Sunday, March 6, 2011

How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Let Me Count the Ways

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Like the rest of the Western World, from an early age, I was familiar with her love sonnet that begins, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." What a revelation to get to graduate school to discover that she had written so much more.

I wish I had my first Norton Anthology of British Literature; I think I began with the 4th edition, which was later lost to an aquarium accident. I bought them in 1984 or 1985, when I first took those survey classes. I know that volume 1 (the beginning of Brit Lit to 1789) had no women writers. None. Not one.

I think that the second volume had two writers, and I can't for the life of me remember whether or not Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of them. I think the two writers included were EBB and Virginia Woolf, but I could be wrong. When I was in undergraduate school in the 1980's, Woolf was not part of the canon. EBB was presented as this charming woman who wrote such lovely love poems. It wasn't until graduate school that I discovered her radical side.

Like many writers of the 19th century, EBB had a passion for social justice. She was one of the few British writers of the first half of the 19th century to directly address slavery and to call it evil. But that should not surprise us. She was the champion of all sorts of dispossessed and oppressed social groups.

Her book length poem, Aurora Leigh, is a revelation. Here we see the main character, Aurora Leigh, wrestling with her various desires and responsibilities. Should she get married? How can she best honor her writing? What are her responsibilities to her friends?

The book also presents a fallen woman character, Marian, who is allowed to live. Now we might shrug at that. We forget how the fallen woman was treated in 19th century literature: she must be PUNISHED, out of all proportion to the "crime." Even if she's the victim of rape, she will subsequently be punished, often with escalating hardships and gruesome death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning creates a fallen woman character, Marian, who is raped in several different instances and left in a brothel--but she survives, and she and Aurora Leigh create an alternative household.

In her own life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning showed us that a woman can have true love and a life as an artist. She's one of the earliest women writers to do this (I'm willing to be corrected, since I'm writing from memory, not from research; likewise, on the slavery question, since I was in graduate school from 1987-1992, there may have been new literature discovered or recovered that weren't available to me then). For that, I'm grateful. I know that I have to consider my choices carefully; I know that I can't have everything, at least not all at the same time. But writers like EBB show us that our choices don't have to be stark and sacrificial.


Karen J. Weyant said...

Great post! Ironically, I will be teaching Elizabeth Barrett Browning in my Brit Lit class on Monday!

Kathleen said...

Wonderful post. Must read Aurora Leigh, and why haven't I before this? Happy Birthday to her!

Wendy said...

Love this post. May have to link it.

Because I was curious, I found my first Nortons which were 5th edition. It says on the back under "New in Volume 2": "Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Brontë, and Christina Rossetti now have a sufficient number and variety of poems to enable them to be taught on a par with their male contemporaries." It includes books 1 and 5 of Aurora Leigh among other texts. So she might have been barely present in your fourth edition?