Aurora Leigh blends the genres of poetry and the novel and is, at the same time, a bildungsroman (a novel that traces the development of a young person to maturity) or, more properly, a Künstlerroman, in which a young artist struggles to create an artistic identity despite adverse conditions. The work is innovative both in its blend of poetry and the novel form and in its focus on a woman as an artist.
As befitting a developmental novelist, Elizabeth Barrett Browning proceeds chronologically, from Aurora’s childhood in Italy to her triumph as a mature artist. The child of a British father and an Italian mother, who dies when Aurora is only four years old, she grows up bereft of maternal nurturing, which she pursues throughout her life. Her sorrowing father leaves Aurora to the care of a servant until his own death when she is thirteen. She is whisked away to “frosty” England, in contrast to the “green reconciling earth” of Italy, the latter country being, in all senses, her “motherland.” She is placed with her father’s sister, who lives a “caged life,” a life which, in turn, encases Aurora. Her education now emphasizes useless facts and accomplishments such as “spinning glass” and the need to be “womanly,” or submissive, as her aunt defines it. Aurora befriends her cousin, Romney Leigh, master of Leigh Hall, only a few years older than she. She escapes into her father’s stored library and discovers poetry, finding her life’s work by beginning to write poetry and to receive inspiration from England’s natural world.
The narrative distance of book 1, which recalls Aurora’s childhood, yields to the immediacy of the focus in book 2 on her twentieth birthday, a beautiful June day. Thrilled with her life among poets, Aurora crowns herself with ivy leaves and is embarrassed to be discovered by Romney, who is amused at her pretension. He has come to propose marriage (without any mention of love) because he assumes she will join him in his dedication to solving the problems of the poor. He derides her poetic ambitions and prophesies failure since, as a woman, she cannot “generalize.” Women are “personal and passionate,” fit to be “doting mothers and perfect wives.” She refuses his offer by saying, “What you love,/ Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause.” The two have contrasting views on bettering humanity. Romney wants to extend personal charity or espouse one of the current social schemes, such as that proposed by Charles Fourier (a system based on cooperation rather than on capitalism). Aurora insists that reform must come from within the individual and that “high-souled men . . . move masses.” While poetry has excited her, he offers her only the chance to “sweep my barns and keep my hospitals.” When her aunt dies shortly afterward, Aurora refuses a “bequest” that Romney invents, leaving for London to ensure independence in pursuing her career.
As book 3 opens, three years have passed, and Aurora has found lodging in Kensington, supporting herself with freelance prose writing. Lady Waldemar calls to enlist Aurora’s aid in diverting Romney’s plan to marry a seamstress, Marian Erle. Waldemar plans to marry Romney herself and insists that his gracious effort to save Marian from poverty will demean him. Aurora refuses to interfere and decides to visit Marian, allowing Barrett Browning to give her readers a glimpse of the wretched conditions that the poor endured. As the reader progresses into book 4, Marian describes her miserable past and her rescue by Romney; she is totally indebted to him and willing to be his “handmaid and wife.” Romney still scorns love and insists that he and Marian will be partners in his work.
Aurora interrupts the narrative for a novelistic foreshadowing of events, regretting that she did not protect Marian or advance the wedding. In this way, Barrett Browning builds suspense for further developments. When the actual wedding day arrives, the reader gets a glimpse of hell, both in the author’s description of the mob attending the wedding and of the languid upper-class guests gossiping about the mismatched couple. A riot breaks out with the announcement that Marian will not appear; Marian has sent Romney a letter explaining that she has become convinced (through her conversations with Lady Waldemar) that their marriage will...
(The entire section is 1785 words.)