The Barrett family had been associated with Jamaica for generations. As a boy, Elizabeth's father Edward Moulton Barrett emigrated to England with his brother and sister Sarah. Sarah is the subject of the painting "Pinkie" in the Huntington Museum. Edward and his wife, Mary Graham-Clarke, were parents of twelve children, of whom Elizabeth was the eldest.
Elizabeth was educated at home and attended lessons with her brother's tutor and was thus well-educated for a girl of that time. She was an accomplished child, having read a number of Shakespearian plays, parts of Pope's Homeric translations, passages from Paradise Lost, and the histories of England, Greece, and Rome before the age of ten. She was self-taught in almost every respect.
The first poem we have a record of is from the age of six or eight, the manuscript of which is currently in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (the exact date is in question because the 2 in the date 1812 is written over something else that is scratched out). A long Homeric poem titled The Battle of Marathon was published when she was fourteen, her father underwriting its cost.
Although frail, she apparently had no health problems until 1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder.
When in her early teens, she contracted a lung complaint, possibly tuberculosis, although the exact nature of her illness has been the subject of speculation. She was subsequently regarded as an invalid by her family.
During her teen years she read the principal Greek and Latin authors and Dante's Inferno — all texts in the original languages. Her voracious appetite for knowledge compelled her to learn enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Her enjoyment of the works and subject matter of Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft was later expressed by her concern for human rights in her own letters and poems. By the age of twelve she had written an "epic" poem consisting of four books of rhyming couplets. Barrett later referred to her first literary attempt as, "Pope's Homer done over again, or rather undone."
Her intellectual fascination with the classics and metaphysics was balanced by a religious obsession which she later described as "not the deep persuasion of the mild Christian but the wild visions of an enthusiast." (See Methodism for the connotations of "enthusiasm.") Her family attended services at the nearest Dissenting chapel, and Mr. Barrett was active in Bible and Missionary societies.
Her mother died when she was 22, and critics mark signs of this loss in Aurora Leigh.
The abolition of slavery in the early 30's, a cause which she supported (see her work The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point (1849)), considerably reduced Mr. Barrett's means. His financial losses in the early 30s forced him to sell Hope End, and although never poor, the family moved three times between 1832 and 1837, first to Sidmouth and afterwards to London, finally settling at 50 Wimpole Street. After the move to London, Elizabeth continued to write, contributing to various periodicals The Romaunt of Margaret, The Romaunt of the Page, The Poet's Vow, and other pieces, and corresponded with literary figures of the time, including Mary Russell Mitford. In 1838, The Seraphim and Other Poems appeared, the first volume of Elizabeth's mature poetry to appear under her own name. That same year her health forced her to move to Torquay, on the Devonshire coast. Her favorite brother Edward went along with her.
The subsequent death of her brother, Edward, who drowned in a sailing accident at Torquay in 1840, had a serious effect on her already fragile health. When she returned to Wimpole Street, she became an invalid and a recluse, spending most of the next five years in her bedroom, seeing only one or two people other than her immediate family.
Eventually, however, she regained strength, and meanwhile her fame was growing. The publication in 1843 of The Cry of the Children gave it a great impulse, and about the same time she contributed some critical papers in prose to Richard Henry Horne's A New Spirit of the Age. In 1844 she published two volumes of Poems, which included A Drama of Exile, A Vision of Poets, and Lady Geraldine's Courtship.
Mr. Barrett disinherited her, as he did each one of his children who married without his permission—and he never gave his permission. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Elizabeth had inherited some money of her own, so the Brownings were reasonably comfortable in Italy.
The union proved a happy one. In her new circumstances Elizabeth's strength greatly increased. In 1849, at the age of 43, she gave birth to a son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, called Pen.
At her husband's insistence, the second edition of her Poems included her love sonnets. They helped increase her popularity and the high critical regard in which the Victorians held their favorite poetess. (On Wordsworth's death in 1850, she was seriously considered for the Laureateship, which went to Tennyson.)
The Brownings settled in Florence, where she wrote Casa Guidi Windows (1851) under the inspiration of the Tuscan struggle for liberty, with which she and her husband were in sympathy. In Florence she became close friend of British-born poets Isabella Blagden and Theodosia Garrow Trollope.
The verse-novel Aurora Leigh, her most ambitious, and perhaps the most popular of her longer poems, appeared in 1856. It is the story of a woman writer making her way in life, balancing work and love.
Among Barrett Browning's best known lyrics is Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) - the 'Portuguese' being her husband's petname for her. The title also refers to the series of sonnets of the 16th-century Portuguese poet Luis de Camões; in all these poems she used rhyme schemes typical of the Portuguese sonnets.
It is still unclear what sort of affliction Elizabeth Barrett Browning had, although medical and literary scholars have enjoyed speculating. Whatever it was, the opium which was repeatedly prescribed probably made it worse; and Robert Browning almost certainly lengthened her life by taking her south and by his solicitous attention.
Barrett's treatment of social injustice (the slave trade in America, the oppression of the Italians by the Austrians, the labor of children in the mines and the mills of England, and the restrictions placed upon women) is manifested in many of her poems. Two of her poems, Casa Guidi Windows and Poems Before Congress, dealt directly with the Italian fight for independence. The first half of Casa Guidi Windows (1851) was filled with hope that the newly awakened liberal movements were moving toward unification and freedom in the Italian states. The second half of the poem, written after the movement of liberalism had been crushed in Italy, is dominated by her disillusionment. After a decade of truce, Italians once again began to struggle for their freedom, but were forced to agree to an armistice that would leave Venice under Austrian control. Barrett Browning's Poems Before Congress (1860) responded to these events by criticizing the English government for not providing aid. One of the poems in this collection, A Curse For a Nation, which attacked slavery, had been previously published in an abolitionist journal in Boston.
Aurora Leigh also dealt with social injustice, but its subject was the subjugation of women to the dominating male. It also commented on the role of a woman as a woman and poet. Barrett's popularity waned after her death, and late-Victorian critics argued that although much of her writing would be forgotten, she would be remembered for The Cry of the Children, Isobel's Child, Bertha in the Lane, and most of all the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Virginia Woolf argued that the heroine in Aurora Leigh, "with her passionate interest in the social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age." Woolf's praise of that work predated the modern critical reevaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and today it attracts more attention than the rest of her poetry.