The Barretts, 1800s-20s

Figure 1.--.

Elizabeth Barett Browning was one of England's most noted romantic poets. Elizabeth grew up in a priviliged, wealthy families and was an accomplished student. She had 11 brothers and sisters. She was very close to her older brother whom she called Bro. She had a very happy childhood, but was affected when her brother went off to Chharterhouse and she began to realize that her life would be very limited. Her mother dressed the boys and girls alike. Details are scarce, but her brothers seemed to have been kept in long hair and perhaps even dresses until they were 9-11 years old. Elizabeth and her husband Robert Browing had one child, Pen, in 1849. It seems that the Elizabeth's mother dressed her brothers affected how she insisted on dressind Pen.

Elizabeth's Childhood

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), the noted romantic English poet, was born in Durham (northern England). She was the eldest daughter of Edward Moulton-Barrett, who made most of his considerable fortune from Jamaican sugar plantations. In 1809 he bought Hope End, a 500-acre estate near the Malvern Hills. Elizabeth and her brothers and sisters lived an idelic, privileged childhood, riding her pony around the grounds, visiting other families in the neighborhood, and arranging family theatrical productions.


Elizabeth had 11 brothers and sisters. She appears to have been especially close to her brother Edward who was called Bro. She was very close to her older brother Edward whom she called Bro. She had a very happy childhood, but was affected when her brother went off to Chharterhouse and she began to realize that her life would be very limited. Elizabeth was a teen ager when her younger brothers Septimus (Sette) and Octavius (Occy) arrived, Elizabeth really enjoyed Sette's company and his mother he had the "swwetest" disposition. Observing Sette voluntarily giving up his pencil to his older brother Alfredwrote, "never was there such a Chesterfield in petticoats". [Forster, p. 13.] Occy was born when Elizabeth was 18 years old and she delighted in cuddling and kissing him. When Occy was older and began to object, heer biographer writes that she "she hatched all sorts of plots to ensnare him". [Forster, p. 14.]

Atire of the Barrett Children

I have little information on how Elizabeth and her siblings were dressed as children. The boys as was the custom wore dresses just like their sisters when they were younger and had long flowing hair. Their mother apparently saw no need to dress the boys and girls differently, even after they passed 5 and 6 years old when English boys at the time were generally breeched. There is not a lot of information available on Elizabeth and her siblings. Her younger bothers (Occy and Sette) ages 9 and 12 years were aparently dressed in dresses and had long hair. Elizabeth was reportedly very upset when her father decided that the boys should be breeched and have their hair cut. In one of her earliest poems, To A Boy, which was one of the shorter pieces attached to her 1833 translation of Prometbeus Bound, written when Sette was 11 years old and Occy 9 years old (two of Elizabeth's younger brothers) she had mourned the golden hair "long and free", now brutally cut despite her "bootless pray" that they should pause awhile ...".

Ideas about Child Rearing

It is interesting that the two younger brothers were breeched and had their hair cut at the same time, even though one brother (Occy) was 3 years younger. It is also interesting that the father made the decission. Often it was the mother that decided such matters. Perhaps the decision was related to the untimely death of the children's mother. Or it was the character of her father who sought to control the lives of those around him, including his grown-up children. Elizabeth though this quite foolish at the time. She was convinced that there was no certain age that boys should have their hair cut and be breeched. She would later apply these ideas about childhood to her son Pen. For Pen, however, she did set in her mind an age that he would be dressed as other boys and that age was to be 12. A biographer argues that Elizabeth was not trying to femenize Pen because she wanted a girl. Rather it was an objection to the contemporary concept of what was masculine and femanine. [Forster, p. 238.]

Impact on Elizabeth

Presumably the clothes selected by her mother for her brothers had a major impact on how Elizabeth would insist on dressing her son Pen. There was no clear distinction made in boys' and girl's clothing for younger children in the early 19th century. In addition, the younger children were likely to wear the outgrown clothes of their older brothers and sisters. For the younger boys this also probably included the clothes of their older sisters. Even though Elizabeth's father was wealthy, thrifty Victoriand sometimes made every effort to get the good out of their clothes--which were quite expensive in relative terms. (Even Queen Victoria used hand me down clothes for her considerable family. Until Elizabeth met Robert, she lived a rather closeted life. Thus, her experiences at home probably set he views on how children should be dressed. She never went to school where she mixed freely with other children.


Although frail, Elizabeth apparently had no health problems until 1821, when Dr. Coker prescribed opium for a nervous disorder. Her mother died when she was 22, and critics mark signs of this loss in Aurora Leigh.

The Children's Education

Elizabeth was an accomplished child. She read a number of Shakesperian plays, parts of Pope's Homeric translations, passages from "Paradise Lost", and the histories of England, Greece, and Rome before the age of 10 years. Elizabeth was privately educated at home as schools for girls other than finishing schools did not exist. Thus her contacts with the outside world other than through literature were very limited. Most parents considered academic education of their daughters of no real importasnce. She was self-taught in almost every respect and during her teen years she went through the principle Greek and Latin authors, along with Dante's Inferno-- all in the original languages. Her voracious appetite for knowledge compelled her to learn enough Hebrew to read the Old Testament from beginning to end. Her enjoyment of the works and subject matter of Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft was later expressed by her own concern for human rights in her own letters and poems. While still a child of 12 she rote an epic on The Battle of Marathon in the style of Pope's Iliad (ryming couplets), which her proud father had privately published. Barrett later refered to her first literary attempt as, "Pope's Homer done over again, or rather undone." I am not entirely sure how Elizabeth's brothers and sisters were educated. Presumably her sisters were also educated at home. There is some reason to think the boys were also educated at home, at least until their teens. If her brothers had long hair and still wore dresses at 9 and 11 years, they sure would have been teased by the other boys. They would have surely had their hair cut and been breeched before being sent off to school. We know her brother Edward ("Bro") closed to his age went to Charter House. His letters home to her are full of descriptions of strict regime there.


Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (Doubleday: New York, 1989,), 400p.


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Created: September 8, 1998
Last updated: 6:33 AM 6/26/2005