Friday, February 4, 2011

How Do I Love Thee?

In this month devoted to romantic love, I want to share a love story that was as unlikely as it was destined…

Elizabeth Barrett

Elizabeth Barrett was the oldest child in a family of twelve children. Her father had sugar plantations in Jamaica (which used slave labor) but chose to live in England. He built a whimsical house for his family in Herefordshire and called it Hope End. It was very isolated, and in retrospect, it seems like he enjoyed being the end-all to his family, and keeping them from mingling too much in society. The family was happy—if not eccentric. The children were schooled at home and even the girls were encouraged in their studies—rare in the 1820’s. Elizabeth (known as “Ba” to her family) was delicate and struggled with her health, but she was gifted in regard to poetry. All was well until her mother and brother died.

Those tragedies changed everything, and the family moved to Wimpole Street in London, where the tone of their lives became constricted and even oppressive. Their father proclaimed that none of his children could marry.

For the most part, the children abided by his wishes, and remained loyal, though not always complacent. The power he had over them was unhealthy and rather frightening.

Robert Browning

In London, Ba took up residence in the top floor of the house amid her books, her pen, and her beloved spaniel, Flush. She had literary success, getting many of her epic poems published, and had a close group of writer friends who came to call, sharing their work, their ambition, and their inspiration. Virtually an invalid, Ba contented herself with this odd life, hidden away from the world beyond her family.

That is, until she received a letter from a younger author, Robert Browning: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett...” So began a correspondence that led to much more. Much, much more. At the mature age of 38, Elizabeth Barrett, a woman who never imagined romance, found herself in love with a man who adored her. Her love for Robert flowed from her pen:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

The poem, whose first lines are still known today--150 years after they were penned--was not written for publication, but simply as an emotional release. That fact alone, gives the words special meaning.

And yet, because of this love, because of her father’s oppression, Elizabeth's love of Robert had to remain a secret. And yet, because of the strength of their love, Elizabeth gained the courage she needed to break free.

But the cost was great...

Isn’t that the way of all great love? To love is to sacrifice, is to choose we instead of me. To love is to risk everything, for there are no guarantees. Loving is hard. It’s a decision. It’s surrender. But as the Bible says, “Three things will last forever--faith, hope, and love--and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13: 13.) What God has joined together, let no man put asunder . . .

If you’d like to read a novel about Elizabeth’s life and love, read my biographical novel, How Do I Love Thee?   Their love story is ever so poignant, even moreso because it was real.//Nancy Moser


  1. Hi Nancy:

    This may best be a subject for a separate post topic but I have one concern about biographical novels.

    How much freedom does the author have with the truth? Can she change the order of events to dramatize the story? Can she combine several real historical characters into one character to make that character more interesting? Can she invent characters that play a pivotal part in the subject’s life?

    I honestly do not know how to approach reading a biographical novel.

    About, “How Do I Love Thee,” How much of the story takes place in Italy? I also lived in Italy for a few years and I would especially love this part of the story. I am also interested in Robert Browning.



  2. I can't speak for every bio-novel author,but I take the facts very seriously. I even use the subject's own words, when I can. But, there are obviously gaps of known information. That is when I have to make educated guesses. I am so dedicated to being factual that I include a Fact and FIction section in the back of my books,telling you what's what. And yes, much of Elizabeth's story is in Italy.

    1. A follow up to Vince's question: do you think that the story is accurate enough to use as a source for a high school research paper?

    2. Yes, I do. At the back of the book I include a "Fact & Fiction" section telling the reader more information about the facts, and telling where I had to guess--for every person's life, no matter how famous, has gaps in it. Within reason, this could be used as a source in a paper, for I've tried to make it as accurate as possible.

  3. On Monday guest Jody Hedlund will stop by to talk about her novel The Preacher's Bride which is a tribute to John Bunyan's wife Elizabeth. Another take on the interface between real history and historical fiction.

  4. I loved Nancy's book and I thoroughly enjoyed every book she has written. Stephanie, I've read The Preacher's bride and loved it. It was a great read.