Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Norton. Aug. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781324002956. $27.95. LIT
Here is Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61) as we rarely see her, a tomboy and autodidact who became an international literary sensation. Sampson’s highly accessible biography counters decades of criticism that satirized Barrett Browning as a caricature of a female poet—portrayals that have obscured her pioneering work, which opened lyric poetry to a distinctly feminine voice. Offering contemporary and historical context, Sampson (In Search of Mary Shelley) introduces Barrett Browning as a woman of—and ahead of—her time and tracks her literary progression alongside her changing political views during an era of slavery and abolition. The research for this biography draws on Barrett Browning’s extensive personal correspondence and family transactions in England and across the Atlantic. Sampson’s work is marked by her careful attention to language and a desire to allow her subjects the opportunity to name themselves. Outlining a liminal space informed by gender, class, and disability, Sampson renders a modern portrait of Barrett Browning as a feminist who was presciently aware of the importance of her own image. The book draws on a range of primary sources and includes photographs of the poet and her family.
VERDICT A welcome update that avoids sensationalism to pursue a more complex history of a much-loved literary figure. Recommended for all collections.
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