When people think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, they might think of the greeting cards in which they’ve read her most oft-quoted lyric: “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways.” Fiona Sampson’s dazzling and absorbing Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is likely to change that.
Sampson challenges the usual portrait of Barrett Browning as a “swooning poetess” whose identity is closely bound up with her father and husband. Modeled on Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning’s narrative poem divided into nine books, Two-Way Mirror chronicles Barrett Browning’s growth as a poet, her long-term illness, her marriage to Robert Browning and their subsequent lives in Italy.
Drawing on Barrett Browning’s copious correspondence, Sampson illustrates that the poet was a “pivotal figure” who was acknowledged during her lifetime “as Britain’s greatest ever woman poet” and who attracted international acclaim. Barrett Browning’s use of the female voice in lyric and narrative poetry represented a radical departure from other narrative poems, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath,” in which women characters were, as Sampson writes, “ventriloquized by men.” In the end, according to Sampson, “Elizabeth’s poetry too composes a kind of self-portrait, or rather mirror. As she became herself through writing, her writing reflected that developing self. And so her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it: her choices and opinions, what moved her, habits and characteristic turns of phrase.”
Two-Way Mirror will enthrall readers and encourage them to read Barrett Browning’s poetry, whether again or for the first time.