Fiona Sampson’s new biography has nine chapters, or “books”—in imitation of her subject Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s masterpiece, Aurora Leigh (1856). At the top of the ninth, Sampson writes: “Now things begin to speed up.” To which the reader replies, “At last!” After the somnolent pace of the preceding chapters of Two-Way Mirror, this one downright hums. It covers the final eight years (1853–1861) of Barrett Browning’s eminently Victorian life, a period in which she wrote and published her verse novel to wide acclaim, dallied with séances, watched Robert Browning rise in literary esteem, bore the vicissitudes of Italy’s struggle for independence, and mourned the successive losses of her beloved spaniel, her estranged father, and her former mentor Mary Russell Mitford. By the time we get...


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