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.