Printer Friendly

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the politics of childhood.

Aarmazed that despite her prolonged invalidism and two previous miscariages she was able to bear a child at age forty-three, Elizabeth Barrett Browning viewed her son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning--nicknamed Pen--as something akin to a fairy changeling, and her prolific letters document a remarkably indulgent attitude toward the behaviors and capacities of children. She believed that children should never be forced to study, that they would come to all that is needful in their own time. She admonished her sister Henrietta, herself the mother of a young son, not to rush the boy's studies, for "a child learns most when he plays." (1) Rather reluctantly, she began teaching Pen to read at age four only "because he chose it himself," and "to give him the opportunity of amusing himself with story-books, fairy tales and the rest"-but she emphasized, "not as a beginning to his education!--the fairies forbid it. I have not forgotten my liberty-plans." (2) Her educational philosophy was decidedly non-utilitarian--when she planned to teach Pen something "useful," she realized with amusement that she was thinking of mythology. (3) Pen himself sometimes demanded more practical skills: nearly six and envying his male cousin's accomplishment, he asked his mother to teach him to count to 100. She refused, though Robert ("naughty Papa"), she noted ruefully, provided the instruction "out of spite." (4)

For some biographers, references to differences between Robert and herself on the subject of childrearing--especially on Pen's education, hair, and clothing--represent evidence not only of breaches in the Brownings' marital harmony, but also of EBB's irrationality, foolishness, even hysteria. (5) Certainly her plentiful and detailed accounts of Pen document a maternal adoration which might have seemed excessive to anyone who was not Pen's mother. (6) But besides illustrating her devotion--often delightfully leavened by humor--her letters about Pen actually map a finely observant, coherent, sophisticated, and remarkably modern or post-modern attitude toward childhood. Moreover, her discussions of Pen delineate her deep understanding of the politics of childhood: they reflect her developing ideas of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, on the one hand, and of the constructed nature of gender, on the other. As Dorothy Mermin observed in her groundbreaking study of the poet, the "more unusual aspects of Pen's upbringing" arose from EBB's "refusal to honor the rigid distinctions of gender, nationality, and class that she hated in the English" and her desire to raise him as what she termed "a citizen of the world." (7) My discussion will trace these threads in EBB's correspondence about Pen, and then consider several poems and letters in which she relates her politics of childhood to her own role as a politicized woman poet. Deirdre David, Gary Kelly, and Lynda Nead, among others, have written persuasively about nineteenth-century uses of motherhood as a powerful symbol for nationalism-representations in which, as Elizabeth Fay remarks, the symbolic mother is generally employed "as a metaphor for nationalism" melding her "private role" as mother with her "public role of mothering the nation ... in a way that is reassuring rather than transgressive." In EBB's work, however, to be a mother is to have immensely transgressive potential, for as Fay observes in relation to Romantic writers, whereas "in the middle-class perspective, maternity produces gentlemen and ladies ... in a radical society, maternity is somewhat dangerous because it produces citizens." (8)

EBB's insistence on the importance of play and refusal to set her son Pen to organized study of reading and math expressed her view of the boy as essentially joyous and attuned to transcendent values. In these respects her attitudes echo familiar Romantic tenets, and, more particularly, the educational philosophy advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose writings helped to revolutionize conceptions of the child. His 1762 work Emile (translated into English the following year) delineated the ideal education of a boy, blending notions of the noble savage, childhood innocence, nature's nurturance, and society's corrosiveness. The central premise of Rousseau's educational philosophy was that the child is, as Anita Schorsch summarizes, "absolutely innocent, perfect, and not to be tampered with by man, traditional education, reformed education, or any education until he was twelve years of age." At twelve Rousseau's Emile would experience books--first Robinson Crusoe, "to encourage independence," then classical writers, "to bring [him] closer to nature and to the beauties of Greek and Roman culture." (9) EBB repeatedly declared that her Pen would not begin classical study until age fifteen, a conspicuous departure from prevailing Victorian practice in educating middle- and upper-class English boys. (10) Though her plan might seem to share much with Rousseau's assumptions about childhood, EBB, in deferring Pen's education in classics, actually rejected significant aspects of Rousseau's delineations of childhood, especially his attitudes toward Nature and society and toward gender.

EBB's stance against Pen's Latin study acquires significance in the context of her own childhood education. She had eagerly undertaken Latin and Greek by age eleven, and the importance of her early classical studies can scarcely be overemphasized. Though rare for an early nineteenth-century girl, this study did not seem eccentric to Elizabeth when she insisted on sharing in her younger brother Edward's lessons with his tutor, for she and "Bro," her best-loved companion, had shared all their childhood activities to this point. At just this moment, however, when she was eleven and Bro ten, family members were beginning to insist on gendered distinctions. Her grandmama, for example, admonished, "My darling Child you must allow me to say I think you are too BIG to attempt fighting with Bro, He might give you an unlucky Blow on your NECK which might be serious to you. He is strong & powerful--I have seen him very rude & boisterous to you... He is now a big Boy fit only to associate with Boys, NOT GIRLS." (11) Such interventions must have seemed both annoying and amusing to a girl whose letters record her fair share of rambunctious play. Elizabeth and her nearest two brothers and two sisters shared lively outdoor activities. They reared animals--sheep, rabbits, chickens--they rode and chased their pony up and down hills, and spent entire afternoons romping in the hay. EBB excitedly reported battling her sisters and brothers, playing as empresses and emperors: she "conquered" Henrietta, "took her prisoner and tied her to the leg of the table." (12) And EBB's semi-autobiographical essay about "Beth," probably written in the early 1840s, records her childhood ambition to lead a band of soldiers to liberate Greece from Turkish domination (BC, 1:360-362). Aside from her formal studies, Elizabeth's early upbringing seems to have been heavily inflected by Romantic ideas of the child which stressed freedom, play, cultivation of the imagination, and lively physical activity scarcely permitted by the earlier eighteenth-century view of children as sinful miniature adults in need of constant regulation. (13) Her grandmama's assertion of gendered distinctions to be made at puberty aligns neatly with Rousseau's essential differentiation of the sexes in terms of characteristics and aptitudes. Rousseau describes Sophie, the female counterpart to Emile, destined to be his bride, as an exemplary girl--exemplary in the sense that she is superior to most of her kind, but also in the sense that she exemplifies what it is to be a girl: a passive, weak "relational" creature (as Mrs. Sarah Ellis' influential conduct literature of the 1840s would define that phrase), (14) one whose education properly features not classics but lacemaking and embroidery, and whose vain and giddy nature, prone to be extreme in all things, requires restraint to condition her to her biologically determined, subservient role.

Unlike the girl of Rousseau's writings, young EBB prevailed over conventions which would have denied her classical studies by exercising her precocious intellect, linguistic facility, winsome ways, and imperious will. As early as age twelve, her absorption in classical tongues already set her apart from other girls. When she sat for a portrait with her oldest siblings, Edward and Henrietta, the painter William Artaud iconographically denoted her scholarly bent with a rolled manuscript in her right hand, and in a letter to a friend the artist characterized her intellectual attainments in terms of languages: "The eldest of [the three] is a girl ... possessing an extraordinary genius.... She absorbs the learned languages as freely and as rapidly as chalk does water, and yet with all the power of application." He inevitably assumed that her expertise in learned languages necessarily pitted her against her brother: "Her brother tho by no means difficient has no chance in competition with her." Aware that her distinction in classics might seem to unsex her, the artist also hastened to defend her femininity: "She has all the engenuous simplicity and airy volatillaty of spirits of the most sprightly of her age and sex." (15)

Although her precocious insistence on studying Latin and Greek set EBB apart, the gender bifurcation in educational practice endorsed by Rousseau and common in the early nineteenth century eventually prevailed: when her brother Edward left for boarding school, his tutor left too, and Elizabeth's classics lessons ended. The next year, when she was fifteen, she suffered an undiagnosed illness which afflicted her two sisters as well. Though Henrietta and Arabella shortly recovered, Elizabeth did not, and her year of treatment for this mysterious complaint initiated the invalidism and relative seclusion which became her pattern for much of the next twenty-five years. (16) In effect, her subsequent poor health enabled her to pursue her unusual mastery of Greek, for it allowed her solitude for study. Conversely, her classical accomplishments constituted a link with the world beyond her sickroom, for she formed important intellectual and emotional associations with men outside the family-Hugh Stuart Boyd, Sir Uvedale Price, even Robert Browning-through correspondence which to varying degrees centered (at least initially) on discussions of Greek language and prosody. Her publication of poems in the classical tradition and translations from the Greek won her a reputation for intellectuality which was sometimes a liability inviting charges that she lacked femininity, but was also a positive distinction that won critical praise and elevated her above the common run of "poetesses." (17)

In light of the artistic and personal significance of classical studies in her life, her rejection of this course of education for her son seems even more striking. Biographers have psychoanalyzed her plan to introduce Latin into Pen's curriculum when he reached fifteen--about the last possible moment for a youth destined for university--suggesting that she wanted to prolong his babyhood as long as possible, and that she was trying to turn him into the daughter she longed for. But EBB's own experience indicates that she never viewed Latin as inappropriate study for girls. Moreover, she freely acknowledged that she wanted to prolong Pen's childhood-specifically to postpone his acculturation as a masculine being, not because she desired a girl in his place (though she longed for a daughter, too), but because she viewed children as essentially androgynous and objected to nineteenth-century constructions of masculinity. "I am not very fond of praising men by calling them manly," she insisted; "I hate & detest a masculine man," preferring "Humanly bold, brave, true, direct." (18) As early as seven years before Pen's birth, EBB had connected the study of classical languages both with gender stereotypes and inequities, and with a life-denying scholasticism. Declaring that she cared little for "any acquirement" in the "ancient languages," she asserted the merit of her friend the writer Mary Russell Mitford against the "high estate of the Greek & Latin man." Further, complaining against "people glorying ... in the multitudes of grammars" while ignoring England's "glorious rich literature," she judged that "a dictionary life is the vainest & least exalting of lives. No occupation claims the time which the acquisition of a language does, with an equal non-requital to the intellect. I ... have set my face against linguaism." (19)

Her stance on classical study had important implications with regard not only to her views of the child, but also to her politics and attitudes toward cosmopolitanism. Though she withheld Latin and Greek, she encouraged Pen to learn "living languages" naturally, through cultural immersion and everyday use. (20) In this enthusiasm she departed from Rousseau, who viewed the study of languages as a deleterious distraction from the child's communication with Nature, which Coleridge called "that eternal language, which thy God / Utters" ("Frost at Midnight," ll. 60-61). In contrast, EBB regarded acquisition of living languages as a child's best access to education for a life in society. Such views are evident in her letters regarding young Pen, which frequently, proudly, assert that, growing up in Italy and learning English and Italian together, he unselfconsciously jumbled the two languages "indiscriminately"--and before he was three, added some French to the mix. (21) EBB rebutted her sister's concern about potential confusion of the boy's nationalistic identity: "I don't want him to be an Italian ...--only, you see, his English opportunities will come in their turn.... [A]nd won't he learn naturally what we wish him to know, without the pedantry of forcing it on him now?" (22)

Amid all this concern for language acquisition, her frequent announcements that Pen still was not studying Latin constituted an aggressive resistance to conventional masculine education that she adopted when he was just a toddler. When he was three and a half, for example, she measured his learning readiness and capacity against the yardstick of classical studies, while simultaneously dismissing such tuition as inappropriate: "We could just as soon teach him a 'Latin verb' as anything else-but we would not-oh, not for the world!" (23) EBB hints at the ramifications of placing the study of "living languages" at the center of Pen's education in an 1857 letter, written when Pen is eight, where she discusses the young Englishman, Robert Lytton, who has come to Italy to assume a diplomatic post. Well educated--the son of writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and himself a poet publishing pseudonymously as Owen Meredith--young Lytton must nevertheless, she writes, for several months "domesticate himself with some Italian family" to "acquire familiarity with the language, which is necessary to his diplomatic advancement." Lytton's case prompts EBB to urge her sister, "We must make our boys familiar with living languages ... for the character of the times makes them indispensable to success in life. In fact, the world is thrown open now; and an intelligent man mustn't be simply an Englishman or a Frenchman but a citizen of all countries." (24) Whereas Robert argued with Pen "as a point of dogma & duty" about the boy's insistence on claiming Italian rather than English identity, EBB couldn't "help laughing," explaining that his sense of affiliation with Italy "comes from a sense of superiority he has with his two languages, over some of the English here who cant speak Italian." In her charming representation of his childish lisp, Pen characterized English insularity: "The English always will shut their mouses when they speat." (25)

EBB's letters about Pen's early education and travels reveal that unlike Rousseau's model boy Emile, Pen is being raised as a citizen of world society, in contrast to her own experience on her family's 470-acre estate, Hope End, situated among the Malvern hills in Herefordshire, an idyllic natural environment with an enchanting home described by her mother as like something out of the tales of the Arabian Nights. Despite her fairytale setting, Elizabeth actually took a lively precocious interest in current events on the world stage. In the month she turned six, for example, she composed a poem called "On the Cruelty of Forcement to Man: Alluding to the Press Gang," protesting against the impressment of civilians and American seamen into the British navy, a topic recurring in the London Times in 1812. (26) A critic of national policy, she nonetheless asserted her Englishness even when looking beyond England's borders. In the same year, she reported to her distant parents an event in the Napoleonic conflicts that she presumably read about in the newspaper: "the Rusians has beat the french killd 18.000 men & taken 14000 prisners." (27) Her partisan support of England's ally against Napoleon here trumped her accuracy, for she attributes victory to the wrong side in the engagement at Smolensk (August 17, 1812). Though this letter documents her preoccupations with international political events, it registers a conspicuous British nationalism allied to her Whig view of history. (28) In depicting her girlhood in the later semi-autobiographical essay, EBB exposed her budding imperialism in the characterization of "Beth": dedicated to achieving Greek independence from Turkey, young Beth is confident that she will not only be the one to organize Greek troops to achieve this goal, but she will also teach them to speak their own ancestral tongue, Attic Greek, properly. Having begun to "teach the islanders the ancient Greek ... with the right ais & ois," she would "destroy the Turkish empire, & deliver 'Greece the glorious'--. ... And when Greece was finally delivered, she was directly to begin to talk old Greek again, with the right ais & ois" (BC, 1:361). In recounting her girlhood ambitions to transcend gendered limitations, EBB represents her mastery of classical language as a political tool, but here one of patronizing self-aggrandizement.

EBB's precocious absorption in political events arose from her reading--a vicarious mode of knowing the world that, as an adult, she often lamented. (29) She rejoiced that Pen's experience of the world was more direct. From his infancy her letters celebrate his easy accommodation of travel, his passion for military parades, populist gatherings, and other public spectacles, and his ready friendships with Italian street children. She connects his facility with spoken Italian directly to his political awareness. Protesting (perhaps naively or disingenuously) that she is not responsible for his passionate support of the Risorgimento, she attributes his republican politics to his association with their Italian servant Ferdinando and with the Italian populace who, she reports, consistently mistake Pen for one of them because he speaks like a native. (30)

In one instance when Pen was ten she commended his political sophistication by quoting from his journal: "'This is the happiest day of my hole life,--for dearest Vittorio Emanuele is really nostro re.'" Though his spelling is weak, she interjects, in politics "he is strong." (31) Pen relies on Italian words to complete his joyous commemoration of an event which was widely taken to signal progress toward Italian independence. EBB situates Pen's linguistic practice in the context of his assimilation into the Italian community, where he had "made friends as usual with all the contadini [peasants] in the neighbourhood,--keeping sheep with them, catching stray cows for them, driving the grape-carts, & helping to get in the vintage ... & then, at the end of the day, reading Dall'Ongaro's political poems (with occasional expositions) to an admiring circle." (32) In terms of the boy's activities, her account recalls the robust outdoor play of her own childhood, with the striking contrast that her boisterous activities and her political absorptions had been enacted in the insularity of the Barretts' private domain, and her admiring circle was her family only.

This letter describing Pen's precocious commitment to the Risorgimento neatly hints at the intersection of gender politics and international politics in her thinking, for it juxtaposes Pen's political acumen with a representation of him as an androgynous blend of characteristics stereotypically associated with both masculinity and femininity: on the masculine side, he helped harvest the grapes "with a knife of his own" like that of the Italian peasants; "he once fired off a gun"; and "he rides beautifully & with a most fearless grace, his long curls flying in the wind." This last phrase turns attention from stereotypically masculine activities to his more "feminine" features--the curls which EBB could not bear to see cut, his musical gifts, the fact that "Latin is still for the future" and "Arithmetic is no where." (33) She goes on to plead that her correspondent Eliza Ogilvy not put her own son in masculine garb, asserting that she herself resists Pen's pleas for manly dress. (34)

This passage gestures toward the political significance of EBB's thinking about children's clothing, language acquisition, and gender stereotypes. Much has been made of her refusal to see reason on the subject of Pen's dress and hair, suggesting that she was neurotic, hysterical, headstrong, or merely silly. In a poem she published sixteen years before Pen's birth, "To a Boy" (1833), EBB unknowingly anticipated the domestic and critical debates over her preservation of young Pen's long golden curls, a marker of his ungendered status. The poem records the contrasts between a remembered infant with "golden hair.., long and free" (1. 2) and "lispings infantine" (1. 6) in "cooing tone" (l. 15), and the more decidedly masculine older lad he has become. Acknowledging that she had urged "the bootless prayer" (l. 24) to preserve his "length of golden rings" (l. 18), the poet also judges that others responded "Wisely and well" (l. 22) in shearing curls that "did less agree / With boyhood than with infancy" (ll. 26-27). Though this poetic recognition of the fitting, inevitable maturation of a boy long pre-dates her enthrallment to Pen's infantine beauty, scrutiny of her letters reveals that EBB's views on children's dress relate directly to her politics and politics of gender. She had set twelve (that pivotal moment when Rousseau determined Emile would be ready to engage society through books) as the age when she would consider dressing Pen in a way that positively declared him male. She articulated her concerns early, when Pen was only a year old: "oh, I shall be careful not to turn my baby into a boy so soon!" (35) When Pen was two, she argued: "if you put him into a coat & waistcoat forthwith, he only would look like a small angel travestied. For he is'nt exactly like a girl either--no not a bit. He's a sort of neutral creature, so far." (36)

In addition to his clothing, Pen's natural musicality figures in EBB's characterizations of his androgynous nature. Her letter juxtaposing his precocious political astuteness and linguistic assimilation in Italy mentions his talent at the piano (his accomplishment of a Beethoven sonata) in a sequence of details associated with the stereotypically feminine aspects of what she viewed as an essentially androgynous child. Along with his curls, his ignorance of Latin and arithmetic, she names "the same musical little voice which must go some day" (LTO, p. 146). Early in his life she had associated Pen's musical inclinations with feminine elements of his nature, writing when he was four, "he really dances with grace, playing the tamburine & keeping accurate time to the music. There's a great deal of girl-nature in the child." (37) Significantly, she also linked his musicality with his Italian speech and politics and his citizenship in the world. When Pen was about five and a half, EBB reported that he sings in Italian "a beautiful opera of his own composition about [Louis] Napoleon and the milkman." His opera represented the French as England's allies in the Crimea, and cast the milkman as a foe who delivers "bad cream and milk for the 'soldati francesi' in arms against the Russians, and so Napoleon comes out against him in vengeance!"--a plot reflecting Pen's grasp of France's cooperation with one of the countries to which he felt nationalistic allegiance. (38)

To summarize, EBB contested Rousseau's delineation of Emile and Sophie as essentially different creatures requiring very different educations. She viewed all children as having natural capacities for what society unnaturally categorized as either masculine or feminine behaviors, and she resisted cultural practices in dress and education which she felt prematurely reinforced division into separate spheres. Rather than avoiding such acculturation by isolating a child in a Romantically constructed Nature (following Rousseau), however, she urged immersion in society and commitment to political change. Wanting her son to be a citizen of the world with generous republican sympathies, she eschewed the conventional English foundation of an exclusively masculine education in classical language and literature. (39) Instead, she emphasized command of vernacular speech as the key to cultural empowerment--a resource that would, of course, have been equally available to both men and women.

Biographers and critics who have derided EBB's childrearing practices point to Pen's academic failure and financial irresponsibility at Oxford, his lack of professional distinction, and his failed marriage as evidence that he grew into something of a mess. Robert Coles, introducing Maisie Ward's study The Tragi-Comedy of Pen Browning (the title of which has set the tone for most discussions of Pen since its 1972 publication), is representative in describing the Brownings' son as a "rather disturbed" boy and man, in whom "something ... went awry." (40) Ward reports, however, that Pen had "a spirit of enterprise, an attractive love of life" (41) and that he was uncommonly faithful and generous to old friends: in their last years he took into his home two elderly servants from his boyhood in Casa Guidi (Wilson and Ferdinando) as well as his aunt Sarianna. He opened a school teaching linen weaving and lace-making in Asolo, Italy, providing training and work for local women--and honoring his father, creator of the memorable silk-worker Pippa. He was devoted to the memory of his mother, and he bought and preserved the Brownings' Casa Guidi along with their papers and possessions. Pen achieved measured success as a painter and sculptor and was beloved among the populace when he died in Asolo. (42) Although a full biography of Pen remains to be written, assembling further detail about his life may ultimately tell us little about the effects on him of EBB's refusing to teach him to count to 100 or forbidding more manly clothing. If we feel some anxiety about suppression of his rights and preferences under her system, we must also recognize that by all accounts his childhood was extremely joyful. Moreover, EBB's death in 1861, when Pen was only twelve, severely complicates any effort to measure the practical results of her theories about childhood, for the trauma of losing his mother was compounded by a thorough disruption of his life: Robert Browning not only gratified his son's longstanding wishes for a more ordinary boy's haircut and clothing, but also abruptly removed him from his beloved home, Italian culture, and friends, and set about making him more decidedly English, factors which may have influenced his subsequent character and behavior as much as EBB's childrearing practices had done. (43) Ultimately, EBB's extensive commentary on Pen's upbringing reveals more to us regarding her ideas about the politics of gender and nationality than it explains about the man he became.

Her ideas about childhood and early education left a subtle but marked impress on EBB's poetry. While her work sometimes employs figures of innocent children in the tradition of Wordsworthian Romanticism to contrast their spontaneous freshness and wonderment with the grief and loss of experience, (44) she elsewhere uses children to strike emotional chords in service to social reform, as in her widely discussed poems pertaining to child labor, education of the poor, and abolition: "The Cry of the Children" (1843), "A Song for the Ragged Schools of London" (1854), and "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (1848). Less conspicuously but more subversively, she also uses child figures to challenge gender constructions and to adumbrate the importance of educating children in political realities, especially the politics of gender.

Often the poems in this latter category articulate their disruptive message through sly indirection. "Hector in the Garden" (1850) for example, cloaks its female challenge to the classical paradigm of the masculine hero and masculinist epic in the guise of a nostalgic girlhood recollection. The poem recalls EBB's pleasure at age nine in cultivating a garden image of the Trojan Hector composed entirely of flowers:
 In the garden lay supinely
 A huge giant wrought of spade.
 Arms and legs were stretched at length
 In a passive giant strength. (ll. 37-40)

With "eyes of gentianellas azure," "nose of gillyflowers and box; / Scented grasses" for hair, "purple violets for the mouth," this martial hero bears arms similarly formed of blossoms: "a breastplate made of daisies," "periwinkles interlaced / Drawn for belt about the waist," a "brazen helm of daffodillies," and "a sword of flashing lilies / Holden ready for the fight" (ll. 49, 51-52, 57, 61, 63-64, 55, 59-60). On one level the poem seems to reinforce gender stereotypes, with the little girl training to nurture and soothe the famous warrior within the confines of the domesticated garden--that feminine domain to be identified later by John Ruskin as the locus from within which women were to exude "influence" over the world and, though lacking political or economic power to influence events directly, were therefore to bear responsibility for wars and other social calamities. (45) EBB's girl gardener imagines that the heart of the fallen warrior, bruised by "Troy-ruin," may find solace among her flowers, daisies renewing "with tender roots ... His heroic heart to life" (ll. 73, 77-78). On its surface, the poem seems to apply this recollection of childhood to a fairly pious conclusion in which the grown woman speaker accepts her culture's stereotypically feminine role, recognizing that whereas at nine she conceived of her life in Homeric terms and believed she could control even nature, with a charm that chased away rain, today she realizes she must accept "life's changes, chances, / And ... the deathbell's toll" (ll. 97-98). Calling for an angel to "Sing God's patience through my soul!" (l. 102), she concludes with a hopeful determination to "wake up and be doing," "Though my past is dead as Hector, / And though Hector is twice dead" (ll. 105, 107-108). (46)

On another level, the poem wryly disrupts this vision of a female in the garden nurturing body and soul of the careworn great man and grows out of EBB's concerns with the roles of literature as social critique and women as serious writers. She would encapsulate these concerns in a letter written more than a decade later, referring to Florence Nightingale's achievements in the Crimea in language particularly resonant for "Hector in the Garden." Rather than marking an advance in "the 'woman's question,'" Nightingale's nursing accomplishment, she wrote, was "retrograde, a revival of old virtues! Since the siege of Troy and earlier, we have had princesses binding wounds with their hands; it's strictly the woman's part, and men understand it so." Widespread acclaim of Nightingale reinforced a stereotype that actually worked against opportunities for "a gifted and accomplished woman," especially bringing "woe to us all who are artists!" For now, EBB explained, "every man is on his knees before ladies carrying lint, calling them 'angelic she's,' whereas, if they stir an inch as thinkers or artists from the beaten line (involving more good to general humanity than is involved in lint), the very same men would curse the impudence of the very same women." (47)

An 1843 exchange of letters, penned shortly before probable composition of "Hector in the Garden," adumbrates these ideas more indirectly in describing the genesis of that poem. EBB recalls her childhood "when I had a garden of my own & cut it out into a great Hector of Troy, in relievo, with a high heroic box nose & shoe-ties of columbine." Since that long ago time, she asserts, "I have never cared so much in my life for flowers, ... being shut out from gardens." Today, counting buds on the potted primrose in her Wimpole Street room, "I begin to believe in Ovid, or look for a metamorphosis." (48) This announcement that she is more involved with literary transformations than actual gardening responds to a letter from James Martin, a close neighbor of her girlhood home Hope End. (49) EBB usually corresponded with Martin's wife Julia, whom his letter mentions as an avid gardener, currently longing for a larger greenhouse. Martin begins his bantering letter by defending himself against the suggestion that he refrains from writing to EBB because of her daunting reputation for "wit & learning"--the attributes which reviewers have by this time both admired in her published poetry and regarded as unfeminine. Whereas Martin's letter seems on the personal level an entirely friendly jest with an old friend, it raises issues sensitive to a woman poet fiercely determined not to be dismissed with more conventionally feminine "poetesses." One of these issues is the gendered separate spheres, an ideology which basically excluded women from the profession of serious letters except in a few sanctioned genres and on topics deemed consistent with their femininity--with their innocence and seclusion from volatile social issues.

Martin humorously seeks to establish their community of interests--beginning with their common delight in their dogs--but in enumerating their ostensible similarities, he actually accentuates their differences: he dwells in the country, she in London; he actively travels abroad in the world, she remains cloistered in her sickroom; he engages in male pursuits in the public arena, especially as a Justice of the Peace, she remains immersed in literature. Without commenting on the obvious point that her reading represents poaching on a normally male preserve of classical texts, he observes: "You read Greek in your Room. I read Nature in the Fields & Forests, you study Mankind in the Books, I do the same at the parish-meeting, & in the justice-Room. You cultivate your garden it seems, & take pleasure in it. So do I. What signifies the extent of it." He then quotes the famous maxim of Voltaire's Candide, "il faut cultiver notre jardin."

In pursuing this theme that to follow our appropriate course in life is metaphorically to cultivate the garden appointed for each of us, Martin uses language and particulars which inescapably reinscribe Victorian notions of the separate spheres. Ironically, he implies that the two of them invert normative gender roles. He, who plays an active role in parish meetings and justice rooms, claims to embrace a retiring, quasi-domestic role ("I shall cultivate & endeavour to improve the beauty of my garden & the friendship of my Dog" [BC, 6:313-314]), whereas she, a housebound semi-invalid, has "too much ambition to wish to be hid under your cabbage leaves either alive or dead" and strives for success "with the Reviewers, & the rest of mankind" (6:313, 314). But even as he jests about their inversions of normative gender patterns, he reasserts his robust masculinity (and implicitly predatory dominance over weaker creatures), saying he would have written earlier, "had I not been too tired with killing my last Pheasant & too full with eating my last Mince-Pie" (6:313).

Moreover, in pursuing Voltaire's theme that the size of one's metaphoric garden is less significant than the quality of care expended on it, Martin mentions Charles Dickens, the male standard of success who rapidly became the Victorian measure of literary achievement: "The prettyest Picture, in old Boz, is his description of the pleasure the sick youth took in his one Gilliflower growing in an old earthen Pot at his window in the garret, in an obscure court in the heart of the city! I often remind my wife of it, when she is crying out for a fine gardener, & a larger greenhouse" (BC, 6:313). This reference to a sentimental vignette in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) apparently struck a nerve in the literary EBB, who as yet enjoyed nothing like the popular acclaim of Dickens, and who in her reputation as a storied invalid would have elicited comparison with his sickly fictional character more than with the famous writer. To this point her volume of 1838 (the first to be published bearing her name) had aroused critical interest but had not established the literary prominence which she would secure in the year following this epistolary exchange with James Martin through the publication of her 1844 collection. At the time Martin cited the pathos of the sick youth's single potted gilliflower, EBB had already qualified her enthusiasm for Dickens' sentimental social critiques by measuring him against Victor Hugo. (50) Responding to Martin, she acknowledges the "beauty" and "tenderness" of moments in Dickens' currently serialized Martin Chuzzlewit which bear comparison to the poignant "sick youth" and single "Gilliflower" admired by Martin. But she asserts that such sentiment has dropped Dickens in her estimation--"a good furlong, when I read Victor Hugo"--and that Dickens moves her "not in his tenderness ... but in his serious powerful Jew-trial scenes" (in Oliver Twist) in which he has "followed" the trenchant social criticism of Hugo "closely." Having rejected the pathetic role of sentimentalized invalid pining over a gilliflower by insisting that when she looks at her own potted primrose she thinks of Ovid and expects "a metamorphosis," she coyly aligns herself instead with the more famous Dickens by remarking offhandedly that "the royal Boz" has moved into her neighborhood (BC, 6:316).

Within a year of this epistolary exchange, Barrett worked a literary alchemist's transformation of its elements, fusing her recollection of her childhood experience as a gardener cultivating a floral representation of the great classical hero Hector, and a consideration of Voltaire's notion of our individual responsibility to cultivate our allotted plots, with considerations of her culture's gendered separate spheres, the relative merits of sentimental and naturalistic social criticism, and her own role as a woman writer.

The pathetic gilliflower in the poignant depiction of the sick youth by "the royal Boz" resurfaces in "Hector in the Garden" not as an emblem of the invalid poet EBB similarly confined to her London sickroom, but as a royal schnoz--the floral nose of "Hector, son of Priam" (1.43). Like Ovid, recalled by EBB in contrast to the Dickens of the gilliflower, the girl gardener/woman poet has crafted a stunning metamorphosis, not just by telling of a mythic hero transformed into vegetation. Rather than merely nurturing within the confines of the domestic garden, applying spiritual balm to the masculine body rendered "rude and rife" (1. 74) by "Troy-ruin" (1. 73), the girl gardener recasts the values of epic struggle, eschewing the language of epic ("But a rhymer such as I am, / Scarce can sing his dignity," 11. 4748) for the language of flowers so much associated with Victorian women. Whereas she arms her version of the classical hero with a breastplate of daisies, a helmet of "daffodillies," and "a sword of flashing lilies" (1. 59), the nine-year-old gardener wields rake, spade, and--dare we imagine it?--pruning shears, to re-shape the masculine stuff of legend. This image forecasts EBB's later redefinition of epic for her age in Aurora Leigh (1856), where she makes the experience of contemporary women--seamstresses, prostitutes, and women poets--the stuff of modern epic. Rejecting the heroic model of earlier epic, she declares that though "Homer's heroes measured twelve feet high," in actuality, "They were but men." (51) More than a decade before writing these lines in Aurora Leigh, EBB as the child gardener of "Hector in the Garden" had already begun to whittle Homer's hero down to size, taming his martial prowess to botanical beauty and claiming a space for the mature woman poet-speaker, "no dreamer, no neglecter/Of the present's work unsped," to pursue "Life's heroic ends" in a new vocabulary (11. 103-104, 106).

Earlier, EBB had employed a child in "The Romance of the Swan's Nest" (1844) (52) to illustrate how literature constructs gender stereotypes, and the poem implies women's need for a literature which more penetratingly analyzes their social position. The ballad shows how reading the unrealistic poetry of courtly love has deluded the young heroine. Little Ellie, who has discovered a secret treasure, a swan's egg in a nest concealed among reeds, imagines that she will one day share this poignant, exciting treasure, conspicuously erotic in its implications, with a lover. Little Ellie's absorption of chivalric models--fair damsels wooed by knights in shining armor--trains her to regard herself as enjoying a position of power, from which she will exact patient and heroic service from the man who aspires to her love. Not only must he be noble, he must ride a red roan "shod / All in silver," play lute music that "Shall strike ladies into trouble, / As his sword strikes men to death" (ll. 31-32, 29-30), and sue for her love, repeatedly sending a page with love tokens until she deigns to yield. Ellie's romanticized conception of gender relations is called into question by the crass realities she encounters in nature, described in resonantly sexual imagery: a rat brutally violates the secret nest sheltering the swan's egg which Ellie has cherished, revealing the world, contrary to her illusions, to be "red in tooth and claw/With ravine" (Tennyson, In Memoriam, 54.15-16). This confrontation with the harshness of a world unfiltered through literary romance renders the love story insignificant:
 If she found the lover ever,
 With his red-roan steed of steeds,
 Sooth I know not; but I know
 She could never show him--never,
 That swan's nest among the reeds! (ll. 98-102)

The poem cleverly calls into question the asymmetries of power in gender relations which are masked or mystified by conventional rhetorical and metaphoric tropes and language such as "the Angel in the House" later popularized by Coventry Patmore.

Elsewhere EBB strategically focuses on women's responsibilities to educate their children in the power asymmetries of the prevailing gender economy that were occluded by romanticized literature such as furnished Little Ellie's dreams. A poem written for the 1838 giftbook Findens' Tableaux subtly delineates motherhood as a forum from which a woman can articulate the wrongs of her sex. Invited to provide a poem illustrating an engraving representing India, EBB devised "A Romance of the Ganges" (53) as the story of a romantic triangle in which the heroine has lost her lover to her woman friend. The poem describes the practice of Hindu women setting lighted candles adrift in small boats, believing that a flame which falters before the boat is out of sight betokens failure in love, whereas a light that burns steadily indicates amatory success. EBB's protagonist Luti has lost her faithless lover to her friend Nuleeni. Rather than silently accepting her abandonment or blaming her woman friend for her loss, Luti charges Nuleeni to tell her firstborn son of his father's cruel betrayal of a woman who loved him:
 "And when in seasons after,
 Thy little bright-faced son
 Shall lean against thy knee and ask
 What deeds his sire hath done,-Press
 deeper down thy mother-smile
 His glossy curls among,
 View deep his pretty childish eyes,
 And whisper,--There is none denies,
 While Luti speaks of wrong." (11. 164-172)

Luti thus assumes that the bond of sisterhood between women supersedes the bond between husband and wife. Moreover, EBB suggests that women can use their role as mothers as a "bully pulpit" from which to challenge the sexual double standard by teaching the next generation of sons to understand women's powerlessness and pain. Although emphasizing a mother's responsibility to teach her children moral and ethical values might seem essentially conservative, congruent with discussions of women's roles found in such works as Sarah Ellis' conduct books, EBB's ballad radically suggests that Nuleeni fulfill this responsibility by exposing the cruelty of patriarchal privilege and the wrongs of women's social and legal liabilities. (54)

In one last example, a much later poem, "Lord Waiter's Wife" (published posthumously in 1862 [CW, 6:9-14]), similarly defines motherhood not as the spiritual apotheosis of woman, but as a position from which to challenge social inequities and instruct daughters. In the poem a child witnesses a sexually suggestive conversation between her mother and her father's friend. In it the woman turns the tables on the man who has flirted with her, challenging the sexual double standard by imitating his earlier romantic overtures to her. When he protests that he values her husband too much to linger with her, she pertly replies: "'Oh, that ... is no reason. You smell a rose through a fence: / If two should smell it, what matter?'" (11. 9-10). He recoils in shock from this indelicacy, citing the fact that she is a mother as reason she should be chaste: "'you ... have a daughter, a young little child, who was laid / In your lap to be pure'" (11. 15-16). Having exposed the hollowness of his false courtship and the power imbalance his blandishments have assumed along with the sexual double standard, the woman laughs at his discomfort, invoking her daughter's aid in restoring a state of friendship between them. She thus indicates that she not only staged the conversation as an edifying rebuke to the man, but also intended it as a lesson for her child in the truths of gender relations. EBB foregrounded this emphasis on motherhood as a site for contesting customary gender relations by altering her original conception of the poem, titled in manuscript "Lord Waiter's Betrothed," which presented the girl auditor as the sister rather than the daughter of the woman speaker. (55) By revising this relationship, EBB emphasized that as mothers women can teach different understandings of gender relations and "construct" gender differently.

These four poems, representing work from early to late in EBB's publishing career, suggest characteristic ways she employed the figure of the child, not merely to evoke nostalgia or to examine childhood innocence or intuition, but to give voice to women's experience and expose the social disabilities perpetuated by prevailing gender constructions. Her representations of children thus simultaneously challenge Rousseauistic models of childhood and gender and undercut the stock Victorian veneration of motherhood in order to suggest how women, by claiming the power to speak out against the wrongs of their sex, can teach the next generation and themselves to become citizens of the world worthy of the children they bear.

EBB made this point explicit in her defense of "Lord Waiter's Wife" to William Makepeace Thackeray. Though as editor of the Cornhill Magazine he had invited her to submit a poem, he returned "Lord Waiter's Wife" because he found the sexual matter too daring for a family publication. In his diplomatic rejection letter, Thackeray unconsciously revealed his deafness to the poem's lesson, for he in effect reproduced its gender dynamics, casting EBB as the transgressive woman and himself as her husband's friend, scandalized by her overly bold response to his invitation. Much like the poem's male character, shocked by a lady's arch challenge to the sexual double standard, Thackeray rebuffed her poetic challenge to literary decorum by reminding EBB that she should better know her place as a wife and mother: "You see that our Magazine is written not only for men and women but for boys, girls, infants, sucklings almost, and one of the best wives, mothers, women in the world writes some verses which I feel certain would be objected to by many of our readers." EBB's answering letter maintained not only the poem's morality, but women's responsibility--specifically as mothers--to speak out on social ills, perhaps most crucially on those involving matters of sex:
 I don't like coarse subjects, or the coarse treatment of any
 subject. But I am deeply convinced that the corruption of our
 society requires not shut doors and windows, but light and air: and
 that it is exactly because pure and prosperous women choose to
 ignore vice, that miserable women suffer wrong by it everywhere.
 Has paterfamilias, with his Oriental traditions and veiled female
 faces, very successfully dealt with a certain class of evil? What
 if materfamilias, with her quick sure instincts and honest innocent
 eyes, do more towards their expulsion by simply looking at them and
 calling them by their names? (56)

In closing the subject, EBB repeats Thackeray's ostensibly flattering but presumably chastising characterization of her as a wife and mother--but only to reject the constraints associated with the roles that he implies: "See what insolence you put me up to by your kind way of naming my dignities--'Browning's wife and Penini's mother.'" She continued, "And I, being vain (turn some people out of a room and you don't humble them properly), retort with-'materfamilias!'" (Letters, 2:446). More than simply "mother of the family," the Latin materfamilias, by analogy with paterfamilias, would not only mean protector and ruler of the household, but also imply the moral dimension of maintaining customary laws. In her writings on childhood, however--ranging from her intimate epistolary accounts of Pen to her poems featuring children--EBB speaks not as a conservator of the customary, but as a catalyst for a new order, as materfamilias of future generations of boys and girls whom she imagines as confident and equal citizens of the world.


(1) March 4, 1854; Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to Her Sister, 1846-1859, ed. Leonard Huxley (London: John Murray, 1929), p. 200; subsequently cited as LTH.

(2) August 30, 1853; LTH, pp. 192-193. See also her comment that Pen is learning to read "more for his pleasure than profit," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy 1849-1861, ed. Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley (New York: John Murray and The Browning Institute, 1973), p. 99; subsequently cited as LTO.

(3) December 8, 1858; LTH, p. 302.

(4) January 10, 1855; The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella, ed. Scott Lewis, 2 vols. (Waco, Texas: Wedgestone Press, 2002), 2:124; hereafter cited as LTA. On her resistance to educating young children in math and science, see LTO, p. 15.

(5) See, for example, Peter Dally, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 142-143, 151-152, 164; and Betty Miller, Robert Browning: A Portrait (1952; London: John Murray, 1972), pp. 166-167, 182, 222-223. Robert Coles describes EBB's maternal behavior as "hysteria" in his introduction to Maisie Ward's The Tragi-Comedy of Pen Browning (1849-1912) (New York: Sheed and Ward and the Browning Institute, 1972), p. xvi. Robert Browning's biographers Irvine and Honan refer to her treatment of the boy as "extravagant folly" against which her husband could make "little headway," offering a psychoanalytic explanation of Robert's inability to curb this maternal foolishness: he himself viewed EBB as a mother figure, and he felt guilty because he had risked her health in marrying her and impregnating her five times (William Irvine and Park Honan, The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A New Biography of Robert Browning [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974], pp. 291, 292). To avoid the awkwardness of referring to Elizabeth Barrett Browning as "Barrett" before her marriage and "Barrett Browning" after marriage, the confusion of calling her merely "Browning," or the patronizing implications of using "Mrs. Browning" or "Elizabeth" (though I do sometimes employ this last to refer in her as a child), I refer to her as "EBB," the designation with which she signed maw of her manuscripts and letters throughout her life.

(6) The intensity of her love seems healthy and understandable in a woman whose delicate health had convinced her she could never bear a child; who endured not only two miscarriages before successfully delivering him, but two more afterwards, one of them life-threatening; and who adored her own eleven siblings (one of whom died in early childhood) but bore only the one child. The detailed passages about Pen in her correspondence are usually addressed to family members and close friends in distant places who saw the boy infrequently and knew him mostly through her sketches, and especially to other mothers of young sons, her sister Henrietta, and her former neighbor Eliza Olgivy, whom she implored to send equivalently detailed letters about their boys (see, for example, LTH, p. 206).

(7) Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 174. In 1858 describing Pen's fluency in Italian, EBB declared: "he shall be a 'citizen of the world' after my own heart & ready for the millennium" (LTA, 2:347). For analysis of the development of EBB's cosmopolitanism, see Christopher M. Keirstead, "A 'Bad Patriot'?: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Cosmopolitanism," VIJ 33 (2005): 69-95.

(8) Elizabeth A. Fay, A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 91, 66. See Deirdre David, Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995); Gary Kelly, Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790. 1827 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993); and Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), esp. pp. 81-86.

(9) Anita Schorsch, Images of Childhood: An Illustrated Social History (New York: Main Street Press, 1979), p. 127.

(10) On the conventional education for affluent boys--"the age-old classical grind" and utilitarian mathematics--see Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800.1900 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 179, 173-179; and Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 60-67.

(11) Elizabeth Moulton letter to EBB, c. May 1817; The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, and Scott Lewis, 16 vols. to date (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1984.), 1:36; hereafter identified as BC. Grandmama's concern for the safety of Elizabeth's "neck" refers metonymically to her bosom, in euphemistic phrasing common to the eighteenth century.

(12) July 27, 1816; BC, 1:25.

(13) Elizabeth's girlhood encapsulates the evolution of theoretical conceptions of childhood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Her childhood writings manifest some of the earlier notions of the child as miniature adult, born in state of Original Sin and desperately needing to be controlled and morally transformed: as early as age eight she was writing pious poems and stories on Virtue. But her letters also record a high degree of freedom and play and fired intimacy with her parents.

(14) As "relational creatures" (Sarah Stickney Ellis, Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits [London, 1838], pp. 149-150), women, according to Ellis, derived their identity and meaning in life from their relationships with others, especially fathers, husbands, and children.

(15) William Artaud to Wager Tayler, March 29, 1818; BC, 1:319, SD283.

(16) On this early illness, see Susan Walsh, "'Doing the Aphra Behn': Barrett Browning's Portrait of the Artist," VP 36 (1998): 163-186, esp. pp. 165-167.

(17) Her mastery of Greek was so notably anomalous that, as Mermin points out (pp. 162163), the American Whig Review (14 [1851]: 463) reported that during their courtship she and Robert Browning had corresponded entirely in classical Greek.

(18) August 20-21, 1853; The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, 3 vols. (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1983), 3:394. When Pen was just four, EBB reported his disgust with brutish behavior associated with masculine stereotypes: when some boys threw stones at EBB's spaniel Flush, Pen fumed, "'Velly naughty boys! I sint dirls [girls] never beat dods [dogs]. Only boys.... boys not know better, I sint.... shaking his head with a pitiful air of superiority. 'But I sure God not lite it'" (LTA, 1:557).

(19) January 31[?], 1842; BC, 5:225-226. In this letter EBB values her own early language acquisition primarily as an aid to her appreciating and writing poetry (pp. 224, 226). As early as 1837, reporting on her German lessons with two brothers, she had criticized the effects of formal study of languages: "I believe this is the last of my languages for I have begun absolutely to detest the sight of a dictionary or grammar, which I never liked except as a means" (BC, 3:278-279).

(20) EBB's approach to Pen's language education differed from her own early experience, when as a child studying French, German, and Latin she complained about mastering dull grammar (see, for example, BC, 1:27). Such remarks would seem to accord with Rousseau's reasoning for opposing children's study of foreign languages, which he characterized as unreflective memorization; Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile or Education, trans. Barbara Foxley (London: Dent, 1914), p. 73.

(21) October 17, and December 30, 1851; LTO, pp. 53, 63.

(22) September 19, 1849; LTH, p. 112.

(23) October 5, 1852; LTO, p. 88.

(24) August 4, 1857; LTH, p. 277. "A Child's Grave at Florence" (1849), a poem commemorating the death of a girl sixteen months old, embodies this transnational ideal: "Of English blood, of Tuscan birth," the dead child defies national categories. Committed to "Tuscan ground" with "English words of prayer," she is received by "The civic Heavens" (The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. [New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900], 3:212-219, 11. 1-8); hereafter cited as CW. All quotations from EBB's verse are from this edition, unless otherwise stated.

(25) January 10, 1855; LTA, 2:124.

(26) The poem:
 Ah! the poor lad in yonder boat
 Forced from his Wife, his Friends, his home,
 Now gentle Maiden how can you
 Look at the misery of his doom?

This poem is the first one in a notebook, now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, which records EBB's childhood writings. Although it is clearly dated "1812" in this notebook, the poem has been dated "1814" in Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley, The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1984; hereafter identified as Reconstruction), following the heading on a manuscript transcription by EBB's grandmother Elizabeth Moulton:

"Poetry composed by my Grandaughter Elizabeth Barrett began at the age of eight years old August the 7th 1814" (see Reconstruction D669, also D666-668; p. 313). The prominence of discussions of impressments in the 1812 London Times argues for the earlier date, which also accords with EBB's recollection of her first poetic efforts: "At four I first mounted Pegasus but at six I thought myself priviledged to show off feats of horsemanship (BC, 1:349). Whether composed at age six or eight, the poem is remarkably precocious in anticipating her later work focused on social, political, and gender issues.

(27) August 31, 1812; BC, 1:9.

(28) Simon Avery illuminates EBB's early whig view of history, which celebrates England in the present as the apogee of political achievement, in "Telling It Slant: Promethean, Whig, and Dissenting Politics in Elizabeth Barrett's Poetry of the 1830s," VP 44 (2006): 405-424.

(29) See her letter to Robert Browning, contrasting his direct experience of the world with her vicarious knowledge: "Books & dreams were what I lived in." Even her metaphors for describing her lack register the extent to which literature had replaced real life; when death threatened, she realized, "I was as a man dying who had not read Shakespeare .. & it was too late!" (March 20, 1845; BC, 10:133).

(30) See, for example, LTA, 2:347, where EBB reports on his fluency: "As for Italian, the Italians consider him an Italian,--& one of them observed the other day, that he 'spoke English very well for his age.' He has the very intonation of the Florentines." For EBB's attributing Pen's political fervor to his friendship with Ferdinando, see, for example, LTH, pp. 205-206.

(31) October 31, 1859; LTO, p. 145. In the revolt against Austrian domination, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-78), king of Piedmont, was proclaimed king of a united Italy in March 1861, forming the nucleus of what would eventually become the modern nation state.

(32) LTO, pp. 145-146. Italian poet and journalist Francesco Dall'Ongaro (1808-1873), a friend of the Brownings, published patriotic verse and other writings supporting the struggle for independence.

(33) LTO, pp. 145-146. EBB continued to contrast Pen's immersion in living languages with the constrictions of tuition in mathematics; see, for example, LTO, p. 152.

(34) LTO, pp. 146-147. See also the letter to Henrietta, March 4, 1859, in which EBB protests that corduroys and leather gaiters "disguise and distort a young child's natural grace" and may "act injuriously on his manners and gestures in after life" (LTH, p. 309).

(35) August 28, 1850; LTO, p. 23.

(36) June 5, 1851; LTA 1: 381. This letter reports that Robert won at least one controversy relating to Pen's costume, prevailing over EBB's preference that the toddler continue to wear a baby cap (LTA, 1:380-381). Nathaniel Hawthorne's description of Pen in 1858 simultaneously confirms EBB's sense of the boy as special and somewhat androgynous and echoes Robert's desire to make him more decidedly manly and English; see Hawthorne's The French and Italian Notebooks, ed. Thomas Woodson, Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. 14 (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 300-301.

(37) June 2, 1853; LTO, p. 100.

(38) November 6, 1854; LTH, p. 207.

(39) Despite EBB's early determination to postpone Pen's classical studies until he reached fifteen, he began Latin tuition (along with arithmetic and geography) at age eleven with a pleasant Corsican Abbe, who spoke French and Italian, no English (June 15, 1860; LTO, p. 152). At that time EBB reported proudly that Pen liked arithmetic and "complains of not having the sums made hard enough," and that while he was studying Latin grammar and translation, he was learning his math in French (LTA, 2:444). After EBB's death on June 29, 1861, Robert Browning set about getting "a very good English Tutor" for his son, rejecting Edith Story's suggestion of a European school, which would have provided an easier transition from Pen's unconventional education in Italy. Robert's August 20, 1861 letter to the Storys links his preference for an English tutor to misgivings about the indeterminacy of Pen's gender and nationality: "I distrust all hybrid & ambiguous natures & nationalities and want to make something decided of the poor little fellow" (Browning to His American Friends: Letters between the Brownings, the Storys and James Russell Lowell, 1841-1890, ed. Gertrude Reese Hudson [London: Bowes and Bowes, 1965], p. 76).

(40) Yet Coles also describes Pen as "energetic, resourceful, a shrewd observer," as a man animated by "sparks of warmth and humor" and "intelligent activity," as one admired by acquaintances for his "over-all integrity" (p. xix).

(41) Coles, pp. xiv, xv; Ward, p. 142.

(42) For a very succinct account of Pen, see Margaret Forster, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), pp. 372-373.

(43) Although Robert Browning expressed anxiety about Pen's prospects and accomplishments as an artist, we may see the son's career choice as an expression of admiration for his father and desire for his approval. In Italy Robert for a time had taken up modeling in clay, working with the American sculptor William Wetmore Story, and had expressed his regard for painting not only in numerous poems about artists, but in his avid collecting of pictures for Casa Guidi. Perhaps tellingly, a drawing executed when Pen was only four represents his "PAPA" as a knight on horseback holding a sword, bearing a quotation in EBB's hand, "I done this for please Papa" (the drawing is reproduced in Ward, p. 74). Pen always preferred life in Italy to England and as an adult made it his permanent home.

(44) "The Deserted Garden" (1838) and "The Lost Bower" (1844) might be read in this way, for example. On "The Deserted Garden" see Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 67-70; on "The Lost Bower" see Leighton, pp. 70-74, and Mermin pp. 67, 100-102. EBB also wrote a number of poems on dead children that accentuate the children's proximity to God and the pathos of their parents' loss; for example, "Isobel's Child" (1838), "A Child Asleep" (1844), and "Little Mattie" and "Only a Curl" (1862).

(45) See John Ruskin, "Of Queen's Gardens," Lecture II of Sesame and Lilies, in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1903-12), 18:109-144.

(46) See Mermin, pp. 152-154, for a discussion of this poem's declaration of "her readiness for a new literature and a new life" (p. 154).

(47) The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols. (London, 1897), 2:189.

(48) Letter to James Martin, February 6, 1843; BC, 6:316.

(49) James Martin letter to EBB, February 2, 1843; BC, 6:313-314. In her 1831-1832 Diary EBB had described James Martin as "clever naturally," "rugged," and "unpoetical" (Diary by E.B.B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1831-1832, ed. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1969], p. 120).

(50) For EBB's praise of Victor Hugo as "first of all in genius" and judgment that though Dickens has learned from Hugo, he remains inferior to the master, see her letter to Mary Russell Mitford, November 27, 1842; BC 6:179-180.

(51) Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992), Bk. 5, 11. 146-147.

(52) CW, 3:141-145. For discussion of this poem, see Helen Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. 96-97; Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing against the Heart (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1992), p. 74; Mermin, pp. 94-95; Glennis Stephenson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), pp. 34-36; and Marjorie Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: St. Martin's, 1995), pp. 123-124.

(53) CW, 2:29-37. For discussion, see Mermin, pp. 72-74; Stephenson, pp. 41-43; Stone, pp. 115-116; Stott in Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: Longman, 2003), p. 150; and Beverly Taylor, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Subversion of the Gift Book Model," SBHC 20 (1993): 62-69.

(54) This line of interpretation suggests a thematic link between "Romance of the Ganges" and Christina Rossetti's much later Goblin Market (1862), though EBB's explicit suggestion that Nuleeni should teach her son of his father's guilt more directly articulates women's responsibility and opportunity to challenge gender inequities by instructing their children.

(55) This draft of the poem is in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library (Reconstruction D489).

(56) Thackeray's rejection (April 2, 1861) and EBB's response (April 21, 1861) appear in Letters, ed. Kenyon, 2: 444, 445-446. EBB pertly reported the incident to her sister-in-law Sarianna: "Thackeray has turned me out of the 'Cornhill' for indecency, but did it so prettily and kindly that I, who am forgiving, sent him another poem" (May 11, 1861; Letters, 2:443). Linda Shires and E. Warwick Slinn discuss EBB's negotiation of poetic identity in the exchange with Thackeray and the performative complexities of female agency in the poem; see Shires, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Cross-Dwelling and the Reworking of Female Poetic Authority," VLC 30 (2002): 326-343; and Slinn, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Problem of Female Agency," in Tradition and the Poetics of Self in Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry, ed. Barbara Garlick (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 43-55. On the poem's sexual politics, see also Leighton, Victorian Women Poets, pp. 85-87; Mary Pollock, "The Anti-Canonical Realism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Lord Waiter's Wife,'" Studies in the Literary Imagination 29 (1996): 43-53; and Stott, in Avery and Stott, pp. 128-130.
COPYRIGHT 2008 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Taylor, Beverly
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Previous Article:Parody and poetic tradition: Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience.
Next Article:Uncanny transactions and canny forms: Rosamund Marriott Watson's Marchen.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |