Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sisters In Opium: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Louisa May Alcott

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, radiant opium addict.
“I am writing such poems - allegorical - philosophical - poetical - ethical - synthetically arranged! I am in a fit of writing - could write all day & night - and long to live by myself for three months in a forest of chestnuts & cedars, in an hourly succession of poetical paragraphs & morphine draughts.” - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to her brother, 1843.

“Opium - opium - night after night!” - Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“Heaven bless hashish, if dreams end like this!” - Louisa May Alcott, Perilous Play (1869).

Of delicate constitution to begin with, Elizabeth Barrett Browning began using opium when she was fifteen to treat the pain from a spinal injury complicated by “nervous hysteria.”

According to Althea Hayter, EBB’s poem, A True Dream (1833), “it is almost a case-book list of opium-inspired imagery, with its slimy, glittering snakes, its stoney face, its poisonous kisses, its rainbow smoke, its breaths of icy cold.”

EBB’s second major illness occurred in 1837, enduring for ten years. It affected her heart and lungs, and required more of the era’s standard medication for everything; By the time she began corresponding with Robert Browning in 1845, she was using forty drops of laudanum a day, a massive, advanced dosage for an addict.

Browning was not happy about her opium habit. She defended her use of it to him in a letter.

“My opium comes in to keep the pulse from fluttering and give the right composure and point of balance to the nervous system. I don’t take it for ‘my spirits’ in the usual sense; you must not think such a thing.”

Browning’s concern, apparently, deepened; she wrote to him a few months later with great intensity.

“And that you should care so much about the opium! Then I must care, and get to do with less - at least. On the other side of your goodness and indulgence (a very little way on the other side) it might strike you as strange that I who have had no pain - no acute suffering to keep down from its angles - should need opium in any shape. But I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad: at one time I lost the power f sleeping quite - and even in the day, the continual aching sense of weakness has been intolerable - besides palpitation - as if one’s life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me opium - a preparation of it, called morphine, and ether - and ever since I have been calling it my amreeta draught, my elixer - because the tranquilizing power has been wonderful. Such a nervous system I have - so irritable naturally, and so shattered by various causes, that the need has continued in a degree until now, and it would be dangerous to leave off the calming remedy, Mr. Jago says, except very slowly and gradually. But slowly and gradually something may be done - and you are to understand that I never increased upon the prescribed quantity...prescribed in the first instance - no!”

She protests too much; “I don’t take it for ‘my spirits’ in the usual sense; you must not think such a thing.” No, she doesn’t take it to get high, merely to forestall withdrawal symptoms. Unlikely. She lies about her increasing tolerance and necessary dose: Forty drops of laudanum a day is enough to kill a horse; a doctor would never, under any circumstances, prescribe such a huge quantity of the drug to someone just beginning its use.

This is someone who clearly loves her drug.

EBB’s opium addiction was not well known to her contemporaries. Or , as Palmer and Horowitz suggest, it “was not considered remarkable enough to warrant their attention.” It did attract the attention of Julia Ward Howe, who, in 1857, asserted that Mrs. Browning’s poetic imagination was dependent upon opium.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, post-addiction.
The thrill is gone.


Louisa May Alcott began using morphine to ease the after-effects of typhoid fever contracted during service as a nurse during the Civil War. She cannot have been happy about it: The Alcotts followed the Beecher's condemnation of alcohol, opium preparations, and tobacco.

Indeed, Alcott and Catherine Beecher, in The American Women’s Home (1869), a revision of A Treatise on Domestic Economy originally written solely by Beecher in 1841, state that

“The use of opium, especially by women, is usually caused by at first by medical prescriptions containing it. All that has been stated as to the effect of alcohol in the brain is true of opium; while to break a habit thus is almost hopeless. Every woman who takes or who administers this drug, is dealing as with poisoned arrows, whose wounds are without cure.”

(Alcott believed, as did the entire Beecher family, that pure water cured all).

Alcott likely experimented with hashish; it did not bear the stigma of opium.

The Alcott-Beecher collaboration was written at the time, or very close to it, that Alcott began to use opium. She was convinced her post-typhoid ailments were the result of treatment with calomel, the mercury-based, highly toxic anodyne in routine use at the time; opium eased the discomfort of its side-effects. Alcott knew the evils of the opium habit (addiction was a concept unknown in the 19th century), and her stance on the subject made it a moral issue.

That she continued to use it intermittently for the rest of her life is documented. She surely must have felt moral guilt. I suspect that she was actually a full-blown addict as we understand addiction today, her ongoing ailments having less to do with pathology than with withdrawal sickness and the difficulty of ever getting off the drug once and for all and feeling %100 right.

Alcott was a strong woman. She was the primary breadwinner for her family, a work horse, the family’s strength and caregiver. Who cares for the caregiver? She was a successful writer who disdained the works that brought her fame and prosperity, the lurid writing she loved was not commercially successful, and her private self and public image were radically dissonant. She carried the caregiver's enormous burden, exacerbated by ongoing, profound grief over the death of her parents, brother and two sisters. She, to a large degree, put her own needs second to others. She was not a complainer; she held frustrations inside. The one romantic relationship in her life ended poorly. She enjoyed mental stimulation where she found it, was a rebellious spirit, willful, and independent. She experienced a long period of profound depression; some have suggested that she may have been bi-polar. She experienced profound mental and physical pain.

She, in short, fit the profile for a potential drug abuser.

Louisa May Alcott in later life.

She surely would have gone to great lengths to hide her opium use, particularly as she grew older and her health began to break down (the result of long-term addiction?). In every early portrait or photograph of her she is not smiling, her eyes are open and dull. In a photo of her in her later years, her eyes are sunken and hooded, and her features are drawn. Yet her eyes gleam and she bears a Mona Lisa smile. It is the portrait of an opiate addict.

Louisa May Alcott died of intestinal cancer; she was undoubtedly using morphine - which by then had supplanted laudanum as the preferred opiate - in massive doses to ease her discomfort.

While there is little doubt that EBB’s work through 1848 was influenced by her use of opium, it was not overwhelmed by it. There is also little doubt that LMA’s writing was most certainly not.

These two sisters in opium were successful writers in spite of their addiction to opiates, not because of of their use of them. Talent, will, and strong work ethic triumph over the drug - until addiction completely takes over everything. That has been the case with every celebrated artist-addict.

It is unfortunate that every generation has to learn this lesson. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and William S. Burroughs have, in their fashion, been the bane of artist-writers, who, seeking to emulate their literary heroes, presume that if they use drugs, too, then they shall be similarly gifted, have the doors of perception open up to them and allow expression of the ineffable.

The only thing unspeakable is that too many continue to believe this fantasy.


The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1945-1846. Edited by Elvan Kinter. (Harvard University Press, 1969).

Hayter, Althea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. (University of California Press, 1968.

Palmer, Cynthia and Michael Horowitz. eds. Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women’s Writings on the Drug Experience. (William Morrow, 1982).

Stern, Madeleine B. L.M. Alcott: Signature of Reform. (Northeastern University Press, 2002).

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