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Mesmerism and Agency in the Courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Alison Chapman
Affiliation:
University of Dundee

Extract

It has not passed unnoticed that the courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett coincides with Barrett's ambivalent fascination for mesmerism. But what has not been explicated is the interrelationship between mesmeric agency, the courtship correspondence, and Barrett's autobiographical Sonnets from the Portuguese. Daniel Karlin has suggestively described Barrett's representation of her suitor as an erotic mesmerist, to Browning's discomfort, but Karlin assumes the familiar stereotype of mesmeric power as an unproblematic operation of a dominant male practitioner upon a passive female patient. This essay critiques such an assumption, and suggests that a revised model of mesmeric influence helps elucidate not only Barrett's representation of the courtship in the letters and the Sonnets, but literary influence as well. If Barrett depicts herself in the thrall of a mesmeric agency, then how do we read what is interpreted by feminist critics as her revolutionary active subject position in the Sonnets, which has been taken as the transformation of Victorian women's poetry?

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1998

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