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Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Fiona Sampson pens vivid portrait of overlooked, influential 19th-century writer

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Author: Fiona Sampson
ISBN-13: 978-1788162074
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £20

Ba’s father has bought nearly 500 acres, with a Big House, farm buildings and cottages, “to make yourself, Brother & Sister & dear Mamma happy”, as he tells her. It sounds like a fairytale, and in a way it is; though, as in any fairytale, not everything’s quite as it appears. The debt of happiness “dear Puss” must repay her father will eventually come to seem outsized, even grotesque.

Fiona Sampson’s passionate and exacting biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a surprisingly compact volume, a bristling lyrical sandwich of philosophy and action. It is also a page-turner. Like many great 19th century novels, it begins with a charismatic house – Hope End in Herefordshire is brought dazzlingly to life on these pages. Like Mansfield Park or Thornfield Manor, Elizabeth’s childhood Eden is linked to property in the West Indies. Hope End is, however, not fictional and the plantations that lies behind its “Easy money. Dirty money.” are real, still relevant. “Over two centuries on, the murky waters of the Atlantic slave trade lap at all our feet, whether as deficit or profit.”

Sampson addresses her subject as “Elizabeth” rather than “Barrett Browning”, rendering her intense sustained gaze extraordinarily intimate. Her deep sense of identification and unerring detail reels the reader in:

“There’s nothing gentle or genteel . . . about such a cough; . . . gasping . . . body forced into an upright position . . . Coughing without drawing breath, coughing till you retch, eyes streaming, nothing to you but the red O of your coughing mouth . . . Inhaling a gloop that prisms and swirls slowly in steaming water, Elizabeth has to keep moving her long hair out of the way . . . Lace handkerchiefs are wasted on this . . .”


Female lyric voice

Two-Way Mirror’s nine chapters correspond to the nine books of Elizabeth’s pioneering Bildungsroman verse novel, Aurora Leigh. A key formative text for woman writers including George Eliot, Charlotte Mew and Emily Dickinson, Aurora Leigh was also celebrated by male writers (Kipling, Ruskin, Swinburne and Wilde were fans). In terms of women’s writing,

Aurora Leigh is ground-breaking, the first account of the growth of a woman poet. Although written near the end of Barrett Browning’s life, Aurora Leigh was the culmination of a female lyric voice which she developed throughout her long writing career, long before she escaped from her father’s domineering influence to marry the poet Robert Browning. Sampson reminds us that “none of this is new in the 21st century . . . We’ve seen the female lyric be prayerful with Emily Dickinson, self-flagellating with Sylvia Plath, witness to history with Anna Akhmatova . . . without the changes she’s effecting, none of their poetry might have been written.”

Barrett Browning’s subject matters were radical too. An abolitionist and political poet, she shone her light into many dark corners – the act of rape was central to the plot of Aurora Leigh. But the most extraordinary example of her radicalism is her poem The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point, informed by her own anxieties about her possible African-Caribbean heritage. Raped by the owners who murder her lover, an enslaved woman murders her “too white” child before she is hunted down and flogged to death.

“Elizabeth makes oppression turn itself into the engine of resistance, pitching the status quo upside down: the narrator is as revolted by her baby’s ‘white’ face as her persecutors are dismissive of ‘my black face, my black hand’. Given Elizabeth’s family background this is a revolutionary vision . . .”

And yet, within 70 years of her death, Elizabeth’s reputation was reduced to that of “a swooning poetess in whose little, couch-bound life only a tyrannical father and an ardent poet-lover contribute drama . . . By the 1970s . . . the roaring boys of North American literary criticism will go a stage further, maligning Elizabeth Barrett-Browning as relevant to the history of literature only through marriage or, worse, as hindering that real writer, her husband . . . literary canons are not born, but made.”

Two-Way Mirror is a long overdue remaking of Barrett Browning’s extraordinary appropriated life, which “20th-century popular fiction” turned into “a thrumming Oedipal drama”, portraying her as sexually unawakened, a dammed-up force ready to burst into creativity once she’s roused with a kiss.

Each chapter is prefaced by a short philosophical lyrical essay or “frame”, each a meditation on portraiture and reflection which doubles as an act of self-examination for Sampson: “Is a biography a kind of portrait?” “Do faces matter?” “I suspect the absence of a returning gaze probably matters enormously.” The latter observation particularly resonant in our age of ever-present cameras.

It feels like stakes couldn’t be higher for Sampson, and this gives an enormous charge to a vividly personal account, balanced with self-knowledge and self-examination: “Like Aurora Leigh, this biography is a portrait, not a self-portrait. . . the imagination is greedy: as Elizabeth’s readers, we respond to elements of her life we feel mirror our own.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic