EBB Contexts: Biographical Contexts

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Family Origins and Childhood

Note: This an excerpt from the opening of “Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” by Marjorie Stone, Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.  Vol. 8, pp. 233-42.  The DNB is available in research libraries.

Family Origins

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), poet and writer, was born on 6 March 1806 at Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, the first of twelve children to Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett (1785-1857), Jamaican plantation owner, and his wife Mary (1781-1828).  Her family origins are documented in Jeanette Marks’ The Family of the Barrett, in R.A. Barrett’s The Barretts of Jamaica, and in The Brownings’ Correspondence (hereafter BC).  Her mother’s parents were John and Arabella Graham (after 1786, Graham-Clarke) of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  John Graham-Clarke owned Jamaican sugar plantations, ships trading between Newcastle and Jamaica, a brewery, flax spinning mills and glass works.  Her father’s parents were Charles and Elizabeth Moulton 1763-1830), who married in Jamaica 28 August 1781.  Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett’s fortune came not from his father, who soon separated from his wife, but from his maternal grandfather, Edward Barrett (1734-98), owner of Cinnamon Hill, Cornwall, Cambridge and Oxford Estates on Jamaica’s Northside: more than 10,000 acres in total (R.A. Barrett 128).  Edward Barrett’s income was ‘fifty thousand a year’, his great-granddaughter told fellow poet Robert Browning (1812-1899) during the courtship recorded in their famous love letters.

The desire to hand down the family’s patronymic together with its wealth explains the doubled ‘Barrett’ in the poet’s maiden name.  By 1798 all three of Edward Barrett’s sons had predeceased him, making his two grandsons by Elizabeth Moulton, Edward and Samuel Barrett Moulton (1787-1837), his principal male heirs.  A clause in the will of his son George Goodin Barrett (1761-1795) had made legacies for the Moulton sons conditional on their taking and bearing ‘the Surname of Barrett’ on turning twenty-one.  In 1798, they successfully obtained a royal license to do so.  Their grandfather then added a clause to his own will stipulating that all heirs to his Jamaican estates ‘use the surname of Barrett’.  The poet’s father customarily shortened his name to Edward Moulton Barrett, without hyphenation;  his descendents adopted the hyphenated form after his death in 1857 (R.A. Barrett 37, 44, x).  The poet herself customarily retained the Christian name Barrett and dropped the surname Moulton, using  Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett only for legal documents like her marriage certificate.  When she did not refer to herself as ‘Ba’, the petname family members and close friends called her by throughout her life, she signed her letters and poems during her maiden years with varying forms of  ‘Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’, often simply using ‘EBB’.  She used ‘Elizabeth B. Barrett’ for The Seraphim, and Other Poems (1838),her third published collection and the first to bear her name.  In the two-volume Poems (1844) that established her international fame and prompted Browning to write to her on 10 January 1845, she identified herself, more resoundingly, as ‘Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’.  As the courtship progressed, Browning happily noted that, in marrying him, she would remain ‘EBB’ (BC, XI, 248-9). 

After their marriage on 12 September 1846, Elizabeth Barrett Browning maintained her characteristic signature initials.  A charming instance appears in a fair copy of the anti-slavery poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, dating from the fall of 1846.  Here the signature ‘EBB’ in her hand is enclosed in brackets added in Browning’s hand and preceded by his underlined word ‘my’ (Armstrong Browning Library, M2-37).  Her signature practices have been ignored by biographers and critics, who usually identify her as ‘Elizabeth Barrett’, as ‘Mrs. Browning’, or, since the 1970s feminist revival of interest in her works, as ‘Barrett Browning’.  Yet the poet rarely identified herself by the first two names, while the third is an anachronistic formation.  Given her own practice and the continuity between her maiden and married identities conveyed by her initials, this article henceforth refers to her as EBB.

EBB’s explanation of her complicated name to Browning in 1845 has  provoked some speculation about her ancestry:

My true initials are EBMB--my long name, as opposed to my short one, being . . . Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett! -- . . .  Christian name . . Elizabeth Barrett:--surname, Moulton Barrett. . . . to make it portable, I fell into the habit of doubling it up & packing it closely, . . & of forgetting that I was a Moulton, altogether. . . . Yet our family-name is Moulton Barrett, & my brothers reproach me sometimes for sacrificing the governorship of an old town in Norfolk with a little honorable verdigris from the Heralds’ Office-- As if I cared for the Retrospective Review!  Nevertheless it is true that I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave!-- Cursed are we from generation to generation!-- I seem to hear the ‘Commination service’. (BC, XI,  252).

Citing this passage, Julia Markus concluded in 1995 that the poet ‘believed that she had African blood through her grandfather Charles Moulton’ (106). 

Although Markus was not the first to contend that EBB had African blood, evidence does not support the speculation.  There were racially mixed branches of the Barrett family:  for example, the quadroon children of the poet’s great uncle George by Elissa Peters whom he freed and educated in England where legal ‘distinctions respecting colour’ were ‘not maintained’; the oldest of these, Thomas Peters, visited Coxhoe Hall in January, 1808 (R.A. Barrett 36, 58).  However,  genealogical research has uncovered no indication of African blood in EBB’s lineage (Marks 313, R.A. Barrett 64).  What the poet herself may have believed is another matter.  Yet there is no mention of possible mixed ancestry in the hundreds of  letters written by EBB and the Barrett family published in part or whole.  Moreover, the poet’s remarks imply that the ‘curse’ she speaks of does not stem, as Markus infers, from the Moulton side (in Norfolk where Moultons date back to the sixteenth century), but from the Barrett side. 

Given her reference to the ‘Commination service’ for sinners and her anti-slavery sentiments, EBB was more probably alluding to the Barrett family’s complicity in the ‘curse’ of profiting from the blood of slaves, as she shared her family history with Browning.  His father also had Jamaican ancestors (on the maternal side), although Robert Browning Senior (1782-1866) rejected the potential profits of the slavery system, settling in England instead and living on a bank clerk’s salary of   300 a year.  In 1833, when Emancipation Act abolishing slavery in British colonies was passed, EBB declared she was ‘glad’  ‘the negroes’ were ‘virtually-- free!’ even though her father said the West Indies would be ‘irreparably ruined’  (BC, III, 81, 86).  During the courtship, she also ironically shared with Browning the ‘infinite traditions’ of  her ‘great great grandfather’, Samuel Barrett (1689-1760), who ‘flogged his slaves like a divinity’ (BC, XIII, 24) -- traditions passed on by ‘Treppy’ or Mary Trepsack, a planter’s orphaned daughter who became the lifelong companion of the poet’s beloved  Grandmother Moulton.  Treppy believed in ‘the beatitude of the slaves’, but EBB presents a very different picture in ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, portraying a slave woman who has been whipped, raped and impregnated cursing her oppressors.  As she said to John Ruskin in 1855,  ‘I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid’ (Kenyon, II, 220).  The humane attitude EBB’s father and uncle adopted towards their slaves spared them from the worst effects of the Jamaican slave uprising of 1831-32 (R.A. Barrett 84).  Yet a kind of curse did seem to shape the Barrett family’s history, manifested in thirty-eight years of Chancery litigation among Edward Barrett’s various descendants over slaves, cattle and land beginning in 1801, aggravating the financial reverses experienced by his heirs as sugar prices dropped.  Still, EBB’s family was far from poverty-stricken;  while Browning’s father earned  300 a year, her father’s annual income was more than  4000 in 1807  (R.A. Barrett 47, 55).

Childhood and Early Education        

In her early years, EBB was relatively untroubled by her family’s Jamaican roots.  She passed her childhood and youth at  Hope End, an idyllic estate in Herefordshire near Ledbury, where her father had a Turkish-style mansion built to accommodate his growing family.  Elizabeth or ‘Ba’ was soon followed by Edward or ‘Bro’, the closest companion of her childhood,  Henrietta, Mary (who died at age three),  Samuel, Arabella, and six more sons: Charles, George, Henry, Alfred, Septimus and Octavius.  By virtue of her age, force of character and precocity, Ba reigned over her siblings in the nursery. Educated in early childhood by her mother, who acted as ‘publisher’ for some of her compositions by transcribing collections of ‘Poems by Elizabeth B. Barrett’, she soon displayed the striking abilities that led her father, whom she affectionately called ‘Puppy’, to designate her as the ‘Poet Laureate’ of Hope End.  The result of her irrepressible literary activity is one of the largest bodies of juvenilia produced by any English writer.

‘At four I first mounted Pegasus but at six I thought myself priviledged [sic] to show off feats of horsemanship’, EBB recalls in ‘Glimpses Into My Own Life and Literary Character’, written when she was fourteen (BC, I, 348-56).  She breathlessly records how, at six, she began reading novels; at eight, she was enraptured by Pope’s translations of Homer; at ten, she began to study Greek with Bro’s tutor Daniel McSwiney;  at eleven, she began writing her own Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon;  and, on her fourteenth birthday in 1820, exulted to see her epic privately printed in fifty copies (a gift from her father). She ‘was familiar with Shakespeare Milton Homer and Virgil Locke Hooker Pope’,  reading Homer and Virgil ‘in the original with delight inexpressible’ (352).  By 1821, she had also read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), responding with such enthusiasm that her mother teased her about founding hopes for female happiness ‘on yours & Mrs. Wolstonecrafts system’ (BC, I, 132).

EBB’s ‘Glimpses’ closes with contracting possibilities on the verge of her fifteenth year, as the girl who had aspired to mount Pegasus mourns the departure of Bro for Charterhouse to begin the formal education denied to his gifted sister.  During this period,  her life was also transformed by an illness that struck all three  Barrett daughters, but left lasting marks only on the eldest, who passed almost a year in a Gloucester spa.  Her symptoms, as detailed by Dr. William Coker, included head and back pains, loss of mobility and appetite, debility, and regular ‘paroxysms’ accompanied by convulsive twitching of the diaphragm.  Dr. Coker offered the tentative diagnosis of spine disease, acknowledging ‘positive proofs’ were wanting (BC, I,  325-7).  Evidence indicates that EBB did have a serious illness; she did not bring her suffering upon herself, as the story recorded in the old DNB suggests, by falling and injuring her spine while impatiently trying to saddle her pony Moses alone.  The symptoms of her adolescent illness also differed substantially from the chronic lung disease that later afflicted her in 1837. The treatments she received--opiates, cupping, the use of setons (passing thread or tape on a needle through folds of skin), and suspension in a spine crib--may also have increased her debility (Forster 24-25).  She was to become dependent on opiates, a standard medical treatment, throughout much of her  life.

In her mid-thirties, EBB recalled the exuberant aspirations predating her adolescent illness in a wryly whimsical sketch of a girl named Beth (BC,I, 360-62).   Ten-year old Beth is a ‘warrior’ and a ‘poet’, who plans to become Lord Byrons’ lover, wear men’s clothes, ‘live on a Greek island’, and become the ‘feminine of Homer.  Many persons w[ould]d be obliged to say that she was a little taller than Homer,’ in fact.  But Beth ‘had one great misfortune. She was born a woman’.  Despising ‘nearly all the women in the world’ except Madame de Staël for their ‘littlenesses called delicacies, their pretty headaches, & soft mincing voices’, Beth ‘thanked her gods that she was not & never w[oul]d be feminine.  Beth could run rapidly & leap high’.  After her adolescent illness, EBB would never again ‘leap high’.  Undeterred by her physical weakness, however, she directed her spirit of conquest to learning and poetry instead.