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The Barretts of Wimpole Street

The Barretts of Wimpole Street(1957)


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In 1840s London, tyrannical widower Edward Barrett dominates the lives of his nine adult children, forbidding them to court or marry. The eldest daughter and Barrett's favorite, Elizabeth, is an aspiring poet who has been bedridden from a lingering case of rheumatic fever. Waited on by her maid Wilson, Elizabeth has been isolated with her devoted dog Flush in an upstairs room in the family's home on Wimpole Street for several years. Despite her weakness, Elizabeth draws encouragement from fellow poet Robert Browning, with whom she has been corresponding for some time. One winter evening, when Elizabeth's brother George defends Elizabeth's right to refuse the porter, a strong alcoholic beverage Barrett has prescribed, Barrett threatens to force his son out of the house and the family business if he questions his father's authority. After ordering the others out, Barrett's anger grows, weakening Elizabeth's resolve. As she drinks the porter, Barrett seems to relish in his daughter's physical decline and mental submission. The next day, Elizabeth's sister Henrietta secretly meets with Captain Surtees Cook, a guardsman seeking her affections. Surtees is intent on asking Barrett for Henrietta's hand in marriage, but Henrietta refuses, knowing her father's reply. Later that day, Henrietta is asked by her cousin Bella to be a bridesmaid in Bella's wedding. Their father's interest in Bella's flirtatious behavior and his consent to allow Henrietta to attend the ceremony surprises the Barrett siblings. Henrietta is distraught that she will not have her own wedding and confesses her love for Surtees to Elizabeth. Elizabeth tries to comfort Henrietta by explaining how she has overcome her confinement through reading Robert's letters, despite having never met him. At that moment, Robert arrives at the house seeking to finally meet Elizabeth. Blushing with excitement, Elizabeth receives the visitor in her room. Robert rushes to her side, asserting that he already knows her from the vivid descriptions in her verse. After sharing their admiration for each other's work, Elizabeth discusses her terminal prognosis, but Robert insists that Elizabeth's ailment is a "fear of life" and professes his love for her. When Elizabeth forbids him to speak of love if they are to continue their friendship, Robert agrees to her terms but insists on continuing his visits. After Robert leaves the house, Elizabeth manages to pull herself across the room to catch a glimpse of him through the window. By the following Spring, inspired by Robert's affections, Elizabeth fully recovers her ability to walk. After her doctors advise her to spend the following winter in Italy, Elizabeth insists on walking downstairs to share the news with Robert, who is waiting in the parlor. Robert is overjoyed by her improvement and makes plans to winter in Italy as well. As Elizabeth attempts to return upstairs, however, Barrett insists she is overestimating her strength and continues to taunt her until she faints. After carrying her to her room, Barrett forbids Elizabeth to go to Italy, calling her selfish for suggesting the separation from him. Later in the Fall, during one of his visits to the house, Robert argues that Elizabeth's conception of fatherly devotion is actually venegeful oppression. He begs Elizabeth to marry him and leave Barrett. When she refuses, claiming there is no future with her, Robert declares that he is happy to spend his life trying to "attain the richest prize a man was ever offered." One evening during Barrett's absence, when the siblings join Elizabeth at the piano to sing a family favorite, they receive a note from Barrett informing them that they will all be moving to a new country home to avoid any more reckless and morally reprehensible behavior. Elizabeth meets with Robert later and confides that her father is threatened by of her recovery. When Robert suggests that they elope to Italy, Elizabeth is overwhelmed by the proposal. She believes her illness will be a burden to their future, but Robert is ready to risk everything for her happiness. That evening, after Elizabeth optimistically advises Henrietta and Surtees to continue with their plans for marriage, Barrett unexpectedly arrives home and orders Surtees to leave. Barrett accuses Henrietta of indiscretions with the guardsman and twists her arm until she admits that she loves him. He then forces Henrietta to swear on her mother's bible that she will never see Surtees again. As Henrietta leaves the room, Elizabeth reminds her of the earlier advice, prompting Barrett to question Elizabeth about it. Elizabeth tells Barrett that one must "fight for one's happiness." Within days, Robert and Elizabeth confirm their plans to elope. Soon after, Barrett corners Elizabeth alone in her room and chastises her for directing her attentions to someone other than him. As his wrath escalates, he pulls Elizabeth into an amorous embrace, causing Elizabeth to finally understand that his horrific behavior is unnatural. Resolved to leave that evening in order to save herself, Elizabeth flees the house with Wilson while the family dines. The family finds a note left by Elizabeth explaining her plans. When Barrett orders the children to destroy Flush in retaliation, they discover that the dog is safe with his mistress. Elizabeth and Robert marry that evening and move to Italy to enjoy their love.