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In Review: Two-Way Mirror by Fiona Sampson

Written by Harry Adams

Throughout her lifetime, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of Britain’s most popular poets. Yet today, most would struggle to recite more than a few lines of hers. For many, knowledge of Barrett Browning’s poetry is limited to a single excerpt reproduced in countless Valentine’s cards: ‘how do I love thee? Let me count the ways’. However, in this fine new biography Fiona Sampson attempts to rescue the now neglected poet’s reputation.

Picture credit: amazon

Two-Way Mirror dismantles the previous studies of Barrett Browning, which have tended to frame her as ‘a swooning poetess in whose little, couch-bound life only a tyrannical father and an ardent poet-lover contribute drama’. Sampson argues that the lies surrounding Barrett Browning’s domestic life obscure ‘first her work, and eventually even her identity’.

Rather than an incapable invalid, she was a well-regarded author and financially independent. In 1850, her popularity even made her a rival to Alfred Lord Tennyson as a candidate for Poet Laureate on the death of William Wordsworth. Sampson explores Barrett Browning’s legacy as ‘a pivotal figure, changing the direction of English-language poetry and influencing both her contemporaries and subsequent generations of poets and readers’. 

Sampson also presents Barrett Browning as a ‘radical and exciting’ author. She was committed to the abolition of slavery, interested in Italian nationalism and defended the rights of the working class. A publicly engaged author, she explored these issues in controversial poems such as The Cry of the Children and Casa Guidi Windows. Sampson is especially interested in Barrett Browning’s personal connection to empire and race. She was born into a British Jamaican family; her father had inherited a fortune created by sugar plantations which utilised slave labour. But as a nonconformist Protestant and political liberal, Barrett Browning was staunchly opposed to slavery. She produced The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point in support of the American abolitionist movement.

Although Two-Way Mirror is highly accessible, the book’s structure is unusual. Sampson alternates between present-tense chronological ‘How To’ chapters (‘How To Be Ill’, ‘How To Desire’ etc.) and short lyrical ‘Frames’. This central conceit mimics Barrett Browning’s magnum opus Aurora Leigh, and ‘dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within’. It is an unconventional but effective approach which allows Sampson to shatter the clichés that ‘frame’ the poet’s life.

Overall, this is an excellent biography, which rebuts the rumours and legends which have distracted from Barrett Browning’s considerable achievements. Instead, Sampson presents Barrett Browning as she really was: a pioneer, whose work opened lyric poetry to a distinctly feminine voice.  

Written by Harry Adams