December 16, 2020

Barrett Browning’s bleak beachcation: lonely letter lamenting isolation lifted to fame


Elizabeth Barrett Browning

While books have depicted themes of isolation, pandemics, and loneliness for centuries, I think we can all agree that this is the first time we 21st century folk can relate to such an extent. 2020 has certainly had its downs, but as the new year quickly approaches—and the world transitions into its usual reflective state—we can also make room to seek out the positive.

Maybe now more than ever we can understand the state of mind and the state of the world that our ancestors worldwide were living in way back when, from the Cyprian Plague in 250 A.D. to the well-known Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, from the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu to the present-day COVID-19. We should all be thankful for the improved technology and medicine of today’s modern world, but it’s true that no matter the era, isolation and self-quarantine dominated disease prevention, leaving many alone to deal with the repercussions.

Alison Flood at The Guardian recently reported that a letter written in 1839 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, renowned English poet, to her cousin John Kenyon is hot on the market, gearing up to be sold at an upcoming auction. Why, you ask? Well, nearly 200 years ago, poor Elizabeth came down with a case of tuberculosis which forced her to leave London for “Torquay’s sea air” to hopefully assuage the illness. (Note: Sounds great. What’s in that sea air and how can I get some?). According to Flood, Barrett Browning left for Torquay in August 1938 to self-isolate but her letter, which speaks truth on the uncertainty and loneliness that looms large with many of us today, was written in June of 1939. She writes that she did not even leave her bedroom for months at a time. I think we can all agree that almost a whole year in isolation would affect any of us. Barrett Browning writes,

“… the longing for home will be helped away by nothing I am sure until I can get back again to Wimpole Street… I believe I never loved my dearest Papa & all of them, until I left them…”

While she would go on to suffer the illness for a few more years, the relative hopefulness found in her letter is something we can hang on to. Her time in quarantine would later inspire much of her work, which I hope will the case for us today, the chance to create art based on this shared experience. The letter, signed “EB Barrett”, will be bid on at an auction with Bonhams in London on December 17, estimated to sell between £1,500 and £2,500. Going once, going twice, sold! Cheers.



Jessie Stratton is an intern at Melville House.