AS ALL HIS biographers have discovered to their cost, a life of Browning is inevitably a life of his wife. Although the poet was married late and widowed early, his years with Elizabeth Barrett left their mark on all his later work and threw a retrospective light on the earlier. When Mrs Browning died in 1861 (the same year as the Prince Consort) he became the Albert 'to Browning's Victoria, controlling her husband's life from beyond the grave. Portraits of her hung in every room of his London house and he guarded her reputation more fiercely than his own.
Often sentimentalised (not least by Browning himself), the relationship of husband and wife, although famously happy and fulfilled, had its shadows. Her dominance cast one of them. Despite - and perhaps in part because of - her physical frailty, Elizabeth was the stronger personality of the two. Their marriage affected