A Happy Birthday look back to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6,1806-June 29, 1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Elliott & Fry, after Macaire
albumen carte-de-visite, mid 1860s (September 1858) NPG

In this happy birthday post to one of the most loved Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, herself, takes us on a private remembrance of her early years at Hope End in one of her early letters. 

According to the parish register of Kelloe Church, in the county of Durham, England, she was born at Coxhoe Hall which at the time was the home of her uncle Samuel who lived five miles south of Durham. Elizabeth’s father, Edward Barrett Moulton, took the surname of Barrett on the death of his grandfather who left him the estates in Jamaica. His wife was Miss Mary Graham-Clarke, daughter of J. Graham-Clarke, of Fenham Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but of her not very much is known. However, her early death is one of the few mentions in the family records.

Mary Graham-Clarke and Edward Barrett had a large family: Henriett, Arabel, Elizabeth and eight sons: Edward, whose tragic death at Torquay saddened the family so much, Charles (who was ‘Stormie’ in family letters), Samuel, George, Henry, Alfred, Septimus, and Octavius. 

It was around 1809 that The Barrett Family moved into Elizabeth’s favorite childhood home, ‘Hope End’, in Herefordshire, among the Malvern hills, only a few miles from Malvern itself.  Elizabeth spent the first twenty years of her life here growing very close to her father, who affectionately called her, ‘ba!’ She would write her childhood reminiscences in such early poems as, ‘Hector in the Garden,’ ‘The Lost Bower,’ and ‘The Deserted Garden.’ 

Elizabeth Barrett herself describes her early years in a letter to Mr. R.H. Horne written on October 5, 1843, 

“And then as to stories, my story amounts to the knife-grinder’s, with nothing at all for a catastrophe. A bird in a cage would have as good a story. Most of my events, and nearly all my intense pleasures, have passed in my thoughts. I wrote verses-as I dare say many have done who never wrote any poems-very early; at eight years old and earlier. But, what is less common, the early fancy turned into a will and remained with me, and from that day to this, poetry has been a distinct object with me-an object to read, think, and live for.  And I could make you laugh, although you could not make the public laugh, by the narrative of nascent odes, epics, and didactics crying aloud on obsolete muses from childish lips. The Greeks were my demi-gods, and haunted me out of Pope’s Homer, until I dreamt more of  Agamemnon than of Moses the black pony. And thus my great “epic” of eleven or twelve years old, in four books, and called “The Battle of Marathon,” and of which fifty copies were printed because papa was bent upon spoiling me-is Pope’s Homer done over again, or rather undone; for, although a curious production for a child, it gives evidence only of an imitative faculty and an ear, and a good deal of reading in a peculiar direction. The love of Pope’s Homer threw me into Pope on one side and ito Greek on the other, and into Latin as a help to Greek-and the influence of all these tendencies is manifest so long afterwards as in my “Essay on Mind,” a didactic poem written when I was seventeen or eighteen, and long repented of as worthy of all repentance. The poem is imitative in its form, yet is not without traces of an individual thinking and feeling-the bird pecks through the shell in it. With this it has a pertness and pendantry which did not even then belong to the character of the author, and which I regret now more than I do the literary defectiveness. 

All this time, and indeed the greater part of my life, we lived at Hope End, a few miles from Malvern, in a retirement scarcely broken into me except by books and my own thoughts, and is a beautiful country, and was a retirement happy in many ways, although the very peace of it troubles the heart as it looks back. There I had my fits of Pope, and Byron, and Coleridge, and read Greek as hard under the trees as some of your Oxonians in the Bodleian; gathered visions from Plato and the dramatists, and eat and drank Greek and made my head ache with it. Do you know the Malvern Hills? The hills of Piers Plowman’s Visions? They seem to me my native hills; for, although I was born in the county of Durham, I was an infant when I went first into their neighbourhood, and lived there until I had passed twenty by several years. Beautiful, beautiful hills they are! And yet, not for the whole world’s beauty would I stand in the sunshine and the shadow of the many more. It would be a mockery, like the taking back of a broken flower to its stalk.”

 Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning by Alessandri
albumen carte-de-visite, 19 June 1860, NPG


Pamela Britley said…
Great post. I've always loved her poetry. I really enjoyed reading her letter. Thank you for sharing it!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela, I'm so glad you enjoyed the letter. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
A beautiful post and very inspiring. Perhaps it will inspire me to go back to my novel! I will eventually....
Kimberly Eve said…
Oh Stephanie, it makes me so happy to read that it inspired you! Of course, you'll return to your novel and it will all fit into place as it is meant to. Thank you for leaving a comment.
Hels said…
I didn't know (or remember) that Elizabeth’s father took the surname of Barrett on the death of his grandfather _who left him the estates in Jamaica_. This is an important fact because writers become very hungry when the family doesn't have a reliable source of income. Especially if there are heaps of children and grandchildren.

Thank you grandpa!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,

I just love discoveries like that :) I agree, thank you grandpa and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.