Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The following entry presents criticism of Browning's poem Aurora Leigh (1857). See also, Elizabeth Barrett Browning Criticism.
Regarded by contemporary and recent critics as one of the most notable female poets in Western literature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh at the height of her literary career, and the poem is deemed her masterwork in terms of poetics and narrative. Part autobiography and part social criticism, the poem traces the life of an Englishwoman and poet, Aurora Leigh, and is frequently cited as a proto-feminist treatise for its portrayal of difficulties arising for female characters from traditional values and practices of English society. Browning's innovative use of genre, self-reference, and feminine perspective make Aurora Leigh a landmark of nineteenth-century literature.
Browning had planned to write a novel in blank verse as early as 1845, and had proposed that the subject would be a critical narrative of ordinary English life. At the time of Aurora Leigh's publication in 1857, Browning, supported by her friendship and eventual marriage to Robert Browning in September of 1846, had recovered from a long period of poor health, family catastrophes, and isolation. In 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during her courtship with Browning, had been published to popular acclaim, and her reputation as a poet, especially of sentimental works, had grown. A son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, had been born to the couple in 1849, and this seems to have rejuvenated Browning's artistic endeavors. The Brownings began to travel extensively and became involved in politics on the Continent; Barrett Browning subsequently expressed in Aurora Leigh a concern with social issues, particularly the rights of women and the poor, and revealed her familiarity with European and classical literature as well. Aurora Leigh, published in 1857, was the most successful of Browning's works from a commercial standpoint: the book had gone through nineteen editions by 1885.
Plot and Major Characters
A "novel in verse," as Coventry Patmore called it, Aurora Leigh follows the life of its heroine through her birth and childhood in Italy, intellectual development, literary career, and personal relationships. At a young age, Aurora Leigh resists the conventional and complacent English values imposed on her by a maiden aunt who cares for her after the death of her parents, and she discovers the pleasures of literature. Her early creative compositions stir her ambitions to support herself through a poetic career, and in time she becomes moderately successful in London literary circles. In the process of accomplishing this, Aurora rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin Romney Leigh, a wealthy philanthropist and owner of the family estate, who soon rescues a young woman named Marian Erle from poverty. The growing attachment between Romney and Marian is severed, however, by the unscrupulous Lady Waldemar, who is herself in love with Romney. Lady Waldemar contributes to Marian's disappearance from London and her reappearance in a Paris brothel, where Marian is sexually assaulted and bears a child. Aurora, on her way to Italy, recognizes Marian in Paris and takes her and her child to Florence. When Romney's socialist Utopian community disastrously fails, he acknowledges the emptiness and hypocrisy of conventional methods of philanthropy, and travels to Florence. After a series of misunderstandings in which Aurora believes Romney has already wed Lady Waldemar, Romney once again asks Aurora to marry him. This she does, recognizing that art needs to be aided by love and partnership in the process of self-realization.
Browning addressed several major social issues in the narrative of Aurora Leigh—the relationship between art and individual self-fulfillment, the issue of class politics, and the issue of gender roles. The work suggests that individual freedom, regardless of class or gender, allows for inner development and the cultivation of creativity and inspiration. However, the novel-poem shows sensitivity to other aspects of the creative process, such as the background to the production of any artistic work and the source of creativity in turmoil and conflict. Furthermore, Aurora Leigh intricately weaves the political implications of Browning's own strong individualism and her emphasis on the actualization of one's life's work into Aurora Leigh's struggle to find her place, as a woman poet, in the traditional social order found in the poem. In addition, the work focuses on the institutionalized sexism and classicism of the Victorian age, and directs its severest criticism at conventional philanthropy as hypocritical and paternalistic. Also, Aurora Leigh depicts, through the character of Marian Erle, the horrific consequences of the abuse and neglect suffered by the poor—particularly poor women. The subplot of Marian and her child also censures the Victorian tendency to reject those who have been sexually attacked, and argues for greater concern for and treatment of the innocent victims.
Despite its tremendous popular success, Aurora Leigh received mixed reactions from contemporary critics. Many, in addition to calling it immoral, found fault with its characterization, plot, and language; others, however, found the work proof of Browning's "poetic genius." The poem was largely neglected by subsequent critics until the early 1930s, when Virginia Woolf s enthusiastic article on the poem was published. The emergence of feminist criticism helped spark renewed interest in the work, although Aurora Leigh is not unanimously accepted as a precursor to modern feminism. Commenting on the poem's conclusion in particular, many feminist critics have regarded Aurora's acceptance of marriage as the beginning of her loss of independence. Others have found in the ending a radical deviation from traditional nineteenth-century thought—instead of losing her independence through marriage, Aurora gains a rewarding and satisfying life through the blending of her artistic achievement with the love and partnership of another. According to several twentieth-century critics, this innovation is echoed in Browning's style: although contemporary reviewers criticized her unconventional poetic tendencies, more recent scholars consider her style to be innovative. Altogether, Aurora Leigh illuminates both Browning's artistic strengths and her weaknesses: she is praised for her ability to express passionate emotion, yet she is criticized for choosing such an abstract topic for Aurora Leigh as her "highest convictions upon Life and Art." She is commended for her lyrical tone and innovative use of imagery, yet she is criticized for her verbose style, improbable plot, and unrealistic characters. In light of fervent endorsements of the poem by such literary figures as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, Aurora Leigh is generally judged to be a masterwork with noticeable flaws and remains highly significant to contemporary literary historians and critics.
SOURCE: Review of Aurora Leigh, in The Athenaeum, No. 1517, November 22, 1856, pp. 1425-7.
[In this review, Chorley praises Browning's style and intent but claims that the plot of Aurora Leigh is "in its argument unnatural, and in its form infelicitous."]
Our best living English poetess—our greatest English poetess of any time—has essayed in Aurora Leigh to blend the epic with the didactic novel. The medium in which the story floats is that impassioned language—spotted and flowered with the imagery suggested by fancy or stored up by learning,—which has given the verse of Mrs. Browning a more fiery acceptance from the young and spiritual, and her name a higher renown than any woman has heretofore gained.
We dwell on the sex of the author of Aurora Leigh in no disrespectful spirit of comparison, but simply because to overlook it is rendered impossible by the poetess herself. Aurora Leigh, into which she says "have entered her highest convictions upon Life and Art," is her contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation, which Woman is now raising, in hope of gaining the due place and sympathy which, it is held, have been denied to her since the days when Man was created, the first of the pair in Eden. Who can quarrel with the intent? Who would silence any struggle made by those who fancy themselves desolate,...
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SOURCE: "Mrs. Browning's Poems" in North British Review, Vol. XXVI, No. LII, November 1856—February 1857, pp. 443-62.
[In the following excerpt, Patmore gives a mixed review of Aurora Leigh, summarizing the "novel in verse" and assessing the poetic imagery as it advances Browning's opinions on life and art.]
Aurora Leigh is the latest, and Mrs. Browning tells us, in the dedication, "the most mature" of her works; the one into which her "highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered." It was not well judged to prejudice the reader, at the very outset, with the inevitable doubt, "Is a poem the right place for 'highest convictions upon Life and Art?'" This poem is two thousand lines longer than "Paradise Lost." We do not know how to describe it better than by saying that it is a novel in verse,—a novel of the modern didactic species, written chiefly for the advocacy of distinct "convictions upon Life and Art." If poetry ought to consist only of "thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers," a very large portion of this work ought unquestionably to have been in prose. But the question seems open to discussion, and we give Mrs. Browning the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the chief misfortune for the poem is, that there may always be two opinions on all "convictions upon Life and Art." For example, we ourselves dissent altogether from certain of the views advocated. We think...
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SOURCE: "Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh" in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LXXXI, No. CCCCXCV, January, 1857, pp. 23-41.
[In the following excerpt, Aytoun summarizes the plot of Aurora Leigh and gives it a mixed assessment; he criticizes some of the book's themes while admiring Browning's poetic style.]
For the application of his gifts, every author is responsible. He may exercise them well and usefully, or he may apply them to ignoble purposes. He may, by the aid of art, exhibit them in the most attractive form, or his execution may be mean and slovenly. In the one case he is deserving of praise; in the other he is liable to censure. Keeping this principle in view, we shall proceed to the consideration of this new volume from the pen of Mrs. Browning,—a lady whose rare genius has already won for her an exalted place among the poets of the age. Endowed with a powerful intellect, she at least has no reason to anticipate the treatment prophesied for her literary heroine, Aurora:—
You never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women when they judge a book
Not as men's work, but as mere woman's work,
Expressing the comparative respect
Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent!
What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!
What delicate discernment—almost...
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SOURCE: Review of Aurora Leigh, in Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. XI, No. 1, January, 1857, pp. 306-10.
[In the following excerpt, Eliot praises Aurora Leigh's emotive power, claiming that it is Browning's infusion of "genuine thought and feeling" that distinguishes the work from those of her contemporaries.]
Foster, the essayist, has somewhere said that the person who interests us most is the one that most gives us the idea of ample being. Applying this remark to books, which are but persons in a transmigrated form, we discern one grand source of the profound impression produced in us by Aurora Leigh1. Other poems of our own day may have higher finish, or a higher degree of certain poetic qualities; but no poem embraces so wide a range of thought and emotion, or takes such complete possession of our nature. Mrs. Browning is, perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex; which superadds to masculine vigour, breadth, and culture, feminine subtlety of perception, feminine quickness of sensibility, and feminine tenderness. It is difficult to point to a woman of genius who is not either too little feminine, or too exclusively so. But in this, her longest and greatest poem, Mrs. Browning has shown herself all the greater poet because she is intensely a poetess.
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SOURCE: "Aurora Leigh," in The National Review, Vol. 4, No. VIII, April, 1857, pp. 239-67.
[In the following excerpt, Roscoe claims that Aurora Leigh shows great poetic promise, but faults its excessive length, finding the work filled with unnecessary detail and its characters vague and indistinct.]
If we rightly understand her, [Elizabeth Parrett Browning] tells us that Aurora Leigh is her attempt in a poem "unscrupulously epic" to "represent the age" in which she lives. She admits that to most men their own age, being too close, is as ill-discerned, as would be the lineaments of that colossal statue into which Xerxes proposed to carve Mount Athos to the peasants "gathering brushwood in his ear." But, she says,
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if after they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them.
She tells us, that if there is any room for poets in the world, their sole work is to represent their own times. And she seems to think that in a single poem a poet can condense a sort of distillation of his age; and this she has attempted in Aurora Leigh. Such, at least, is what we gather from the poem itself.
Now there is no doubt...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," in North American Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 177, October, 1857, pp. 415-41.
[In the excerpt that follows, Everett finds fault with several stylistic elements of Aurora Leigh, but finds that it succeeds primarily as a spiritual autobiography, tracing, as it does, the development and maturation of a woman and a poet.]
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning's] poem, Aurora Leigh, contains some faults of a very different description; which appear to be caused, to a great degree, by carelessness. The style is at times diffuse; a fault, to which the freedom of blank verse can easily entice one of Mrs. Browning's ardent temperament. It is difficult to conjecture at what epoch of the story the book purports to have been written. It does not seem to have been written in the form of a journal, while the events were taking place; nor yet after the story was completed. It opens, indeed, as if this latter were the case. The heroine begins by saying,
I . . .
Will write my story for my better self;
and the reader supposes that she had it all in her mind at that moment. When she says, therefore, in regard to Romney Leigh,
The conscious skies and all their daily suns,
I think I loved him not . . nor then, nor since . .
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SOURCE: A Prefatory Note to Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1898, pp. 3-8.
[In the following essay, Swinburne recalls his first reading of Aurora Leigh, and claims that the book pays adequate tribute to the genius of its author.]
The hardest task to which a man can set his judgment is the application of its critical faculty to the estimate of work neither classical nor contemporary. It is not now of the present, and as yet it is not of the past. We may be unable to forget the impression it made on our boyhood when fresh from the maker's hand, and we cannot be sure that something too much of unconscious reaction from the crudity of juvenile enthusiasm may not now interfere with the impartial temperance of a maturer estimate. But if there is any real element of eternal life, any touch of greatness in the work,...
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SOURCE: "E. B. Browning: Aurora Leigh," in E. B. Browning; R. H. Home: Two Studies, The Wellesley Press, Inc., 1935, pp. 5-27.
[In the following essay, Shackford discusses Aurora Leigh in the context of Browning's other works and her literary interests, as well as in relation to other narrative poems.]
The manuscript of Aurora Leigh is a green-bound octavo notebook of about four hundred pages, written in a small, cramped, delicate hand. A reader needs a magnifying glass in order to decipher the text, where corrections, emendations, and amplifications, written at various angles, give many pages some resemblance to a literary spider's web. In this first draft the heroine's name was Aurora Vane; minor differences between the manuscript and the printed versions offer an interesting study of Mrs. Browning's critical judgment. Aurora Leigh was first published early in January, 1857, by Chapman and Hall; a fortnight later, a second edition was issued; between 1857 and 1884 eighteen printings were made necessary by the demand for the book. Probably the most enthusiastic reader (except Robert Browning) was John Ruskin who in a long letter to the author said, in part:
I think Aurora Leigh the greatest poem in the English language, unsurpassed by anything but Shakespeare—not surpassed by Shakespeare's Sonnets—and therefore the greatest poem...
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SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Renunciation," in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 539-80.
[In the excerpt that follows, Gilbert and Gubar claim that Aurora Leigh "may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century."]
Elizabeth Barrett Browning also made most of her finest poetry out of her reconciliation to that graceful or passionate self-abnegation which, for a nineteenth-century woman, was necessity's highest virtue. But because she had little natural taste for the drastic asceticism [Christina] Rossetti's temperament and background seem to have fostered, Barrett Browning ultimately substituted a more familiar Victorian aesthetic of service for the younger woman's somewhat idiosyncratic aesthetic of pain. Her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh (1856), develops this aesthetic most fully, though it is also in part an epic of feminist self-affirmation. Aurora Leigh is too long to analyze here in the kind of detail we have devoted to "Goblin Market," but it certainly deserves some comment, not only because (as Virginia Woolf reports having discovered to her delight)69 it is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most...
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SOURCE: "New Yet Orthodox: Female Characters in Aurora Leigh," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 5, September/October, 1980, pp. 479-89.
[In the following essay, Hickok explores Browning's feminist inversion of conventional literary and social norms in Aurora Leigh.]
Interest in Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has revived during the last few years, chiefly because of the feminist perspective from which this remarkable "verse novel" examines nineteenth-century England. In turn, renewed interest in Aurora Leigh has led to re-evaluation of Barrett Browning's1 other poems, especially those depicting female figures, a process rewarded with rediscoveries of numerous of her poems long ago allowed to disappear from the literary canon of Victorian poetry.2 We must not forget, however, that just as Aurora Leigh exists in the context of Barrett Browning's other poetry, her other poetry itself exists in the context of the nineteenth-century feminine poetic tradition in England—a tradition exemplified by such poets as Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, Mary Howitt, and Caroline Norton; a tradition with which Elizabeth Barrett Browning was demonstrably familiar.3
Under this microscope, her poems appear not as sui generis, but as part of a field of established poetic figures,...
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SOURCE: "Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 35-48.
[In the essay that follows, Gelpi sees Aurora Leigh as a metaphorical investigation of Browning's changing attitudes toward herself her profession, and womanhood in general]
In recent years Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh has reemerged, after more than half a century of neglect, as a strikingly important Victorian poem, historically significant in its interaction with the works of other Victorian writers and immediately relevant in its depiction of a feminist consciousness. Cora Kaplan's essay on the poem uses the earlier insights of Ellen Moers and Patricia Thomson to bring both these aspects of the poem together.1 She demonstrates that the plot of Aurora Leigh, far from being a pastiche of those scenes and characters from other writers which had caught Barrett Browning's fancy, is in fact "an overlapping sequence of dialogues" with other texts. The borrowings from Madame de Staël, George Sand, Charlotte Brontë, Alfred Tennyson, and others give Barrett Browning the opportunity to comment, positively and negatively, on the responses of these writers to various aspects of Victorian society, including "the woman question," and to define her own ideas—coming in the process to feminist insights applicable and significant today....
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SOURCE: "Genre and Gender in Aurora Leigh, in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 69, Spring, 1986, pp. 7-11.
[In this essay, Mermin contends that Aurora Leigh transgresses the distinction between poetry and fiction, and between males and females, claiming that the "novel in verse" ends "with an assertion of the primacy of poetry's world and values over the novel's, and of women over men. "]
Elizabeth Barrett Browning devoured novels voraciously and indiscriminately, especially French ones of a kind that a respectable Englishwoman could hardly admit to knowing. In novels she found some of the experience of life that her sex and seclusion had denied her, and that she felt she needed to give color and reality both to her life and to her art. She was thinking of prose fiction in these terms in 1845 when she described the project that was to issue twelve years later as Aurora Leigh. "My chief intention just now," she said, "is the writing of a sort of novel-poem . . . running into the midst of our conventions, & rushing into drawing-rooms & the like, 'where angels fear to tread'; & so, meeting face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age, & speaking the truth as I conceive of it, out plainly" (Letters, ed. Kintner, 1:31).
Of all the important Victorian long poems, Aurora Leigh is the only "novel-poem," or novel in verse....
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SOURCE: "'If orphaned, we are disinherited': The Making of the Poet," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 114-40.
[In the following essay, Leighton claims that in Aurora Leigh Browning traces the liberation of her own creative abilities through Aurora's "failed quest" for her father and her subsequent acceptance of her "disinherited state. "]
Barrett Browning first projected the composition of Aurora Leigh as early as 1844. She wrote to her cousin and friend, John Kenyon, of her wish to write another poem like 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship'. Such a poem would be longer and more ambitious, but similarly 'comprehending the aspect and manners of modern life, and flinching at nothing of the conventional' (Kenyon, I, 204). Some months later, she embellished this first description in a letter to Miss Mitford: 'And now tell me,—where is the obstacle to making as interesting a story of a poem as of a prose work . . . Conversations & events, why may they not be given as rapidly & passionately & lucidly in verse as in prose—'. Her main intention in such a work, she stresses, is 'to go on, & touch this real everyday life of our age, & hold it with my two hands'. She adds, confidently: 'I want to write a poem of a new class' (MRM, III, 49).
A year later, she had not yet begun this poem but was still contemplating its...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Margaret Reynolds, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 1-77.
[In the following excerpt, Reynolds discusses the politics and literary influences that shaped Browning's Aurora Leigh. She also summarizes the poem and discusses its approach to issues of femininity.]
"Of course you are self-conscious—How cd. you be a poet otherwise? Tell me."41
The readily retained (and easily caricatured) picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning which is liable to overshadow interpretation of Aurora Leigh is, in part, the product of the memorable circumstances of her life, well documented through her own inveterate letter writing and well covered because of ideological assumptions about women and poetry. But it is also due, in large part, to Barrett Browning's own seriously held Romantic view of the significant worth of the individual and of the uniqueness of personal experience.
Barrett Browning is usually given a literary critical place in a mid-nineteenth-century context where she is compared either to her contemporaries among Victorian women novelists or else to mid-Victorian poets, particularly Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. These alignments, though significant and probably valid in that her distinctive voice is not heard until the publication of The...
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Armstrong, Isobel. Language as Living Form in Nineteenth-Century Poetry. Brighton, 1982. . . .
[Auerbach, Nina]. "Robert Browning's Last Word." Victorian Poetry 22 (Summer 1984): 161-73. . . .
[Blake, Kathleen]. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman." Victorian Poetry 24 (Winter 1986): 387-98. . . .
Browning, Robert. Introductory essay to Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1852. . . .
——. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, edited by Ian Jack and Margaret Smith. Vols. 1 and 2. Oxford, 1983-1984.
Buckley, Jerome H. The Victorian Temper. 1952. . . .
Case, Alison. "Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry (Spring 1991): 17-32.
Castan, C. "Structural Problems in the Poetry of Aurora Leigh." Browning Society Notes 7 (December 1977): 73-81. . . .
[Christ, Carol T]. Victorian and Modern Poetics. Chicago and London, 1984.
Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." In New French Feminisms, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 245-64. Brighton, 1980. . . .
[Cooper, Helen]. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill and London, 1988. . . .
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Case, Alison. "Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry 29, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 17-32.
Contends that in Aurora Leigh Browning transgressed the conventions of the novel.
Castan, C. "Structural Problems and the Poetry of Aurora Leigh." Browning Society Notes 7, No. 3 (December 1977): 73-81.
Considers the development of Aurora from an unreliable narrator into a fully informed and mature character.
Cooper, Helen. "Woman and Artist, Both Complete." In Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist, pp. 145-88. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Emphasizes the confluence of poetic authority and feminine emotion in Aurora Leigh.
David, Deirdre. "Woman's Art as Servant of Patriarchy: The Vision of Aurora Leigh." In Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, pp. 143-58. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.
Contends that, despite feminist interpretations to the contrary, Aurora Leigh engages in a traditional and conservative endorsement of patriarchal politics.
Freiwald, Bina. "The praise which men give...
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