Ba, as others called her, or EBB, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to herself both before and after marriage, was a startlingly precocious child, gobbling Shakespeare, Pope, Milton and Locke before she was out of single figures. She was born in 1806, the eldest of twelve siblings, wrote verse to order and was addressed as ‘the Poet-Laureate of Hope-End’ by her doting tyrant father when she was only eight years old. Hope End was the fairy-tale Ottoman-style mansion in Herefordshire that her father built with a fortune derived from Jamaican slave plantations and where the Barretts lived until money troubles forced a sale and retreat to smoky central London when Elizabeth was in her mid-twenties. That followed the death of her mother, also from slaver stock, who had first given A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to her teenage daughter, then worried that the ‘singleness of will &c’ imparted by ‘Mrs Wollstonecrafts system’ would turn Ba into ‘an old maid’.
On the contrary, it was, arguably, singleness of will that saved EBB from old maidery when the chance of another life presented itself in the shape of Robert Browning, a younger, poorer, lesser-known poet who courted her first by letter and then under cover of the erudite conversations that the