Fiona Sampson Presents
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Self-Invented Poet”
January 12, 2022 -6PM-
VIA ZOOM: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81333221955
by Laura Clarke
We are excited that Fiona Sampson will be presenting a talk on Elizabeth Barrett Browning at this month’s Browning Society meeting. For my newsletter today, I want to talk about my experience of reading Sampson’s biography of Elizabeth, the first new biography to have been written in over thirty years. I have a tendency to start biographies and not finish them, but Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a page-turner. In one of the many philosophical ruminations in the book, Sampson contemplates the constructed nature of identity and laments how the fictionalized character of ‘Elizabeth’ that has replaced her in the popular imagination is “someone passive and poorly, bullied and rescued, barely even a poet,” someone who “is almost entirely bodily, scarcely a mind at all.” What is most interesting for me is that while Sampson certainly challenges the bodily narrative of Elizabeth’s legacy and explores her intellectual development, her biography is itself intensely embodied, and what I mean by that is I was left with an intense perception of Elizabeth as a living, breathing, real-life person, something that I have not felt from reading a biography before.
Sampson challenges the myth of Elizabeth as a weak invalid, but she also does not linger on the ideal of the Victorian poetess. Elizabeth can be exuberant, contradictory, dark, emotional, obsessive, and brilliant. For instance, Sampson introduces us to the intense literary friendships that Elizabeth had with men, such as with Hugh Stuart Boyd, which were so important to her intellectual development, but she also shows us how these relationships were often manipulative, abusive, or psychologically unhealthy. She also shows us that Elizabeth’s privileged position makes her complicit in colonialism, despite her political and ethical beliefs. Although we know Elizabeth and Robert were abolitionists, Sampson does not shy away from revealing the extent to which Elizabeth’s idyllic childhood at Hope End and even her elopement to Italy was funded by “blood money.” Indeed, even though the Barretts were politically progressive Whigs, their family wealth, Sampson emphasizes, came largely from sugar plantations. She reminds us of the fact that “[in] 1810, more than 10 per cent of wealthy Britons are profiting from slavery; money that will never return to the enslaved people who created it, but remains in the British economy into the twenty-first century.”
Sampson’s biography continually complicates the images we have received of both Elizabeth and Robert by asking thought-provoking questions that push us to deconstruct neat definitions and narratives. For instance, she highlights letters that reveal the strength of feelings Robert had for Alfred Domett and asks, “might Robert the femmelette [as Mary Mitford called him] ever have experimented with bisexuality, or attracted crushes.” I had always imagined the Brownings’ life in Italy as a time of stability, happily settled at Casa Guidi, but Sampson documents the financial and health concerns that led Elizabeth and Robert to move from place to place a dizzying number of times. Materiality is emphasized again as Sampson details Elizabeth’s dependency on morphine and her multiple miscarriages. Even the ideal of Elizabeth’s death, one perpetuated by Robert, is questioned. Sampson observes that Elizabeth’s death “resembles a breath-shallowing, heart-stopping morphine overdose,” and points out that Robert administered morphine to Elizabeth on the night of her death. She remarks “combine the high dependency on the drug and the panicky human desire to relieve suffering and this is not inconceivable.” Focusing her attention on Robert, Sampson remarks, “And who’s to say that it would not even be a kind of pragmatic, if unconscious compassion?”
While Sampson’s biography often left me feeling unsettled, this is because it was if she was resuscitating Elizabeth, bringing her back to life. Sampson, however, closes her biography by noting that this reinterpretation is colored by her own subjectivity. She asks, “how else can we encounter our biographical subject, except by coming to meet her? Writing can never be wholly innocent of the writing self, and slowly I’m coming to accept that a biographer’s own self always frames her subject.” In this, Sampson’s biography is an intensely modern work of art.
Fiona Sampson is the author of twenty-eight books of poetry and nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley. Published in thirty-seven languages. She’s the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including an MBE for services to literature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Wordsworth Trust, and English Association, she is the professor emerita of the University of Roehampton and lives on the Welsh border.