Toll Slowly: Encountering the Gothic with Elizabeth Barrett Browning

EBB (portrait from Baylor University)
EBB (portrait from Baylor University)

Typically remembered for poems such as the popular “How Do I Love Thee”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not fit the traditional mold of a Gothic writer. While the Gothic period overlapped Barrett Browning’s life and the Victorian era, the majority of her work is “not prevailingly Gothic” (Beers 129). However, she composed several poems in the style of medieval ballads that are often overlooked by scholars, despite being rife with Gothic elements.

“The Romaunt of Margret”, “The Poet’s Vow”, and “The Lay of the Brown Rosary” are three samples of Barrett Browning’s immersion in the Gothic atmosphere. Though these selected ballads—also called romaunts or lays—do contain Gothic factors, they are not as potent as “The Rime of the Duchess May” (1844?). While Barrett Browning admitted that the piece was not a favorite of hers—which she confessed in a letter to Thomas Westwood in 1844—it bears the marks of classic Gothic literature, and also holds numerous parallels to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Through a close reading of “Duchess May”, one can see how Barrett Browning uses classic Gothic components and medieval imagery to weave a new story in which female bravery and devotion can stand alone against a traditional male setting. 

What Makes Gothic, Gothic? 

The Gothic movement is typically attributed to the afore-mentioned Walpole. Of course, the ideas were not solely his, as “gothic” details had been a part of poetry and folk-tales for centuries. But in the mid 1700s, something different happened—England became obsessed with all things medieval. Enraptured by “the romance of ruin” (Bloom 27), artists, musicians, and writers began to invent their own songs and poetry in the style of the past. As pointed out by Professor Clive Bloom, “there was never enough of the medieval to go round” (28). Enter Horace Walpole. He bought a house in 1747, which he christened Strawberry Hill. In keeping with the current mania, he remodeled the place in the style of a Gothic castle. Inspired by his new surroundings, he decided to try his hand at the imitation trend, and produced The Castle of Otranto. Otranto was different than any of the other poems or songs that had attempted to recreate the mood of the Dark Ages. It wasn’t simply set in a crumbling castle. It didn’t just feature a knight in shining armor. It encompassed everything that scholars now term as classic Gothic imagery, and it spawned an entirely new sub-genre. 

As Gothic literature has expanded and changed over the years, there are numerous attributes that can be considered Gothic. However, for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on style and imagery as opposed to the two most common themes of terror and horror, the former of which was explored and defined by Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s. The aspects to be observed within “Duchess May” include setting, mood, the role of the innocent female heroine, and the theme of confinement. Confinement is a common motif in Gothic literature, and “many critics have commented on the sense of claustrophobia found in Gothic fiction. Often this occurs with the entrapment of the heroine in some ancient castle” (“Gothic Literature” 14).  Continue reading


Victorian Villains: Hyde, Gray, and Moriarty

“Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him.” —Oscar Wilde

Humankind has wrestled with the idea of evil for centuries. Philosophers have speculated, preachers have pontificated, writers have mused, and countless works of art and literature have revolved around this rumination. Are men born good, and later corrupted by evil? Are men naturally wicked? Do humans constantly struggle with both good and evil inside them? Can we ever know the answer, and properly represent it in writing?

Regardless of philosophy, the role of an evil man in literature is that of villain. In the latter half of the Victorian Age in Great Britain, three very different writers addressed evil in memorable ways with the unforgettable characters of Edward Hyde, Dorian Gray, and Professor Moriarty. These three men, sometimes identified as villains, exemplify the Victorian viewpoint about good and evil, culminating in the concept of duality. Duality, “the condition or fact of being dual, or consisting of two parts, natures, etc.,” (Oxford English Dictionary) was a notion that captivated Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creators of these infamous miscreants. For these writers, the duality in every man must be balanced at all times—it is when one side begins to eclipse the other that villains are created.   Continue reading