Almost 200 years ago, the Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett – now best known by her married name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – was bemoaning the loneliness of self-isolation, in a letter to her cousin that is now up for auction.
As the people of the UK continue to sit out the coronavirus pandemic in their homes, the three-page missive, due to be sold at Bonhams in London next week, sees Barrett describing a period that lasted for weeks on end, as a result of what appears to have been ulcerative tuberculosis. After falling ill, she left London for Torquay’s sea air in August 1838, writing to her cousin and friend John Kenyon about her lonely life on 10 June 1839.
Receiving a visitor, she told Kenyon, “has been a thing forbidden, & indeed for many weeks & months together ... I did not leave my bedroom”. She also wrote of her desperation to return to London, telling Kenyon that “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.”
Barrett believed she would soon recover, writing that “with a full knowledge of the peculiar uncertainties of my complaint, I do consider myself, & am convinced by the physician who attends me, hopefully better.” But it would be another two years before she could return home, a period during which two of her brothers died, inspiring her poems De Profundis and Grief.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that Barrett’s illness lasted more than four years, and saw her suffer from “blood spitting, irregular heart action, loss of voice”, elevated body temperature, fainting and insomnia.
Kenyon, to whom she dedicated her epic narrative poem Aurora Leigh, was instrumental in her meeting the man who would become her husband in 1846, the poet Robert Browning – for whom she wrote her famous Sonnet 43, which opens, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Matthew Haley, head of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams, which will auction the letter for an estimated £1,500 to £2,500 on 17 December, described it as a fascinating and moving letter.
“She describes the constraints on her life brought about by illness – including weeks of self-isolation – in a way with which many of us will be able to identify and sympathise as we experience the same emotions,” he said. “It really chimed with all of us in the book department here – we couldn’t believe how appropriate it was for now. She was really struggling – you can tell she was just desperate to get back home, back to London and her family.”