After our summer hiatus, we are back this month with the story of a friendship between two much-loved nineteenth century writers. We are grateful to Lydia at Persephone Books for recommending we profile this literary pair.
Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett was always fiercely ambitious. Growing up, her juvenile literary output was so great that her father nicknamed her the ‘Poet Laureate of Hope End’ – this being the name of the family’s picturesque Herefordshire estate.
Her mother showed support for the girl’s talent by transcribing many of her poems for household ‘publication’. Later in life, eight years after Mrs Barrett’s death, another influential maternal figure would take the author, then aged thirty, under her wing.
Mary Russell Mitford was almost fifty when she and, a decidedly nervous, Browning were introduced in 1836. Unlike Browning, Mitford, had, from a young age, often needed to write to make ends meet – thanks to her father’s spending of his wife’s inheritance on political campaigns, entertaining and gambling. By the time the two women became friends, Mitford was the highly successful author of poetry, plays and prose – including, most famously, Our Village: Sketches of Rural Life and Scenery.
Browning, who had yet to meet her fellow-poet husband Robert, greatly appreciated the encouragement of a well-established figure like ‘ever dearest Miss Mitford’ as she was soon calling the writer in her letters. Such support had arrived at just the right moment: Browning’s book, Seraphim, and other Poems, would come out the following month and the early years of their friendship coincided with a time when the literary establishment was beginning to take notice of her work.
But this was also a turbulent period. Browning’s personal life was blighted by serious bouts of illness and family tragedy, culminating in the deaths of two of her brothers in swift succession.
The accidental drowning of ‘Bro’, her favourite brother, hit Browning particularly hard, and she confided in Mitford that the experience was ‘a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness’.
In addition to their frequent correspondence, Mitford consoled her friend through these darkest times by sending her gifts. As well as the regular delivery of flowers, in 1841 she gave her the spaniel Flush, the offspring of her own dog, (and later to be immortalised by Virginia Woolf in her imaginative biography of the same name).
A decade on, the friendship hit shakier ground when Mitford published her Recollections of a Literary Life. In a section intended as a warm tribute to Browning, she related the sad tale of Bro’s death, deeply upsetting her friend who believed that such personal details should have remained private.
The pair had experienced tensions before – not least in Mitford’s initial disapproval of Robert Browning. Thankfully, on this occasion too, they ultimately managed to negotiate this bump in the road and their relationship survived until the end of Mitford’s life.
Although today, she is the less well-known of the two, she is remembered, not just for her most popular work Our Village, but also the witty and engaging correspondence she maintained with many famous nineteenth century figures – most importantly, her closest literary friend, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Mitford went to great lengths to console her friend after the loss of her brother. This month, we will reflect on the role consolation played in other literary friendships that we have profiled on Something Rhymed.