A Musical Instrument

A Musical Instrument Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Political Activist

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known today for her romantic sonnets. However, her other writings—both early and late works—are politically charged. Her passion for human rights was stirred at a young age. Browning’s family was part Creole. For many generations, the Barrett family lived in Jamaica, where they owned a sugar plantation worked by slaves. While Browning was raised in England with her siblings, her father continued to profit from his plantation abroad. Although her father’s plantation would eventually fail amidst financial mismanagement issues and the gradual abolition of slavery, he often sent Elizabeth’s younger siblings to Jamaica to help with his estates. As a deeply religious person, Elizabeth opposed her father’s role in slavery and his desire to involve her siblings. In 1838, she wrote The Seraphim and Other Poems, relaying Christian ideals in the form of Greek tragedy.

In 1843, Browning published her poem “The Cry of the Children” in Blackwood’s Magazine. This poem examines child exploitation, illustrating the horrors of child labor in mines and factories of the time. Her 1844 volume, Poems, includes the feminist work, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.” In this poem, Browning creates a portrait of a bold, independent woman who resists Victorian values of meekness and female passivity by engaging in a courtship with a man from a different class. In 1848, her poem, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point” was included in The Liberty Bell, an annual abolitionist publication. The powerful poem addresses slavery from a female slave’s point of view, citing issues including gender, race, and social class. While many people admired Browning’s boldness in writing such politically-motivated poems, many others disliked her works and criticized her openly.

In the last years of her life, Browning became deeply interested in Italian politics. As Florence, Italy, had been her home for years, she was surrounded by a tense political climate in which Italians were suppressed by Austrian occupation in some parts of the country. In Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860), she rejects Austrian occupation, criticizes the lack of strong Italian leadership, questions the role of the Catholic Church, and laments Great Britain’s failure to intervene in Italian affairs. While many artists, intellectuals, and political activists praised her outspoken writings, Browning was once again met with opposition by many reviewers who found her too radical for a woman of the Victorian era.