The first part of this letter to poet and critic Leigh Hunt is from Robert Browning, the concluding part is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is a belated response to Hunt’s letter of 31 December 1856 praising Barrett Browning’s verse-novel Aurora Leigh (published 1856, but dated 1857). As the Brownings explained in the letter, their delay in replying was due to several illnesses, as well as the death of John Kenyon whom Barrett Browning had looked up to as a father figure (and to whom she dedicated Aurora Leigh).
Hunt’s effusive 20-page letter had lauded Aurora Leigh as a ‘unique, wonderful and immortal poem ... its being an exponent of its age, and a prophetic teacher of it’. His appreciation of the controversial work was not surprising. As a friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley and a radical himself (he was imprisoned from 1813 to 1815 for libel), Hunt was as unconventional a thinker in the early 1800s as the Brownings were in later years.
What does the letter reveal about the composition of Aurora Leigh?Barrett Browning began Aurora Leigh in 1853, but she did not share or discuss work-in-progress with her husband, despite their intimacy. Browning told Hunt, ‘At Paris, a year ago last March, she gave me the first six books to read – I having never seen them before’. It was important to Barrett Browning to maintain a degree of secrecy about her writing, even with those close to her. She once wrote, ‘An artist must, I fancy, either find or make a solitude to work in, if it is to be good work at all’.
At the end of the letter Barrett Browning thanks Leigh Hunt for ‘Milton’s hair’. This is a reference to a lock of the poet John Milton’s hair which Hunt gave to Robert Browning in recognition of his literary talent after the publication of his poem Paracelsus (1835). The lock of hair had reportedly had various owners including the writer and lexicographer, Dr Johnson. On Elizabeth’s death, Robert had a lock of her hair enclosed with Milton’s in a silver case. At the time it was not unusual to prize such relics of famous figures – the British Library collections are home to locks of hair from Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and others, not to mention Percy Shelley’s ashes.
- Article by:
- Simon Avery
- Gender and sexuality, Victorian poetry
Dr Simon Avery considers how Elizabeth Barrett Browning used poetry to explore and challenge traditional Victorian roles for women, assessing the early influences on her work and thought.
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) completed this controversial nine-book novel in blank verse form in 1856. It ...