Isolation and the post: a letter by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

On the 160th anniversary of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death, discover her moving letter on the impact of isolation and the importance of human connection.

The Postal Museum recently acquired a letter written by Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You may know Barrett Browning’s work by the opening lines of her famous Sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’, a poem dedicated to her husband, poet Robert Browning. She was one of the most prolific and famous poets of the Victorian period, writing about industrialisation, slavery, political leadership, religious controversy and the problems faced by women in society. [1]

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Elizabeth’s early life was largely characterised by isolation. She suffered from a mysterious illness, perhaps as a result of an accident as a teenager, which confined her to her bedroom in the family home and caused her to spend prolonged periods in seaside towns, to benefit from the fresh air. The post was a lifeline to Elizabeth; she relied on its delivery for letters, books, magazines and news of London. Elizabeth was so enthusiastic about the postal system that she described the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, which simplified the postage system and reduced the cost of sending a letter to a penny, as ‘the most successful revolution’ of her day and praised ‘the wonderful liberty’ given by it. [2]

Letter written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning © The Postal Museum

The Barrett Browning letter we have purchased was written in 1839 to her cousin and close friend, John Kenyon, while Elizabeth was recovering from illness in Torquay. During this period, visitors were ‘a thing forbidden’. This was just a year after the publication of ‘The Seraphim and Other Poems’, the first of her works published with her name on the title page. She describes the ‘many weeks & months together … [when] I did not leave my bedroom’, and ‘the longing for home’ and her family. The pain of this separation and loneliness is vividly described in the letter, with Elizabeth explaining that ‘the longing for home will be helped away by nothing’.

Letter written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning © The Postal Museum

Elizabeth had confidence that with ‘full knowledge of the peculiar uncertainties of my complaint, I do consider myself, & am convinced by the physician who attends me, hopefully better.’ Unfortunately, her period of illness persisted, and two years passed before she returned home. During this time, two of her brothers sadly died.

The letter, which is now in The Postal Museum’s collection, is a timely reminder of the effects of isolation. Elizabeth’s descriptions have many links to the impact of COVID-19, which resonate strongly after the common experiences of separation and loneliness over the past 18 months. However, its relevance extends beyond the current pandemic, to the universal themes of ill health and loneliness and shows the importance of the post in providing a connection to loved ones and the wider world.

The letter also seems particularly poignant with the knowledge we have of the adventures Elizabeth experienced in her later years, despite her ongoing ill health, and her prolific international career producing poetry, translations and prose and campaigning. Elizabeth eloped with Robert Browning and moved to Italy in 1846, against her father’s wishes. The couple remained in Italy until her death in June 1861, 160 years ago today.

If you have received or sent letters that have kept you connected to loved ones during the current pandemic, we would love to hear from you. We’re collecting to capture the post’s important role at this moment in time. Find out more about the COVID-19 and the Post project.

Joanna Espin, Curator

[1] ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning: social and political issues’, The British Library
[2] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Forster, 2017

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