Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the author of my favourite poem, How Do I Love Thee. This is a poem she wrote while in love with fellow poet Robert Browning, and was for her own eyes only – never intended to be published! How lovely that Robert was ultimately the one who insisted that Elizabeth’s love sonnets be published, as these are what she is best remembered for today.
How do I love thee by Nancy Moser is a biographical novel, written from Elizabeth Barret's perspective and based on facts. It chronicles a large timespan of her life, and includes most of the major events, as well as the actual wording of letters between Elizabeth and Robert. The one thing I do love about this book, is that it felt like I was reading a classic novel.The writing is that dated.Most current historical novels are indeed set in history, but the writing is very modern; How do I love thee does not have that problem.
One of twelve children, having lost her mother at an early age, Elizabeth and her siblings were raised under the iron fist of their father, who locked them away in seclusion. To ensure his children didn’t stumble on the sins of the flesh (as he deemed it), he forbade his children to marry – what a hypocrite, right? Elizabeth, being the victim of weak lungs, was locked up most of all. Having been convinced by her family and doctors that she was an invalid, Elizabeth never ventured out of her room! Confining herself to only her bedroom, and mostly only to her bed, Elizabeth’s frail body soon grew too weak to even walk easily, and her life was a ritual of resting and taking medicine. Her only solace was her writing. In her thirties Elizabeth therefore still lived with her father, happy to be with her family and unmarried. One day, only to ensure her latest published works would be of equal length, she hastily wrote a 19 page poem in one day, in which she made mention of Robert Browning. After reading the poem, Robert wrote Elizabeth a letter, and the two soon became pen pals. And so began one of history's greatest love stories.
Over the years the recluse Elizabeth grew too uncomfortable with the idea of meeting new people, and she refused invitation after invitation from fellow authors who wanted to meet her; but for some reason, when Robert requested a meeting Elizabeth hastily agreed – a fact which didn’t fail to unsettle her. As their friendship grew, so did their love. Robert and Elizabeth soon couldn’t deny their love for each other, but her father’s strict rules against marriage stood in their way – could they find a way to be true to her father’s wishes as well as their own hearts?
Throughout all the years and all their travels, both Elizabeth and Robert held on to their respective love letters, and the 573 letters which capture their courtship, their blossoming love and their forbidden marriage are on display at the Wellesley College! The entire collection is also available to view online.
One major problem that the book does have: I don’t particularly like the heroine. Initially I found Elizabeth to be very selfish, self-centred and self-indulgent; which is a problem since I am sure she was meant to be portrayed as selfless. The fact that a 36 year old woman needs a maid who is able to disregard her wants and requests because she herself knows that she is being unreasonable, is just ridiculous. Show some willpower, woman! I got very annoyed with Elizabeth’s self-pitying woe-is-me-attitude. I literally only kept reading in the hopes that her romance with Robert Browning would better her. Thankfully, it did. Robert brought Elizabeth to life – in every sense. He encouraged her to move around, to venture outside, and ultimately to travel abroad! Without his love and God’s grace, Elizabeth would have died a recluse.
Another problem: We only meet Robert through his letters a third through the book, and he only becomes a central character halfway through the book. I understand that this story is biographical and that Elizabeth had a life (of sorts) before she met him, but since this story is about how her love for him changed her, I would have wanted him introduced much sooner – way too much backstory. It would have suited me just fine if Moser were to fast forward the plot at the point where her brother Bro died, to a few weeks before she met Robert; not years. I found many of the first chapters completely unnecessary.
I have to say I did very much enjoy the way time stood still when Elizabeth received her first letter from Robert; the way she just knew that her life had changed, though she did not realise how. The depiction of their friendship, courtship and romance growing steadily over a period of months was very realistically done, and if Moser’s aim was to show how Robert’s love made Elizabeth become the best version of herself, and how God brought them together against all odds, intervened on their behalf and blessed their relationship, she certainly succeeded.
In the historical sense How do I love thee is a lovely portrayal of the life and love of Elizabeth Barret Browning.
Title: How Do I Love Thee
Title: How Do I Love Thee
Author: Nancy Moser
Number of pages: 368
Publisher: Bethany House