... brilliant, heart-stopping ... reads like a thriller, a memoir and a provocative piece of literary fiction all at the same time ... For those of us who were taught to revere Robert Browning as a writer of 'serious' literature, and to regard his wife, as just that — only his wife — this comes as something of a shock ... Sampson tackles our misunderstanding of Barrett Browning by showing us the challenges she faced. Writing in the present tense, Sampson places 'Ba,' as her family and friends called her, before the reader in her full humanity, so that we puzzle over her problems, we are infuriated by the doctors who tell her not to write to preserve her health and we egg her on when it is clear that her father will not let her marry Browning. Sampson also guides us through what she has discovered and points out, with caustic humor, the irony of certain situations ... These authorial asides are always helpful, often provocative and sometimes outright funny. Most importantly, they help Barrett Browning seem more alive, as the two poets’ voices often intertwine on the page ... a vividly drawn exchange between a living poet and a dead one. Sampson asks questions that Barrett Browning sometimes answers. Sometimes, of course, she doesn’t, but Sampson’s questions keep the reader turning the page, as we want to know what the answers might be. Throughout this magical and compelling book, Sampson shows us that we, too, can speak to the dead, or, at the very least, we can listen to their words.
The heart matters, but it is the head, ideas, independence and identity that interest Sampson. She sets Elizabeth against the intellectual concerns of the time: slavery and abolition, industry and empire, the 1848 revolution in Paris and the Risorgimento in Italy ... Sampson is an astute, thoughtful and wide-ranging guide, but two things jar. First, the life is told in the historic present ... Second, the chapters telling Elizabeth’s story are interleaved with a series of 'frames', short essayistic chapters in which Sampson considers the nature of biography, portraiture, photography, self-presentation and the ways in which creative work reflects life and vice versa — the 'two-way mirror' of the title. There are digressions about the writer Italo Calvino, the poet Stephen Spender, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the artist Bridget Riley. These are intellectually chewy and hold up the reader. Better to hear Elizabeth’s own voice: restless, ambitious, unsatisfied.
It is this publicly engaged Elizabeth that Fiona Sampson sets before us in this fine biography, the first since Margaret Forster’s more than 30 years ago. For her frame and point of reference Sampson uses Aurora Leigh, the verse novel that Barrett Browning wrote in 1856, which tells the story of a young female writer’s career, specifically an artist’s development. At first glance this might seem to mark a retreat to the personal and the biographic, but Sampson’s point is that Aurora Leigh provides us with a map and model for how Barrett Browning forged a new relationship between female subjectivity and public utterance ... Sampson is not too fastidious to deprive herself – or us – of the schlockier pleasures of biographical speculation ... Sampson is too judicious to say whether she really thinks that Browning bumped her off, but she understands enough about the pleasures of transgression to leave the possibility in play.
Fiona Sampson’s passionate and exacting biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a surprisingly compact volume, a bristling lyrical sandwich of philosophy and action. It is also a page-turner. Like many great 19th century novels, it begins with a charismatic house – Hope End in Herefordshire is brought dazzlingly to life on these pages ...It feels like stakes couldn’t be higher for Sampson, and this gives an enormous charge to a vividly personal account, balanced with self-knowledge and self-examination.
... profits from an immense amount of arduous research (notably by the eminent Browning scholar Philip Kelley and his collaborators) in the intervening years. Yet there is more to this biography than simply access to new source material ... Sampson casts a much needed cold eye on the economic underpinnings of the celebrated Barretts of Wimpole Street ... Principally, though, Two-Way Mirror pushes back against the neglect, bordering on amnesia, that has descended on a poet once widely celebrated and still capable today of chilling readers with a sudden plunge from the shared everyday into frightening depths of feeling ... Battling polite silence more than the mistakes or omissions of earlier critics and biographers, Sampson wants readers to see Barrett Browning afresh. That explains her book’s relative concision and snappy chapter titles. She wants us to ask what it must have felt like to be a brilliant, ailing, tragically opium-dependent shut-in ... Sampson does not slight Robert Browning...But she also makes welcome space in Two-Way Mirror for Barrett Browning’s array of female friendships, which sustained her in her unlikely vocation of poet ... Another strength of the biography is its astute comparison between the care Barrett Browning lavished on pets and that she accorded her servants ... Sampson sympathizes with what it cost Barrett Browning to become a poet. More than that, she hopes to inspire a new generation of readers, so that the price will have been worth it, after all.
Sampson presents a comprehensive view of the obstacles the young poet faced: illness, devastating personal losses, fluctuating family fortunes (which were tied to slave labor in Jamaica), and rigid cultural and social norms ... Sampson, who writes in present tense, does a wonderful job of following the couple’s evolution and writing. In doing so, she corrects the simplistic version of their relationship that popular culture has promoted. She also illustrates how Barrett Browning’s work challenged Victorian notions about women and women’s writing ... The result is a powerful restoration of the poet’s reputation and legacy.
I found Fiona Sampson's stunning Two-Way Mirror so utterly captivating because Sampson, herself an accomplished UK poet, boldly uses the present tense to create striking immediacy in every twist and turn of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's extraordinary and often fraught life ... The immediacy of that grammatical choice to 'be present' in authentically retelling an almost forgotten and often misunderstood life is a powerful draw from beginning to end. The reader of Two-Way Mirror, whether familiar or not with Barrett Browning's published work, is rapidly and eagerly immersed in the public and intimate realities of an individual whose substance extends far beyond the few verse snippets taught here and there in high school ... Sampson brings Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life in a style that is both courageous and endearing --- following the chronology of her past, while artfully bringing her world and ours together in the myriad reflections of her well-tempered literary mirror.
... an account of breadth and depth ... Sampson is adept at switching between personal history and literary analysis. Her account falters only with her frequent use of mirrors and reflections as a framing device for the poet's life and work, a literary conceit that detracts from the strength of the material ... Sampson does [Browning's] achievement justice in this acute and well grounded psychological portrait.
The EBB of Fiona Sampson’s Two-Way Mirror is a contradiction: a social campaigner against imperial expansion and for the abolition of slavery and child labour, who is also 'a cultural Victorian, aiming to speak … from the heart of consensus morality', in a period in which 'mainstream values are genuinely shared'. While this middle-class picture of Victorian Britain should raise eyebrows, and so too should the idea that EBB was the first anti-imperialist poet in a tradition which includes William Blake and Helen Maria Williams, there is something brilliantly astute about the awkward placement of EBB at both the radical periphery and polite centre of her culture. Sampson manages to express the difficult and often unspoken negotiations in EBB’s public and private life ... Sampson’s biography is structurally innovative ... The mode of narration is effective when there is something going on...and when it allows for taut vignettes of moments such as the kidnap of EBB’s spaniel Flush. But when there is little to report, the method stumbles ... For all its qualities, the main thing that disappoints about Two-Way Mirror is how little time is spent on EBB’s poems ... Sampson captures very well a headstrong EBB, both a campaigner and a commercially successful poet untamed by established tropes of the 'women writer', but more attention could have been paid to her use of the poetic medium which, to repurpose a phrase of EBB, 'straight outreaches all things'.
Fiona Sampson spins an intriguingly complex account of her subject ... draws energy from the drama of her experience even as it reveals her intelligence, perseverance and power ... Ms. Sampson handles beautifully the complex relationship between Elizabeth and slavery ... Ms. Sampson imitates her subject’s formal adventurousness. Between each chapter on Elizabeth come brief essays that take a philosophical lens to biography ... These interludes, while engaging, feel unhelpfully detached from the narrative and themes of Elizabeth’s life. Perhaps Ms. Sampson intends to break the spell of her own account, reminding us that biography can only do so much. But we might prefer to revel in what her biography does do: provide a refreshing, contemporary take on a poet who, no matter her bodily constraints, ranged freely over subject area, form and feeling.
The award-winning poet Fiona Sampson does her best to rectify this imbalance in her intriguing biography of and meditation on EBB, making the convincing claim that she was the first female lyric poet ... Sampson asserts, and, like Dickens, she wrote not for an elite circle of friends, but a mass audience ... Sampson’s book is timely in its examination of EBB’s political awakening ... Sampson’s book is irritatingly opaque in places, but as a poet she puts the work before the life, and that surely is the right way round.
Sampson overturns old misogynist assumptions, establishing that it was Barrett Browning’s tremendous literary success that brought her and nascent poet Robert Browning together ... Sampson sensitively elucidates how Barrett Browning’s unusual life shaped her imagination and social consciousness. As she tracks the creation and reception of each of her groundbreaking books, including Sonnets from the Portuguese, she astutely uses Barrett Browning’s revolutionary masterpiece, Aurora Leigh, a novel-in-verse about a woman poet claiming artistic and personal freedom to frame this gleaming two-way mirror reflecting Barrett Browning and her profound and extraordinary oeuvre.
Offering contemporary and historical context, Sampson introduces Barrett Browning as a woman of—and ahead of—her time and tracks her literary progression alongside her changing political views during an era of slavery and abolition ... Sampson’s work is marked by her careful attention to language and a desire to allow her subjects the opportunity to name themselves. A welcome update that avoids sensationalism to pursue a more complex history of a much-loved literary figure. Recommended for all collections.
Sampson takes an unconventional and intriguing look at the life of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861) ... Sampson makes the case for Barrett Browning being 'radical and exciting,' as she set the stage for such poets as Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and as 'someone who becomes herself through becoming a poet.' ... This account shines when breaking the mythologies that surround Barrett Browning’s reputation, but the frequent reflections on framing and mirrors distracts rather than enhances. Still, fans of Barrett Browning will appreciate this refreshing portrait of the poet as an empowered woman.
... aims for breadth and depth—and achieves both ... Sampson provides updated research and commentary on how the Barrett family wealth was generated largely by slaves on family-owned plantations in Jamaica and how Elizabeth’s guilt at her heritage turned her toward political radicalism. The author is adept at switching between personal history and literary analysis. The latter part of the book—chronicling Elizabeth’s suffering from a series of miscarriages, pursuit of spiritualism, and increasing dependence on opium to alleviate pain—is melancholy, and Sampson chronicles the family’s wide-ranging travels in search of a climate more conducive to her health ... An acute and insightful study of the life and work of a pathbreaking 19th-century poet.