It is this publicly engaged Elizabeth that Fiona Sampson sets before us in this fine biography, the first since Margaret Forster’s more than 30 years ago. For her frame and point of reference Sampson uses Aurora Leigh, the verse novel that Barrett Browning wrote in 1856, which tells the story of a young female writer’s career, specifically an artist’s development. At first glance this might seem to mark a retreat to the personal and the biographic, but Sampson’s point is that Aurora Leigh provides us with a map and model for how Barrett Browning forged a new relationship between female subjectivity and public utterance.
Two-Way Mirror is a long overdue remaking of Barrett Browning’s extraordinary appropriated life, which “20th-century popular fiction” turned into “a thrumming Oedipal drama”, portraying her as sexually unawakened, a dammed-up force ready to burst into creativity once she’s roused with a kiss. Each chapter is prefaced by a short philosophical lyrical essay or “frame”, each a meditation on portraiture and reflection which doubles as an act of self-examination for Sampson: “Is a biography a kind of portrait?” “Do faces matter?” “I suspect the absence of a returning gaze probably matters enormously.”
This book is an empathetic – and much-needed – reassessment which tells a fascinating story. The decision to use the present tense throughout may not be to every reader’s taste, but it underlines the sense that the biographer is bringing her subject back to life. Most importantly, Sampson makes one want to read Barrett Browning. If Aurora Leigh hasn’t remained on readers’ radars, it is partly down to the fact that it is written in verse not prose. But it’s basically a Victorian novel with a plot, set in Victorian times. If you like the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot, you should certainly give it a go.
Elizabeth died in Italy at the age of 55, with her beloved Robert by her side. Tributes poured in, with one newspaper calling her 'the Shakespeare among her sex', yet within a few decades her poetry had fallen out of fashion. Fiona Sampson, herself a poet, believes that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's work is due for a renaissance, and points out that many feminist scholars are rediscovering her often startlingly modern writing. Elizabeth's was, she concludes, a 'triumphant life'.
The first biography of Barrett Browning in more than 30 years is a nuanced and insightful account, dismantling previous studies that viewed the poet only in relation to her domineering father or husband. Fiona Sampson, a poet herself as well as a biographer of Mary Shelley, argues that central to Barrett Browning’s story is the construction of identity – both in her life and the myth-making that surrounds it. Such a construction is itself a two-way creation, argues Sampson. “That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”
The award-winning poet Fiona Sampson does her best to rectify this imbalance in her intriguing biography of and meditation on EBB, making the convincing claim that she was the first female lyric poet — without her there would have been no Emily Dickinson (who admired her work) or Sylvia Plath. She argues that the root of EBB’s popularity came from her nonconformist background — she was in tune with the self-improving image of the age, Sampson asserts, and, like Dickens, she wrote not for an elite circle of friends, but a mass audience. Her 1856 bildungsroman Aurora Leigh, a verse novel in nine books about a woman finding her voice, became a bestseller because it embodied a new earnestness — a quest for self-improvement
Sampson is an astute, thoughtful and wide-ranging guide, but two things jar. First, the life is told in the historic present. “Elizabeth is in bed again”; “Elizabeth is starting to write again”. What ought to give a sense of urgency instead sounds forced and breathless.
Second, the chapters telling Elizabeth’s story are interleaved with a series of “frames”, short essayistic chapters in which Sampson considers the nature of biography, portraiture, photography, self-presentation and the ways in which creative work reflects life and vice versa — the “two-way mirror” of the title. There are digressions about the writer Italo Calvino, the poet Stephen Spender, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the artist Bridget Riley. These are intellectually chewy and hold up the reader. Better to hear Elizabeth’s own voice: restless, ambitious, unsatisfied.
There were some early warning signs in Virginia Woolf’s 1933 novel Flush, a playful version of Elizabeth Barrett’s life as seen from the perspective of her pet spaniel. In one scene Flush barks and trembles at his own reflection in a mirror: ‘Was not the little brown dog opposite himself?’ asks Woolf. ‘But what is “oneself”? Is it the thing people see? Or is it the thing one is?’ The central aim of Fiona Sampson’s new biography is to strip away the illusions we have about this unfashionable poet and get far closer to seeing her as she was. It is a bold attempt to understand EBB before her reputation started to ebb.