It would be nearly five more months till they met, introduced by a cousin. The courtship lasted nearly two years and resulted in close to 600 love letters between them. Their reputation as the great literary love affair lasts till this day. One of the best known love poems of all times is Elizabeth's "I love thee to the depth and breadth and
height my soul can reach...and I will love thee better after death." Certainly a passionate declaration of adoration.
When they finally met, their courtship had to be kept secret because her father and brothers thought Browning was a gold digger. In Victorian times, going against your family's wishes was a much bigger deal than it is today. At that time, Elizabeth's poetic reputation was considerably higher than Robert's; his acceptance as a serious poet was yet to come. Yet Elizabeth felt Robert had the greater talent and the greater strength. "I am one of those weak women who reverence strong men," she said, not a quality we appreciate in
today's heroines. However, she may have understated her own strengths. She certainly spoke her mind on social issues and even went against her father's views by opposing slavery, one of the
great issues of the day.
She was six years older than Robert and a semi-invalid, dependent on laudanum and morphine to control the pain that was always with her. With these things in mind she held off his courtship for a time before declaring her love for him too.
Because her family was against their relationship, they courted in secret. Their marriage happened in true romantic fashion- they eloped. Elizabeth went out dog-walking with her companion Wilson and never returned. They joined Robert and travelled to Paris by train. After a honeymoon there they moved to Italy, a climate her doctors had already suggested might help her health. It turned out Elizabeth did improve in health after moving to Italy but she was still dependent on pain killers for the rest of her life. Elizabeth's companion Wilson stayed with them and cared first for Elizabeth and then Robert till their deaths. Elizabeth died in her husband's arms. Her family never forgave her and her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth seems an unlikely heroine for a grand passionate romance.
She was years older than her husband, an invalid and drug dependent, yet their marriage lasted fifteen happy years, marred only by four miscarriages until she gave birth to a son.
Victorian romance sounds much prettier on paper than ours because of the poetic language of love used then. Perhaps because
they kept the physical aspect to love discretely under wraps ?
It certainly wasn't absent, just not acknowledged in the way we do today. Even the queen who gave her name to the era had a passionate and loving marriage.
How would the Brownings translate into a story in today's world?
Her invalidism would have to be reworked, her dependence on drugs a no-go, but the family disapproval, the elopement and fleeing to start a new life in another country would all plot well. And the companion who married an Italian would work as a sub-plot- perhaps even a totally new romance.
Love and passion haven't changed much through time.