Last weekend, I decided to stay home and do nothing. I just wanted to stay in bed and watch some movies. After finishing two of the ones I had on my list, I found myself diving deep into the depths of Netflix's catalogue, looking for something at least mildly entertaining to pass the time. And then, I found the blandest and most boring movie I've seen in a long time. The name of this gem is Effie Gray (sorry if you liked it). The movie's description tries to sell it as an intense love triangle between Effie Gray, her husband (the renowned author and critic John Ruskin), and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. But actually, the movie is more about how awful Ruskin was with his wife and, in my opinion, due to really poor acting, how lame his wife was and how she reacted to his abuse. As the movie progresses, you think you’ll see the intense and passionate love story between Gray and the painter the way it's told in history books, but no such luck. The thing is that when I read the movie's description, I was genuinely excited. I mean, how many great love stories from the Victorian times have melted our hearts before?
Effie Gray and John Everett Millais
The disappointment the film produced in me was so great, I needed something to restore my faith in Victorian romance. So, I started doing some research about this woman and her relationship with the painter. The only thing I could find was that they fell in love while he was commissioned to paint her husband, and you know how the story goes. A love triangle was born. But the internet is funny. One click leads you to something else, and soon I was looking at an article about Elizabeth Barrett And Robert Browning, and yes, these two are really the ultimate relationship goals you’d love to talk about all the time on Facebook.
Their relationship was based on mutual devotion, respect, and admiration. Perhaps that reciprocity is what kept them so close despite all the obstacles in their way. We can find great evidence of their love and other aspects of their relationship in the compilation of letters that their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, published. Supposedly, they were published just as they were found, after having been kept in storage for fifteen years. So, based on these letters, here are some examples of the three principles that reigned during their relationship.
[January 10, 1845, Robert to Elizabeth]
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,--and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,--whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius, and there a graceful and natural end of the thing. [...] I can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought; but in this addressing myself to you--your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogether.
[August 31, 1845, Elizabeth to Robert]
My dearest friend--you have followed the most generous of impulses in your whole bearing to me--and I have recognised and called by its name, in my heart, each one of them. Yet I cannot help adding that, of us two, yours has not been quite the hardest part ... I mean, to a generous nature like your own, to which every sort of nobleness comes easily.
The love story of these renowned poets started when Robert decided to send what we'd call today a fan letter to Elizabeth, who was already a very well-known poet in England. In this letter, he praised her work and expressed how he was completely in love with her, her talent, and her sensibility. Elizabeth, being the good celebrity she was, replied with a very nice message, thanking him for the lovely words and encouraging him to continue writing. However, this was not the typical fan-celebrity relationship. According to Browning, he had already visited her once with one friend they had in common, but she wasn’t feeling very well that day. Elizabeth had suffered from a spine condition since she was a child, so by the time she was approaching her forties, she had spent a lot of time secluded in her room due to the pain and little movement she had.
[January 7, 1846, Robert to Elizabeth]
Because, as I told you once, what most characterizes my feeling for you is the perfect respect in it, the full belief ... (I shall get presently to poor Robert's very avowal of 'owing you all esteem'!). [...] Now, love, with this feeling in me from the beginning,--I do believe,--now, when I am utterly blest in this gift of your love, and least able to imagine what I should do without it.
[January 11, 1845, Elizabeth to Robert]
I am writing too much,--and notwithstanding that I am writing too much, I will write of one thing more. I will say that I am your debtor, not only for this cordial letter and for all the pleasure which came with it, but in other ways, and those the highest: and I will say that while I live to follow this divine art of poetry, in proportion to my love for it and my devotion to it, I must be a devout admirer and student of your works. This is in my heart to say to you--and I say it.
The correspondence between the two continued, talking about many different things like poetry, literature, art, history, philosophy. Soon after, Robert decided to express his feelings toward her. Elizabeth, who had already accepted her fate as a single woman because of her age and medical condition, didn’t know how to react to this confession. At first, she was hesitant to let herself feel anything for him, but Robert's words and the sensibility showed in each of his letters soon managed to melt her heart. Despite the admiration both felt for each other, one huge pillar in their relationship, but most importantly during their courting, was the mutual respect for each other's works and feelings. Their letters also show that their relationship had to be kept a secret because of her father’s conservative and intolerant views. However, they also show how, even when they fought (which was all the time), they always treated the other with absolute respect.
Image by Luciano Stofel
[January 7, 1846, Elizabeth to Robert]
My life was ended when I knew you, and if I survive myself it is for your sake:--that resumes all my feelings and intentions in respect to you. No 'counsel' could make the difference of a grain of dust in the balance. It is so, and not otherwise. If you changed towards me, it would be better for you I believe--and I should be only where I was before. While you do not change, I look to you for my first affections and my first duty--and nothing but your bidding me, could make me look away.
[December 22, 1845, Robert to Elizabeth]
I am yours for ever, with the utmost sense of gratitude--to say I would give you my life joyfully is little.... I would, I hope, do that for two or three other people--but I am not conscious of any imaginable point in which I would not implicitly devote my whole self to you--be disposed of by you as for the best. There! It is not to be spoken of--let me live it into proof, beloved!
Finally, after a year of secretly courting each other through these letters, they decided to leave their insecurities aside and meet in person. Robert, who knew very well about his beloved’s condition and loved her anyway, was impressed by her beauty, which was not only physical but also intellectual. Elizabeth, in turn, fell for this man who had kindled hope and love in her already battered heart. Now, even though Elizabeth’s father thought she was already a grown-up woman, he didn’t approve of the relationship, forcing them to elope to Italy, where they lived for fifteen years until her death. Although the letters stopped, their devotion for each other can be appreciated in the poems they wrote during the years they were married. This wasn’t just a typical story of excessive love and passion between a couple: it's the story of one of the most stable and loving relationships in history. We are lucky to have their letters, which are a great example of this as well as a literary delight, showing us how two poets poured all their emotions and feelings into their words.
If you want to read more of these letters you can access them here: The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett
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