Josie Billington’s biographical essay, A Place to Stand and Love In from issue 27 of The Reader magazine, explores the relationship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning through her most famous work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, which she dedicated to her husband. The sequence is thought to have been written during their courtship, alongside the letters they wrote to each other during this time. Josie challenges the frequent presentation of their relationship as a ‘sudden drama of acheivement and happiness’ describing instead,
a slow, painful, involuntary and vulnerable journey, full of refusals and resistances to the profound change which love both offered and seemed to demand.
Their relationship began through pen and paper as Browning, inspired by reading Barrett’s poems wrote to her. They married (in secret) in August 1846 when she was 40 years old and moved to Italy where three years later they had a son.
Josie quotes the most famous sonnet in the sequence, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ which she says reads like Barrett’s ‘Song of freedom’, but also draws on other poems from the sequence alongside examples from their correspondance to examine the intricacies of this ‘slow motion love affair’, uncovering gear changes and moments of transition which were to affect the course of their future forever. She takes us right back to the point where
Love entered Elizabeth Barrett’s life not as a blessing but as a sort of primal dare
to the moment of ‘letting go’ once and for all ‘of regret or fear’ and instead, saying ‘an enormous running ‘yes’ to life and love’
Read Josie Billington’s essay in issue 27 of The Reader magazine, which you can buy here