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.