... 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.