“…but what were they actually like?” 1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“She is little, hard featured, with long dark ringlets, a pale face, and plaintive voice, something very impressive in her dark eyes and her brow. Her general aspect puts me in mind of Mignon,—what Mignon might be in maturity and maternity.”—Sara Coleridge, Letters, 1851.

“Dined at home, and at eight dressed to go to Kenyon. With him I found an interesting person I had never seen before, Mrs. Browning, late Miss Barrett—not the invalid I expected; she has a handsome oval face, a fine eye, and altogether a pleasing person. She had no opportunity for display, and apparently no desire. Her husband has a very amiable expression. There is a singular sweetness about him.”—Crab Robinson, Diaries, 1852.

“My first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett commenced about fifteen years ago. She was certainly one of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same; so that it is not merely the impression of my partiality, or my enthusiasm. Of a slight delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed with dark eyelashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend, in whose carriage we went together to Chiswick, that the translatress of the Prometheus of Æschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was out.”—M. R. Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life. 1835.

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.

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