Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh. Portrait by Elliott & Fry © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Elliott & Fry © National Portrait Gallery, London


Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most fêted poets of her age, a candidate for poet laureate after the death of William Wordsworth. She is now best known for her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), love poems to her husband Robert Browning, who called her ‘my little Portuguese’ because of her dark looks. In a letter she described herself as ‘“little & black” like Sappho … five feet one high … eyes of various colours as the sun shines … not much nose … but to make up for it, a mouth suitable to a larger personality’.[1]

She was born near Durham, the oldest of the 12 children of a wealthy plantation-owner, and was educated at home, near Ledbury. An avid reader and writer, she started writing an epic about Marathon at the age of 11 and had it privately printed when she turned 14. In 1821, she developed a debilitating spine disease. The family moved to London’s Wimpole Street in 1838, where Elizabeth socialised with such literary lions as Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In 1845, the prolific, but to most people opaque, poet Robert Browning wrote to thank her for praising his poems, and in turn expressed admiration for the ‘fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought’ of hers. Soon they were in love. Elizabeth's father disapproved, but Elizabeth had a personal fortune, and in 1846 she and Robert left for Italy after a secret marriage. They settled in Casa Guidi, Florence, where her health improved, and in 1849 she gave birth to a son, Robert, known as Pen. Elizabeth addressed women’s rights in her verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856); her Casa Guidi Windows (1851) supported Italian reunification. She died in Florence in 1861.

Further information about the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


[1] Letter to Benjamin Haydon, 1 January 1843