Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning #

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861, was an English poet famous for the love poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh.

At the age of 15, she fell seriously ill, probably as the result of a spinal injury, and her health was permanently affected. For reasons of health, she spent the next three years in Torquay, Devon. After the death by drowning of her brother, Edward, she developed an almost morbid terror of meeting anyone apart from a small circle of intimates. Her mother died when she was 22.

Robert Browning, a fellow poet who read her poems, declaring that he loved them as well as her. Following an exchange of 600 love letters, they met. In 1846, he is 34 and she is 40 he proposes.

When he proposed, she resisted his advances, because she was a chronic invalid who needed constant support and she was six years older than he. He had been living an active life with abundant energy and good health, dressed as a young man of fashion, and enjoyed going to dinners and receptions where he conversed with many of the leading figures of the literary world.

It was only after his prolonged wooing, that she looked into his eyes and saw that he he really loved her, that she accepted his proposal.

Despite the strong objections of her father they eloped and left to live in Italy on her inheritance from an uncle. Her father never spoke to her again.

The following poem is her acceptance of Robert Browning’s proposal of marriage:

How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
​ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
​ My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
​ For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
​ I love thee to the level of every day’s
​ Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
​ I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
​ I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
​ I love with a passion put to use
​ In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
​ I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
​ With my lost saints, – I love thee with the breath,
​ Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
​ I shall but love thee better after death.

Aurora Leigh #

This poetic novel traces the development of a young orphaned girl from Italy, raised by an Aunt in cold England who attempts to raise her as a capable but submissive wife. When she is proposed to by a man who doesn’t love her but believes they would make an excellent philanthropic couple to assist the poor.

She rejects his proposal with these words:

What you love, Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,–
A wife to help your ends … in her no end!
Your cause is noble, your ends excellent,
But I, being most unworthy of these and that,
Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.'

‘Farewell, Aurora, you reject me thus?’
He said.

Aurora has asserted her independence as a liberated woman.

Jane Austen’s novels also illustrate that it is acceptable for young eligible girls to reject offers of marriage if they find them unsuitable.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, willful and resolute, does not allow people to push her around; she stands up to them.

Despite her mother’s pressure to accept Mr Collin’s proposal of marriage to retain the family estate, Elizabeth refuses him.

Mr Collins proposal: #

Mr. Collins began. “Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you any disservice, rather adds to your other perfections. You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness; but allow me to assure you, that I have your respected mother’s permission for this address. You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it would be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying “My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed towards Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I can assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.” It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now. “You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.” “I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.” “Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—“but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.” “Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her: “When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.” “Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.” “You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.” “I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.” “You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

Mr Collins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XetUFwRhzg

Mr Darcy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JF3ueHjUc3k

When Mr. Darcy takes advantage of the fact that she is home alone with a headache to burst in on her and declare that despite the inferiority of her connections he is in love with her. Elizabeth takes a deep breath and answers:

In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that such an obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot. I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. it has been most unconsciously done however, and, I hope, will be of short duration.

Commanding her feelings and marshalling her thoughts on this occasion costs Elizabeth so much that when Darcy has gone, she cries for half an hour and then takes herself off to bed.

After refusing Darcy and then reading his letter she experiences self-discovery or self-recognition in the tradition of Oedipus or Lear:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. — Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, and absurd.

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. — ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! — I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. — How humiliating is this discovery! — Yet, how just a humiliation!

— Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind.’

Once Darcy has proved his worth, she refuses to assure the intimidating Lady Catherine de Bourgh that she would never marry Mr. Darcy, she needs all her courage and presence of mind. Lady Catherine rebukes her;

Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation [Darcy] has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.

Unabashed, Elizabeth replies:

But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this ever induce me to be explicit.

Austen is sending out a strong message to all women: It is alright to reject suitors. You have the freedom to choose. Germaine Greer

In Charlotte Bronte’s best-known work, Jane Eyre (1847), she described the eponymous heroine’s growing independence and her rejection of the constricting conditions of governessing and teaching for Mr Rochester. The two fall in love, but a madwoman in the attic is revealed as Rochester’s wife, whom he had married unwisely in his passionate youth, and so Jane and Rochester are prevented by law from marrying.

Jane leaves to work in another home where she is pressured to marry a minister, St. John, because he needs a supporting wife to take to India as a missionary. He demands that she sacrifice herself to serve him and God even though she is in love with another man.

She stands up to him.

The novel ends with the madwoman setting fire to the house, which burns down, blinding its owner. Jane, who narrates the story, returns to rescue him, and opens the concluding chapter with the famous words:

‘Reader, I married him.’