Fiona Sampson – Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: the poet’s self-creation

British poet and author Fiona Sampson opens her book Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by describing the most famous portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning where the poet simultaneously turns away and looks back over her shoulder at us […] glancing over […] towards the future. […] Her direct gaze seems startlingly modern, and Barrett Browning is indeed an incredibly modern woman, with a huge appetite for both life and knowledge in a society in which women were only permitted to occupy the space drawn around themselves by their own crinolines.

The author presents “Ba”, the nickname given to Barrett Browning by family and friends, in terms of the poet’s self-creation, a woman becoming a writer with her human and health frailties, and in the context of the tensions she experienced with her father; Sampson tries to untangle this relational knot. Though he has been relegated to the realms of a gothic monster, a dictatorial figure who virtually “secluded” his children in a golden cage to keep them safe from the outer world and refused marriage for both boys and girls, Sampson’s Edward Moulton-Barrett emerges  predominantly  as an insecure parvenu, a  devoutly religious country man, who never felt integrated into the gentry he had been surrounded by since 1820.

Sampson’s account is focused on the early part of Barrett Browning’s life, during which time she was committed to  the act of watching herself in the mirror, embracing the notion of writing as an act of resistance. Whether one is familiar with Barrett Browning’s works or not, this original biography – within nine numbered chapters or ‘books’ (eg.’How to be ill’, ‘How to manage change’, etc.) and short mirroring ‘frames’ connecting each “book” – skillfully places Barrett Browning in her time: that of a socially and culturally restricted Victorian environment. Yet, Barrett Browning manages to affirm herself, to cope with a long-life respiratory illness, and resist her father’s wish for her not to marry the poet Robert Browning.

Browning, an ardent admirer of her work, contacted her in her late thirties and in his first letter to her he wrote: “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart — and I love you too”. After corresponding and meeting, they eventually got married in 1846 in Italy; the act enraged her father, who threatened to cut her off, but the threat was ineffective as she had her own inheritance received by an uncle who had died with no legitimate children (an annual income of around £200, equivalent to a little under three years’ pay for a skilled labourer. Combined with around £4,000 inherited from Grandmama, also invested for her, it means that, unusually for a woman at this time, Elizabeth could afford to live independently. p.102)

During her life Barrett Browning suffered more specifically as a result of the harm inflicted on her by the misguided therapies of Victorian doctors – they also suggested she avoid writing – than by the sicknesses itself. Her addiction to morphine, a dependence she tried to ween herself off from when she became a mother (after several miscarriages), never impeded her from finding the time for writing, even when confined to her bed.

Sampson’s Barrett Browning is an intellectual engagée, a political activist, a freedom fighter who fully participated in her time and its concerns, and could not ignore the issues of gender, race, imperialism, war and economic inequity. In her poem The Cry of the Children she condemns the abuse of child labor; in Casa Guidi Windows she celebrates the Italian struggle for self-determination; in Aurora Leigh, she writes in verses of a young female writer’s career, as well as of marginalized women, rape, imprisonment and poverty. As she was born in a British Jamaican family – one of Jamaica’s wealthiest and most influential planters – whose wealth was generated largely by slaves, she herself had “the blood of the slave”, Barrett Browning firmly depicted the horrors of slavery and writes about the subject in The Runaway Slave at Pilgrims Point while contributing to the fund-raising for the American abolitionist movement.

There is of course much more that makes this new biography worth reading, but what clearly emerges is that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a brave woman – a refined intellectual – with an ongoing sense of wonder and a personal strength  that makes her one of the most important poets of the 19th century.

Sampson’s unusual and unconventional biography with its framing structure, breadth and depth, is an acute, innovative and insightful study of the life and work of a pioneering and visionary writer, perfectly connected to both the history and politics of her time.

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a Washington Post Book of the year & New York Times Editors’ choice. Finalist for the 2022 Plutarch Prize.

Thanks to Emilia Mirazchiyska