Two-way mirror The life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Fiona Sampson

Book - 2021

"A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of Britain's most famous female poet, a woman who invented herself and defied her times. "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." With these words, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has come down to us as a romantic heroine, a recluse controlled by a domineering father and often overshadowed by her husband, Robert Browning. But behind the melodrama lies a thoroughly modern figure whose extraordinary life is a study in self-invention. Born into an age when women could neither own property once married nor vote, Barrett Browning seized control of her private income, overcame long-term illness, eloped to revolutionary Italy with Browning, and achieved lasting literary fame. A feminist icon, p...olitical activist, and international literary superstar, she inspired writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf. The first biography of Barrett Browning in more than three decades, with unique access to the poet's abundant correspondence, Two-Way Mirror holds up a mirror to the woman, her art, and the art of biography itself"--

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BIOGRAPHY/Browning, Elizabeth Barrett
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New York, NY : W. W. Norton & Company 2021.
Main Author
Fiona Sampson (author)
First American edition
Physical Description
xiv, 322 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 261-304) and index.
  • A note on names
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of illustrations
  • Frontispiece From within
  • Book 1. How (not) to belong
  • Opening Frame
  • Book 2. How to be ill
  • Second Frame
  • Book 3. How not to love
  • Third Frame
  • Book 4. How to manage change
  • Fourth Frame
  • Book 5. How to lose your way
  • Tain
  • Book 6. How to be dutiful
  • Sixth Frame
  • Book 7. How to desire
  • Seventh Frame
  • Book 8. How to be autonomous
  • Eighth Frame
  • Book 9. How to lose a body
  • Closing Frame
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Sampson follows In Search of Mary Shelley (2018) with another redefining biography of a seminal woman writer. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born to wealth rooted in slavery and became an abolitionist. A child prodigy in a sexist society where education for girls was rare, she intended to become a classicist and a poet, and she was well on her way in her teens when the ailments that forever after plagued her first hit. Her poor health excused her from social obligations, leaving her "free to read and write to her heart's content." Her admired technical virtuosity was charged by her lyric voice, a "radical departure." Sampson overturns old misogynist assumptions, establishing that it was Barrett Browning's tremendous literary success that brought her and nascent poet Robert Browning together. Forced by her father's harsh objections to marry in secret, they moved to Italy, where she thrived. Sampson sensitively elucidates how Barrett Browning's unusual life shaped her imagination and social consciousness. As she tracks the creation and reception of each of her groundbreaking books, including Sonnets from the Portuguese, she astutely uses Barrett Browning's revolutionary masterpiece, Aurora Leigh, a novel-in-verse about a woman poet claiming artistic and personal freedom to frame this gleaming two-way mirror reflecting Barrett Browning and her profound and extraordinary oeuvre. \

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Poet Sampson (In Search of Mary Shelley) takes an unconventional and intriguing look at the life of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806--1861). The volume is structured in nine "books" to mimic Elizabeth's masterwork Aurora Leigh, and takes as its central conceit a focus on mirrors and framing. "Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within," Sampson writes, and aims to shatter the clichés that "frame" Barrett Browning's life. Far from being the feeble, dominated invalid she's often portrayed as, Barrett Browning was a well-regarded poet and financially independent. Sampson makes the case for Barrett Browning being "radical and exciting," as she set the stage for such poets as Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and as "someone who becomes herself through becoming a poet." Barrett Browning's family history--they made their fortune in the sugar trade, profiting from slavery--is examined, as well, and puts her involvement in the abolitionist movement in context. This account shines when breaking the mythologies that surround Barrett Browning's reputation, but the frequent reflections on framing and mirrors distracts rather than enhances. Still, fans of Barrett Browning will appreciate this refreshing portrait of the poet as an empowered woman. (Aug.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Here is Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806--61) as we rarely see her, a tomboy and autodidact who became an international literary sensation. Sampson's highly accessible biography counters decades of criticism that satirized Barrett Browning as a caricature of a female poet--portrayals that have obscured her pioneering work, which opened lyric poetry to a distinctly feminine voice. Offering contemporary and historical context, Sampson (In Search of Mary Shelley) introduces Barrett Browning as a woman of--and ahead of--her time and tracks her literary progression alongside her changing political views during an era of slavery and abolition. The research for this biography draws on Barrett Browning's extensive personal correspondence and family transactions in England and across the Atlantic. Sampson's work is marked by her careful attention to language and a desire to allow her subjects the opportunity to name themselves. Outlining a liminal space informed by gender, class, and disability, Sampson renders a modern portrait of Barrett Browning as a feminist who was presciently aware of the importance of her own image. The book draws on a range of primary sources and includes photographs of the poet and her family. VERDICT A welcome update that avoids sensationalism to pursue a more complex history of a much-loved literary figure. Recommended for all collections.--Asa Drake, Marion Cty. P.L., FL

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A new account of the life and work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) aims for breadth and depth--and achieves both. Sampson reintroduces Browning to a 21st-century audience, puts the more notorious aspects of the poet's life in perspective, and makes the case that Browning was one of the great poets of her age. As the daughter of an eccentric English landowner, Elizabeth showed literary genius early, and her chronic illnesses freed her from the obligations of a woman of her class. Soon she was writing essays and poetry; as a young woman, she was published in England's foremost journals thanks to her talent and support by mentors, both women and men. In her late 30s, she was contacted by poet Robert Browning, an admirer of her work. They corresponded, met, and eventually ran away to Italy to get married, a decision that enraged her controlling father, who cut her off financially (fortunately, she had her own inheritance). This well-publicized series of events, as well as Elizabeth's eloquent love poetry, made them one of the premier couples of the 19th-century literary world, and they settled in Italy and had a son. In Italy, she wrote her nine-book masterwork, the epic poem/verse novel Aurora Leigh. Sampson provides updated research and commentary on how the Barrett family wealth was generated largely by slaves on family-owned plantations in Jamaica and how Elizabeth's guilt at her heritage turned her toward political radicalism. The author is adept at switching between personal history and literary analysis. The latter part of the book--chronicling Elizabeth's suffering from a series of miscarriages, pursuit of spiritualism, and increasing dependence on opium to alleviate pain--is melancholy, and Sampson chronicles the family's wide-ranging travels in search of a climate more conducive to her health. Hers was a "life of struggle" with a bodily "machine" that often let her down, but her limitations enabled her genius. Sampson does her achievement justice. An acute and insightful study of the life and work of a pathbreaking 19th-century poet. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.