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. The first time is 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 he 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.'