Robert browning

Murder most foul: The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell, reviewed

There’s a moment near the end of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’ when it becomes clear that the duke, whatever he might claim, did kill his wife: ‘I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped’, he lets slip. In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell’s sombre, haunting novel based on the historical couple described in Browning’s poem, this revelation comes rather earlier. The young Lucrezia knows with ‘a peculiar clarity’ that her husband ‘intends to kill her’ right from the first page. After leaving Florence to begin her married life with Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, Lucrezia died within a year. History records her death as being from ‘putrid fever’,

In the footsteps of the Romantic poets

Shelley, walking as a boy through his ‘starlight wood’, looking for ghosts and filled with ‘hopes of high talk with the departed dead’, found nothing in reply. Nothing reverberated. The ghosts were silent. But he felt something else non-human: the springtime breezes bringing a sense of the marvellousness of life itself. And so in that instant (or so he says) his mind changed. No more seeking after gothic horrors or pining for the worst; no more listening to the dead. Instead, ‘the spirit of beauty’ descended on him, illuminated him, shaping his life, becoming his goddess, the only force he could imagine that ‘could free/ This world from its dark

Rescuing Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her wax-doll image

‘Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?’ asks the speaker in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Memorabilia’ — a line which recognises how easy it is to misread a writer once they’ve passed into a hazy afterlife of fame, neglect or simple misunderstanding. Yet few of Browning’s contemporaries are as hard to see plain as his own wife: the poet who was known to her family as Ba, signed herself EBB, and published a number of popular works under her married name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During her lifetime she was one of the most admired poets of the age; a framed portrait of her hung in the bedroom of Emily Dickinson,