters. From the date of the birth of their child (1849) he gave the Brownings a hundred pounds a year, and when he died in 1856 he bequeathed to them eleven thousand pounds. To him a great number of Elizabeth's letters are addressed, and to him in later years was Aurora Leigh dedicated. Elizabeth Barrett began also in London an acquaintance with Harriet Martineau.
Full of the interest of friendship and literature, the residence in London was unfavourable to Elizabeth's health. In early girlhood she had a spinal affection, and her lungs became delicate. She broke a blood-vessel in the beginning of the Barretts' life in town, and was thereafter an invalid - by no means entirely confined to her room, but often imprisoned there, and generally a recluse, until her marriage. Her state was so threatening that in 1838 it was found necessary to remove her to Torquay, where she spent three years, accompanied by her brother Edward, the dearest of her eight brothers, the only one, she said many years later, who ever comprehended her, and for a time by her father and sisters. During this time of physical suffering she underwent the greatest grief of her life by the drowning of her beloved brother, who with two friends went sailing in a small boat and was lost in Babbacombe Bay. Rumours of the foundering reached the unhappy sister, who was assured of the worst after three days, when the bodies were found. The accident of Edward Barrett's meeting with his death through her residence at Torquay, and the minor accident of her having parted from him on the day of his death, as she said, "with pettish words," increased her anguish of heart to horror.