Source: Sunday Times (UK) Contact: Pubdate: 29 March 1998 Author: John Harlow, Arts Correspondent LOVE POET'S DRUG PANGS MAY HAVE KILLED HER BABY 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."