How Do I Love Thee? by Nancy Moser is the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. I had always been intrigued by what little I knew of their love story and welcomed the chance to read more about it.
The book begins with Elizabeth as an established, respected poet in her later thirties, but practically a recluse. As a child she had begun having some recurrent chest congestion which led to her becoming weak and easily over-tired and over-stimulated. Further reading outside the book indicated that her illness was never specifically diagnosed. She became nearly an invalid, and with that and her father’s unusual disinclination toward visitors, her world was primarily her room. She became afraid of even meeting people and turned down requests from other poets of her day to meet with her. Any visitors outside her family and small circle of friends would cause her to panic.
Her father was beyond authoritarian to the point of insisting that none of his children marry. This is never explained — his reasons may not have been known. Perhaps after his wife died it was his way of not “losing” any more of his family. But he was Elizabeth’s chief love, and her loyalty caused her to think he was only somewhat eccentric. Later she realized that “he…instead of loving me with the unconditional love that had been my offering, loved with a possessive hand that hurt in its clutching, that caused bruises and offered no solace” (p. 223). “His love consumed me like a shroud, cloaked me in anxiety, bathed me in fear of an unwitting transgression that would bring his displeasure. Being loved by Papa involved clutching my arms around myself in protection”(p. 235).
She was thirty-nine when she received a letter from fellow poet and admirer, Robert Browning. She was aware of his work and admired it and decided she did want to meet him. They were opposites in many ways. Her life had been overshadowed by sorrow; his had been bright and happy. She lived in her room; he had traveled the world. She was retiring; he was effusive. But they fell in love. “I had found the population of books gentle mates but hadn’t known there was any sweeter music…” until Robert (pp. 232-233). Then they had to figure out what kind of relationship they could have in light of her health and her father.
I mentioned several days ago that at first I wasn’t enjoying the book as much as I thought I would. Part of the reason for that is that Robert doesn’t come into the picture until a third of the way through the book. Yet I can understand now that the first third of the book is needed to fully understand Elizabeth’s life and what it meant for her to take the steps she did. It would not have made the same impact and would not have entirely made sense if the book had started with their meeting. Also, at first I didn’t like that the point of view was in the first person. I know that poets probably don’t talk in everyday life like their poems sound, but at first I didn’t see much depth in her conversations. And, knowing this was a fictionalized story, I disliked reading as if I were hearing her own thoughts without knowing if they were hers or the author’s and would have preferred a third person viewpoint. By the time she first heard from Robert, though, I liked being inside her head, and at that point the story became captivating. Theirs was no fairy-tale infatuation: their love strengthened each other and brought out the best in each other.
I appreciated that Nancy Moser included several appendices in the back, especially a section discussing what was fact and fiction in the story. Some of her changes were understandable, such as changing duplicate names to avoid confusion. Purist that I am, I wish she had not changed any of the incidents. But I feel confident overall that the story is truly Elizabeth’s and Robert’s, and I very much enjoyed reading it.
(This post will be linked to Semicolon’s Saturday Review of Books.)