Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born Elizabeth Barrett on March 6, 1806, in Durham County, England. The eldest of 12 children in an affluent family, she enjoyed a pleasant childhood in the English countryside of Worcestershire. Browning was educated at home, reading and writing vigorously. By the age of 12, she had written her first book of poetry. A devout Christian, her work explored religious themes and would continue to do so throughout her literary career.
At the age of 14, Browning began to have serious health problems. A lung illness followed shortly by a spinal injury made the young woman frail, requiring her to take morphine for the rest of her life. In spite of these setbacks, Browning continued to devour literature and pursue her studies. In 1820, her father helped her publish her first book, The Battle of Marathon, which he released privately. The next decade proved trying for the young poet, as her family was affected by misfortune. The death of Browning’s mother in 1828 and the demise of her father’s business forced the family to sell their estate and move to London in 1836.
Throughout these turbulent times, Browning still wrote prolifically, writing for several periodicals in London and publishing The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838. The death of her brother coupled with her fragile health turned her into a somewhat reclusive figure, and she rarely met with people outside her intimate circle of friends and family. However, the resilient Browning continued to write and build a name for herself in the literary community, publishing her well-received second volume, Poems, in 1844.
In 1845, she received a letter from the well-known poet Robert Browning, in which he praised her work and confessed his love for her. That summer, they met for the first time. They continued their courtship in secret through the exchange of letters, taking great care to hide their romance from Elizabeth’s intimidating father. In 1846, the couple eloped against Mr. Barrett’s wishes. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father never spoke again.
The Brownings moved to Italy, eventually settling in Florence. In 1849, their only son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, was born. During her years in Italy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published various works focused on themes ranging from politics to love to feminism. The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point (1848) and Poems Before Congress (1860) protested slavery in America. Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), her famous collection of love poems dedicated to her husband, established Browning as a great romantic poet. She published her longest work, a blank verse love poem entitled Aurora Leigh, in 1857, describing the male domination of a woman. The poet was also a sharp critic of Italian politics, publishing the poem Casa Guidi Windows in 1851 in defense of Napoleon III.
Sadly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poor health eventually caught up with her. In 1861, she caught a chill from which she never recovered. She passed away in Florence on June 29, 1861, at the age of 55, in the arms of her beloved husband. She is remembered today as one of the preeminent poets of the Victorian era.