Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 50 Wimpole Street

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

Emily was asleep in the pushchair when the train pulled into London, so to give her a decent-length nap I thought we’d wander over to Wimpole Street and have a look at the house which Elizabeth Barrett Browning escaped from. (Lots of great poets around with the initials E.B. – Emily Brontë as well, now I think of it.) Everybody knows the story, and if you don’t there’s a mediocre film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (starring John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones), probably playing on a daytime TV channel near you right now. It has something for everyone – bad Victorian medical advice, a tyrannous but ultimately weak-willed Victorian patriarch, a tense moment with a dog (SPOILER ALERT: the dog stays quiet and so the elopement is successful).

Here’s my favourite part of the story, from the best re-telling (G.K. Chesterton, in his magnificent Browning biography):

On the day on which it was necessary for [Elizabeth Barrett] finally to accept or reject Browning’s proposal, she called her sister to her, and to the amazement and mystification of that lady asked for a carriage. In this she drove into Regent’s Park, alighted, walked on to the grass, and stood leaning against a tree for some moments, looking round her at the leaves and the sky. She then entered the cab again, drove home, and agreed to the elopement.

(This was probably the furthest she’d been from Wimpole Street in five years.)

The house today is still incredibly dingy-looking (like all the North-South roads in Marylebone – is there a more depressing street in London than Harley Street, for instance?). Kyte’s Interiors were busy on the inside but I’m afraid it’s wasted effort, the bad vibes in that spot are ineradicable. (Incidentally, all the stonework on the front of the house is an addition from 1936, and not at all an improvement.)

The text on the plaque is pretty disastrous and someone should get round to replacing it soon. ‘ELIZABETH BARRETT BARRETT, POETESS, AFTERWARDS WIFE OF ROBERT BROWNING, LIVED HERE 1838 – 1846.’ Especially since all of Aurora Leigh and the Sonnets from the Portuguese were written in that ‘afterwards’.

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