Real life is better than fiction sometimes. More unbelievable than fiction too, but that’s another topic. This post will be the first of four to mesh two of my favourite blog topics: romance and history. ‘Cuz I realized, when I thought about it, that I knew at least four stories from history that were eventful enough to be a romance novel on their own. And here you thought real life was boring…
You might’ve thought real life was boring too, if you were Elizabeth Barrett. Or, at least, your life was incredibly boring. Plagued by a mysterious illness since you were fifteen, too frail and weak to go anywhere, shut up away from society in your little home, with only an addiction to morphine to dull your pain. Of course, a friend describes you as “a slight, delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on each side of a most expressive face; large, tender eyes, richly fringed by dark eyelashes, and a smile like a sunbeam,” which sounds very much like a heroine of a romantic novel, but of what use is that if no one ever sees you? The first act of any romantic novel tends to be boy-meets-girl, and that’s not too likely if you only ever see your family.
But Elizabeth Barrett had a hobby to fill all those hours stuck in the house, and this might be why you’re wracking your brains and going, ah, that name is so familiar! Elizabeth Barrett was a poet. And more than that, she was a successful poet, which is a rare thing. She’d been introduced to several of the literary figures of her day, such as William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson (more vaguely remembered names from that long-ago English class!), and she’d published a few popular volumes of poetry. (“Popular volumes of poetry” may sound a bit strange to your ears, but rest assured such things did exist once upon a time.) And her poetry was so good that when Robert Browning read it, he could not resist sending her a fan letter – gushing over the “fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought,” and then adding, “I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart—and I love you too…” Oh wow, he wasn’t a shy guy, was he?
And Elizabeth, not too worried about why this guy she’d never met was telling her he loved her, wrote back. Well, it probably was an interesting change from staying home and writing poetry.
So a meeting was arranged, he began to court her, and they fell in love. He was a poet as well, so they at least had common interests to talk about. But she was six years older than him, and an invalid, so she could hardly believe he was interested in her. Her family couldn’t believe it either, and dismissed him as a gold-digger. So the two of them secretly married and went off to live in Italy, where they were, by all accounts, very happy. (That’s how she became Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you see?)
And she got a whole series of poems out of it! (Life inspires art, what more can a writer ask for?) Not to mention feeling stronger once she got to Italy, and being able to get out more. She even gave birth to a son, though she did have several miscarriages. Her proud husband convinced her that publishing her love sonnets was a good idea, and fortunately (since people’s love poetry all too often are not something that ought to be published), her love sonnets were genuinely good. So she became even more well-known as a poet, and though she was never exactly strong, she did have a far more active social life until she died at fifty-five.
Her love sonnets are entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese*, and the second-last one is probably the most well-known. I think it captures the wild exuberance of love really well, so in case I didn’t do Robert and Elizabeth’s story justice, you can read it below (You can actually read their whole story through the sonnets, but it’s a little more difficult since it’s poetry. It’s very beautiful though):
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 everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee 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.
What do you think – can real life stories be more entertaining than fiction?
* The reason she called them Sonnets from the Portuguese was because she only decided to publish them as if they were translations of foreign sonnets – in order to be less obvious about the fact she was describing her whole romantic life in them. Robert Browning suggested she choose Portuguese for the language, because his nickname for her was “my little Portuguese.” And now you know.