Source: Sunday Times (UK) 
Pubdate: 29 March 1998
Author:  John Harlow, Arts Correspondent


ELIZABETH Barrett Browning, Britain's most beloved woman poet, feared that
an attempt to shake her morphine addiction by going "cold turkey" cost the
life of her unborn baby, newly released letters have revealed.

The hitherto censored family letters detail for the first time her efforts
to give up the opiate she had been using for seven years to cope with
depression following the early death of her brother.

Barrett Browning was at the heart of the most romantic scandal of Victorian
England. The traditional version tells that, having suffered a spinal
injury at the age of 15, she was confined to a bedroom by her tyrannical
father for 25 years. Then Robert Browning, the fashionable poet six years
her junior, fell in love with her published verse and wooed her secretly
until in 1846 she fled with him to Italy, where they lived happily.

However, volume 14 of Barrett Browning's collected letters, in a series by
Philip Kelley and Scott Lewis, two academics, has lifted the veil on the
most turbulent period of her life. The first letter in the new collection
was written as the newlyweds, along with her spaniel Flush, fled to Le
Havre; the public exchanging of rings and wedding ceremony had to wait
until they were settled in Florence nine months later.

Riddled with guilt, Barrett Browning wrote a daily stream of 7,000-word
letters to her family begging for a forgiveness, which only her sisters
would finally bestow.

"The letters were passed around her aunts, so the sisters censored
Elizabeth's more brutally frank commentary on her new life. We had to
decode family over-scorings to produce the first authentic account of the
culture shock Elizabeth felt during her first taste of freedom," said
Kelley, a London-based American scholar.

The poet's account of her first miscarriage has never been published
before. She says that, on the prompting of her maid, she had been trying to
cut back on her regular doses of morphine despite six weeks of "night
pains", which culminated in the loss of her first child.

"Everything I did wrong - sitting on a rug to bake myself, taking hot
coffee to boil myself at other times, choosing the worst [sitting]
positions possible out of an instinct of contrarity and yes, until the
event, believing like a child that I had just caught cold and nothing else
was the matter," she wrote to her sisters Arabella and Henrietta.

A week later she had changed her mind about the opiate. She says: "I am
going to do my very best to leave off the morphine, but gradually, though
it was by no means the cause of anything that happened. On the contrary, I
should have done better by not diminishing it when I did."

Her utter inexperience of real life, having spent so many years cosseted in
a bedroom at Wimpole Street, resulted in a series of almost farcical
domestic crises: she did not know how to make a pot of tea and burnt 50
holes in her best silk dress while trying to stoke a fire.

Dr Kay Ridgeway, a researcher at the University of Texas in Waco, where
most of Browning's letters are held, said: "The combination of morphine,
fresh air and sex had a miraculous effect on the 40-year-old Elizabeth. She
got noisily loud and involved in everything, from culture to Italian
politics. These letters show there was never a less Victorian Victorian."