Eliza Ogilvy ~ Poet and Letter Writer

In April 1847 the newly married poets Elizabeth and Robert Browning came to join the substantial group of English people living in Florence, Italy. It was whilst in Italy that they both wrote some of the greatest poetry of the Victorian age. They would stay in Florence for 14 years until Elizabeth’s death in 1861. In Florence the Brownings rented an apartment in Palazzo Guidi, that Elizabeth Browning fondly named Casa Guidi. The apartment is now in the hands of Eton College who with the Landmark Trust have restored all the rooms. Within Robert Browning’s study at Casa Guidi (in which he wrote his first successful work – ‘Men and Women’) a marble bust of a woman can be seen on display. This woman was a Scot from Perthshire, Eliza Ann Harris Dick Ogilvy a Victorian poet who along with her husband David resided in rooms a floor above the Brownings for several years.

Eliza Ogilvy the daughter of Abercromby Dick (1794-1879) and Louisa Wintle (1796-1870) was born in Perth on January 6 1822. Her grandfather Dr. William Dick was Chief Surgeon to the East India Corporation in Calcutta. Eliza and her sister Charlotte travelled out in 1838 to stay with him, not returning to Perthshire until 1841. Outside her substantial body of work little would be known of Eliza Ogilvy if it had not been that in November 1971 some letters of Elizabeth Browning appeared for sale at Sotherbys in London. These letters, written to Eliza between 1849 and 1861 were put up by one of her grandchildren. The Browning Institute managed to purchase all of this correspondence and as a result of the subsequent media interest another grandchild came forward with additional letters. In all 39 letters came into the public domain, their text being published in 1973.1 The originals themselves are in the Eton College Library.

The Ogilvys first met the Brownings in Florence through an introduction by the latter’s cousin Mrs Martin Lindsay. The consequent friendship between the two women would last until Elizabeth Browning’s death. During these years the families would holiday together in Bagni di Lurca, Paris and Venice. In July 1848 with their two-year-old daughter Louisa, the Ogilvys settled in Florence. Eliza after marrying David Ogilvy on July 6 1843 would give birth to seven children, Rose Theresa Charlotte (1844-1845), Louisa Mary (1846-1870), Alexander William (1848-1887), Marcia Napier (1850-1940), Walter Tulliedeph (1852-1927), Angus (1855-1928) and Violet Isabel (1857-1954).

As a poet Eliza Ogilvy is today found in anthologies of Victorian women’s writing and is considered as having a strong degree of popularity for that period.

“A lady better known as E.A.H.O. than by her full name, and recognised as a writer of clever stories and able criticisms, as well as spirited poems.”

Camilla Crosland – contemporary of Eliza Ogilvy and writer.

Amongst her published works are ‘A Book of Highland Minstrelsy’ (1846),‘Traditions of Tuscany in Verse’ (1851), ‘Poems of Ten Years’ (1856) and‘Sunday Acrostics, Selected from names or words in the Bible’ (1867). These published poems encompass themes ranging from the human condition through to history, art and political events with which Eliza Ogilvy was concerned such as the Crimean War. She also published two personal recollections of her friend Elizabeth Browning. Her most notable poems are:

The Vigil of the Dead
A Natal Address to my Child. March 19th 1844.
Newly Dead and Newly Born
Grannie’s Birthday
Allan Water.

“And am I really then thy Mother?
My very child I cannot doubt thee,
Rememb’ring all the fuss and bother
And moans and groans I made about thee!”

A Natal Address to My Child (March 19th 1844).

“By touch and sight, and fine-edged ear,
To certify its thriving,
Then cry O death, go with that bier,
And leave this life surviving.”

Newly dead and Newly born.

In 1850 the Ogilvys left for a visit to Naples and thence onto Perth, Peckham Rye, Lower Sydenham and Forfarshire. Throughout this period letters went back and forward between the two poets. After David Ogilvy died in 1879 Eliza moved to Bridge of Allan to stay at her father’s home. Here she resided until 1900 where she moved with her daughter Marcia to London. She died on January 3, 1912 in Ealing. Increasing poor sight and eventual blindness marred the last years of her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letters to Mrs David Ogilvy, 1849-1861, edited by Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times and the Browning Institute).