You couldn't make this stuff up... well, maybe you could, but strictly for the Harlequin Romance market. Famous poet and man about London Robert Browning reads a poem by Elizabeth Barrett, a girl he never met... mainly because nobody else ever did either, since she lives in her bedroom in Emily Dickinson-style seclusion, in her case as an invalid, lifelong victim of some Victorianly-obscure wasting disease, under the care of a tyrannically possessive, somewhat demented father... and falls in love with her at long distance. Being who he is, Browning manages to wangle an interview, then further meetings, until, inevitably, he and this strange, ethereally beautiful (in Browning's eyes, at least) bedridden woman, six years his senior, fall in love. Browning knows he must spirit this creature away and possess her for his own, a challenge for which he must enlist the assistance of others of her (not entirely unsympathetic) family members, because of the father. Barrett senior, it seems, descended from a family of West Indian plantation owners, is possessed of the notion that none of his offspring should ever marry. The reason: he suspects his bloodline to be tainted by the tarbrush of slave ancestry somewhere along the line, and therefore not fit to be perpetuated.
Not to be so easily put off, Browning arranges an abduction/elopement, spiriting "Ba" (his pet name for Elizabeth) out of the paternal tower in which she has been imprisoned for years, gets the two of them married on the fly before her father even tumbles to what has happened, and the couple decamp to Italy and the British expat community there, where they continue to spout poetry while living happily ever after, becoming in due time the darlings of the international high cultural set, Elizabeth even managing to have a darling son at age 43. Or approximately ever after. They did have some score of good years together, until Ba, who really was ill with something, finally died at age sixty, and her heartbroken husband took their son back to be educated in England and never married again.
The kicker here, though, comes after the Brownings have been living some months of connubial bliss in Italy, when Robert happens to discover a secret collection of beautiful love sonnets among his wife's personal effects, and asks her what they might be. She confesses to him that during those months of meetings in her Wimpole Street bedroom, when all they did was talk, she had secretly fallen in love with him already, and was consoling her fantasies during his absences by writing secret love poems to him. Browning was flabbergasted, insisting that she ought to publish. The poems are indeed beautiful, thought by some to be EBB's best work, the most famous among them being the one that includes the lines "How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways..." Ba resists; for her, the poetry is too personal to expose to the public gaze. Robert comes up, accordingly, with a solution. Publish under a pseudonym or false title, one artfully chosen to misdirect authorship from herself, at least for awhile.
As it happens, EBB was herself somewhat dark and exotic in appearance. The tarbrush, perhaps? Whatever the case, another pet name of Robert's for her was, accordingly, "Portugese." Ultimately, they decided to publish the collection under EBB's name, but as "Sonnets From the Portugese," the implication being that the poems were not authored by EBB, but merely translated from a foreign tongue. The ploy worked, more or less, and the rest is history.
EBB's poetry shows great talent and flair, her perhaps most ambitious work being an experimental novel,"Aurora Leigh," written entirely in poetic verse. It is not a complete success, not because the poetry was bad; it isn't. Rather, a reading will show that there are some aspects of novel plot construction that are bound to present problems that the poetic tool kit simply lacks the appropriate tools to overcome. "Sonnets From the Portugese," however, is a perfect poetic gem.