In this letter Robert Browning conveys his anger over unkind criticism of his late wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning had recently picked up a volume of the Letters of Edward FitzGerald (1889) and by chance found a passage in which the poet expresses his frank opinion of Barrett Browning,
Mrs Browning’s death is rather a relief to me, I must say: no more Aurora Leighs, thank God! A Woman of real Genius, I know; but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children; and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all.
Browning was incensed by the insult and promptly dashed off a response, which he sent to the Athenaeum, a well-respected literary magazine of the day. Published on the same date as this letter, Browning’s reply ‘To Edward FitzGerald’ took the form of a sonnet in which he contemplated how he would treat FitzGerald were he still alive. The incident took its toll on Browning, perhaps contributing to his falling ill in the autumn of that year and his subsequent death in December 1889.
The FitzGerald letter refers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous work, the verse-novel Aurora Leigh (published 1856, but dated 1857). In Barrett Browning’s lifetime, opinion of Aurora Leigh was split. Most reviewers praised the work highly while simultaneously condemning its form and subject matter, which was perceived as indecent. In the years following her death, opinion of Aurora Leigh declined largely due to prejudice against female writers.
Edward FitzGerald was a poet and translator, best-known for The Rubbáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), his English translation of the Persian epic. FitzGerald was a friend of the poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, hence Browning’s concern that the derogatory letter may have been addressed to Tennyson, whom he greatly admired. This proved not to be the case, and in fact Tennyson wrote to Browning in August 1889 assuring him of his friendship.