DARED AND DONE by Julia Markus


The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
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 Novelist Markus (A Change of Luck, 1991, etc.), between her tendentious lionization of Elizabeth Barrett and bland veneration of Robert Browning, turns their complex union into a novelette romance for English majors. The unexpected marriage of the highly successful Barrett and the comparatively unknown Browning generated a perdurable literary legend, from the literary gossip columns of the day through Rudolph Besier's 1931 play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (complete with tyrannical father and lovers' elopement), and the recent scholarly explosion of Barrett/Browning letters. Despite access to expansive archives and unpublished Barrett letters, Markus retells the story of this famous courtship and mythically happy marriage in familiarly sentimental terms: the invalid Barrett rescued from a Jamaican-born, slave-holding Victorian patriarch by the daring young lover and rejuvenated by an adventurous move to Italy. The author refers purply to ``the tears of things in [the Barrett] household'' and to Browning as a ``warriorstill in armor.'' Their brief marriage, cut short by Barrett's premature death, was addled by some tension over Browning's lack of success while his wife's poetic fame soared. Markus overplays the political element of Barrett's poetry--her fairly conventional abolitionism, her progressive feminism, and her support of the Italian Risorgimento- -to the total exclusion of her lyric qualities and prosodic experiments. Markus's critical understanding of Browning's poetry (beyond a few biographical facts) is minimal, though the period of their marriage saw his best work. Such blind spots occur in her individual portraits of the couple as well, such as her omission of Barrett's tyrannical treatment of her domestic staff and Browning's deep anxiety about his creative ability. Without psychological insight or historical grasp, Markus plunges this marital biography into Barrett's unilluminated obsessions with her father, depression, spiritualism, and (possible) Creole ancestry, while Browning is relegated to mere uxoriousness. (Illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-41602-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995


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