Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (NZ331359)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is recognised – and was acknowledged in her lifetime – as one of the best known and most popular poets of the Victorian era. And though she lived most of her life in Herefordshire, the south of England and Italy, Elizabeth was actually born at Coxhoe Hall, Co.Durham, in 1806.

Although she came to vehemently oppose slavery, her family fortune was largely derived from the industry – from sugar plantations in Jamaica. At the time of her birth, the family lived at the aforementioned mansion situated between Coxhoe and Kelloe, though they would move to their famous Hope End estate near the Malvern Hills in 1809. Elizabeth was the eldest of twelve children, and was herself baptised at Kelloe parish church shortly before the move.

She was a deeply studious child, an avid reader and wrote poetry from any early age. Her mother would compile collections of her work, and her father would encourage her efforts, too – and she was educated thoroughly at home whilst her brothers were formally schooled. She became an ardent feminist after studying the work of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Published from an early age, she built up and maintained correspondence with many leading classical scholars. However, from the age of 15 she suffered a lengthy and undiagnosed illness, which troubled her for the rest of her life. The opiates and morphine she took to combat the pain may have contributed to her vivid imaginings.

Financial misfortune took the family to London, where she expanded her social circle to include the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson. She spent some time in Torquay for health reasons, but returned to the capital for her most prolific period of the early 1840s. She married Robert Browning in 1846, and they moved to Italy – being largely disowned by her family. Despite her ill-health, they had a son, Robert, in 1849, but her frail body finally gave way to death – probably from lung disease – in 1861. She was buried in Florence – a long way from her place of birth here in the North-East – and was lauded long after her death.

Coxhoe Hall eventually found its way into the hands of the Coal Board, was used to house enemy PoWs during WWII, and then fell into disrepair prior to its demolition in 1956.

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