Dared And Done: The Marriage Of Elizabeth Barrett And Robert Browning, by Julia Markus
The author has clearly picked an interesting area to discuss, but this book is not nearly as good as it should be, and I found myself deeply disappointed by the way in which the author let her desire to show off her knowledge of historiography and her feminist historical perspective hinder the telling of what should be a compelling tale in the marriage of two great poets, in which there is simply the sufficient quality of fame that only one of them has been well-recognized as a great poet at a time. There is a lesson in the posthumous loss of fame for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and in the posthumous increased reputation for Robert Browning that the author could take as a worthwhile critique of her own worldview, but the author chooses not to take it, and the result is that the book has the strident perspective that one would expect from Elizabeth Barrett Brown’s own writing, something that makes her body of work when taken as a whole less compelling than one would want it to be. There is a reason why EBB’s poetry that has best survived is her Sonnets of the Portuguese and her loving odes to her pooch, and the occasional other poem of deep personal significance, and that is because her strident and overwrought emotional tone and feminist plugging harms rather than helps her literature and its worth, and that is something that is true in general when it comes to literature.
This book is about 350 pages and is divided into four parts. After a note on transcriptions and an introduction, the first part of the book (I) examines the courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, including how they fell in love over letters and how their marriage was not an elopement, contrary to myth, and how it was that the experience of running away may have inspired EBB’s poem about the runaway slave, an odd poem to write on one’s honeymoon for sure. The second part of the book then looks at the early experiences of the Barrett’s in Italy (II), including what the first few years of marriage were like for both of them individually, and their commitment to Italian politics and the local and expatriate community in Italy. The third part of the book discusses some of the tensions between the two relating to spirituality and the relationship between the couple and the Barrett relatives (III). Finally, the book ends with a discussion of EBB’s death, RB’s struggle to write poetry and be respected and be a widower father, and even a bit about his late career renaissance (IV), after which there are notes, a selected bibliography, acknowledgements, an index, and illustration credits.
Ultimately, even if this book is deeply flawed, the subject matter of this book conveys enough interest that it is certainly a worthwhile read. For example, the author examines the marriage of EBB and RB from the perspective of both of the partners, and comments on their agreements and disagreements, their shared commitment to Italian unity and liberty, their shared enlightened thinking about a variety of subjects, and even their background relating to creole interests that introduces the question of racial identity and social justice. Naturally, the author takes to themes of politics, racial identity, and social justice like a duke to water, and the theme of the discussion of the marriage is harmed at least somewhat by the length that the author spends to talking about the complex family background and gossip and family legends of both the Moulton Barretts and the Brownings regarding their ancestry. If the author indulges a bit too much in gossip, there is still something in here worth reading, and the author’s discussion of the sparkling romance between RB and EBB and the gallant way that they dealt with the psychosomatic conditions that they struggled with and the responsibilities of adulthood and marriage and parenthood is telling. It is a shame that the author sometimes gets in the way of the compelling story here.