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...
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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 discredit Romney.
Book 5 may seem a digression from the main narrative, but it is crucial to the development of Aurora’s poetic career. Romney’s last words to her make her feel inconsequential, so the meditations in this book encourage her to evaluate her commitment. She exhorts herself to be humble as she strains toward producing some epic work; she questions that her efforts can sustain the weight of inspiration. She has not been satisfied with her apprenticeship in poetry and wonders if the poet needs someone to approve her efforts. Does she need the approbation of a man? She refuses to accept her dependence and decides to “affect no compromise.” Next she contemplates whether epic heroes are still to be found. Homer’s heroes are not “twelve feet high”; they are simply human. Thus, her contemporary world can provide epic material; a poet can see heroes in her own age. Poets should work to “represent” their own era, “the full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age,” which serves as a nurturing bosom for future generations. Art requires sacrifice, chiefly that of commitment to one ideal; thus Barrett Browning allies herself to the Romantic concept that a poet cannot have both life and art, that art is “intellectual” and denies “feeling.” Aurora is lonely; poignant lines describe her desolation: “How dreary’tis for women to sit still/ On winter nights by solitary fires/ . . .[with] unkissed lips/ And eyes undried.” She is “hungry” for love and approval, love and approval from her dead parents and from Romney. She resolves to ignore her pain and renews her commitment to poetry. When Aurora visits Lord Howe’s home, she finds Lady Waldemar among the guests. Gossip reveals that Lady Waldemar has been assisting Romney in his work, particularly at Leigh Hall, and that the two will marry soon. Pained by the news, Aurora decides to leave for Italy, hailing it as a nurturing mother drawing her “home.”
As book 6 opens, however, Aurora’s journey has taken her through France, giving her the opportunity to locate Marian. In her bare lodgings, Marian reveals her secret, “a yearling creature,” a baby boy. Aurora is sympathetic to the “fallen” Marian, who begins to tell of her journey through her own hell. Lady Waldemar had convinced Marian to leave Romney and immigrate to Australia, a trip which she would arrange. Instead of escorting Marian to a ship bound for Australia, however, Lady Waldemar’s servant brings her to a brothel in Paris; Marian is raped and turned out on the streets. Marian’s saga continues into book 7, where she finds that she is pregnant and is taken in by a seamstress who allows her to work to support herself and her son. Moved by Marian’s suffering, Aurora greets her as “sister” and offers to take her to Italy as her companion. She debates about writing to Romney about her discovery but is reluctant to ruin his supposed happiness. Calling upon “the man in me,” she decides to write to Lord Howe and enclose a letter for Lady Waldemar, denouncing her evil machinations. The two travel on to Italy, but Aurora finds that she cannot recapture her childhood feelings for her “motherland.” She also realizes that “The end of woman . . . /Is not a book”; she misses Romney and finds herself dissolving into “nothing” without love.
The last two books present the denouement; Aurora is surprised one evening to find that Romney has arrived. Because a letter went undelivered, she still assumes he has married Lady Waldemar; she also neglects to notice the signs that Romney is now blind. He admits that he has been wrong about his social programs and about her success as a poet. Aurora confesses that she is not the same person she was at twenty years old, and both agree that the Victorian principle, “Let us work,” can solve their problems. Romney has experienced the death of his dreams for social reform and the loss of Leigh Hall in a fire set by a mob. He has come to make another grand gesture: marrying Marian to restore her reputation. He had never intended to marry Lady Waldemar, who has sent a letter to Aurora revealing her punishment for her treatment of Marian, her loss of Romney. She thinks she might have become a better person through this marriage and insists that she never meant Marian to be treated as she was. Marian now rejects Romney’s proposal, revealing that she probably never loved him but instead was grateful for his generosity. She will not encumber him with “a bastard child/ And married harlot.” She intends to dedicate her life to her child and may later help Romney in his work by caring for outcasts. Aurora finally realizes that Romney is blind and refuses to allow him to leave without telling him of her love. The two lovers agree to share their life’s work; Aurora apparently succumbs to a compromise between art and life. She does, however, triumph; the marriage is based on her terms. She wins love, a poetic career, fame, independence, and power.
Following the acknowledged example of Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), Barrett Browning creates an exuberant epic, monumental in size and in scope, incorporating discussions of class struggle, social programs, politics, religion, the status of women, poetic theory, the glories of nature, and contemporary life, among other topics. She uses epic conventions introduced by Homer and Vergil (announcement of theme, an elevated style through epic similes and antiquated word choice, formal speeches, descents into Hades, and an evil manipulator) and creates a significant heroine employed in a noble quest. Like her predecessors, Barrett Browning tries to establish a new society, based on the inspiration of poetry, giving women a respected citizenship.
Aurora Leigh’s faults are the reversals of its virtues, since it crosses the genre boundaries of poetry (written entirely in blank verse and including brilliant imagery and careful word choice), the novel, and the epic. The novel’s demands for “realism” and “real” dialogue are negated by an epic’s large scope and, at times, long-winded, heroic speeches. However, the narrative structure remains intact: exposition, complication (her digressions help to build suspense), immediacy of action, and a welcome denouement. Aurora Leigh, extremely popular at its publication and newly restored by feminist critics to its proper status after years of neglect, is Barrett Browning’s masterpiece.