Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush“He & I are inseparable companions,and I have vowed him my perpetual society in exchange for his devotion.” -Elizabeth Barrett Browning
On a bitter afternoon in January 1841, a coach stopped outside a small house in the British seaside town of Torquay, bleak and deserted in the off-season. The coachman lifted out a wicker basket, and a young Cocker Spaniel peeked through the thick blankets. The six- month-old puppy sniffed the sea for the first time and wagged his tail excitedly. His dark eyes shone as he pushed his way through the layers of covering, eager to track the enticing scents in the air. The puppy’s determined efforts to free himself from the basket made the man laugh, whereupon the little dog leaped into his arms and began licking his face. The coachman ruffled the dog’s sleek head, muttering, “Miss Mitford is going to miss you, but here we are, and mind your manners.” With the puppy tucked under his arm, the coachman rang the bell. Waiting for the door to open, he shivered in the wind and thought of the green lanes and meadows of home. He wondered how this little spaniel, bred to hunt rabbits and quail, would fare as a companion to a sickly recluse. The puppy’s name was Flush, and he was being delivered to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. That afternoon marked the beginning of one of the most celebrated human-dog relationships in literature.
When Flush arrived in Elizabeth’s life, she was thirty-five and bedridden. As a girl, however, she had been healthy and active. Born in 1806, she was the eldest of twelve children who grew up on an estate called Hope End, consisting of 475 isolated acres on the border between England and Wales. There Mr. Barrett built a Turkish- style house, fondly remembered by Elizabeth as “crowded with minarets & domes, & crowned with metal spires & crescents.” Mrs. Barrett, who was from a large, closely knit family, filled their home with visiting relatives. The Barrett children and their cousins rode horses, climbed haystacks, and played hide-and-seek in the underground passage between the house and the gardens. Elizabeth was usually the leader and often a risk-taker. Neighbors remembered her, with a “pale spiritual face and a profusion of dark curls,” driving her pony carriage at breakneck speed through the steep Herefordshire lanes.
In adolescence, Elizabeth began to suffer symptoms of ill health, primarily backaches, shortness of breath, and lack of appetite. Because the Barretts’ first daughter, Mary, had died when she was only three and a half, Mr. and Mrs. Barrett took Elizabeth’s complaints seriously and consulted numerous doctors, to no avail. Finally, they brought her to the Spa Hotel in Gloucester, where a specialist examined her and decided to treat her as if she had a spinal disease, even though he was unsure of the diagnosis. He recommended that she remain there for months of rest in a spine crib, a hammock strung four feet above the ground. He also prescribed daily doses of laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) for the fifteen- year-old, a common medication at that time.
Looking at Elizabeth’s illness from a contemporary perspective, it seems to have had several causes: a form of scoliosis, a condition in which the spine curves abnormally; tuberculosis; and perhaps an eating disorder. No clear diagnosis emerges from the surviving medical records. In nineteenth-century England, middle-class girls were considered fragile once they started to menstruate, but Elizabeth’s younger sisters Arabel and Henrietta, who had also complained of illnesses when they entered their teens, soon regained good health.
Elizabeth’s infirmities certainly included an emotional component. One of the first times she was seriously ill occurred when her favorite brother, Edward, whom she always called “Bro,” departed for boarding school. She was unhappy about losing her playmate and was also angry and frustrated because she yearned to go to school herself. Because Elizabeth was a girl, this would never be allowed, even though she was scholarly and precocious. Before she was ten, she had read Paradise Lost and the major works of Shakespeare; although she was primarily self-taught, she outdistanced her brothers in Latin and Greek, and she could read French, Italian, and Portuguese.
At the Spa Hotel, lying in her spine crib, Elizabeth read constantly, kept a notebook documenting her symptoms, and wrote poetry. Before her illness, her father had arranged to have fifty copies of her epic poem The Battle of Marathon published. As soon as Elizabeth saw her words in print, she knew she would be a poet: “Literature was the star which in prospect illuminated my future days. . . . It was the spur . . . the aim . . . the very soul of my being.” When the sixteen- year-old returned to Hope End after her time at the spa, she was still suffering from bouts of weakness. Still, she spent the next few years determinedly finishing a poetic essay modeled after Poe and Milton, called An Essay on Mind. One of Elizabeth’s aunts paid to have the essay and other poems published in a two-volume work, which the relatives distributed to all their friends. A classics scholar, Sir Uvedale Price, wrote to congratulate Elizabeth on the book, beginning what would become Elizabeth’s extensive literary correspondence.
Soon Elizabeth’s poems, all with the long descriptive titles so popular at the time, began to appear in literary magazines: The New Monthly Magazine printed “Stanzas, Excited by Some Reflections on the Present State of Greece,” and The Globe and Traveller published “Lines on the Death of Lord Byron.” Even though her poems were unsigned, which was considered proper for a young lady, especially one with a father as conservative as Mr. Barrett, Elizabeth felt she was beginning her vocation as a poet.
Then, in 1828, when Elizabeth was twenty-two, her mother died suddenly. Mary Barrett had been weakened by the birth of her last child but seemed to be regaining strength. In an effort to hasten her recovery, she had gone with her sister to a seaside resort. Within days, the news of her death reached Hope End. Elizabeth was overwhelmed, unable to cry or even to talk about her mother. As the oldest daughter, she would have been expected to take over the care of the younger children and to run the household of the large country estate, but her poor health prevented this. Instead, an aunt assumed Mrs. Barrett’s duties, and Elizabeth was spared the domestic and social obligations that fell to Arabel and Henrietta. As mourning relatives filled the house, Elizabeth remained alone in her room, reading and writing letters and poems. Her role as an invalid was now firmly established.
Four years later, in 1832, Elizabeth experienced another loss when her father sold the family home at Hope End. Mr. Barrett depended for his income on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the hills overlooking Montego Bay, where he had grown up. His brother Samuel now managed the property, called Cinnamon Hill, and Mr. Barrett regularly sent his sons to help their uncle. However, poor sugar harvests, slave rebellions, and a drawn-out lawsuit had led to such serious financial problems that in order to keep Cinnamon Hill, Mr. Barrett was forced to sell Hope End. Elizabeth was upset at the thought of moving, although, after her mother’s death, Hope End was no longer the happy home it had once been.
The Barretts moved first to the coast at Sidmouth, in the southwest of England. Long walks on the beach improved Elizabeth’s health, but she was bored by the town’s social life, which consisted of dances and cricket matches. She was happier staying in her room: “I live with my books and my writings and my dear family.” Three years later, the family moved from Sidmouth to London. At first, Elizabeth hated the congestion and noise of the city; before long, however, she enjoyed its stimulation, even though she experienced it only vicariously, through books, newspapers, and her family.
When it was Bro’s turn to go to Jamaica to help Uncle Samuel, Elizabeth was filled with anxiety for him. As a distraction, she immersed herself in translating Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound from the Greek. Elizabeth was delighted that a commercial publisher had accepted her translation, along with nineteen poems, but she was not pleased with the ensuing reviews. The Athenaeum, a respected literary weekly, announced, “We advise those who adventure in the hazardous lists of poetic translation to touch anyone rather than Aeschylus; and they may take warning by the author before us.” Yet the audacity of a woman, especially a young one (she was twenty-seven), taking on such a task endeared Elizabeth to many readers. She developed a circle of admirers, mostly older, intellectual men whom she never met in person but to whom she wrote long letters in which she discussed literature, politics, and philosophy.
Although Elizabeth was constructing a rich intellectual life through her poetry and her letters, she remained an adolescent in many ways. Awkward and nervous when facing anything new, she dreaded social encounters. Her cousin John Kenyon, part of London’s literary world, persuaded Elizabeth to meet the popular author Mary Russell Mitford, known to everyone as Miss Mitford. He overcame his cousin’s shyness by introducing the two women at the London Zoo. Elizabeth immediately warmed to Miss Mitford’s friendliness, while the older woman was struck by Elizabeth’s quiet demeanor: “Very pretty, very gentle, very graceful with a look of extreme youth which is in itself a charm.” The two began writing each other several times a week—letters filled with speculation about authors, publishers, and reviewers—and they became dear friends.
In 1838, The Seraphim and Other Poems was published, with “Elizabeth B. Barrett” printed on the title page. Her father was so proud of these religious poems that he had finally allowed her name to appear in print. All the major literary publications reviewed the book, including The Examiner, which proclaimed Elizabeth “a genuine poetess, of no common order.”
The same year, when Elizabeth was thirty-two, the Barretts moved for the last time, settling into 50 Wimpole Street, where, with Bro safely returned from Jamaica, they were once more together under one roof. Shortly thereafter came the news that Uncle Samuel had died in Jamaica, leaving Elizabeth a share in his trading ship. Years earlier, her Grandmother Moulton had also left her a legacy. Thus, Elizabeth was the only one of her siblings with some financial independence. And yet she remained emotionally reliant on her family. They considered their “Ba” amusing and endearing but did not treat her as an adult. By the time she was in her midthirties, Elizabeth’s future seemed certain: She would stay in her room in her father’s house and write for the rest of her life. Then another illness intervened.
In the winter of 1838, Elizabeth had developed a cough so worrisome that, by August, Dr. Chambers, who was also Queen Victoria’s physician, declared Elizabeth would not survive another damp London winter. Although Mr. Barrett was reluctant to split up the family again, he finally agreed to send Elizabeth to the seaside town of Torquay, where he leased a small house on a cliff. Her brothers Bro and George, her sister Henrietta, and her personal maid Crow (ladies’ maids were customarily called by their last names) accompanied Elizabeth to Torquay, where an aunt supervised the household and everyone waited for Elizabeth to regain her strength. Yet she did not improve.
Month after month passed. Although Elizabeth tried to keep up a brave front for her family, she wrote the truth of her lingering illness to Miss Mitford, who was assuming an increasingly maternal role in her life. She wrote her friend almost daily, occasionally complaining of her symptoms, but more often focusing on Bro’s efforts to cheer her up. He gave his sister little gifts, “such pretty blue two vases,” and spent hours with her discussing politics and philosophy.
A second winter passed in Torquay; then, in February 1840, came word from Jamaica that Elizabeth’s younger brother Sam had died of fever at Cinnamon Hill. Elizabeth fainted when she heard the news and was intermittently delirious for a month. Mr. Barrett attempted to console her, but it was Bro’s words that meant the most to her. The two were only a year apart and had always been each other’s favorite, giving each other the family nicknames “Bro” and “Ba.” To keep his sister company, thirty-three-year-old Bro had left his busy London life and moved to Torquay. As they comforted each other after Sam’s death, the affection between them deepened.
Gradually, Elizabeth recovered, and her father returned to London. The weather grew warm; the seaside town filled with tourists. Seeing the improvement in Elizabeth’s health, Bro resumed his social life. On July 11, a calm, sunny morning, he stopped in his sister’s room before setting off to sail with two friends. Elizabeth, perhaps hurt that he was leaving her for an entire day, said goodbye with a “pettish word.”
Neither Bro nor his companions returned. Elizabeth later described waiting for word of their fate: “For three days we waited—& I hoped while I could—oh—that awful agony of three days! And the sun shone as it shines today, & there was no more wind than now; and the sea under the windows was like this paper for smoothness—& my sisters drew the curtains back that I might see for myself how smooth the sea was, & how it could hurt nobody—& other boats came back one by one.” Then one body was recovered, and all hope died. Bro’s body did not wash ashore for another week; as she waited, Elizabeth regressed into frozen numbness, unresponsive to anyone.
Elizabeth lay in the room where she had last seen Bro and where she had said the words she now bitterly regretted. She ate little, rarely slept, and appeared to be close to death. When her mother and then Sam had died, Elizabeth had been unable to ease her suffering with tears. Nor could she weep for Bro. Her unexpressed grief for those earlier losses, combined with her anguish over Bro, left Elizabeth bereft and hopeless. She could not bear the sight or even the sound of the sea, which she said reminded her of the groans of the dying. She abandoned her writing. The curtains were drawn, and the room was kept in darkness. Her father sat by her side; her sisters and brothers visited. No one could assuage Elizabeth’s despair. Mr. Barrett, alarmed by his daughter’s condition, reported on her deterioration: “It is a wonder to me that she lives.”
Miss Mitford offered the first glimmer of hope to the stricken poet. After Bro’s death, Elizabeth had ceased all correspondence. When she finally felt able to write to Miss Mitford, Elizabeth said she felt “bound, more than I ever remember having felt, in chains, heavy and cold enough to be iron—and which have indeed entered into the soul.” Miss Mitford understood immediately that her young friend was desperate. Although the older woman could not, as she wished, rush to Torquay because her father was ill, she knew what to do. She would send a puppy in her place, and not just any puppy: She offered Elizabeth the son of her own dog. As if to emphasize the connection, Miss Mitford gave the puppy the same name—Flush.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Shaggy Muses by Maureen Adams. Copyright © 2007 by Maureen Adams. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.