Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Poetry Criticism) - Essay

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Moulton


(Poetry Criticism)

Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The following entry presents criticism of Barrett Browning's poem Aurora Leigh (1857). See also Aurora Leigh Criticism (Introduction) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Criticism.

Published in 1857 at the height of Barrett Browning's literary career, Aurora Leigh is one of the longest poems in English literature, encompassing 11,000 lines of blank verse. Aurora Leigh, which traces the life and artistic growth of a female poet, is frequently cited as a foundational feminist text for its criticism of conventional gender roles and patriarchal norms in Victorian society. By fusing the masculine form of the epic with that of autobiography and novel, Barrett Browning's poem created a new genre for the woman writer that transcended the confines of domestic fiction and sentimental verse traditionally associated with the female literary tradition.

Plot and Major Characters

Aurora Leigh chronicles the life, love, and literary development of its titular heroine. From a first-person perspective, Aurora, the offspring of an Italian mother and an English father, recounts her early childhood in Florence and subsequent move to England upon the death of her parents. Cared for and educated by a maiden aunt, Aurora resists the conventional and complacent English values imposed on her through her aunt's lessons, instead discovering a wealth of knowledge and inspiration in her late father's book collection. Aurora's intellectual development and early compositions awaken in her an ambition to become a successful poet. On her twentieth birthday, Aurora rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin, Romney Leigh—a wealthy philanthropist and owner of the family estate—which angers her aunt. The cousins go their separate ways, with Romney devoting himself to issues of social reform and Aurora resolving to earn her own living through poetry. After achieving moderate success in London literary circles, Aurora learns through Lady Waldemar—a cunning, well-to-do widow in love with Romney—that her cousin has decided to marry Marian Erle, a lower-class young woman to whom Romney proposes on the basis of political principle. Lady Waldemar tries to convince Aurora to help her prevent the marriage of Romney and Marian, but Aurora refuses, sympathizing with the story of Marian's unfortunate upbringing. Lady Waldemar approaches Marian and coerces her into leaving Romney on the day of the wedding. Fleeing to France under Lady Waldemar's direction, Marian is raped and impregnated in a Paris brothel, and later gives birth to a son. Meanwhile, Aurora plans a return to Tuscany to reunite with her cultural roots and realize a more fulfilling writing career. Along her journey, she encounters Marian and her illegitimate child in France, and takes them with her to Florence, where they begin a new life. Back in England, Romney is blinded by a fire, which destroys his home and thwarts his social activism. Aurora learns erroneously that Romney has wed Lady Waldemar, but Romney refutes this when he appears at the Tuscan villa with another marriage proposal for Marian, which Marian declines. Finally, Aurora and Romney make amends, recognizing the naïveté of their past opinions of one another. Romney once again asks for Aurora's hand in marriage, which Aurora accepts. Together, they realize that poetry and politics are compatible, and that art, when supported by love, is all the more purposeful.

Major Themes

Critics have highlighted a number of themes in Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. Many have focused their analyses on the thematic implications of the poem's genre, which encompasses epic, novel, and autobiography. Specifically, scholars have explored Barrett Browning's melding of the epic poem, a male-dominated form, and the novel, the traditional genre of the female author, to illuminate issues of gender roles and separate spheres for the sexes. In writing a feminized Künstlerroman—a novel about the coming-of-age of an artist—Barrett Browning challenged the accepted social norms of female domesticity. Aurora's success in both the professional and domestic realms addresses the “woman question” concerning the nature and role of women in Victorian society, championing individualism and denouncing patriarchal conventions. Critics have also concentrated on the autobiographical dimensions of Aurora Leigh, particularly Barrett Browning's view of the role of the woman poet in relation to her own life experience. Central to this motif is the notion of poetry as an instrument of social change, exemplified in Aurora's description of poetry as a “living art” that nourishes future generations. Similarly, Aurora's vision of the “New Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the poem delineates the role of the female poet as a visionary leader, underscoring the spiritual implications of the artist. Furthermore, Aurora Leigh addresses the conflict between writing for money and writing for art, and treats art as a vehicle of self-discovery. Additional thematic motifs in Aurora Leigh center around the character of Marian Erle, through whom Barrett Browning acknowledged such social issues as class politics, poverty, prostitution, and rape. Through her depiction of Marian as dignified and virtuous, Barrett Browning painted a sympathetic portrait of the “fallen woman,” exposing the injustice and neglect suffered by the poor.

Critical Reception

Upon publication, Aurora Leigh found tremendous success with the public and Barrett Browning's literary contemporaries; by 1885, nineteen editions of the poem had been released. Critical reaction, however, was less favorable. While reviewers lauded Barrett Browning's talent as a writer, many found flaws in the poem's implausibility and melodrama or considered its themes to be socially inappropriate. After the poet's death, Aurora Leigh fell out of favor with the public as Barrett Browning's popularity was eclipsed by that of her husband, Robert Browning. In 1930, Virginia Woolf published an article touting the virtues of Aurora Leigh and urging readers to take a renewed interest in the text from a feminist standpoint. In the second half of the twentieth century, feminist scholars heeded Woolf's advice and revived the long-neglected work from obscurity. While many contemporary feminist critics champion Barrett Browning's critique of England's patriarchal culture and attitude toward women, others claim that the author failed to sufficiently analyze and confront the social and philosophical issues she raised in the poem. Characterizing Aurora's marriage to Romney at the work's conclusion as antifeminist, some commentators concentrate on Barrett Browning's conservative socio-political attitude as an underlying source of weakness. Others argue that Barrett Browning had a keen understanding of the social problems she addressed in Aurora Leigh and focus their analyses on the author's progressive feminist philosophy and political intent. Critical discourse on the imagery embedded in Aurora Leigh abounds, with scholars examining symbols of death, violence, and spiritualism in the poem. Commentators highlight metaphors from mythology and folklore in the text, as well as biblical allusions from Genesis and Revelations. Furthermore, critics study the poem within the context of literary tradition, citing the influence of William Wordsworth's Prelude, Letitia Elizabeth Landon's History of the Lyre, and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Though many scholars treat Aurora Leigh as a reconstruction of these texts, they concur that the poem's innovative use of genre and feminist perspective make it Barrett Browning's masterpiece and a landmark of nineteenth-century English literature.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Battle of Marathon: A Poem 1820

An Essay on Mind, with Other Poems [as anonymous] 1826

Prometheus Bound, Translated from the Greek of Aeschylus; and Miscellaneous Poems [as anonymous] 1833

The Seraphim and Other Poems 1838

Poems. 2 vols. 1844; also published as A Drama of Exile: And Other Poems, 1845

*Poems: New Edition. 2 vols. 1850; also published as The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem 1851

Poems: Third Edition. 2 vols. 1853

Two Poems [with Robert Browning] 1854

Poems: Fourth Edition. 3 vols. 1856

Aurora Leigh 1857; revised edition, 1859

Poems before Congress 1860; revised as Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems, 1860

Last Poems 1862

The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 6 vols. 1889-90

The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1900

The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 6 vols. 1900

The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 2 vols. (letters) 1897

Diary by E. B. B.: The Unpublished Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1831-1832 (diary) 1969

The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 1836-1854 (letters) 1983

The Brownings' Correspondence. 14 vols. (letters) 1984-98

*Enlarged edition of the 1844 title that includes Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Herbert F. Tucker (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tucker, Herbert F. “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends.” In Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth, pp. 62-85. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

[In the following essay, Tucker examines the “epicizing conventions” in Aurora Leigh, discussing principles of structure, narrative technique, and the dichotomy between the human and the divine.]

Like it or not—and readers have long done both—Aurora Leigh is a work of overwhelming fluency. It is the fitting masterpiece of a prolific poet and tireless correspondent who stands out as having lived, even more than other...

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Susanna Egan (essay date September 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Egan, Susanna. “Glad Rags for Lady Godiva: Woman's Story as Womanstance in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.English Studies in Canada 20, no. 3 (September 1994): 283-300.

[In the following essay, Egan describes Aurora Leigh in terms of its novelistic and poetic qualities, and highlights Barrett Browning's use of Lady Godiva and Danae as feminist figures.]

Tensions between gender and genre remain central to discussion of the writing of nineteenth-century women both because we are now reading the dilemmas embedded in their subject matter and because of the generic choices that they made. For no work can this discussion be more heated...

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Stacey Gottlieb (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gottlieb, Stacey. “‘And God will teach her’: Consciousness and Character in Ruth and Aurora Leigh.Victorians Institute Journal 24 (1996): 57-85.

[In the following essay, Gottlieb compares Aurora Leigh with Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, illuminating contrasting notions of feminine identity in the characters of Marian and Ruth.]

Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth has been pointed to as a primary source for the Marian Erle subplot of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh1—and it is certainly arguable that Gaskell's sustained attention to her heroine's fall and redemption was the groundbreaking precedent for...

(The entire section is 9115 words.)

Sarah Annes Brown (essay date autumn 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Sarah Annes. “Paradise Lost and Aurora Leigh.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 723-40.

[In the following essay, Brown analyzes the thematic complexities of Aurora Leigh within biblical and Miltonic frameworks.]

LORD Illingworth.
The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden.
MRS. Allonby.
It ends with Revelations.

The same is almost true of Aurora Leigh; although the crucial meeting between Aurora and her cousin Romney in the garden does not take place until book 2, the very last lines of the poem clearly allude to...

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Anne D. Wallace (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wallace, Anne D. “‘Nor in Fading Silks Compose’: Sewing, Walking, and Poetic Labor in Aurora Leigh.ELH 64, no. 1 (1997): 223-56.

[In the following essay, Wallace explores themes of gender, labor, and writing in Aurora Leigh, linking these motifs with the georgic and peripatetic literary genres.]

The November 1993 conference, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victorian Culture,” opened with readings from a drama based on Aurora Leigh and continued with eleven presentations, in a total of forty-two, on Barrett Browning's novel-poem.1 The MLA Bibliography tells a similar story. Of 142 Barrett Browning entries from 1981...

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Cheri Larsen Hoeckley (essay date summer 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoeckley, Cheri Larsen. “Anomalous Ownership: Copyright, Coverture, and Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 36, no. 2 (summer 1998): 135-61.

[In the following essay, Hoeckley documents debates over issues of marital property and copyright in Victorian England, highlighting their impact on Barrett Browning and her characterization of Aurora Leigh.]

Of the many aesthetic proclamations that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's heroine Aurora Leigh declares, perhaps the most complexly innovative is her insistence that a poet must represent her immediate milieu:

Nay, if there's room for poets in this world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)

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Margot K. Louis (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Louis, Margot K. “Enlarging the Heart: L. E. L.'s ‘The Improvisatrice,’ Hemans's ‘Properzia Rossi,’ and Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Literature and Culture 26, no. 1 (1998): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Louis underscores connections between Aurora Leigh and the sentimental literary tradition popularized by poets Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Felicia Hemans.]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's relation to her female predecessors was complex, conflicted, and rewarding. In Aurora Leigh we see both the heroine and her creator grow from poets who attempt to prove themselves in traditionally masculine terms, into poets who...

(The entire section is 9307 words.)

Maureen Thum (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Thum, Maureen. “Challenging Traditionalist Gender Roles: The Exotic Woman as Critical Observer in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.” In The Foreign Woman in British Literature: Exotics, Aliens, and Outsiders, edited by Marilyn Demarest Button and Toni Reed, pp. 79-93. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Thum considers Barrett Browning's critique of gender roles in British society as presented through Aurora Leigh's outsider perspective.]

The critical reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning has been characterized by remarkable gaps and silences. Her poems dedicated to Robert Browning, particularly her Sonnets...

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Alison A. Case (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Case, Alison A. “‘My Broken Tale’: Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.” In Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Novel, pp. 107-24. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following essay, Case probes Aurora Leigh's conflicting role as the heroine-narrator of both a conventional love story and a Künstlerroman.]

With Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning set out to write what she called a “novel-poem” about the growth of a woman artist. As several critics have pointed out, Barrett Browning used her crossbreeding of novel and verse to break out of the gendered...

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Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “‘For My Better Self’: Auto/biographies of the Poetess, the Prelude of the Poet Laureate, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.” In Traditions of Victorian Women's Autobiography: The Poetics and Politics of Life Writing, pp. 109-45. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following essay, Peterson treats Aurora Leigh as an autobiography, emphasizing the literary influences of Wordsworth's Prelude and Letitia Elizabeth Landon's biographical sketches.]

Aurora Leigh is not, by any strict definition, the autobiography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Unlike her eponymous...

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SueAnn Schatz (essay date winter 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Schatz, SueAnn. “Aurora Leigh as Paradigm of Domestic-Professional Fiction.” Philological Quarterly 79, no. 1 (winter 2000): 91-117.

[In the following essay, Schatz suggests that Barrett Browning created Aurora Leigh as a role model for Victorian women and a figure of feminine strength, demonstrating that a woman could contribute to both the professional and domestic realms.]

I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment.

—Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning; February...

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Kathleen Renk (essay date May 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Renk, Kathleen. “Resurrecting the Living Dead: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poetic Vision in Aurora Leigh.Studies in Browning and His Circle 23 (May 2000): 40-9.

[In the following essay, Renk illuminates Barrett Browning's interest in the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, drawing parallels between Swedenborg's philosophy and Aurora Leigh's spiritual views.]

Following her transformative marriage to Robert Browning in 1846, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the following to her lifetime friend Mrs. Martin regarding her life before her marriage:

I was buried and that was the whole … a thoroughly morbid and desolate...

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Janet Montefiore (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Montefiore, Janet. “Aurora Leigh and the Pure Milk of the Word.” In Arguments of Heart and Mind: Selected Essays 1977-2000, pp. 177-86. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, published for the first time in 2002, Montefiore examines images of God and the use of the female body as metaphor in Aurora Leigh.]


                                                                                Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song,
This full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age
That, when the next shall come, the men of...

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Kate Lawson and Lynn Shakinovsky (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lawson, Kate, and Lynn Shakinovsky. “Rape, Transgression, and the Law: The Body of Marian Erle in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.” In The Marked Body: Domestic Violence in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Literature, pp. 105-24. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lawson and Shakinovsky focus on notions of psychological development, violence, and class in Aurora Leigh as represented through the character of Marian Erle.]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, published in 1856, the same year as “The Poor Clare,” appears at first glance to situate itself, like “Janet's Repentance,”...

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Meg Tasker (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tasker, Meg. “Aurora Leigh: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Novel Approach to the Woman Poet.” In Tradition and the Poetics of Self in Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry, edited by Barbara Garlick, pp. 23-41. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.

[In the following essay, Tasker addresses Barrett Browning's contribution to the verse-novel genre in Victorian literature.]

What is it about Aurora Leigh that allows Cora Kaplan to claim it as “radical and rupturing, a major confrontation of patriarchal attitudes unique in the imaginative literature of its day”,1 and Deirdre David to insist that the poem is an example of “women's art as servant of...

(The entire section is 7111 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Case, Alison. “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 29, no. 1 (spring 1991): 17-32.

Explores Aurora Leigh as both a Künstlerroman and a love story.

Falk, Alice. “Lady's Greek Without the Accents: Aurora Leigh and Authority.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 19 (1991): 84-92.

Discusses the relation of Aurora Leigh to Greek literature.

Kaplan, Cora. “Aurora Leigh.” In Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture, edited by Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt, pp....

(The entire section is 583 words.)