Today marks 150 years since the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a popular poet in her time, who was married to Robert Browning, another significant poet of the era. The only diary material of Barrett’s that has been published relates to a period in her 20s when she was still living with her father on the Hope End estate in Herefordshire. Her diary at the time is full of concerns about having to move from Hope End, which was being sold to pay family debts, and about her friendship with the blind classical scholar Hugh Stuart Boyd.
Elizabeth Barrett was born in 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, Durham, but moved to Hope End, a 500-acre estate near Ledbury in Herefordshire, when only three. The eldest in a large family she was educated at home, learning classics and several modern languages. When 13, her father arranged to have one of her epic poems (The Battle of Marathon) printed. When 15, she suffered a bad fall and injured her spine. Subsequently, poor health meant she devoted most of her time to reading and writing.
In her early 20s, Barrett became friends with a classicist, Hugh Stuart Boyd, who had moved into a house nearby. In 1828, her mother died, and, during the following years, her father’s income (based on Jamaican sugar plantations) declined badly. The family sold Hope End, and moved first to Sidmouth in 1832, then, three years later, to London. In 1838 Barrett published her first major book, The Seraphim and Other Poems, which received critical acclaim. The same year she went to stay in Torquay, Devon, for health reasons, and it was there that her favourite brother, Edward, drowned. The accident caused her much distress. Eventually, she returned to London where her reputation as a poet continued to grow.
In 1844, the poet Robert Browning began a correspondence with her, which led to an engagement in 1845, and, because her father disapproved, a secret marriage in 1846. The couple went to Italy where Elizabeth’s health improved, where she had a son, and where she stayed for the rest of her life. She died in Florence on 29 June 1861. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, The Victorian Web, or The Browning Society.
A first edition of Barrett’s diary did not appear before 1969, when Ohio University Press published Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1831-1832 edited by Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson. Five years later, in 1974, John Murray published The Barretts at Hope End - The Early Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Elizabeth Berridge.
Here are two extracts from The Barretts at Hope End.
11 June 1831
‘Sam told me that Hope End is advertised in the Sun newspaper, to be sold in August - no name, but a full description. He & Bro heard it yesterday from Henry Trant!. I begged him to tell nobody, & to let me tell Bummy [Arabella Graham-Clarke, Elizabeth’s aunt]. Ran down stairs & found Bummy in the drawing room by herself. Told her. She shed tears - we both shed tears! When will tears cease to be shed? She seems to fear the worst: but mentioned that Papa had written to Sam, who, he says, is able to assist him. If he is able, he is willing - if he is still Sam! So there may still be hope in that quarter. There is fear in every other. In every other? Can I not still look unto the hill from whence cometh my hope? That hope is a hope of spiritual blessing; but I have found & known it to be one of temporal comfort also! Walked out with Bummy & Arabel, on the bank on the other side of the water. Strangers may soon walk there, with other feelings than mine. Read as I have often done lately, not for the pleasure of thinking: but for the comfort of not thinking. Papa in better spirits. How often I thought of Mr Boyd today! He is the only person in this neighbourhood, whom it will affect my happiness to leave. . .’
26 August 1831
‘Read some passages from Shelley’s Revolt of Islam before I was up. He is a great poet; but we acknowledge him to be a great poet as we acknowledge Spenser to be so, & do not love him for it. He resembles Spenser in one thing, & one thing only, that his poetry is too immaterial for our sympathies to enclasp it firmly. It reverses the lot of human plants: its roots are in the air, not earth! But as I read him, I may reverse my opinion. . .
Let me consider circumstances, while I am calm, in a degree. I may have to leave this place where I have walked & talked & dreamt in much joy; & where I have heard most beloved voices which I can no more hear, & clasped beloved hands which I can no more clasp: where I have smiled with the living & wept above the dead & where I have immortal books, & written pleasant thoughts, & known at least one very dear friend . . . I will wait for letters, & in the meantime, get on with Isocrates.
Thank God!. Hope End, dear Hope End, is not sold. It was bought in by our antagonists themselves; & may yet go by private contract: but still, thank God for this reprieve. A letter from Papa!
I was in the dining room. Bummy came in to me with overflowing eyes, & an exclamation of “Good news!” The good news were too much for me, prepared as I was for the worst news: and I should have sunk to the floor, if she had not caught me. Thank God for this blessed good news! Many tears were shed, & all for joy, at Hope End today.’