Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. 4th ed. London, 1859. Inscribed by the recipient: W.M. Rossetti From the Authoress (Browning Guide C0013.1). Contains Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s portrait engraving by T.O. Barlow, adjusted in response to remarks from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and based on a photograph by Louis Cyrus Macaire. ABLibrary Rare X 821.82 R C466a 1859

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s correction notes made in pencil to an accompanying proof of an engraving of EBB by T.O. Barlow, modifying a photograph by Louis Cyrus Macaire in September 1858 (Browning Guide F0026). Robert Browning asked William Michael Rossetti to supervise the engraving which appeared in the fourth edition of EBB’s Aurora Leigh (Browning Guide L0229).

Rare-Item Analysis: Images of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the Male Lens

By Ellen Ezell

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For this project regarding rare items in the Armstrong Browning Library, I chose two pieces, the engraving of Elizabeth Barrett Browning inside the fourth edition of her poem Aurora Leigh and a manuscript of corrections made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to compare with the poem, Aurora Leigh. The fourth edition of the poem (Browning Guide C0013.1) is held at the Armstrong Browning Library in the ABL Rare Collection, and the penciled manuscript (Browning Guide Lo229) is in the library’s collection of letters and manuscripts. Two previous posts have been written on these items: “Artifacts Related to EBB’s Aurora Leighby Alicia Constant and  “Images of Elizabeth Barrett Browning” by Megan Van Horn. Van Horn discusses the engraving alongside representations of EBB by men and women, whereas this post focuses on how men viewed and represented EBB through the engraving. These rare items, the engraving inside the fourth edition of Aurora Leigh and the correction notes made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are significant to the poem because the engraving was corrected to give EBB an overall more feminine and intelligent appearance.  Aurora Leigh contains the theme of gender equality, as the two female voices heard throughout the poem desire freedom and love.  These corrections of EBB’s appearance effectively changed how her reading audience viewed her as an author in an era when women writers were not as widely accepted as today.  These items modify the reader’s vision of EBB to fit an image that the men in her life, Robert Browning and the Rossetti brothers, believed would promote her literary success.

In 1845, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met, sparking the beginning of a life-long and loving relationship. Shortly after, they eloped and moved off to Florence, Italy in 1846.  One reason why the new couple chose to move was because of the estrangement between EBB and her father, who had disagreed with her marriage to Robert. EBB somewhat expected this disownment from her father, as he disowned all his children who married during his lifetime.  Because of this move, the Brownings had to start their lives over, which pushed EBB and Robert closer together, along with their only child, Penn.  William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were friends of Robert’s, so they were the first ones to come to mind when EBB’s portrait engraving needed to be corrected.  Some of the corrections made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti included modifying her lips and eyes to appear younger, her hair to be fuller and darker, and her shoulders to be pulled down for a more feminine look.  These modifications were effectively made, as noted by William Michael Rossetti at the bottom of the manuscript, in order to make EBB appear younger and more elegant.  During the Victorian era, female writers and poets were not as common, due to societal expectations and gender inequality.  While EBB discusses this inequality through the lives of Aurora and Marian in the poem, Robert and the Rossetti brothers still included these physical changes to EBB’s appearance in order to increase favor from her audience, as appearance was one of the most important aspects in the average Victorian life.  This contrast between the men in EBB’s life modifying her portrait and her discussion of gender inequality is significant because it shows the modern reader that the Victorian reader paid attention to who wrote these pieces of literature.

Throughout this project, one could see the contrast between the contents of Aurora Leigh and the modifications completed by Robert Browning, and Dante and William Rossetti.  The changes made to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s eyes, smile, and shoulders are important because they alter her physical appearance by making her seem younger, more feminine, and more refined in order to present her as a more reputable author in the Victorian era.  While Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not publicly comment on the changes made to the engraving, her poem was still published with the finished engraving of her portrait, so the reader could assume that she gave her approval for the publication.  Two ways these rare items could be useful for researchers or students would be to help understand how books were edited and published in the Victorian era and how society can improve on viewing physical appearances of writers as an important aspect of their literary works that they choose to publish.  Students could also utilize these rare items to observe pieces from the Victorian era and have the opportunity to compare the publication process and even the engraving process from the Victorian era to modern society, alongside the themes of gender inequality in the poem of Aurora Leigh.

photograph of a page containing the corrected engraving of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the top left corner. You can see sketch marks where the image has been altered. Handwritten notes fill the rest of the page.

Image of a typed transcription of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's notes

Black and white image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking over her shoulder. She is wearing 19th-century clothing: a long-sleeve dark coat and a lighter, wide skirt. Her hair is dark, tied up in the back and laying in waves along her face.