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Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Review

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

As a former daily newspaper journalist, I often engaged in vigorous debate with the better editors I was assigned to about whether the present or past tense creates greater reader impact when writing feature articles about living personalities. At first this might not seem to be a very relevant issue when considering the biography of a long-deceased Victorian poetess.

But I found Fiona Sampson's stunning TWO-WAY MIRROR so utterly captivating because Sampson, herself an accomplished UK poet, boldly uses the present tense to create striking immediacy in every twist and turn of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's extraordinary and often fraught life.

"...utterly captivating... Sampson brings Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life in a style that is both courageous and endearing..."

Throughout nine symbolically numbered Books (instead of chapters), whose subtitles suggest shared experience --- "How to be ill," “How to manage change," "How to be autonomous," etc. --- Sampson's dynamic here-and-now prose describes how Elizabeth (nicknamed "Ba" among her family) did things, endured things, created things, rebelled against things, or reacted to things that typified life for privileged, but creatively restricted, 19th-century Victorian women.

The immediacy of that grammatical choice to “be present” in authentically retelling an almost forgotten and often misunderstood life is a powerful draw from beginning to end. The reader of TWO-WAY MIRROR, whether familiar or not with Barrett Browning's published work, is rapidly and eagerly immersed in the public and intimate realities of an individual whose substance extends far beyond the few verse snippets taught here and there in high school.

As Sampson intuitively communicates on every page, and especially in the short reflective "frames" that connect each chapter, Elizabeth's context --- her precarious place in Victorian social, cultural and economic history --- has everything to do with how she fared as a potent but struggling artist, both before and after her escape to Italy and marriage with fellow poet Robert Browning.

Growing up as a healthy tomboyish child in rural Herefordshire, she suffered the first of many daunting reversals in fortune when barely into puberty, suffering from a sudden onset of respiratory illness that never completely subsided for the rest of her life. With her health likely damaged more by the treatments of Victorian doctors than the sicknesses they attempted to cure, Elizabeth became addicted to morphine. As a middle-aged mother decades later, she managed, by sheer force of will it seems, to reduce her dependence on the drug for long enough to give birth to a single living child, Wiedeman, or Pen as he was known to his adoring parents.

Her frequent pre- and post-marital moves among many residences, extreme even by wealthy Victorian standards, challenged her ability to find uninterrupted private time for writing. Misguided medical advice cautioning her not to write during lengthy periods as a housebound invalid further curtailed her opportunities to break free of feminine convention.

Yet as TWO-WAY MIRROR brilliantly conveys, she managed to carve out an international reputation through voluminous correspondence and publishing, one that grew steadily after her marriage to Robert Browning, who had the advantage of male privilege.

In fact, Elizabeth's poetic preoccupations with the abolition of slavery (from which her family's wealth derived), Italian politics, women's liberation before it was recognized as such, fairer child labor laws, access to education, and wide-ranging philosophical and social justice issues placed her far ahead of her time and arguably far ahead of her celebrated husband's as well.

Sampson brings Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life in a style that is both courageous and endearing --- following the chronology of her past, while artfully bringing her world and ours together in the myriad reflections of her well-tempered literary mirror.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on September 11, 2021

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
by Fiona Sampson

  • Publication Date: August 17, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324002956
  • ISBN-13: 9781324002956