Select Elizabeth Barrett Browning The Resilient Poet Who Battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Select Elizabeth Barrett Browning The Resilient Poet Who Battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Resilient Poet Who Battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the most prominent poets of the 19th century, is celebrated for her profound and expressive poetry. Beyond her literary contributions, Browning faced significant health challenges throughout her life. It has been suggested that she may have battled chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a condition characterized by extreme fatigue and other debilitating symptoms. Her resilience and determination to create despite her health struggles offer a compelling narrative of strength and perseverance.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Early Life and Literary Beginnings

Early Life and Education

Born on March 6, 1806, in Durham, England, Elizabeth Barrett was the eldest of 12 children. She demonstrated an early passion for literature, learning to read at the age of three and composing her first epic poem by age twelve. Her education was largely self-directed, fueled by her voracious appetite for classical literature and languages.

Early Health Issues

From a young age, Elizabeth experienced health problems, suffering from severe headaches and spinal issues. Despite these challenges, she continued to write prolifically, publishing her first collection, An Essay on Mind and Other Poems, at the age of 20. Her early health issues set the stage for a lifetime of chronic illness, which many believe included symptoms of what we now know as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

The Rise of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Literary Fame

Major Works and Themes

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry often explored themes of love, social justice, and human suffering. Her most famous works include Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of love sonnets dedicated to her husband, poet Robert Browning, and Aurora Leigh, a novel in verse that addresses issues such as women’s rights and social reform.

Literary Achievements

Browning’s work received critical acclaim and widespread popularity. She became one of the most respected poets of her time, admired by contemporaries such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. Her ability to convey deep emotion and complex social issues through her writing earned her a lasting place in the literary canon.

Health Struggles and Suggested ME/CFS Diagnosis

Chronic Illness and Symptoms

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning suffered from various ailments, including chronic pain, severe fatigue, and respiratory issues. These symptoms are consistent with what we now understand as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). While CFS was not a recognized medical condition in the 19th century, modern interpretations of her symptoms suggest that Browning may have been afflicted by this debilitating illness.

Impact on Daily Life and Work

Browning’s chronic illness significantly impacted her daily life. She spent much of her time confined to her room, relying on her family for care and support. Despite these limitations, she continued to write and produce some of her most enduring works. Her resilience in the face of illness is a testament to her strength and dedication to her craft.

Marriage to Robert Browning and Relocation to Italy

A Literary Romance

Elizabeth Barrett’s life took a dramatic turn when she began corresponding with fellow poet Robert Browning in 1845. Their courtship, conducted largely through letters, is one of the most famous literary romances in history. The couple married secretly in 1846, defying Elizabeth’s overprotective father, and soon after relocated to Italy.

Life in Italy

The move to Italy had a positive impact on Elizabeth’s health. The warmer climate and change of environment seemed to alleviate some of her symptoms. During this time, she continued to write, producing significant works such as Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh. Her time in Italy was marked by both personal and professional growth, despite her ongoing health struggles.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Legacy

Influence on Literature

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry has had a lasting impact on literature. Her exploration of social and political themes, combined with her expressive and emotional style, influenced many writers who followed. She is often considered a precursor to modern feminist writers due to her advocacy for women’s rights and social justice.

Continued Relevance

Browning’s work continues to be studied and admired for its literary merit and historical significance. Her life story, marked by both remarkable achievements and profound health challenges, serves as an inspiration to many. The suggestion that she may have suffered from CFS adds a layer of complexity to her legacy, highlighting the enduring relevance of her experiences in contemporary discussions about chronic illness and resilience.

Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Insights from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Life

Adapting to Limitations

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life demonstrates the importance of adapting to limitations imposed by chronic illness. Despite her health struggles, she found ways to continue her creative work, often writing from her bed. Her ability to produce profound and influential poetry while coping with chronic illness is a testament to her determination and resilience.

Maintaining a Positive Outlook

Browning’s correspondence and poetry often reflect a positive outlook and a deep sense of empathy for others. Her marriage to Robert Browning and their life in Italy provided her with emotional support and stability, which undoubtedly contributed to her ability to continue working despite her illness. Her story underscores the importance of support networks and maintaining a hopeful perspective.


What led to the suggestion that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had chronic fatigue syndrome?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning exhibited symptoms consistent with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), including severe fatigue, chronic pain, and respiratory issues. Modern interpretations of her symptoms suggest that she may have been afflicted by CFS.

How did Elizabeth Barrett Browning manage her chronic illness?

Browning managed her chronic illness by adapting her lifestyle to accommodate her limitations. She spent much of her time confined to her room and relied on her family and later her husband for care and support. Despite these challenges, she continued to write and produce significant literary works.

What are the main symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome?

The main symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) include severe fatigue, post-exertional malaise, sleep problems, cognitive difficulties, muscle and joint pain, headaches, and recurring sore throat and tender lymph nodes.

Can chronic fatigue syndrome be cured?

There is currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), but symptoms can be managed effectively through a combination of treatments and lifestyle modifications. Research continues to seek better understanding and effective treatments for the condition.

How has Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s openness about her health struggles impacted public awareness?

While Elizabeth Barrett Browning did not openly discuss her health struggles in the context of CFS, her documented symptoms and the challenges she faced have contributed to modern discussions about chronic illness. Her story helps to foster greater understanding and empathy for those living with conditions like CFS.

What lifestyle changes did Elizabeth Barrett Browning make to manage her health?

Browning adapted her lifestyle by prioritizing rest and creating a supportive environment for her work. She continued to write despite her limitations, often composing poetry from her bed. Her move to Italy also contributed positively to her health, providing a warmer climate that alleviated some of her symptoms.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s journey with chronic illness highlights her remarkable resilience and determination. Despite facing significant health challenges that may have included chronic fatigue syndrome, she continued to produce profound and influential poetry. Through her life and work, Browning has left an enduring legacy that continues to inspire and resonate with those facing similar struggles. Her story underscores the importance of perseverance, support, and maintaining a positive outlook in the face of adversity.


No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *