Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus (1995) is a biography, nicely written and quite thoughtful, of the two poets and their relationship. Beyond the great story of love and art that it tells the book raises some fascinating social issues ... themes which clearly troubled the Victorians and which are by no means resolved today.
Both the Barrett and the Browning families had ties to the British West Indies and had various African relatives. It's not clear whether or not (or to what degree) Elizabeth herself was "black". Perhaps she thought she was; after all, "The Portuguese" in her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" is a self-reference, and she saw herself as dark and broad-featured. Her father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, had huge hangups and was a mega-control-freak, disowning any of his children who left his domain to get married. Did he hope to end his family's line?
And the anti-slavery poem that EBB composed shortly after her marriage is perhaps revealing: its original title was "Mad and Black at Pilgrim's Point". It deals with interracial rape, insanity, and murder. (When she wrote it, Elizabeth was herself with child; that pregnancy ended in miscarriage.) As biographer Markus writes of EBB, "She was not proud of this lineage 'of the blood of the slave.' She was much too close to its ramifications, both in moral and in family matters. Yet in the high pitch of her creative intelligence and her nervous susceptibilities, she may have left the world a body of poetry that to some extent merged disparate cultures into a unique and increasingly radical voice."
Elizabeth had to overcome multiple daunting barriers, including her own gravely ill health, to escape from the virtual prison of her father's house. And the way Robert courted and then cared for her is also most striking. The couple disagreed deeply about a host of issues, especially involving mysticism and spirituality — and yet deeply loved one another. Markus quotes Robert's letter:
"I shall only say that Ba [Elizabeth] and I know each other for time and, I dare trust, eternity: — We differ toto coelo (or rather, inferno) as to spirit-rapping, we quarrel sometimes about politics, and estimate people's characters with enormous difference, but, in the main, we know each other, I say."
And as Markus says:
That was the pride of their years of love. Whatever had altered, trust had not. They breathed with each other's breath. At the beginning they saw the other as a brilliant poet, an amazing intellect, a compassionate and strangely similar heart. They learned their differences through the years. Neither gave over to the other. Each remained a complex and thrilling person. An exciting person to know, a different person to know. As early as December 1851, Ba wrote to Arabel [her sister] about her and Robert's disagreement about Napoleon: "You know I do think for myself (if the thought is right or wrong) and I do speak the truth (as I am capable of apprehending it) to my husband always. Also, we agree absolutely always on the principles of things — & therefore it is, that what you used to call 'our quarrelling' is an element of our loving one another, & a very important element too."
Marcus cites an earlier biographer (Betty Miller, writing in 1952) who quotes Robert Browning a few years after his wife's death:
"The general impression of the past is as if it had been pain. I would not live it over again, not one day of it. Yet all that seems my real life, — and before and after, nothing at all: I look back on all my life, when I look there: and life is painful. I always think of this when I read the Odyssey — Homer makes the surviving Greeks, whenever they refer to Troy, just say of it, 'At Troy, where the Greeks suffered so.' Yet all their life was in that ten years at Troy."
And Marcus concludes this chapter of her book with:
Yes, life had been painful. His mother's death; his own questioning, nervous temperament; the lawsuit against his father; money worries; the constant responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood; the failure of his best poetry; Ba's relationship with Sophia Eckley [a rich American psychic/medium/fraud]; the long, sad decline and loss of the woman who was the great love of his life ...
But what we can glimpse of the other side of the moon is much more compelling. After all, what was so extraordinary in the Brownings' marriage was that these two complex individuals both believed the years they spent in Italy together, her last years and his middle years, were the only years in which they really lived. Daring to marry secretly and to leave England to fend for themselves, they had actually brought each other to life.
A personal aside: perhaps the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning resonates so strongly with me because of the parallels (and divergences) with my marriage to PD? We have not been troubled (directly, much) by racism (or, methinks, I'm simply oblivious to it?!). But my love and I certainly hold radically different opinions in countless areas, and have had our share of fierce debates. Nevertheless ....