Aurora Leigh, a heroic woman who dares to defy contemporary and traditional attitudes toward women, female writers in particular. Bravely, she rejects the security of Romney’s proposed “bequest” and offer of marriage to live alone in London, pursuing her career as a poet on very limited funds. She asserts that women can be artists and accepts the loneliness of a single life rather than surrender into the role of a submissive wife. She befriends Marian and offers to take her to Italy as her companion and “sister.” She accurately evaluates Lady Waldmar’s evil character and berates her for her villainy, but she is strangely imperceptive of Romney’s real feelings and his hints about his blindness. He tells her that she never really knew him if she could really believe he would marry Lady Waldmar. Her quest in search of her identity is triumphantly rewarded when a chastened Romney agrees to marriage on Aurora’s terms, a partnership in poetry and social reform.
Romney Leigh, Aurora’s cousin, who first appears as a paternal figure as heir of the Leigh estate and as a brother figure to his teenage cousin. His social conscience causes him to dedicate his life to social reform, following some of the typical theorists of the day. Aurora tries unsuccessfully to convince him that reform must come from within the individual. After Aurora refuses to marry him (because his proposal apparently was made without love), he generously offers to marry Marian Erle and thus rescue one poor seamstress from poverty. His generosity is rejected, thwarted by the schemes of Lady Waldmar. After a mob burns his ancestral home, the now blinded Romney arrives in Italy for his last quest as knight-errant, marriage to the socially rejected Marian. Through the efforts of Aurora and Marian, he happily acknowledges Aurora’s “superiority” as poet and inspiration for social reform, thus breaking with traditional views on marriage and the role of women.
Marian Erle, an idealized victim of society and circumstance. She escapes from abusive parents—her mother had intended to “sell” her to the local squire—and eventually is rescued by Romney from a life of destitution. Although socially “inferior,” she agrees to marry him so that she can be his servant and assistant. When she is raped in a Paris brothel, she loses her reputation but insists that because she was an unwilling participant in this sexual act, she retains her purity. She intends to devote her life to rearing the child born as a result of the rape and accepts Aurora’s offer of a home with dignity and gratitude. She refuses Romney’s gallantry in trying to rescue her again, insisting that she never loved him but had only wanted to repay his generosity by her submission to his life and work. Marian is no longer a victim; with Aurora’s help, she emerges as a serene, integrated woman.
Lady Waldmar, a selfish, manipulative, coldhearted woman who represents the worst of the members of the upper class. She ruins Romney’s plan to marry Marian by convincing Marian that Romney would be degraded by this alliance. She offers Marian a new start in Australia, but either deliberately or through negligence she causes Marian to be taken to a Paris brothel and raped. Although she denies that this had been her intention, her conduct toward Marian is criminal. She is ostentatious in flaunting her beauty to attract men, presenting an almost bare bosom accented by a heavy rope of pearls at Lord Howe’s home. She is not amoral, however, because she accepts the loss of Romney as “punishment” for her treatment of Marian. She writes to...
(The entire section is 934 words.)