The recent publication of Dared and Done: the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning - with its allegations that considerable interest and some controversy. To get to the heart of the matter, Ebony interviewed author Julis Markus who is director of creative writing at New York's Hofstra University, a novelist and a Browning scholar publisher, Alfred A. Knopf here are highlights from that interview.
EBONY: Many scholars had overlooked the possibility of the Browning's Black ancestry. What made you delve into this?
MARKUS: Very specifically, she [Elizabeth Barrett] led me to it. They were so much in love during the 20 months of their courtship that neither of them was writting Poetry. The only thing she wrote during that period was Sonnets From the Portuguese - which was directly related to her love and whether she should live or die -death or love. So, after they leave England, they go on a six-month honeymoon, and neither of them writes anything. The only thing she writes is a poem called 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point." I remember the day in fact, my agent remembers the day when I asked, isn't that a peculiar poem to write on your honeymoon?" It's very odd.
EBONY: Do you feel Elisabeth saw herself as "The Runaway Slave" - or as someone who had escaped a condition akin to slavery?
MARKUS: No, she never considered herself a slave in that sense. She was dealing, in my opinion, with slavery, the real thing. The poem is about a Black slave whose lover is taken away from her, she's raped by white men, and she gives birth to a child whose skin is white. And when she holds that child in her arms and sees the white skin, she can't accept it. As she says in the poem, "Every time I see his face I see the master's race." She sees the master's race, she sees that she's been raped, and she sees that her son is white. The original name of that poem is "Mad and Black at Pilgrim's Point." She's still holding the child, but she suffocates it. She goes mad, and she kills the child.
EBONY: Do you think "The Runaway Slave" was actually Ehzabeth's alter-ego?
MARKUS: No. But I think the poem mirrors, psychologically, the deepest fear of her father - and the real reason he didn't want any of his children to marry. And that fear was someday having a child who would give birth to a child whose skin was darker. The situation is the absolute opposite [of the poem]. They were both very dark-skinned, Elizabeth and her father. She talks about it all the time. She was very close to the father. She was the oldest child, and I almost see it as a transference. What Moulton Barrett was trying to suffocate was the next generation. He didn't want to have anything to do with his grandchildren.
EBONY: Could she have written that anti-slavery poem, if she had not married Browning and left England?
MARKUS: It wouldn't have caused the same psychological dislocation. If she had been living at Wimpole Street, she wouldn't have been in danger of going against her father and having a child who might have Black skin. After she married, and another daughter, Henrietta, and another son married in his lifetime, they were all disowned. One time Moulton Barrett saw Pen when the Brownings were visiting at Wimpole Street and he said to his son, Who is that child? And he said, That's Ba's [Elizabeth's] child. Moulton Barrett just looked, turned around, and that was it.
EBONY: Jeannette Marks, in her 1938 book on the Barretts, denied that Elizabeth had Black genes. But the poet herself seemed to believe she got Black blood from her grandfather, Charles Moulton. Why did she think the Black blood came from the Moulton line?
MARKUS: Elizabeth Barrett says it right out here in a letter to her husband-tobe. "My true initials are E.B.M.B. my long name, as opposed to my short one. being Elizabeth Barrett Moulton Barrett.. So long it is, that to make it portable, I fell into the habit of doubling it up and packing it closely .. and of forgetting that I was a Moulton altogether." And she underlines the name "Moulton." "Yet our name is Moulton Barrett- she goes on to say and again underlines the name- "and my brother sometimes for sacrificing the governorship of an old town in Norfolk." That is where Moulton was from, NorfolkCounty, England. "Nevertheless," Elizabeth goes on to say, -I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave! Cursed we are from generation to generation." That is what her father always said: "Cursed we are from generation to generation." This is not a metaphor.
EBONY: Elizabeth Barrett was obviously convinced that she had Black ancestors but why was she so convinced they were in the Moulton line?
Markus: I think she knew...But don't forget she was living with Treppy [Mary Trepsack] who was half-Black, the daughter of a planter and a slave, who was adopted by Edward of Cinnamon Hill.
EBONY: In the first photograph of Browning, reprinted in your book, he had very dark skin, he had very Black features, and very Black hair, if you will.
Markus: There are many stories: it's hard to know where to draw the line. There's a family legend that Robert Browning's father was so dark that when he was in St. Kitts and went to church that he was told to sit with the Black people. Both Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were dark-skinned. She is very dark-complextioned. He was dark-complexioned.
EBONY: I know that you must have had space limitations for your book. Did you have to cut out anything about Barrett's Black lineage?
MARKUS: No. I put in as much as I could. I can say, from all my research, that, personally, I firmly believe that Elizabeth Barrett had Black blood. What I'll say, as a scholar, is that she definately believed she had Black blood. I followed this up as much as I could, including the fact I put in at the end - which I loved - that her brother "Stormie" ended up in Jamaica and became the first Barrett to marry a Black woman. He had mulatto children from his mistress in Jamaica, and then he married a Black female, Jane Clark. He was the first to marry a Black person and completely defy Edward Moulton Barrett Then he put up a big plaque to his father's memory in Jamaica.
EBONY: There's definitely more to be learned about the Barretts and the Moultons. Have you thought about writing a sequel?
Markus: I was hopping that some young scholars - and maybe some young Black scholars - would get interested and go over to Jamaica, look at the records, and then take a look at what was really happening in that culture, what was happening at the time. I'm hoping other people will take the lead and do so.
EBONY: There's been some tendency for both White and Black Families to ignore this issue of mixed blood - a feeling that all it does is stir up problems...
MARKUS: What I'm saying - and I agree is that her poetry stirs things up. And her life does more than stir up things it's making us look at her poetry - at life -in a new way and that's why, I think it's important.
EBONY: Is there anvthing else you'd like to tell the readers of ebony?
MARKUS: I think I'd like to tell your readers that it's been a revelation to me to see how easy it's been to overlook Elizabeth Barrett's Jamaican background - and the part it played in her life - how easy it is to get such a narrow, parochial view of Western relationships. And that the more we do learn about each other, the better able we'll all be to get along with one another. That's one of the things I hope this book does.
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