BARRETT, Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861)
Plaque erected in 1899 by (Royal) Society of Arts at 50 Wimpole Street, Marylebone, London W1G 8SQ, City of Westminster
ELIZABETH BARRETT BARRETT POETESS, AFTERWARDS WIFE OF ROBERT BROWNING, LIVED HERE 1838-1846
Plaque re-erected in 1936 with a supplementary stone inscription added by the LCC.
Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (later Barrett Browning) was one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. Her fame was established with the 1844 collection Poems, which was published while she was living at 50 Wimpole Street in Marylebone.
The Barrett family came to London in 1835 from Sidmouth, Devon, when Elizabeth was 29. The first house they took was 99 Gloucester Place (also in Marylebone), but they did not settle permanently in London until the move to 50 Wimpole Street three years later. Her residence at number 50 – from 1838 to 1846 – was first commemorated in 1898 but the 18th-century house was demolished in 1935, and the Society of Arts plaque was re-erected on the house seen today, as was then the practice.
Grief-stricken at the death of two of her brothers in 1840, Elizabeth – who usually signed her name ‘EBB’ and was familiarly known as ‘Ba’ – was initially unhappy at Wimpole Street. Her first impression of the thoroughfare had provoked her to comment that its shadowy walls looked ‘so much like Newgate’s [the prison] turned inside out’.
She was confined by chronic illness to her room on the third floor at the back of the house, which was gloomily decorated with dark green wallpaper and heavy curtains, while ivy blocked out the light from the window. It was in this room that ‘EBB’ completed her highly successful two-volume collection of Poems (1844), which included the verses ‘A Drama of Exile’ and ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’.
It was also at Wimpole Street, on 20 May 1845, that she met the poet Robert Browning. The pair had corresponded about poetry – Browning was a devoted admirer of Elizabeth’s work – and were soon to embark on a passionate love affair. Elizabeth was initially reluctant to meet, writing to him that she was ‘nothing but a root, fit for the ground & the dark’, but Browning was not discouraged. According to his own detailed records, he visited Elizabeth 91 times until her father’s resolute refusal to sanction the couple’s engagement compelled the lovers to elope.
They were married in old St Marylebone Church on 12 September 1846. ‘EBB’ was never reconciled with her father, who returned all her letters unopened, and she spent the rest of her life largely in Italy.
The sonnets Elizabeth wrote during her courtship with Browning were published in an expanded version of Poems in 1850 under the title Sonnets from the Portuguese, and they are now among her most famous verses.
However, it was her epic novel-poem, Aurora Leigh (1857), that caused the biggest sensation on publication. The work addressed contemporary issues of social injustice, particularly relating to class and the ‘woman question’. One reviewer exclaimed that Aurora Leigh ‘sings of our actual life, embodying the schemes and struggles, the opinions and social contrasts of our day’. By 1900, Aurora Leigh had been printed in over 20 editions.
‘EBB’ died in 1861 in Florence after a serious illness. Her husband recalled that she died ‘smilingly, happily, and with a face like a girl’s … Her last word was … “Beautiful”.’