Summary

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Last Updated May 10, 2024.

Introduction

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic novel Aurora Leigh was published in 1857. The work tells the story of the orphaned Aurora Leigh, who narrates the tale. Since Aurora is a poet, her narration is in verse. The novel consists of about 11,000 lines of blank verse—poetry that lacks any specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The combination of genres provides a unique opportunity for the author to craft a fully developed story arc featuring both vivid poetic imagery and figurative language.

While Aurora Leigh is not directly autobiographical, Barrett Browning uses the story to present her ideas about art, love, work, society, and women’s roles. Through Aurora’s eyes, the novel reflects on the critical role of poetry in human life, even as it meditates on the complex social issues of the period, including poverty and the oppression of women.

Plot Summary

Aurora Leigh is the daughter of an Englishman and an Italian woman. Her mother died when she was four years old and her father when she was thirteen. Now orphaned, Aurora travels from Italy to England to live with her aunt, her father’s sister, who has always resented Mr. Leigh’s marriage but does her best to educate his daughter in the ways of English womanhood.

Aurora obediently follows her aunt’s instructions, but she also leads a secret life, reading her father’s books, delighting in the natural world, and writing poetry. She becomes friends with her cousin, Romney Leigh, and on her twentieth birthday, Romney—a social activist with grand ideas—proposes marriage. Aurora declines, for she feels called to a life of poetry and believes that Romney wants a fellow worker more than a wife.

After her aunt dies, leaving her with little money, Aurora moves to London to begin her career as a poet. She works hard and finds some success, yet she is dissatisfied. “I did some excellent things indifferently, / Some bad things excellently,” she explains, but she has not yet achieved real art. Meanwhile, Romney has immersed himself in his activism and become well-known as an advocate for the poor.

In the midst of all this, Aurora has a visit from Lady Waldemar, who is in love with Romney. She tells Aurora that Romney plans to marry a lower-class girl named Marian Erle and asks Aurora to help her stop the marriage. Aurora goes to visit Marian and listens to the young woman’s tale of abuse and abandonment at the hands of her parents. Aurora comes to love this intelligent, sincere girl, telling Romney that she approves of the marriage.

However, on the day of the wedding, Marian does not appear. She writes a letter telling Romney that she is not worthy to be his wife and would only bring him grief because of her low-class status. Romney searches diligently for Marian but cannot find her.

Time passes, and Aurora decides to go to Italy to continue to seek true art. She stops in Paris and catches sight of Marian, who is carrying a baby. Aurora finds Marian and learns that Lady Waldemar convinced her to leave Romney and go to Australia. The woman Lady Waldemar arranged to travel with Marian, however, left her at a brothel in Paris instead. Marian was raped and gave birth to her beloved son.

Aurora writes a scathing letter of accusation to Lady Waldemar and then takes Marian and the baby to Italy with her. They live relatively happily, although Aurora is still not satisfied with her life or her art. Thoughts of Romney, who is said to have married Lady Waldemar, plague her.

Then, one day, Romney appears. He tells Aurora he is a failure and that Leigh Hall, which he had turned into a shelter for poor people, has been burned to the ground by angry neighbors. Romney, who never married Lady Waldemar, is willing to wed Marian and care for the child, but Marian refuses. She realizes she never truly loved Romney but only worshiped him as her hero. Finally, Romney and Aurora admit their love for one another and, even though Romney is now blind, decide to marry.

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