Behind the Scenes of The Swan’s Nest

Hi, I’m Laura McNeal, and this is my dog, Cecil, and my historical novel about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Swan’s Nest, which will be published March 12 by Algonquin. The novel was inspired by my discovery that Elizabeth Barrett, her dog, and her couch lived a life right out of a Valentine. Follow along with me as I tell one of literature’s most romantic stories on the year’s most romantic day.

This is a sketch of Elizabeth Barrett by one of her eight brothers, Alfred. He shows her on her couch, holding her dog, Flush, who kept her company during years of illness, during which, on this couch, she was writing poems, taking doses of opium to sleep, and trying to avoid lung infections. In a burst of inspiration, she wrote a poem that praised her favorite poet, Robert Browning, who had recently received humiliating reviews. I used sketches and paintings to imagine Elizabeth’s family and learn more about their daily lives.

Robert Browning was in Italy when Elizabeth Barrett’s book praising his genius appeared. He didn’t see it for four months. He was so overcome with gratitude when he saw what a famous, wealthy “hermitess” had written about him that he wrote her a wildly passionate letter. He said he loved her poems with all his heart, and he loved her, too. I looked at many drawings of Robert—especially the one Elizabeth had cut out of a book—when I was writing The Swan’s Nest, and studied many sketches by his sister, Sarianna, who became a major character in the book.

This is the love letter Robert Browning sent Elizabeth Barrett—a stranger–on January 10, 1845. It was followed by months of equally passionate, devoted letters, which over time convinced Elizabeth to let him come upstairs and meet her. She told him, in her own letters, that he MUST stop saying he loved her. I went to Wellesley College, which owns the love letters, to read them in person and see the wax seals, stamps, and notations. I discovered the letters are much smaller than I imagined, which made them easier to carry and deliver.

This is Elizabeth Barrett’s couch, now displayed in the Brownings’ apartment in Florence, Italy, where Robert proved he meant every word he said in his letters. In Florence, Elizabeth recovered her health enough to carry a baby to term. Her dog thrived there, too, and happily trotted all over the neighborhood. When I spent a long weekend in the museum-shrine, I sat (very carefully) on the Sacred Couch and informed our sons they must preserve the couch where I read their father’s love letters . . . so far, though, they just eat salty snacks on it. 

Elizabeth tried to suppress her love for Robert, which she felt she couldn’t articulate in her letters. She put her deepest feelings into a sequence of sonnets instead, and hid them for a long time even after they were married. This one, #43, is in the British Library and has launched thousands of valentines, songs by Yoko Ono and Tanya Tucker, a sex manual, an episode of Cheers, a Jeopardy question, and a BMW commercial. Though everyone knows the first line—”How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”— my favorite is “I love thee to the level of every day’s / most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.”

Read the full poem at this link.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll pre-order The Swan’s Nest for your valentine (or yourself), and read it with a dog on your favorite couch.