New exhibition charts Barrett Browning's love

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The Independent Culture

Elizabeth and her sister Arabella, who did the illustrations, crafted the card to send to their 11-year-old cousin Georgiana. Elizabeth was 38. She was introduced to Robert in 1845, and they quickly embarked on one of the most passionate affairs in literary history.

Their love story is now being recalled in an exhibition of manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia opening at the British Library today, entitled How Do I Love Thee? after her most famous poem. The show marks the bicentenary of her birth on 6 March 1806.

Although the card is a diversion from the two poets' personal histories, it is, nevertheless, one of the star exhibits of the show, which runs until 5 April. It has not been shown in public before.

Sally Brown, the library's curator of literary manuscripts, said the card, which has a flap in the middle with a rose on it which reveals the word "love" when lifted, may have been made because of the sisters' intuition that their brother, Alfred, had a soft spot for the cousin, whom he would eventually marry. "It's possible to surmise they might already have known Alfred was keen on her," Mrs Brown said. She added: "It's a fairly conventional poem, but particularly graceful and charming. It's beautifully done."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning - she took Browning's surname after the couple married in secret in London in 1846 - had a happy childhood in a large family in Herefordshire. She was a very bright child who learnt Greek, Latin and several modern languages from an early age and was writing novels, plays and poetry by the age of 11.

Among the other exhibits is a copy of her poem "The Battle of Marathon", about the Athenians fighting the Persians, which her father printed privately in an edition of 50 copies to present to her on her 14th birthday.

But she was also very ill from an early age, with her health only improving when she eloped with Browning to Italy, where they had a son. During childhood she was treated with morphine for a lung condition, a habit she would never break.

When the two poets first met, she was by far the more famous, and was even considered for the Poet Laureateship in 1850. She is most famous for Sonnets from the Portuguese, which were her love poems for Browning, written in secret when they were seeing each other against her father's wishes. Browning called her "my little Portuguese".

The exhibition also includes some of her more political work, including poems about Italian nationalism and others aboutwomen's rights.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence on 29 June 1861, aged 55.