2 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a child prodigy with a remarkable appetite for the printed word, a facility for languages, and ambitions to become a great poet. But what did she read as a child and a teenager, and how did this shape her thinking and writing? Much of the evidence of her reading from her family correspondence is now contained on the UK RED site, so let’s start by conducting an advanced search.
for the evidence of Elizabeth Barrett’s childhood reading in UK RED. Click on ‘Advanced Search’, and scroll down. Enter ‘Elizabeth Barrett’ (her maiden name) in the ‘Name of Reader’ box, check ‘female’ for gender, and ‘child’ for age – it should look like this:
Now submit your query, which will return all the evidence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s reading in UK RED before the age of 18. What do you find? Is her reading unusual? You may want to use the ‘My List’ function to facilitate easier interpretation of your search results.
Your search should return 50 entries (January 2011), and three things may well strike you. First of all, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s precocity as a child reader, who read histories, Homer’s Odyssey, some of Shakespeare’s plays and portions of Milton’s Paradise Lost by the age of eight (UK RED: 16069), and French novels (UK RED: 15961) and Latin grammars (UK RED: 15964) by the age of 10.
Second, the extent to which she starts to shape her own identity as a budding author through her reading and evaluative response, such as the comparison of Madame de Sévigné’s letters with Byron’s verse:
‘I do not admire “Madame de Sévigné’s letters,” though the French is excellent [...] yet the sentiment is not novel […] the last Canto of “Childe Harold” (certainly much superior to the others) has delighted me more than I can express. The description of the waterfall is the most exquisite piece of poetry that I ever read [...] All the energy, all the sublimity of modern verse is centered in those lines’.
Only two years after writing this letter, Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have her first work of poetry published.
Finally, her childhood reading reveals the paucity of previous women poets as role models. While 15 of the 50 books in the search results are by women, only one volume of poetry, her own long poem The Battle of Marathon (1820), is by a female author (UK RED: 16095). Her reading and response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (UK RED: 17599 and UK RED: 17010) indicates her early awareness of the circumstances faced by women writers and thinkers in this period.
After their marriage in 1846, the Brownings moved to Italy, living in ‘Casa Guidi’, a house in the Oltrarno district of Florence from 1847 until Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861. Vernon Lee lived at ‘Il Palmerino’, a villa in Maiano in the hills just outside Florence, from 1889 until her death in 1935. Although they never met (Barrett Browning died when Lee was still only five years old), they were both prominent members of the large Anglo-Florentine community, many of whose members were writers. Robert Browning was Lee’s favourite nineteenth-century British poet, and she read through all of his poems immediately after his death in December 1889. Who were the other prominent members of this literary community in the nineteenth century, and did they read one another’s works?
We can start to investigate this by performing an advanced search of UK RED and locating readers in Florence. Click on ‘Advanced Search’, and scroll down the list of search fields, until you reach ‘Places of Experience’ – put ‘Florence’ in the ‘other places’ box, and check the ‘City/Town/Village’ box, like this:
Make sure that the box for ‘reader’ in the Reader/Listener/Reading Group field is not checked – remember that you are searching by place, and not by reader. Now click on ‘submit query’. What does this search yield? Make a note of the famous writers listed as readers in the results, and see if they read each others’ writing, or if you can find some common social networks between them.
This search should yield 250 hits [January 2011], and reads a little bit like a who’s who of great nineteenth-century British writers: Percy and Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Sarah Harriet Burney, Mrs Oliphant, Henry James, John Ruskin, Gertrude Bell, and of course Vernon Lee and both Elizabeth and Robert Browning are here.
Then as now, there were thousands of British people residing in Florence, or visiting it each year as part of the Grand Tour, and many left records of their reading in their diaries and correspondence. The data on the UK RED site is far from exhaustive and is still being added to, but what it does indicate is that there were identifiable British reading communities or social networks of practicing writers active in Florence through the nineteenth-century, and that they often read each other’s work collectively, fostering their own creativity.
The Shelley circle (Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont) were all influenced by Lord Byron, whose Don Juan (1819-24) was the poetic sensation of the era. Staying in a rented pensione in Florence, the Shelley household often read to each other, while engaging in their own literary projects. Thus on 3 January 1820, Mary Shelley notes in her diary that her husband read Byron’s Don Juan ‘aloud in the evening’ (UK RED: 16143), while her step-sister Claire Clairmont, recording the same reading event in her journals, notes that it was Cantos I and II of Byron’s poem (UK RED: 15391) – Byron was writing Cantos III and IV that very winter in Ravenna, some 140 km away. Thirty years later, it would be Shelley’s turn to be read in the same way by the Brownings – Elizabeth Barrett Browning noting in a letter to her sister in December 1850 that she had been reading Shelley’s poems aloud to her husband, and that they had ‘talked & admired & criticised every separate stanza’ (UK RED: 19632). Barrett Browning was a frequent reader of Shelley throughout her life, and the evidence already in UK RED suggests that while she was always appreciative of his poetic talent (see UK RED: 19520), she was sometimes critical of this tendency to be ‘too immaterial for our sympathies’ (UK RED: 893) and also questioned his ability as a classicist (UK RED: 16570).
This kind of reading is both social and professional, indicating a literary community attached to a particular place (Florence) and a specific activity (writing in relation to an established literary or poetic tradition). Writers’ reading can give us clear indications of their many literary influences, tastes, and judgements, and how these might change over time. Indeed, in her reading of Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1817) in August 1831 when she criticised him for being ‘too immaterial’, Barrett Browning also admitted that ‘as I read him on, I may reverse this opinion’ (UK RED: 893).