Herbert F. Tucker (essay date 1993)

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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 first-generation Victorians, with pen in hand. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's magnum opus floods the reader with a tide of writing that feels by turns irresistible and interminable, and that will settle for no level but its own. At once a veiled autobiography, a reluctant novel, and an aspiring epic, this 1856 work with the nondescript subtitle “A Poem” overflows the generic categories in which interpretation would contain it. Accordingly, the case this essay makes for reading the poem as an epic is advanced in a provisional and heuristic spirit. It was in such a spirit, after all, that Barrett Browning herself treated epic: like other nineteenth-century poets, she came to the genre as one that posed as many questions as it answered, including questions about how its antique conventions might inform an era self-consciously novel and normatively novelistic. A consideration of certain epicizing conventions in Aurora Leigh—its ring structure, the procession of its narrative point of view, its coordination of cosmos with psyche through images of fluid dissolution—can show how Barrett Browning found in these conventions a variety of means for loosening the realist novel's grip on Victorian narrative as a shaper of women's lives.1

“Of writing many books there is no end.”2 Barrett Browning derives this epigraphic motto in already perfect pentameter from the King James version of Ecclesiastes 12:12. But where the Preacher there draws to his end by lamenting the endless task of making books, Aurora Leigh dawns on her reader by celebrating the initiative power of writing them. Writing is Aurora's life: within the narrative, it provides her living as a professional poet whose vocation and career emplot her existence; at the level of narration, writing constitutes the dynamic medium whereby her voluble subjectivity melts away all impediments to its flow. As the poem makes plain and practically all recent criticism confirms, such impediments chiefly arise from the limits that patriarchy sets to expression in narrative, mythological, and metaphorical form. Aurora's preferred term for these limits is “conventions” (16/1.480), a term with both literary and social meanings; and it is where Aurora Leigh most conspicuously breaks with conventions of patriarchy that the poem reaches its most interesting literary and social conclusions, and most effectively articulates an alternatively epic, Victorian-feminist program for achieving the modern ends of writing.


Of writing many books there is no end, yet structurally Aurora Leigh is a book comprising many books, all of which do end. The nine-book format of the poem both alludes to the conventional divisions of epic—spotlighted at dead center in a visiting American's “epic, in twelve parts” (183/5.829)—and violates those divisions. For the variously divisible number twelve Barrett Browning substitutes the odd square nine, a triad trebled. Yet the division into threes that standard epic proportioning might make us expect seems to be deliberately frustrated.3 The tripartite breaks between books 3 and 4 and books 6 and 7 are scarcely breaks at all: mere pauses for breath within the melodramatic narrative...

(This entire section contains 8814 words.)

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of Marian Erle's turbulent life, they constitute the smoothest and most compelling interbook transitions of the entire work. This willful narrative enjambment suggests that a different principle of organization may be at work, one that Aurora's undisguised contempt for motives of calculation in any form would also independently tend to endorse—a principle arising less from computational equivalence than from geometrical symmetry. And indeed, for all its impetuosity of manner the poem's many books do fit firmly into a nested pattern of concentric rings, which not only upholds the long narrative but grounds it in a venerable epic tradition of compositional balance.

As this formal symmetry has not received critical notice, an overview of the narrative structure may help bring it into focus here. In books 1 and 2 Aurora tells how her Italian childhood and English education have bred in her such independence of spirit that she has rejected her rich cousin Romney Leigh twice, first as a husband and then as a patron. The corresponding books 8 and 9, set once again in Italy, describe the two principals' reconciliation as adults, through a process of mutual education that culminates in their engagement to marry at last and to collaborate in the work of social reform—but now along inspirationist lines more or less dictated by Aurora to a Romney whose physical blinding has purged his inward vision into harmony with hers. Within this outer structural ring, an inner ring comprising books 3-4 and 6-7 is devoted to the trials of Marian Erle, an abused working-class daughter and emigrée unwed mother of stainless virtue whom Aurora befriends and later protects. Concurrently with the unfolding of Marian's story, the action moves Aurora from the countryside into the center of the London publishing world, and then out again to the Continent, in flight from that cultural center and the unfulfilling career it has come to stand for. At the professional center of Aurora's life, and at the structural center of her poem, transpires the most experimental of her nine epic books, a sui-generis hybrid whose balanced halves epitomize the symmetrical principle governing the whole, even as they illustrate the modern poet's most novel concerns. The first half of book 5 is a theoretical meditation on the generic means and ends of contemporary writing, the second an intensely novelistic rendition of that drawing-room life into which Barrett Browning declared her ambition to dispatch the Victorian muse.4

The three-ring circus of Aurora Leigh is organized, then, not according to the arithmetical (and rather Romneyesque) proportions dear to analysts of written epic since Virgil, but according to an older principle of symmetrical ring composition that is arguably derived from Homeric examples. Barrett Browning's allegiance to Homer is a matter of early and constant record, up to and including Aurora's loyalist, orthographically scornful dismissal of F. A. Wolf as an “atheist” deconstructor of Homer's personal authority (197/5.1245-54: “The kissing Judas, Wolff” [sic]). That Barrett Browning adopted for this most fluently written of Victorian epics a principle suited to the oral conditions of bardic improvisation betokens the compositional fluency of her text, rather than its published writtenness. It is a large structural sign of her concentration on the spontaneity of the writing act, as it counteracts the predestinating force of a novelistic plot and counterbalances the weight of formal closure.

This improvisatory design leads Barrett Browning to a more radical departure from the master practices of Victorian narrative: I mean the peculiar mobility that Aurora's freely shifting verb tenses bestow on the temporal perspective she writes from. At the outset, after some lines of conventional salutation in the present tense, Aurora embarks on the history of her youth: “I write. My mother was a Florentine …” (2/1.29). The copresence of different tenses in this story-launching line forecasts the ease with which Aurora will move back and forth between narrated past and narratorial present. This shuttling movement persists across books 1 and 2, always in conformity with a well-established convention of first-person diegesis. Writers since Augustine have constructed the autobiographical subject's development along an asymptotic narrative line, which continuously approaches a hypothetically frozen moment of present consciousness. The “now” of the writing subject stands at the end of the autobiographical curve, being at once its temporal terminus, its point of retrospective vantage, and the locus that finally embodies its thematic and psychological conclusions.

Books 1 and 2 observe this autobiographical convention, as do the corresponding books 8 and 9. The first pair of books cover two decades, the last pair two hours; each pair is narrated (with a signal late exception to which I shall return) from a fixed point of clear retrospect. It is not at all clear, however, that this point is the same in both instances. For one of the anomalies of Barrett Browning's narrative practice in Aurora Leigh is the temporal procession of its point of view. The five middle books of the poem repeatedly set the narrative vantage point in forward motion, according to an irregular installment plan that may ultimately be as principled as it initially seems to be capricious. Establishing Aurora's autobiographical activity in a succession of distinctly realized present contexts, the poem destabilizes the fixed perspective of conventional first-person narrative and supplants autobiographical retrospect by diaristic intermittency. Narratizing its own composition, Aurora Leigh renders elastic the relation of the writing present to the written past, and thereby signifies the poet's unconventional freedom.5

This process begins with the opening pages of book 3, when after meditating on the need to gird her loins for the unexpected, Aurora takes her own advice and—from the surprised reader's standpoint—does a quite unexpected thing: “Leave the lamp, Susan, and go up to bed. / The room does very well; I have to write” (78/3.25-26). In dismissing her maidservant and introducing a specific context for the writing act, Aurora dismisses the supports of conventional autobiography, and supplants a hypostatized present by an actual, mobile one. From this new point—or along the new line that a moving point describes—she plunges into several pages of reflection on her current circumstances as an independent writer in London. When Aurora resumes her narrative (“I bear on my broken tale” [82/3.156]), she returns to where she has ended book 2, with her parting from Romney “seven years ago” (82/3.146; 77/2.1238). Meanwhile, though, her lengthy interlude of dramatized writing has introduced a narratorial present quite different from the one implied by books 1 and 2. The grammatical tense remains the same, but a shift has taken place in what a grammarian would call the aspect of the verb: the “now” from which Aurora has surveyed her youth in books 1 and 2 and the “now” of book 3, in which she shoos Susan off and tears into today's mail, cannot be identical.

The rest of book 3 and all of book 4 revert to a conventional narrative mode that brings the story several years closer to the narratorial present, rehearsing the utopian marriage engagement and catastrophically failed wedding of Romney and Marian, and concluding like book 2 with another apparently terminal parting between Romney and Aurora. But then, as by claustrophobic reaction against the threat of marriage-plot enclosure that Romney still very much represents, book 5 opens as book 3 has done: the narrative somersaults ahead of itself into a present saturated with writerly circumstance. For some twenty pages Aurora conducts a richly digressive discussion of the contemporary situation of the Victorian writer: night thoughts that are themselves fittingly situated in the context of her solitary return from an aggressively contemporary soirée of book talk “Among the lights and talkers at Lord Howe's” (175/5.581). Not only does the poem jump into the present, as at the start of book 3; it jumps, without quite announcing the fact, into a different present. For even within the generous margins of tolerance enjoyed during the age of Wuthering Heights and Lord Jim, it is incredible that Aurora should have written all of books 3-5 at a single sitting after a long evening out. If we apply to the scene of writing the same canons of verisimilitude that book 5 theoretically and practically invokes, we must assume that the night of Lord Howe's party is later than the night on which Susan was sent up to bed in book 3. Recognizing that the moment of Aurora's writerly fluency must itself be in flux, we encounter a flaw in the conventional narrative foundation that has seemed to ground the text thus far. This recognition is reinforced by the fluidity of Aurora's verb tenses later in book 5, as she slips back into the past to describe the composition of an accusing letter to her false friend Lady Waldemar (193/5.1126), concludes this description in the narrative present (194/5.1157), and then goes on into present-tense prolepsis with her plans to leave London for Italy (195/5.1190). The temporal ice once broken, the narrative in books 6 and 7 proceeds to migrate between approaching past and advancing present tenses as freely as Aurora's briefcase travels from London to Paris to Florence.6

This mobility of narrative aspect draws on several of the generic traditions in which Aurora Leigh participates. Within the tradition of the novel, the work plays the conventions of perfect omniscience against those of imperfect epistolary intermittency. Within the tradition of autobiography, it exploits similar alternatives: between the standard, postmortem mode of autobiographical finish and the serial mode of the diarist shaping forth a life in running installments. All of these fictional and autobiographical options were available to authors by the 1850s, although the more temporally stabilized option within each genre had become the Victorian norm. More deviantly transient forms of narrative, however, held a special place in traditions of women's writing. Barrett Browning was better versed in these traditions than any other major poet of her day, and it was her feminist strategy in Aurora Leigh to apply their conventions as leverage against the norm.7 Her signal originality lay where Victorian originality so often lay, in the arts of compromise: in juggling diegetic modes that alternately offered comprehensive and incremental ways of making narrative sense.

This most original narratological feature of Aurora Leigh may also be its most traditional, if we look past novel and autobiography to epic. For epic offered nineteenth-century writers a set of storytelling conventions that were arguably more flexible than those of popular prose forms like fiction, (auto)biography, and history. From Homeric rudiments, writers of epic from Virgil to Milton and Wordsworth had with increasing address developed means of playing against one another the different immediacies of present-tense narration and of invocation or apostrophe. Where epic paused from singing the story to sing about the song instead, and urged not the hero's concerns but the poet's, it made an opening that Barrett Browning was quick to occupy and distend for purposes of her own. One of the ways in which she feminized so famously masculine a genre was by exploiting internal differences between its narrative and narratorial, epic and poetic, registers. She found in epic models a traditional means to an untraditional, genuinely novel end, by crossing the linear plot of the Künstlerroman with desultory devices drawn from women's traditions of epistolary and diaristic narrative.

The result is an upbeat narrative that plays in two time signatures concurrently. Against the meter of a large, symmetrical structure of books, Aurora Leigh counterpoints the wayward rhythm of an improvisatory, spontaneously regenerated writing act. This narrative syncopation discloses a subversive motive with respect to the sexual politics of domestic fictional realism. For the structural shape of Barrett Browning's nine books underscores, on the whole, the drive toward a conventionally novelistic denouement in marriage. More often than not, individual books end with thoughts of Romney and his marital prospects, which tilt the whole plot in the direction of a generically foregone conclusion. But the counterpointed action of Aurora's fluent writing resists that plot and its determinations, by repeatedly foregrounding Aurora's freedom to write when and as she sees fit. This independence emerges nowhere more clearly than in a remarkable passage, near the end of the poem, that punctuates and deflates what would be the most conventional moment of a domestic romance, the leading man's declaration of that love which is marital possession:

But what he said.. I have written day by day,
With somewhat even writing. Did I think
That such a passionate rain would intercept
And dash this last page? What he said, indeed,
I fain would write it down here like the rest.


This metapoetic review fans out the hypostatized autobiographical present into a subtle spectrum of tenses discriminating among “what he said,” what “I have written” and what “I fain would write.” More precisely, the passage discriminates among successive and competing moods: what Aurora felt on the spot at Romney's words, what she thought two moments ago she would write about that remembered feeling, what she found herself feeling a moment later about that intended writing, and what she now has in mind to write next (or, just as telling, not to write). The flow of Aurora's tears has checked her narrative but lubricated her writing: the flow of ink goes on. Tears “dash” the “last page”—which is not really the last, there being another ten pages in store—that prolongation being part of Barrett Browning's point and—if we recall her punctuational fondness for the dash—part of the point of her pointing. She prints no dash, but instead her favorite equivalent, the mark of elliptical aposiopesis (“..”).8 Throughout Barrett Browning's poetry and correspondence this idiosyncratic mark indicates not a double stop but a half stop, a pause promising continuation. And the way Aurora weeps on, as well as in, this intensely scripted passage lets us envision two still-wet points of ink blurred into an accidental dash. Dashing the autobiographical page her pen dashes across, Aurora's “passionate rain” of tears makes the mobilization of her viewpoint a graphically textual event.

Substituting what she writes in the moving present for what Romney said in an emotional past, Aurora so conjugates narratorial present with narrated history as to wrest from her mate the conjugal authority bestowed on him by Victorian patriarchy. This maneuver is perfectly in keeping with the triumphal character of books 8 and 9. The long final dialogue there gets underway with Romney's adoring recitation of leading ideas from Aurora's latest publication, her own famous last words in print. The dialogue concludes as she reveals to his humiliated blindness, in tropes from the book of Revelation, the spiritual meaning of the brightening colors of the dawn, in what amounts to an anagogical gloss on her own name. Romney's last words, “he shall make all new” (350/9.949), no doubt inspire Aurora's ensuing appropriation of the imagery of Revelation 21. But even where the emphatically terminal words of Scripture are at issue, there is evidently no end of ways to have the last word. Romney intends a divinely sponsored institution of his own program for “New churches, new oeconomies, new laws” (350/9.947); Aurora cleaves instead to the autobiographer's program of self-reading, and earns that program a place on the agenda of Victorian epic. She herself becomes, in heralding its emergence, the dawning New Jerusalem, the city that may be of God and man but that is a woman. It is finally Aurora who “makes all new,” as she has done throughout the poem by renewing the lived past in the mobile now of her writing.


To envision a new heaven and new earth is to redraw the horizon where divine and human spheres meet. One of Barrett Browning's most obvious departures from the conventions of Victorian fiction is the zeal with which she undertakes the joint epic functions of cosmology and theodicy, expanding the secular and institutional horizons of the novel to embrace a forthrightly spiritual and ideological task of cultural redefinition.9 Much as the narrative innovations of Aurora Leigh keep opening the interval between past and present in order to extend the life of writing and to procrastinate its heroine's enclosure, so its epic mythology sets the action within a religious horizon that is both distinctly visionary and flexibly revisionary. Often, indeed, Barrett Browning's tropes of dissolution and absorption imagine this ultimate circumference as a space that is itself in flux. Such tropes erode the very concept of the fixed boundary, and accordingly problematize other dividing lines—of genre, of gender, of identity—within the world they encompass. Barrett Browning in one sense blurs the normative demarcations and hierarchies of traditional epic; in another sense, though, she keeps faith with the epic poet's obligation to harmonize ultimacy with immediacy, macrocosm with microcosm: to give imaginative currency to a fluid universe that sponsors and nourishes the fluency of her heroic narrative.

Aurora repeatedly situates herself within a natural world whose physical horizon is liquid, or better yet deliquescent. Newly removed from Italy to her aunt's country home in England, she salves her disappointment at the tame landscape there by finding a vista where outlines melt and run together. Out her chamber window she observes

                                                                                                                                                      the lawn,
Which, after sweeping broadly round the house,
Went trickling through the shrubberies in a stream
Of tender turf, and wore and lost itself
Among the acacias, over which, you saw
The irregular line of elms by the deep lane
Which stopt the grounds and dammed the overflow
Of arbutus and laurel.


This liquefied landscape ends in “A promontory without water” that yet can seem all water: “You could not catch it if the days were thick, / Or took it for a cloud” (20/1.603-4). Aurora later delights in Paris as a city that “swims in verdure, beautiful / As Venice on the waters” (201/6.89-90). And she sets the scene for her final interview with Romney by imagining Florence at dusk as a submarine city, “filled up” and “flooded” with “transparent shadows,” “As some drowned city in some enchanted sea” (281/8.36-38).

Of all such liquid panoramas, Aurora might say, as she says of the first, “I sat alone, and drew the blessing in / Of all that nature” (21/1.650-51). This and comparable images of absorption figure Aurora as nature's nursling daughter, feeding on the physical earth as on a maternal body that is female like her own: “The earth, / The body of our body, the green earth, / Indubitably human” (160/5.116-18). This nurturant nature answers to the “mother-want about the world” that Aurora has felt since her own mother's death (2/1.40), and that she particularly associates with the mammary forms of Italian mountain scenery.10 Anticipating her return to the matria, she asks if the hills there feel “The urgency and yearning of my soul, / As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe / And smile” (198/5.1269-71). From the “multitudinous mountains,” “panting from their full deep hearts / Beneath the influent heavens,” Aurora expects “communion” (20/1.622-26). But as we have seen, she also knows how to find communion elsewhere—wherever, in town or country, she can revive the sense of fluency in which giving merges with receiving and boundaries dissolve:

I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
The elemental nutriment and heat
From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.


“The Unseen” is not the unimaginable, although as usual in Aurora Leigh the imagery in which it is apprehended involves sensory force instead of visual form. The unabashed regressiveness of such “unscrupulously epic” images (163/5.214) often asserts “relations” like those Aurora prizes here. Such relations, as against the familial relations privileged in domestic fiction, challenge realism's one-way notions about the linear production of effects from causes and the bearing of mythic origins on cultural ends.

What God does this poem evoke, and what is its God's gender? At the level of epic theodicy, Barrett Browning vacillates between the patriarchal Christianity that ruled her father's house and an alternative theology grounded in the feminine, the bodily, the unspoken but fluently felt. The poem abounds in daring figurations of the cosmic feminine, as when the originality of a fresh genesis and the reverend music of the spheres conjoin in “mother's breasts, / Which, round the new made creatures hanging there, / Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres” (157/5.16-18). But more daring than this alternative cosmology is the very fact of gender alternation within the poem's images for the divine. The mythopoeic undulation of Aurora Leigh between male and female conceptions of deity suits an epic cosmos whose angelic machinery is, like its inspiring muse, the impulse intuitively known. “We feel it quicken in the dark sometimes”; “those dumb motions of imperfect life / Are oracles of vital Deity” (27/1.820, 822-23). Barrett Browning keeps her poem inviolable by conventions—as Aurora keeps her written life—through opposing to patriarchy, not matriarchy, but what might be called matrentelechy: the indwelling force of an organically evolving order. Patriarchy mystifies original spirit by positing a distant and arbitrary archē that entails fixed cosmic and historical ends; matriarchy, properly speaking, only changes the gender of this structure without dismantling its hierarchy. Barrett Browning's matrentelechy proposes instead an oscillating continuum of being, “the body proving spirit” (300/8.624). In Aurora's cosmos as in her narrative, the point of origination is always processive, working out an end that is never manifest (“motions of imperfect life”), yet is perpetually present.

Aurora's “vital Deity” becomes most fully present in several striking passages that confuse the issue of theological gender, and finally dissolve it altogether.

                                                                                                    What, if even God
Were chiefly God by living out Himself
To an individualism of the Infinite,
Eterne, intense, profuse,—still throwing up
The golden spray of multitudinous worlds
In measure to the proclive weight and rush
Of his inner nature,—the spontaneous love
Still proof and outflow of spontaneous life?


There is no mistaking this cosmic ejaculator's masculinity, which may draw inspiration from a painting of Danae's visitation by Jove on which Aurora's friend Vincent Carrington has been working. But to think of the patriarchal Jove is to appreciate the comparatively feminine aspect of Barrett Browning's fecund creator God, who brings forth life from within and sustains it by a perpetual, anarchic “outflow”—no Logos, but rather a wordless issue without beginning or end. That “the Infinite” takes on “Himself” a masculine form seems nearly an afterthought, a belated and casually conventional manifestation of an essence anterior to gender difference. So primal a divinity is very close to the God that Marian Erle has come to know as a “grand blind Love,” a “skyey father and mother both in one” (106/3.898-99). It also anticipates the remarkable image that begins book 5:

Aurora Leigh, be humble. Shall I hope
To speak my poems in mysterious tune
With man and nature,—with the lava-lymph
That trickles from successive galaxies
Still drop by drop adown the finger of God,
In still new worlds?


From the division into male and female, “man and nature,” Aurora's cosmological imagination travels upstream along God's gender-neutral “finger” to a protoplasmic “lava-lymph.” This ethereal prima materia feels sexual without being gendered; like the sacramental “strain / Of sexual passion” and “great outgoings of ecstatic souls” in the lines that follow, the metaphysical riddle of creation is for Aurora a matter of sensually fluid dynamics. Strategically positioned at mid epic, the entire passage constitutes an invocation of the power to write.12 By proposing a processive creation that holds gender in solution, Aurora both universalizes and primes what it makes more than the usual sense here to call the creative flow.


To put her writing “in mysterious tune” with a divine fluency is the aim of Aurora's poetics. To identify her self with her poetic creativity is the correlative aim of her story. The last obstacle to these aims is also their initial prerequisite: Aurora's achievement of autonomous personhood. Fashioning a distinct and resistant self is a task entailed on her, as books 1 and 2 amply show, by her presumptively dependent status as a woman in Victorian society. She must again and again affirm her independence, and must indeed harden it, if she is to have any to speak of—all the more if she is to survive as a writer in a publishing world where men set the terms. By the second half of the poem, however, Aurora finds these survival skills turning her fortified selfhood into a prison that is barely preferable to the constraining female roles she has labored to resist.

A way opens out of this self-induced enclosure through a return to the creative process that has informed Aurora's early education and that continues to sustain her maturity. Early training under her scholarly father's eye has inoculated her against the seductions of intellectual system: “He sent the schools to school” (7/1.194). But in the realm of Romantic poetry, where autodidacticism is the great commandment, Aurora experiences an independence without defensiveness. Left on her own, she drowns in poetic influence many times over, yet emerges a curiously fulfilled and resolute survivor. Immersion in the “influent odours” of her beloved poets at first causes her to write what she sees in hindsight as “lifeless imitations” and “counterfeiting epics” (29/1.887; 31/1.974, 990). Yet she also sees how influence and inspiration at their best are correlative: books profit readers most when “We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book's profound / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” (23/1.706-8). This paradoxically glorious self-oblivion commingles reading with writing, and passion with action: “Being acted on and acting seem the same” (31/1.968). And the creative play of inundation with independence during Aurora's early poetic development provides a working model to which she can later turn for help in a mid-life crisis of insolvent selfhood.13

To be sure, an idealizing theory of impassioned reading lets Barrett Browning hide a multitude of sins: the frequent derivativeness of her Romantic rhetoric; the thorny question of Aurora's wholesale mediation of the narratives of Marian Erle (122/4.151-56); or the severe limitation of her social sympathies with life beyond the pale of bourgeois gentility.14 Still, such a theory constitutes a poetics fully consistent with the narrative innovations of Aurora Leigh, with its mythological epic framework, and with its heroine's development from defensive self-enclosure toward creative openness. While this general pattern of psychological development gives the plot a resolutely conventional Victorian profile, it is also freshly figured, and significantly qualified, in a specific pattern of images that recapitulate the poem's cosmic fluidities at the level of the individual subject. The recurrent metaphor of a jewel or crystal melting in a liquid medium—typically a pearl in wine—serves both to define Aurora's social and psychological options and to suspend the very questions of definition and choice.

The meltdown metaphor is first introduced when Lady Waldemar, the poem's great mistress of conventions, looks askance at Romney's faux pas in engaging to marry Marian, in whom “the lineal pearl / And pride of all your lofty race of Leighs / Is destined to solution” (99/3.681-83). Pearls occur in nature as means of organic defense; this makes them apt figures for the defensive secretion of “pride” that gives to this and kindred images in the poem a common denominator.15 The breakdown of pride during the second half of the poem forms a moral action that is eminently Victorian, but that becomes more interesting when regarded as a psychological project: the reconception of identity as a dynamically interactive process rather than a freestanding construction. Solution need not denote a destiny or conclusion, as Lady Waldemar would have it. More faithfully and technically observed, it involves the reaction of a solvent with a solute. From this scientifically derived model for chemical solutions—a process of mutual reagency—Barrett Browning derives a model for psychic solutions as well.

As the poem develops, this model gathers increasing force with successive permutations of the pearl/wine trope. It next comes back to Aurora in book 5, when the prospect of union between Romney and Lady Waldemar reminds her of men's and women's differing motives for marriage:

                                                            Where we yearn to lose ourselves
And melt like white pearls in another's wine,
He seeks to double himself by what he loves,
And make his drink more costly by our pearls.


Aurora recurs to Lady Waldemar's earlier metaphor for marriage—prompted no doubt by the lady's spectacular décolletage at Lord Howe's party and rope of “pearls, drowned out of sight in milk” (176/5.620)—but she employs the metaphor with a difference. In moving from class politics to sexual politics, Aurora touches on a subject that always awakens her sense of justice. Accordingly, her image does better justice than Lady Waldemar's to both reagents in the process of solution, attending equally to either side in the economy of loss and gain. Stung by a rumor she hates to believe, Aurora sustains her usual wry tone; but the metaphor she remembers is now more wholly imagined and fair-mindedly explored.

Fair-mindedness is a theme that organizes the next book, where Aurora's discovery of Marian in France tests and transforms her conception of womanhood, and thus of her own identity. This transformation occurs during an extended recognition scene in which images of absorption and dissolution play an important rhetorical role. When Aurora beholds Marian “drowning in the transport” of the infantine sublime made manifest in her son, she describes the mother “drinking him as wine” (217/6.599, 605). The “wine” in this tiny, ambiguous simile may represent either baby or mother: Marian partakes of her son as of the wine of life, in virtually holy communion; at the same time, this new mother melting for her child (and presumably still nursing) reacts to his pearly perfection the way wine reacts with or “drinks” pearls in the earlier images of solution. The intercommunion of nursling and mother here figures in little the saving ambivalence of the meltdown imagery that runs at large through the poem. Aurora's vicariously maternal rapture over this scene prepares for the rapture of sisterhood a few pages later, by helping to break down the social defenses whereby she has stigmatized Marian's lapse, as an unwed mother, from the sexual double standard. Righteously indignant at first, then “angry that she melted me” (221/6.725), Aurora finally lets go her socially inculcated convictions for the sake of deeper bonds of sisterly feeling: “convicted, broken utterly, / With woman's passion” (223/6.778-79).

With this early climax the melting of conventional barriers between social classes, and between conceptions of feminine virtue and vice, enables Aurora in book 7 to move on with Marian and her child to Italy, and there to establish the ménage à trois that is Barrett Browning's most originally imagined challenge to existing social arrangements. This exiles' experiment in alternative living appeals strongly to modern readers, who may wish Aurora happy there forever. But Aurora's Victorian happiness is not ours, and the Italian ménage seems to her increasingly a condition of exile from the life she most desires. Without question the gravitational force of Victorian novelistic conventions does much to attract Aurora to the normative heterosexual marriage she will embrace in book 9. But we may also make out Barrett Browning's case for this patently novelistic ending in poetic terms that are more lyrically private, and more epically cosmic, than the scope of Victorian domestic fiction could admit.16 Setting up house with Marian and her child is Aurora's bravest action; but in the passional world of Aurora Leigh, action is only half the story. Our epic heroine has very early identified creative joy as a state where “Being acted on and acting seem the same,” a state requiring, and rewarding, the capacity for generous surrender. Aurora knows well how vulnerable this capacity is to exploitation in the social sphere, when it takes the form of a cultivated gentlewoman's “faculty in everything / Of abdicating power in it” (14/1.441-42). Aurora Leigh aspires beyond the social sphere, however, as it aspires beyond the “superficial realism” of social fiction.17 Its later books seek a rapprochement with the power of abdication itself; and its plot resolution lies less in Romney's last proposal of marriage than in the cosmically attuned, epically resonant spiritual discipline that readies Aurora to accept it.18

Aurora may hear Romney's voice only after she has learned to still her own. This is melodramatically evident—at times all but farcically so—in the tangle of misunderstanding from which the couple spend most of books 8 and 9 getting clear. But Aurora's capacity there for self-correction through dialogue is largely due to a more meditative process of speechless inquisition that precedes her words with Romney. Her readiness for love entails the preparatory exercise of relinquishing the very identity she has worked so hard to define, an exercise that further entails relaxing her grip on the vocation with which she has so nearly identified herself. Excluded at the villa from the intimacy she sponsors between Marian and her son but may not share, exiled from the childhood she vainly tries to revisit at her father's former house, Aurora embraces the condition of exile and loss by willingly suspending her connection not just with English but with language itself. She prays that God will “only listen to the run and beat / Of this poor, passionate, helpless blood—And then / I lay and spoke not. But He heard in heaven” (278/7.1270-72). At this zero point of abandon, Aurora discovers a body language that “beats” before poetic rhythm and “runs” past the currency of words. She attempts through wordless communion the artist's last, hardest task: to muse beyond the will and the forms that shape it.19

This creative discipline—which involves body and spirit alike, as Aurora consistently maintains the best poetry must do—provides the topic of the fine passage concluding book 7:

I did not write, nor read, nor even think,
But sate absorbed amid the quickening glooms,
Most like some passive broken lump of salt
Dropt in by chance to a bowl of oenomel,
To spoil the drink a little, and lose itself,
Dissolving slowly, slowly, until lost.


Aurora's manic narrative having run down for once, she confronts a state that is not the depressive complement of mania but its opposite: an exhaustion that simultaneously drains the self and enlarges consciousness. The simile of dissolution bears conviction, and consummates earlier images in the poem, through the fullness of its attention to the mystical experience it figures: a paradoxically passive act of expansive attenuation and diffusive absorbency. The passive verbals “absorbed,” “broken,” and “Dropt” coexist with the active “spoil,” “lose,” and “dissolving”; the penultimate line—reluctant, slightly hypermetrical—retains in self-deprecation the characteristically tart assertiveness that Aurora here studies to soothe. The dissolving grain of selfhood is not quite lost, either temporally or chemically; instead it is changed, even as it changes the solvent it feeds. Quickening the absorbent “glooms,” in a mutual exchange that quickens her in turn, Aurora's reagent identity enters a creative process that repeats in a finer tone the cosmology of Barrett Browning's epic.

Book 7 thus effects the subtlest end among the “many books” of Aurora Leigh, a closure that does not solve Aurora's anxieties of loss but suspends them, within a medium of chastening attentiveness to the fluid borders of a self that yields and receives. This metaphorical suspension constitutes a kind of narrative suspense, an unresolved harmony that keeps “mysterious tune” with the sacramental cosmic processiveness Aurora has invoked in book 5.20 It also places in epic perspective the novelistic realism that ostensibly superintends the final two books. There the declaration of love between Aurora and Romney brings narrative suspense to a storybook conclusion. But the epic work of the poem is not concluded until their mutual revelation and betrothal are ratified as apocalypse and hierogamy, from a vantage beyond the precincts of domestic fiction. The undertaking of Romney and Aurora to make a new home together, and to lay the basis for a reformed England that will “blow all class-walls level” (350/9.932), calls for consummation in a house not made with hands:

Along the tingling desert of the sky,
Beyond the circle of the conscious hills,
Were laid in jasper-stone as clear as glass
The first foundations of that new, near Day
Which should be builded out of heaven, to God.
He stood a moment with erected brows,
In silence, as a creature might, who gazed:
Stood calm, and fed his blind, majestic eyes
Upon the thought of perfect noon. And when
I saw his soul saw,—“Jasper first,” I said,
“And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
The rest in order,.. last, an amethyst.”


Like the Bible she invokes, Barrett Browning's Victorian epic stops at a limit that is a beginning as well as an end, alpha and omega at once (Revelation 21:6; see also 27/1.831). Aurora's Christian vista of daybreak corrects the dim view of the bookmaking Preacher she paraphrased at the start: it is not true that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The passage also renovates the novel, by expanding the horizons of domestic fiction beyond merely human engagements, through the edification of the bridal New Jerusalem, to espouse a sacred civic trust.21

The consecrated elements of this final epic vision—the “jasper-stone as clear as glass” and the jeweled heavens of the last lines—come directly out of the book of Revelation (21:11, 18-19). Yet these supernatural images of crystal clarity also come naturally, for the reader, out of the saturated air that has bathed the landscape across the summer night (281/8.34-59), and out of the tropes of psychological fluidity that Barrett Browning has developed across the poem. These last images of crystalline Bildung are precipitated out of the poetic solution in which Aurora's selfhood has been dissolved, diffused, and suspended for a kind of re-creation to which the traditional bildungsroman gave little play. The transparent stones of revelation, like the many books or building blocks of the poem, are the gradual structures of Aurora's processive identity. With the sudden disclosure of a love long deferred, Aurora can regain her soul at last because she has already found out how to lose it. She has learned for herself what her words have taught the broken, needy Romney, and what her writing in Aurora Leigh sets forth to show the reader: how to greet loss itself in the spirit of mobility, flux, and transformation for which the poem has found a wealth of narrative, mythopoeic, and imagistic equivalents. The last act of Aurora Leigh validates a bourgeois marriage, and to that extent affirms the ends of the novel; but its revisionary last words crown an epic passionately given to the gender-solvent, genre-absorbing fluency of love.


  1. Aurora Leigh passes epic muster with less fuss nowadays than most Victorian verse narratives, presumably because feminist criticism follows Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), p. 40, in taking for granted the cultural and political resonance of Barrett Browning's project. There are good discussions of genre questions in Susan Stanford Friedman, “Gender and Genre Anxiety: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D. as Epic Poets,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5 (1986): 203-28; Marjorie Stone, “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27; and especially Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 183-84, 215-17.

  2. Aurora Leigh: A Poem, ed. Gardner B. Taplin (Chicago: Academy, 1979), p. 1. Page number in this reprint of the author's last London edition will hereafter be cited parenthetically, followed by book and line numbers in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Complete Works, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. (1900; rpt. New York: Riverdale, 1903).

  3. Among other poems in nine books Barrett Browning would have known Young's Night Thoughts and Wordsworth's The Excursion, which structurally anticipates the “enjambed” effect I go on to discuss. Cf. also Blake's The Four Zoas and Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse.

  4. See, e.g., The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), 1:31. Rod Edmond, Affairs of the Hearth: Victorian Poetry and Domestic Narrative (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 130-31, cites other pertinent passages from Barrett Browning's correspondence.

  5. Lorna Martens, The Diary Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), p. 4, distinguishes in similar terms between the autobiographical memoir and the diary as fictional forms. See also Shari Benstock, “Authorizing the Autobiographical,” in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 18, on the example of Virginia Woolf; and, for a general discussion of the diary as “serial autobiography,” Robert A. Fothergill, Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), especially pp. 152-54.

  6. This feature of the poem has received little scholarly attention beyond C. Castan's discussion of narrative unreliability and suspenseful sleight of hand in “Structural Problems and the Poetry of Aurora Leigh,Browning Society Notes 7 (1977): 73-81. By book 5 “the story has caught up with the narrator and till the end of the poem they stay together” (p. 75); but Castan's allowance that “the first slab of narration” spans books 1-5 seems, in view of the book 3 episode discussed above, too generous by half.

  7. The extensive table in Martens's bibliographical appendix, although it omits Aurora Leigh, shows how the vogue for epistolary and diaristic narrative boomed at either end of the nineteenth century but bottomed out at the middle: “the climate during periods of realism and naturalism was extremely unfavorable” to fictional forms, like Barrett Browning's, “in which character depiction took precedence over intrigue” (Diary Novel, pp. 100, 84). On the poet's use of writings by women see Deborah Byrd, “Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet,” Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 23-41. Deirdre David, on the contrary, presents Barrett Browning as a poet with “no sustaining sense of attachment to a female literary tradition”: see Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), p. 157; also pp. 104-5.

    Among women's writings Aurora Leigh owes most to Madame de Staël's Corinne ou l'Italie (1807; rpt. Paris: Gallimard, 1985). To Barrett Browning's well-documented borrowings from Staël's Künstlerroman in matters of narrative substance we may speculatively add a dimension of narrative technique that is pertinent to our argument. Corinne's uniquely improvisatory performances come most fully into their own through “un genre de charme non seulement naturel, mais involuntaire” (a sort of charm that was not merely natural but involuntary) (p. 55), when “elle s'abandonna dans ses vers à un mouvement non interrompu” (she yielded in her verses to an uninterrupted urge) (p. 352). But Corinne's fluency as an “improvisatrice” is bound up psychologically as well as etymologically with her “imprévoyance” (unforeseeing) (p. 407; translations mine): as she comes to behold her destiny—the fatal incompatibility of her genius with her love—she quits the rostrum for the study and lapses from vital improvisation into the little death of writing (pp. 519, 580). Barrett Browning, bent on resisting the fatalism from which Staël had wrung such feminine pathos, valorizes the writing act and does everything possible to bring the text flush with her heroine's life.

  8. Editors of the poetry since Porter and Clarke have disregarded this idiosyncrasy, which a properly scholarly edition (whenever one appears) should respect.

  9. This is to disagree with the apparently self-contradictory position, maintained in different books jointly authored by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, that Aurora Leigh fails to envision “truly cosmic goals” yet also somehow remains in thrall to a regressive “providential” vision (see The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1979], p. 582; No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, vol. 1: The War of the Words [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1988], p. 72).

  10. See inter alia Delores Rosenblum, “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry,” Victorian Studies 26 (1983): 321-38; Virginia V. Steinmetz, “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 21 (1983): 351-67; Friedman, “Gender and Genre Anxiety,” pp. 220-21. Sandra M. Gilbert, “From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento,” PMLA 99 (1984): 194-211, draws out the political content of such associations.

  11. As this is the sort of passage that both affronted and thrilled the poem's first readers, it is instructive to see how the late-Victorian commentators Porter and Clarke mediate through classical myth their evident sense that it gives “daring expression” to androgyny: “lava” and “lymph” are “both in a condition of unusual potency, the first from volcanic force, the second from the sort of inspired possession associated with the word ‘lymph’ in connection with Greek oracles. The Nymphs and Muses were goddesses of the fertilizing moisture of springs impregnated with exciting fumes” (Complete Works, 5:202).

  12. Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pp. 205-11. Compare Staël's Corinne, where the protagonists pray to the figure of the intercessory father—the literal father, the late Lord Nelvil—so regularly as to open, at least for a Dissenting reader like Barrett Browning, the question whether God's gender may not be somehow different. When Corinne does invoke the divine, at a turning point in her first improvisation, her images shimmer with a theological androgyny that seems to anticipate Aurora Leigh's: “Ici l'on se console des peines même du coeur, en admirant un dieu de bonté, en pénétrant le secret de son amour; les revers passagers de notre vie éphémère se perdent dans le sein fécond et majestueux de l'immortel univers” (Here one finds consolation for the very pangs of the heart, in wondering at a god of goodness, in penetrating the secret of divine love; the passing disappointments of our ephemeral life are lost in the fecund and majestic bosom of the immortal universe.) (p. 64; my translation).

  13. Here I depart from Mermin, who applauds Aurora's “indissoluble identity” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 200), and side with Bina Freiwald: “while the text's transcendentalist metaphysics remains intact throughout, its collapsed center—an absent transcendentalist subject, an ‘unnatural’ feminine self—is inhabited by a fragmentary, paradoxical subjectivity whose reconstitution becomes the poem's aesthetic and ideological work” (“Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh: Transcendentalism and the Female Subject,” in Proceedings of the Tenth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, ed. Anna Balakian and James J. Wilhelm [New York: Gardland, 1985], 2:419). On the transcendentalist fix of Aurora Leigh, see also David, Intellectual Women, p. 152. I find in Aurora's “ability to relinquish identity” more than “the unfortunate myth” of femininity to which David reduces it; still, David's implacable book remains our best antidote to the celebratory mode currently dominating Barrett Browning criticism.

  14. David, Intellectual Women, pp. 98ff., argues that Barrett Browning's imaginative practices are quite coherent with her transcendentalist position; if so, then the Romantic ideology and political conservatism mentioned here are two sides of the same coin. The poet's exceptional Victorian fidelity to High Romantic transcendentalism is noted by Kathleen Blake, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman,” Victorian Poetry 24 (1986): 389; Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 204.

  15. On the problem of pride in Barrett Browning and Aurora Leigh, see respectively Alice Falk, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Her Prometheuses: Self-Will and a Woman Poet,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 7 (1988): 69-85; and Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman, p. 576. See also 340/9.618-19: “a woman proud, / As I am, and I'm very vilely proud.”

  16. See Friedman, “Gender and Genre Anxiety,” pp. 207-9.

  17. Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 217.

  18. Two recent biographers speculate that anxieties over closure—general fear about coming to an end, specific indecision about just where to leave Aurora—lay behind the writer's block that Barrett Browning uniquely encountered on completing book 6: see Margaret Forster, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988), p. 309; Peter Dally, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 172. Barrett Browning resolved these anxieties, I would submit, by projecting them into the transitional narrative of book 7.

  19. My argument here touches that of Christine Sutphin, “Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh,Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54; and draws more generally on the ideas of Hélène Cixous on body language and Julia Kristeva on the “semiotic.” Anti-intuitionist caveats against the “semiotic” are issued by David, Intellectual Women, pp. 144-45, and by the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective, “Women's Writing: Jane Eyre,Villette,Aurora Leigh,” in 1848: The Sociology of Literature, ed. Francis Barker et al. (Colchester: Univ. of Essex, 1978), p. 188.

  20. See Steinmetz, “Images of ‘Mother-Want,’” pp. 362-66.

  21. David, Intellectual Women, p. 133: “at the end of the ‘novel-poem’ figuring an epic quest and thereby defying governing rules of appropriate form, Aurora Leigh's poetry is properly directed by an ‘inward’ vision which will build a new city.” That this new city is the New Jerusalem affiliates Aurora Leigh with the Romantic epics of Blake and Wordsworth and with ideals of culture given wide Victorian currency by Coleridge and Carlyle: see Elinor Shaffer, “Kubla Khan” and The Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975). For David, as for the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective (“Women's Writing,” p. 201), the entire complex of ideas here embodied represents an essentially conservative response to the “marginalized” or “effeminate” status of letters, a circumstance under which Victorian intellectual women could attain a compromised prominence at best. Answers to the question whether Aurora Leigh is a feminist work or just an effeminate one depend altogether on how the practical consequences of literature are assessed, i.e., on what issues are or are not deemed political. See Moers, Literary Women, p. 14; Flavia Alaya, “The Ring, the Rescue, and the Risorgimento: Reunifying the Brownings' Italy,” Browning Institute Studies 6 (1978): 1-41; Helen Cooper, “Working into Light: Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Bloomington and London: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 65-81; Gilbert, “Risorgimento.”


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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.

Susanna Egan (essay date September 1994)

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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 at the moment than for Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning's generic anomaly, novelized epic, collage, or hybrid novel-poem.1Aurora Leigh demonstrates close ties with the traditions of novel and of poetry, but combines these genres in order to achieve a double purpose: presentation of a narrative familiar to readers of prose fiction and simultaneous subversion of this same narrative by means of a dense imagery more common to poetry. Where the novel works realistically with a broad cross-section of characters and scenes from contemporary life and tells a familiar story of love frustrated and then fulfilled, the poem introduces key images that recur with cumulative semantic power and radically affect the novel's conclusion. (Figurative language essentially constitutes the poetic elevation in a work that is neither condensed nor mellifluous.)

In particular, Barrett Browning uses images of Lady Godiva and of Danae to enrich her treatment of marriage and prostitution and of the woman as artist; for both figures and with both (related) topics, vulnerable nakedness becomes the source of power. One virtue, furthermore, of the presentation of Godiva and Danae as images rather than as narratives (for Barrett Browning's purposes, Danae actually originates in a painting) is their wide metaphoric value; she releases them, as it were, from an arrested iconic pose into the narrative situation of women both in and beyond this work, thus enabling them to describe significantly related but distinctive modes of passive resistance to abuse as well as the political value of that resistance.

Barrett Browning also associates Lady Godiva's hair and Danae's shower of gold with the symbolic mantle of the prophet/poet, thus specifying the particular assumption of power that originates in this work in a woman's initial condition of weakness.2 That this combination of extreme weakness with remarkable power was central to her purpose becomes clear when we recognize that Marian (the traditional victim in terms both of gender and of class) rather than Aurora is the central determiner of meaning for both these images. Margaret Reynolds points out that “Barrett Browning gave Marian Erle, and not Aurora, a personal appearance which very closely resembled her own. … That Marian should be depicted as her author's physical self, while the character of Aurora portrayed her intellectual self-construction in writing, suggests … the inevitable duality which Barrett Browning conceived as necessary to the writing woman, a crossbreed, evolving out of a feminine nature and a masculine order” (45). Such double focus that discloses two equally demanding identities has been described as a structural pattern of women's autobiography (Mason 210), reminding us that the issues that are central to Aurora Leigh were, of course, central also to Barrett Browning's life. The woman figure who welcomes the new dawn is therefore richly composite; she is designed both to represent all her sisters and to refigure a woman's stance in literature.

This, of course, is why Aurora Leigh has become so important to feminist critics. Although it was popular when first published, Aurora Leigh was largely ignored for many decades after Barrett Browning's death and only reinstated (beginning with Woolf's appreciation) fairly recently. Feminists are placing it back in the literary canon both because of its considerable merit and because it is the Künstlerroman of a woman poet. But reinstatement has invited troubled discussion about the hybrid nature of the work, essentially because its genres seem to work against each other: the woman poet creates herself through the process of her poem, which celebrates female power and female subjectivity, and which values her art, in the process, above marriage and motherhood; the novelist, on the other hand, seems to renege on this position and “come down,” as Margaret Forster puts it, “on the side of a convenient and melodramatic climax” (311). Aurora's final union with her cousin Romney can be read as narrative weakness and failure. Not only does the poet seem to undervalue her art when she acknowledges her love, but she also seems to value the institution of marriage sufficiently to keep the fallen Marian and her fatherless child outside its hallowed precincts. Kathleen Blake refers to Marian, for instance, as “enshrouded, never to be decked out in nuptial imagery” (Love 184). Barrett Browning's hybrid genre, in other words, both states and denies her responsibility as woman and as poet.

Barrett Browning, of course, was working quite consciously in the mainstream of the Romantic tradition: this is surely the origin of the autobiographic enterprise, of the confessional mode, of memory, and of subjective perception, as it is of her evaluation of her creative powers.3 It is from this tradition that she derives her sense of the poet as by now an acknowledged legislator of mankind,4 her sense of imagination as indeed a spiritual activity connecting the poet with nature, and her sense of a potential golden age. This last is curiously modified by the ugliness and hypocrisy that she satirizes in contemporary society, but remains realizable in revolution, to which she was passionately committed, and, within the poem, in her concluding vision of the New Jerusalem. It makes sense that a woman poet should look forward for her golden age and not back. We know that childhood for a woman was too often a tight cocoon from which she was not allowed to break. (And we think of Elizabeth Barrett, conveniently immobilized in her father's house, or, indeed, of Mariana in her lonely moated grange waiting for “him” to liberate her.) Woman's golden age is not inherited but to be made by means of the liberating creativity of her own inspired imagination seeking, out of the denials and fragmentation of her gifts, a satisfactory wholeness. Wordsworth's Prelude provides a partial model, as (to general distress in the Barrett household) does Byron's Don Juan. Epic and satire, both traditionally masculine prerogatives, contribute to the hybrid nature of this work.5

More important, Barrett Browning, in dialogue with the literature of her time, fused these “male genres” with what has been called the “female genre” of the novel. She denied that the burning of Leigh Hall and the blinding of Romney Leigh at the end derive from the misadventures of Rochester in Jane Eyre (1847). Romney Leigh, however, offering Aurora a partnership in mission at the start is also Jane Eyre's cousin, St. John Rivers. Marian, the lowborn saint who suffers rape and single motherhood, derives from Gaskell's Ruth (1853), and may be read in the context of Little Em'ly (1850), Hetty Sorrel (1859), Fanny Robin (1874), and Tess (1891). Barrett Browning's social concerns, in particular the imaginative sympathy with which she seeks to transcend the class system, linking discriminations of class with those of sex, place her work squarely amidst the fiction of Disraeli, Kingsley, Dickens, and Gaskell. We can also draw close parallels, especially on the woman question, between her work and that of Mme de Staël and George Sand (from whom, some suggest, she derived the name Aurora).6

In her discussion of Aurora Leigh in relation to Tennyson's poem The Princess, Marjorie Stone points out that assumptions about genre and gender interact and structure both the creation and the reception of literary texts (101). When women move into male-defined genres and feel their feminine perceptions constrained by male discourse, they necessarily adapt what they find to create new and hybrid forms. The Bildungsroman, in particular, presents women in a patriarchal culture with problems of narrative and of appropriate language. (The very fact that a woman is speaking in Aurora Leigh subverts the masculine forms and tropes that she is using.) As Alice Ostriker has pointed out, “[w]henever a poet employs a figure or story previously accepted and defined by a culture, the poet is using myth, and the potential is always present that the use will be revisionist: that is, the figure or tale will be appropriated for altered ends, the old vessel filled with new wine, initially satisfying the thirst of the individual poet but ultimately making cultural change possible” (72). Or, as Jacobus puts it, women necessarily work within a male discourse and therefore must “work ceaselessly to deconstruct it: to write what cannot be written” (qtd. in Heilbrun 41). Stone's reading of Aurora Leigh in conjunction with Tennyson's Princess richly elaborates both the fun that Barrett Browning had with conventional expectations and the numerous ways in which she appropriated what she needed in order to create the organic form that she so keenly advocated (Barrett Browning 5.183-229).

The collage, the dialogue, the novel-poem should not, surely, contradict itself, however. The woman poet working so boldly in several male-defined genres should not undervalue her achievement by settling for domestic bliss at the end of the story. Barbara Gelpi looks with care at Aurora's relationship both with Lady Waldemar and with Romney Leigh and suggests that the conclusion of the story is no prelude to Victorian domesticity nor to an autobiographical Barrett/Browning romance; rather, where Lady Waldemar has expressed “the voice of Aurora's own self-distrust, the disabling faithlessness of the inner oppressor” (40), Romney, the blind sea king, becomes a dramatic projection of that (blind) faith that is necessary for artistic creativity (48).7 Gelpi is persuasive in her analysis of Romney and Aurora “as the dual expression of a single though ambivalent mind,” an analysis that “provides a different, interiorized plot to the poem” (41). Wrestling with the same problem in her excellent essay, “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh,” Alison Case writes about “the mixed narration of Aurora Leigh,” which allowed Barrett Browning “to create a kind of double teleology for the novel, in which the struggle toward artistic independence and success, the plot of poetic ‘ambition,’ could be kept relatively isolated from the undermining influence of the traditional love-story, with its emphasis on female passivity and lack of emotional or sexual self-knowledge, its insistence on loving self-abnegation as the proper ‘end’ of female existence” (30). More recently, Reynolds suggests that “by accepting this part of the ideology of patriarchy, Aurora might be courting a self-silencing; once she is complete as a woman—and resolved as a story—she will not be able to go on with the speaking/writing of the self but will be authored by conventional expectations … losing those imperatives of self-determination which were the incentive to narrative in the first place.” Reynolds concludes that Aurora's determination to continue her professional career successfully negotiates and avoids this “potentially negative resolution” (38).

I would like to go further. Using the recurring image of Lady Godiva, I would like to suggest that buried within the familiar plot that seems so stereotyped and sexist lies an even more radical enterprise than the development and affirmation of a woman poet or the treatment of prostitution and the dignifying of a fallen woman (which were certainly radical issues for Barrett Browning's contemporary readers). Focussing on the relationship between Aurora and Marian, I suggest that the happy-ever-after conclusion is itself subverted and radical, that it involves no capitulation to male-defined conventions, far less to the notion of the male liberator, but, rather, resolves the tensions inherent in radical issues such as woman's work and woman's power to break away from her helpless (or passive) role as victim.8 I would like to show how Barrett Browning works safely within the Romantic tradition and within the context of the contemporary novel to effect a new reading of a familiar story from within—creating anew, in Percy Shelley's terms, what has been blunted by reiteration. She does this, furthermore, by focussing on the issue of prostitution, specifically the rape of poor Marian, and the ways in which that reverberates through the poem and is central to its meaning. Woman as narrator and as protagonist, in other words, reverses our expectations of what constitutes helplessness and vulnerability, what constitutes decency and shame (both tied to the issues of woman as artist and woman as wife, or as fallen), and who is the liberator of whom.

Combining the realism of the novel (she wanted to “touch this everyday life of our age, & hold it with [her] two hands” [qtd. in Mermin 186]) with the charged potency of poetry, Barrett Browning has Aurora Leigh reject various forms of male empowerment in order to assume a prophet's mantle that is both poetic and personal; it is central to the subversive nature of the poetic imagery and to the conventional narrative. Romney, for example, fails to recognize Aurora's role; he belittles her verse in Book Two, telling her that Miriam's song can follow after Moses has seen to the slaying of Egypt (2.171-72). By Book Eight, however, he acknowledges her power and is compelled to describe his own near-drowning from lack of faith while she stood “singing on the shore” (8.335). Another mantle that Aurora assumes only briefly—when she tells Marian to marry Romney—is that which Aaron, like Elijah, takes off at the moment of death (9.253-55). The woman poet must also be prepared to shed her mantle for other women to wear, but her transmission of power lacks precedents and is problematic, because of the choices seemingly forced on her by gender. So we hear that pretty Kate Ward, nestling into marriage with Carrington, reflecting his soul in truly feminine adoration, insists on his painting her portrait in a cloak like Aurora's (7.595-96). The notion is challenging for Carrington yet also coy; Kate Ward is mistress and muse, not free-standing subject or artist.

The cloak of the prophet, which must pass from one generation to the next, is also in this case a woman's garment to be worn or removed. Aurora/Miriam as prophet needs extraordinary faith in order to sing when Romney/Moses does not believe her power is significant, even though he flounders in the waters, or is comparable to the ungodly Egyptians, if he devalues her role. Aaron is instructed to take off his priestly robe when he is a very old man and about to die and he will pass it on to his sons in their generations as priests of Israel. Neither Miriam nor Aaron, however, provides a sufficiently complex model for Aurora Leigh, who has to choose between poetry and marriage. As a nineteenth-century heroine she cannot, so to speak, wear her cloak and shed it. Nor can she, in shedding for marriage the power that the cloak represents, envisage for herself such hereditary succession as Aaron's. Both the human vulnerability of the everyday life/novelistic heroine, however, and the desired apotheosis of the prophet/poet require the removal of this symbolic garment; Barrett Browning can use the power of poetry but must also, in her “touch [of] this everyday life,” reveal her heroine as woman.9

So Barrett Browning combines the imagery of the prophet's cloak with the image of Lady Godiva, who, in her helplessness as the wife of a powerful man, sheds her clothing to achieve her righteous ends. Unlike Aaron's or Elijah's, Lady Godiva's undressing is explicitly sexual and therefore dangerous for her; she is valuable to this poem because she risks personal exposure to serve a political purpose, thereby converting female vulnerability to female heroism. Challenged by her tyrannical husband to expose herself in order to help the poor, Lady Godiva does so, her purity ensured both by the covering of her own abundant hair and by the selfless love with which she turns naked submission (like the helplessness of the victim of rape) into creative action (like that of the woman poet). Lady Godiva is not, in fact, passive, and Lady Godiva is effective. Two particular images connected with Lady Godiva recur in Aurora Leigh—the belts or crowns that bind and cinch and the hair and clothing that fall free. Tennyson's Lady Godiva, we may remember, sends a herald out to proclaim that “she would loose / The people” (37-38), whereupon she “Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt, / The grim Earl's gift. … [A]non she shook her head, / And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee; / Unclad herself in haste; … Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity” (43-53). In Tennyson's version, which Barrett Browning certainly knew, the only man who fails to recognize the importance and value of her heroic self-exposure is Peeping Tom, who is struck blind—like Romney Leigh. The woman who asserts her own subjectivity does not remain a helpless object of the male gaze.

Mermin discusses Lady Godiva not in relation to Aurora Leigh but as a symbol to Barrett Browning of the ways in which she as a woman could take risks for women's issues and indeed for the wider causes of social reform. She refers, for example, to letters of 1831 indicating Barrett Browning's support for the Reform Bill. When the Anti-Corn-Law League asked her to write a poem in support of their cause in 1845, she wanted to do so. Her father, however, and her brothers, and even her cousin John Kenyon, on whose help she so constantly relied, overwhelmed her with their scorn of women and/or poets involving themselves with politics. Writing in distress to Mary Russell Mitford, she wonders whether she would not indeed be an embarrassment to her family and friends if she took “such a prominent post in the political ground, harp in hand & petticoat down to the ankles. But,” she adds, “I am writing ungenerously—I feel I am. Not like a Godiva” (qtd. in Mermin 155).10

Barrett Browning had Godiva on her mind because of some recent correspondence with Harriet Martineau. Martineau had gone public with the news that mesmerism had cured her of uterine cancer. Barrett Browning wrote to Mitford about her horrified admiration of Martineau's courage: “[I]f she believed that her sufferings were in any way connected with the conditions of her womanhood, she was … very brave indeed.” Her letter of sympathy to Martineau herself produced the response: “I took my part deliberately,—knowing privacy to be impossible, & making up my mind to entail publicity as the only course faithful to truth and human welfare. I cannot tell you how the thought of Godiva has sustained and inspired me.” To Mitford, Barrett Browning resumes, “She says, she was prepared for the publicity; & she thinks of Godiva. … I admire her more than ever. I always did admire the moral heroic beyond all things … next to genius” (qtd. in Mermin 155). If she had failed herself to be a Godiva in 1845, Barrett Browning set out to demonstrate both the moral heroic and genius in Aurora Leigh.

The moral heroic is both stated and subverted when Romney Leigh, idealist, social reformer, burdened with money and distinction, fails to persuade the poet to prefer action with him over her heartfelt vocation, and turns to Marian, saintly and persecuted child of the people, for an exemplary marriage across class lines. She will be the heart and he will be the head. In Book Four we have an extraordinary scene of moral and social chaos in the church, and Marian fails to turn up. In fact, she has been persuaded by Lady Waldemar to leave the country, but the point here, in a scene of vivid chaos that anticipates the fire at Leigh Hall and the violent destruction of all Romney's best efforts, is that Marian is unavailable for the rescue that he has had in mind.11 Indeed, when we next see Marian in the streets of Paris with a baby in her arms, we are tempted to cast Romney, her would-be-saviour, as villain of the piece, the James Steerforth, the Squire Donnithorne, the Alec D'Urberville, wayward, restless, interfering, unaware of what it is that Marian as Marian really needs.

Romney, of course, does not deserve this. He is an honourable man, own cousin to Charles Kingsley or Frederic Denison Maurice. The rescue he attempts, however, is part of the larger scene of prostitution that pervades the work, not the references to or glimpses of prostitutes in the streets that so shocked Victorian mamas, but, rather, the conventional perception of male/female relationships, which is defined in terms of the male heroic. So, we must hastily point out, he is innocent of intended harm to Marian. Lady Waldemar's servant has spirited her away to a brothel in Paris, where she is drugged and raped. This betrayal and violence have actually been anticipated in her story to the poet of how she had fled from her brutal parents after her mother had come upon her suddenly:

And snatching in a sort of breathless rage
Her daughter's headgear comb, let down the hair
Upon her like a sudden waterfall,
Then drew her drenched and passive by the arm
Outside the hut they lived in. When the child
Could clear her blinded face from all that stream
Of tresses … there, a man stood, with beast's eyes
That seemed as they would swallow her alive.


This, in fact, is the wicked squire, the Peeping Tom, who is dangerous because he sees her only as an object of his desire and not in her own integrity. In Godiva-purity, she flees into what becomes her alternative, marriage to Romney, who does, at this point, rescue her. Her own desires in this rescue, her heartbeats,

          might as well be written on the dust
Where some poor bird, escaping from hawk's beak
Has dropped and beats its shuddering wings.


Marian's plight, dramatically compounded by her role as victim of class and of sex, is equivalent to that of Aurora, who is Romney's cousin, more evidently the heart to work with his head, and who suffers no such violence but is exposed instead to the sanctioned prostitution of marriage. Aurora's equivalent danger is quite simply need and convention. Romney's suit is pressed on her as appropriate for the estate, as a duty, and not least as a safeguard against poverty. Her father's sister, her hair braided tight to tame any accidental thoughts, has trained her in the cage-bird life,

Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird.


Aurora resists Romney's proposal as she later rejects out of hand invitations to marry other men who would make her respectable and keep her in funds. Resistance, for Aurora, as for Marian, is based on self-respect, and the discovery against considerable odds of a womanstance, independent of compromise, barter, and sale. Aurora, indeed, speaks bitterly of the conventional use of marriage as keeping love to pay our debts with (2.716-17):

We haggle for the small change of our gold,
And so much love accord for so much love,


Such marriage is prostitution, even when described as Lord Howe describes it, as protection from the exigencies of poetic inspiration, which he presents as a rape that, in narrative sequence, anticipates Marian's. Marriage, he tells her, would be a tripod

To throne such feet as yours, my prophetess,
At Delphi. Think,—the god comes down as fierce
As twenty bloodhounds, shakes you, strangles you,
Until the oracular shriek shall ooze in froth!
At best 'tis not all ease,—at worst too hard:
A place to stand on is a 'vantage gained,
And here's your tripod. To be plain, dear friend,
You're poor. …


Lord Howe's violent metaphor of Apollo-like bloodhounds brutalizing the oracle into utterance connects Aurora with Marian as a fluttering bird or wild fawn in desperate flight.12 For the poet-prophet, Miriam not Moses, kin to Wordsworth in her struggle to follow her vocation, a marriage of convenience that would protect her even from violence such as this is unacceptable. Lord Howe's proposal stiffens her resolve even as it makes her journey hard. She

          answered slow,—as some wayfaring man,
Who feels himself at night too far from home,
Makes steadfast face against the bitter wind.


Lady Waldemar disclaims her part in Marian's ruin, and she may technically be right in doing so. But when we are not our brother's keeper, Aurora says, we are his Cain (4.468). The lives and the interconnected rescue and responsibility of Marian and Aurora for each other, by means of which they become responsive and creative reflections of each other, centre on another image that pertains to both of them, describing again for one a physical and for the other a poetic rape and impregnation, and that is the image of the rape of Danae by Zeus.

The painter Carrington invites Aurora's response to two sketches he has made for Danae:

A tiptoe Danae, overbold and hot,
Both arms a-flame to meet her wishing Jove
Halfway, and burn him faster down; the face
And breasts upturned and straining, the loose locks
All glowing with the anticipated gold.
Or here's another on the self-same theme.
She lies here—flat upon her prison-floor,
The long hair swathed about her to the heel
Like wet seaweed. You dimly see her through
The glittering haze of that prodigious rain,
Half blotted out of nature by a love
As heavy as fate. I'll bring you either sketch.
I think, myself, the second indicates
More passion.


The second Danae, of course, is Godiva-like in her quiet submission, and in the covering of hair. (The second Danae may remind us, also, that the young Aurora blinds herself with the dew of an ivy crown on her birthday, then trails it in dismay at Romney's reaction to her [2.46-117]). Meditating on these alternative versions of Danae in prison receiving her god, Aurora too perceives the second as more passionate because “Self is put away” (3.135). Danae not striving or aspiring becomes the recipient artist-soul. So “We'll be calm, / And know that, when indeed our Joves come down, / We all turn stiller than we have ever been” (3.141-43).13

Similarly, Marian, suffering not seduction but violence from man, indignant that this can be interpreted as shame to her, claims that she has not been raped but murdered, and that, lying (passive) in the ditch, she has discovered embedded in her flesh some coin of price, dropped there by God as payment for her loss. The child is hers alone and she lives no longer as a woman but only through her mother-love.14 She becomes, in fact, the Virgin Mary, submissive handmaid of the Lord, “Sweet holy Marian” (6.782), swearing to her purity by the child that she raises up on high. The merging of these myths is harmonious because both Danae and Mary welcome their creative roles and give birth to saviours. The pagan Danae references precede allusion to the Virgin Mary, thus enabling Barrett Browning's treatment of rape to convey both divine and physical impregnation, both poetic and womanly gifts. Danae, in other words, merges the two women and ensures that “Sweet holy Marian” is not rarified but realistic. As Joyce Zonana puts it, “[w]hat Marian calls God's ‘coin’ is the product of woman's normal biological capacity. It is Marian's female physiology, her ‘blood,’ that becomes her token of divinity” (258). What is shocking to convention is this interpretation of the fallen woman, who does not go away or die, and does not kill her child, but is sanctified by life and becomes the alter ego whom the poet quests to find. We need to look briefly at Marian as the object of Aurora's quest, and at the yet further reversal of conventional expectations by which the object is shown to be a self-creating subject, like the poet herself.

Writing about her responsibility to speak up on behalf of women, Barrett Browning suggests that the alternative is to be dumb and die. Both her women speak; they tell their stories; they identify their sufferings; resistance to violence takes the form of vocal choice. Reynolds reminds us that “Aurora, as narrator, shows herself to be aware of the various attempts foisted upon her as an individual—and a woman—to write her story for her. … Only with the destruction of [these texts] is she released into the possibility of self-construction” (33). Aurora blames herself for not speaking out in anticipation of disaster when Marian disappears (4.473-76). Later, when she finds Marian, she wonders whether to write to Romney, but saves words until she is clear about what to say (6.333-36). Marian, however, now speaks clearly for herself; energetically she reverses the conventional association of innocence in a woman with silence. Aurora is responsible not for Marian's story but for the poetic vision of the New Jersualem in the glorious dawn with which the poem ends.

But these women are also responsible to each other as respondent to each other's self-creation in resistance, specifically, to Romney. (“The trajectory described by Marian Erle's career,” says Reynolds, “inverts the pattern of Aurora's to demonstrate the essential need of the individual (woman) to establish a security of self-recognition” [41].) Gelpi's reading of Romney as Aurora's male alter ego opens the whole issue of the Victorian polarities of art and work, especially as their union at the end justifies Aurora's meditation on “the essential prophet's word” (6.216), which does more for a man “Than if you dressed him in a broadcloth coat / And warmed his Sunday pottage at your fire” (6.224-25). Aurora's resistance to Romney begins with his devaluation of her poetry, develops in terms of characterization that moves toward self-knowledge, and is central to this issue of the ultimate value of poetry. As Mermin puts it: “Barrett Browning retains the conventional identification of woman with the inner, spiritual, emotional, and subjective sphere: with poetry, and with poems. Instead of switching gender roles she switches the locus of power within them, the novelistic story concluding with an assertion of the primacy of poetry over the novel and of women over men. If power resides in the inner life, it belongs to poetry, and to women, and so to the woman poet most of all” (215).15 We need to bear in mind the commonest Victorian assumptions about appropriate subject matter and treatment against which Barrett Browning makes such bold assertions.

Aurora is responsible for Marian's initial resistance to Romney, though she does not know this until later, because she sows in Marian's mind a self-respecting concern about the nature of Romney's love (4.944-48). Accepting his rescue of her, turning to him in gratitude as to a god, Marian had not thought to ask whether in fact he loved her. Aurora's quest for Marian is not an immediate consequence in the plot of Marian's disappearance but grows, rather, out of Aurora's own malaise, also connected with Romney. Both women, in other words, learn to exercise their words of power in desperate self-definition and in resistance to the ethics and sexual mores of their time. Like Marian, Aurora suffers from Romney's perception of her role; maybe the small shepherd girl asleep among her scattered sheep, he says, does less harm than the overzealous sheepdog who bites a kid. Aurora rejects sleep, rejects pastoral, and claims, as he puts it, that she is breaking mythic turf with the crooked ploughs of actual life (4.1119-64).

In actual life, however, Aurora is, as a good Romantic poet should be, lonely (5.439ff).16 She envies other poets the mothers and wives who reward their efforts (5.518-39). Fighting free of the tight spaces of convention that threaten to bury her alive, she turns herself into a Godiva-poet:

                                                  I drop my cloak,
Unclasp my girdle, loose the band that ties
My hair … now could I but unloose my soul!


What she does is sell her father's books to realize the money to take her to Italy, her mother's country, to revive herself from “a beaker full of the warm South.” Her rejection of language for place of birth, of father for mother, notably includes these realistic and practical concerns that are common to the novel; her ability to uproot herself symbolically depends in part on the common coin that commodifies women like books. (Books, of course, that cater to commercial needs are, like women, soiled [5.258-60].) Such practical matters are not part of the parlance of elevated poetry, but serve in passing to reconnect the genres of this work.

In transition, in Paris, Aurora contemplates the differences between theory and practice, between philanthropy and poetry, which is “the essential prophet's word / That comes in power” (6.216-17). Not bread but the word alone conjures up Marian's face, which disappears into the crowd (6.226). The recognition, which is mutual, is momentous.18 Marian's face bursts in upon Aurora's preoccupations like a long-lost face, now dead, floating from the depths to the surface of a pond.19 The plunge, the splash, and the pursuit are literal and metaphorical simultaneously. The crowd fragments into individual collisions as it absorbs and buries that momentary recognition. The episode is dramatic and bears comparison with Wordsworth's blind beggar,

Wearing a written paper to explain
His Story, whence he came, and who he was.
Caught by the spectacle, my mind turned round
As with the might of waters; an apt type
This Label seemed, of the utmost we can know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And on the Shape of that unmoving Man,
His steadfast face, and sightless eyes, I gazed
As if admonished from another world.

(Prelude 7.641-49)

Of central importance to Aurora's moment of recognition, however, is the fact that her vision is of a woman's face that also sees her, in other words, is its own subject making its own response. “[T]hose eyes / … I do remember, saw me too, / As I saw them, with conscious lids astrain / In recognition” (6.325-28).20 We might contrast with this mirror image the mirroring by Kate Ward of her future husband's soul; such mirroring, after all, is what makes her an appropriate muse and wife. “I've painted her. … / The whole sweet face,” he writes. “[I]t looks upon my soul / Like a face on water, to beget itself” (7.591-94).

Indeed, when Aurora actually finds and grabs Marian in the flower market at dawn, she makes a mistake in trying to lead her home:

Not a word
She said, but …
… followed closely where I went,
As if I led her by a narrow plank
Across devouring waters, step by step.


The journey is as tense and purposeful as Wordsworth's crossing of the Simplon Pass (Prelude 6.558-641), with an enriched reversal of intent as Marian refuses to go further and Aurora becomes the one to follow:

Then she led
The way, and I, as by a narrow plank
Across devouring waters, followed her,
Stepping by her footsteps, breathing by her breath,
And holding her with eyes that would not slip.


This reversal of roles reiterates the reversal of all expectations. Just as Romney's offer of marriage to each woman is implicated with the rape of each, just as Marian's baby, born to woman alone, is an honour from God to a woman who is pure, so now Aurora's mistaken assumption that she can rescue Marian becomes Marian's assertive rescue of her. Cooper develops Marian's role in releasing Aurora from the patriarchal assumptions that handicap the woman committed to man's work; commenting on the fact that Aurora begins by “translating” (171) Marian's story, she points out that Marian in Paris “transforms woman from scorned object to angry subject” (176).21

Failing to recognize her own love for Romney, Aurora has separated head from heart and art from life. Such dichotomizing, furthermore, limits both her moral and her imaginative grasp of the situation; she sees Marian's small, grave-like room and rosy baby only as proof of Marian's guilt and shame. Failing as compassionate woman and as visionary poet, she mediates, in other words, between conventional response to such a situation and the inner reality that Marian manifests as a new revelation. She mediates, also, in what Blake has discussed as the “self-postponement” of the woman artist, between the male-desiring Lady Waldemar and the increasingly self-defining Marian. Aurora herself needs rescuing, and Marian, who has suffered through external violence and consequent inner madness, has attained the wisdom that the artist needs, a self-affirming reception of her shower of gold. Lady Waldemar here becomes the other Danae, reaching greedily for what she cannot have. Aurora, of course, controls our perception of this complex character and reveals her own secret desires. She sees Lady Waldemar's love as of the rialto kind; to declare it in so unmaidenly a fashion is coarse, like eating garlic. She is a Lamia, a deceiver. She must feign interest in Romney's social work in her attempts to reach his heart, and gives money to his causes to prove her dedication (5.778-94). When gossip at a party describes her, it is as a flower that “neither sews nor spins,—and takes no thought / Of her garments … falling off” (5.664-65). Far from associating her with Godiva, this crude assessment causes listeners to flinch and draw back their chairs as if they spied black beetles on the floor.

What Marian and Aurora achieve by contrast is a new definition of purity and courage; they step outside the conventions that determine what is garlic, and they assess situations that are conventionally problematic for women in terms of their personal experience. They belong together, furthermore, by virtue of the isolation of their separate predicaments. “I who have written much,” Aurora begins, “Will write my story” (1.2-4). “I, writing thus” (1.9), she says at another point, or “[t]oo young, to sit alone … I write” (1.28-29).22 The first-person pronoun, the tense shifts that indicate the ongoing activity of translating experience into language, merge with Marian's story. Where she had originally felt that Romney might write his name upon her, as seemed natural, she now speaks for herself: “I, Marian Erle, myself, alone, undone” (6.1270). She invites Aurora to tell her what to say when Romney offers marriage once again, this time to a “ruined maid” with a fatherless child (9.246-47). The selfless generosity of his second offer, of course, suggests one solution to the story that would subvert conventional plotting. But it will not do. For Marian to accept Romney now would make him once again the conventional definer of her identity and reduce her to such conventional definition. (Angela Leighton compares Marian's rejection of Romney here with Aurora's earlier rejection, suggesting that both women assert themselves against the “law of the father” [113].) Conventions might indeed be shattered, but she would be respectable and he would be a hero. Aurora tells her to believe his love and marry him. She too is being heroic, but she is not being honest. Here, at the very end, Marian has to reiterate the truly Romantic womanstance in which the traditional object redefines herself as subject because she speaks not out of custom but out of her own inner conviction.

If the novel uses romantic fulfilment as a feature of self-knowledge and as a happy resolution to the complexities of plot, the poetic elements focus on Marian to remind us of the rich palimpsest of issues in this hybrid genre. Barrett Browning elevates the prosaic difficulties of women's daily life and love and work into the domain of high seriousness—of art. At the novelistic level, the story ends “happily ever after” because Marian's rejection of Romney saves the plot from an impossible denouement and releases Romney and Aurora to avow their love for each other. To read it only this way, however, is to ignore the combination of prose fiction with poetry. Indeed, Marian is unmarriageable and is condemned to a life of sacrificial motherhood, but several important things have happened on Lady Godiva's journey to alter the lot of such fallen women. For a start, the class barrier has been overcome not by marriage but by the profoundly felt sisterhood of these two women. Secondly, Marian's motherhood has been hallowed and sanctified and related very closely to the creativity of the poet. Thirdly, she has reversed roles both with the philanthropic Romney and with the poet Aurora. She who has journeyed through hell and lived to tell her tale is a saviour for them both. And finally, against even the poet's initial assumptions, this is her story. She will not marry Romney, because, much as she admires him, she does not love him. The fallen woman of the Victorian novel turns like the proverbial worm to reject patriarchal assumptions about what might rescue her. She knows what prostitution is and will not sell her soul for a mess of conventional decency. Identified in her creativity with the poet and asserting herself as subject, Marian provides the fullest because all-encompassing possibilities for woman. She is born of the generic mix of prose and poetry. Her story demonstrates transmission of power in womanly community, both the passing of the prophet's mantle and recognition that for the poet and for the woman self-exposing courage calls attention to her power. Surely this celebration of the redefined chastity in which she rides forth clothed constitutes glad rags for Lady Godiva.


  1. See Cora Kaplan's Introduction, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems.

  2. See Gilbert and Gubar (546-47) for the problematic connection for women between poets and priests and for the notion that “woman” and “poet” have been “mutually contradictory terms.” “The gift of inspiration is an ambiguous one,” says Reynolds, “for while it elevates the individual to the authoritative rank of prophet, it simultaneously debases her to the status of unconsenting instrument” (15).

  3. See Blake's discussion of the difficulties facing the Romantic poet who is a woman (“EBB and Wordsworth”). See also Reynolds: “The tenets of Romantic poetic theory often incapacitated the woman poet, or even excluded her altogether” (2).

  4. Except that she complained of her lack of grandmothers in the field. We are reminded of the serious and comprehensive value of this work for women's literature at every turn.

  5. See Friedman, Stone, and Mermin on gender and genre, and Gilbert and Gubar (541) on masculinist attitudes to women poets.

  6. McSweeney (Barrett Browning xxxii) makes the point that Aurora Leigh is best understood in a high Victorian rather than a feminist context. Without wishing to polarize these alternatives, I stress Barrett Browning's self-conscious positioning of her work in both contexts.

  7. See also Cooper, chapter 6, for full discussion of the “anxiety” of patriarchal influence and the radical value of Romney as (blind) male muse. Convincingly identifying the muse as the poet's very self, Zonana suggests that “Romney's blinding is his punishment, not for being a Victorian man, but for his presumption in challenging a goddess” (259).

  8. Rape and prostitution obviously involve physical brutality against women, but they may also become metonymic of the whole condition of women against which the woman writer needs to seek power both to be and to write. Mermin describes the daughter's quest for her mother as one literary trope that significantly empowers the woman writer; by means of her own imagination and creativity, she rescues the image of “mother” from a premature death associated with love and with birth (183-224). See Steinmetz on “Images of Mother-Want” and Friedman's point that Aurora's “love for Marian, with its acceptance of motherhood itself, represents her acceptance of her own womanhood” (221). See Marian: “Did God make mothers out of victims, then, / And set such pure amens to hideous deeds?” (Barrett Browning 7.56-57).

  9. Reynolds points out that “[t]he current character of poetic theory, where the poet functioned as an inspired prophet, offered Elizabeth Barrett a means of self-aggrandizement which did not affront too directly the common notion of female passivity” (15).

  10. I am indebted to Mermin for her discussion of these and the following references to Lady Godiva in the Barrett Browning correspondence.

  11. Munich discusses Robert Browning's treatment of the Andromeda figure in ways that associate her most suggestively with Barrett Browning's Lady Godiva. Andromeda, she suggests, is the “emblem of an expressive power associated with the feminine.” In her reading, moreover, as here with Lady Godiva, it is “[t]he Andromeda figure, not the Perseus figure, [that] rescues the poet from despair” (123, 126).

  12. Later references to Io also connect violence suffered by women to the violence of poetic inspiration. Barrett Browning suggests that Jove (not Hera) drives Io “through the wastes of life” (7.829). Io receives Jove's consolation, however, not as truth but as love (7.897).

  13. This parallel between submissive woman and recipient artist-soul challenges assumptions about the male artist and his female muse. June Sturrock first drew my attention to the problematic issue of the traditionally female soul housed in the female body. See also Zonana's illuminating discussion of the “embodied muse.” Such doubled representations of the feminine elaborate the parallel rapes in Aurora Leigh of body and of soul.

  14. See Leighton on mother's possession of the baby under man-made laws.

  15. The gendering of genre is complex and, in broad strokes, even contradictory. See Friedman on “the epic and the lyric,” which “have continued to invoke the inscriptions of gender implicit in Homer and Sappho as the mother and father of contrasting discourses of deed and feeling” (203). (See Aurora Leigh 5.367-73.) She discusses Barrett Browning's radical revisions of epic conventions for use in what, pace McSweeney, I would call her feminist agenda (217). She also agrees with Gilbert and Gubar that the lyrical “I” is problematic for women.

  16. See Blake on loneliness in The Prelude and Aurora Leigh as distinctly gendered (“EBB and Wordsworth”).

  17. Elsewhere she insists that “This vile woman's way / Of trailing garments shall not trip me up” (5.59-60), but later grieves that she cannot creep or grope her way “For these foot-catching robes of womanhood” (7.150). Her connections between the limitations of women's clothing and the empowerment (and unwomanly isolation) associated with the prophet's robe reiterate the paradoxes facing the woman poet.

  18. Aurora's mother's face had been to her father a transfiguring clash of cymbals, and the face in her mother's portrait has contained for the small girl all the conflicting possibilities of womanhood. Rosenblum has studied references to the woman's face as male-perceived icon that is dead, or at least silent, and certainly passive. For the visionary poet, she writes, the female face is like nature; it “is freighted with crucial doubts and expectations,” and is able to stand for anything “except female selfhood” (322). In this instance, it is both significant and ironic that Aurora is meditating on the polarized values that have separated her from Romney when she is interrupted by Marian's face.

  19. See Wordsworth, The Prelude 4.256-73.

  20. See again Mason 210.

  21. Marian both tells her own story and alters the way in which Aurora understands what it means. This assumption of power is worth contrasting with the conclusion to The Princess, in which a male voice invites the female to trust and to yield.

  22. “Aurora's assertive ‘I write’ (1.29) is the culmination of the progression in Barrett Browning's work from ‘I thought’ (Sonnets from the Portuguese), to ‘I stand’ (‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point’), and ‘I heard’ (Casa Guidi Windows); it combines a female speaker with a hitherto male-defined activity” (Cooper 147). Leighton discusses the “repeated sisterings” in Aurora Leigh that depend on “this strategy of shared and relativized speech” (114). Gilbert and Gubar draw attention to the distinctive and assertive “I” of poetry (548). Their discussion focusses on the difficulties of the woman poet but may remind us here of the significant subjectivity of these two speakers.

I am grateful to members of the English Department at UBC who provided useful criticism for an earlier colloquium version of this paper, to June Sturrock and anonymous reviewers who have enriched this discussion significantly, and to Elizabeth Emond, bibliographical sleuth extraordinaire.

Works Cited

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Kerry McSweeney. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Blake, Kathleen. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman.” Victorian Poetry 24.4 (1986): 387-98.

———. Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement. Totawa, NJ: Barnes, 1983.

Case, Alison. “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 29.1 (1991): 17-32.

Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Forster, Margaret. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. London: Chatto, 1988.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Gender and Genre Anxiety: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D. as Epic Poets.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5.2 (1986): 203-28.

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. “Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet.” Victorian Poetry 19.1 (1981): 35-48.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: Norton, 1988.

Kaplan, Cora. Introduction. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Women's, 1978.

Leighton, Angela. “‘Because men made the laws’: The Fallen Woman and the Woman Poet.” Victorian Poetry 27.2 (1989): 109-27.

Mason, Mary G. “The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 207-35.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Munich, Adrienne Auslander. “Browning's Female Signature.” Critical Essays on Robert Browning. Ed. Mary Ellis Gibson. New York: Hall, 1992. 120-38.

Ostriker, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.” Signs 8 (1982): 68-90.

Reynolds, Margaret. Critical Introduction. Aurora Leigh. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992. 1-77.

Rosenblum, Dolores. “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry.” Victorian Studies 26 (1983): 321-38.

Steinmetz, Virginia V. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 21.4 (1983): 351-67.

Stone, Marjorie. “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 25.2 (1987): 101-27.

Tennyson, Alfred. The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1987. Vol. 2.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader: Second Series. London: Hogarth, 1932.

Wordsworth, William. The Fourteen-Book Prelude. Ed. W. J. B. Owen. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8.2 (1989): 241-62.

Principal Works

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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.

Stacey Gottlieb (essay date 1996)

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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 Barrett Browning's more-than-sympathetic depiction of a “fallen” woman.2 That the increased critical attention paid to these two works over the past twenty years has yielded no extended reading of one against the other is surprising, particularly in view of the narrative overlap between them: both Marian and Ruth are vulnerable, friendless girls who apparently enjoy a privileged relationship to nature. Both become sexually “fallen” but prove exemplary mothers, and both dramatically reject socially redemptive marriage offers. Perhaps more significantly, each young woman's plight becomes a test-case for competing models of the correct Christian response to sin and societal evils. Ultimately, Gaskell and Barrett Browning both use narratives of fallenness to criticize the mechanistic social determinism that either condemned the unfortunate to their “necessary” fate or sought to apply prefabricated, institutional reform schemes.3

Such parallels, however, only serve to emphasize the central narrative and philosophical disjuncture between the two stories. For steam-ironed innocence, Marian and her literary older sister are a matched set; but Ruth's innocence is of a far different sort, the distance roughly measured out by that still-vexed distinction between “seduction” and “rape.” For, while young Ruth runs off and quite willingly lives “in sin” with her aristocratic lover until abandoned by him, Marian is treacherously delivered into a French brothel and conceives her child by an anonymous rapist while chloroformed. Ruth, then, offers the paradigm of innocence as tender, wide-eyed naivete, and goes some way toward proposing that even this most unspeakable of Victorian sins can look a good deal like youthful error; whereas Barrett Browning's Marian upholds a demanding and heroic paradigm of innocence as irreproachable virtue in the face of overpowering circumstance and social injustice.

Barrett Browning's clear intent to deny Marian any personal responsibility for her misfortunes has been taken by critics as evidence for both the poet's political progressiveness and political conservatism. Cora Kaplan concludes from the rape scene that Barrett Browning “was no more liberated about expressed female sexuality outside marriage than most of her readers” (25), whereas Angela Leighton finds that “Marian's unconsciousness is not a pretext to prove her innocent, but a truth to prove the guilt of the system” (112). Deirdre David's landmark study of Barrett Browning as an intellectually male-identified political conservative paradoxically identifies Marian's exculpation with the poet's one truly radical stand, her critique of the sexual hypocrisy of respectable women (117). Here the comparison with Ruth immediately adds critical perspective. For, by staging a hallucinatory rape as the scene of Marian's sexual “fall,” Barrett Browning not only sidesteps the question of a self-conscious female sexuality outside marriage (which Gaskell avoids by simply declining to narrate it), but also suppresses any direct or sustained indictment of the individual male perpetrator, which is strongly thematized in Ruth.4

I will not, however, be arguing here that either Gaskell or Barrett Browning achieves the more radical rewriting of the “fallen woman” narrative or the more incisive attack on Victorian social hypocrisy. Although both works contain clear challenges to the laws, customs and institutions governing the lives of those who have strayed, the authors insist on the primacy of the individual as the locus of amelioration, as opposed to large-scale adjustments of the social order.5 This emphasis on individual reformation implies, for both writers, that the remedy will ultimately take a spiritual form; oppression and injustice turn out to be merely the inescapable context within which, from biblical times to the present, individual souls meet temptation, sin, and salvation.6

All this is not to say that Gaskell and Barrett Browning were disengaged from the Victorian ideological fray; on the contrary, Ruth and Aurora Leigh stand as equally pointed (but diametrically opposed) statements on the hotly debated questions about human consciousness and character formation. I am especially indebted to Amanda Anderson's excellent and subtle exploration of the ways that narratives of female fallenness reflect and respond to various nineteenth-century determinisms and transcendentalisms. But where Anderson places Ruth and Aurora Leigh roughly on a continuum of increasing resistance to the prevalent determinist model of female fallenness, I want to read the two works in direct ideological opposition, Ruth offering a materialist and Aurora Leigh an idealist resolution to the philosophical, sociological, and theological problems posed by the specter of the fallen woman.

The dividing line between Gaskell's and Barrett Browning's world-views is clouded by the fact that they find a common enemy in the grosser sort of applied determinism represented in Ruth by the authoritarian Bradshaw and in Aurora Leigh by Romney's Christian Socialist reform schemes. Barrett Browning clearly contrasts Romney's utilitarian “diagrams” (3.744)7 with Aurora's idealistic creed of spontaneity, individuality, and love:

                                                                                What, if even God
Were chiefly God by living out Himself
To an individualism of the Infinite,
Eterne, intense, profuse—still throwing up
The golden spray of multitudinous worlds
In measure to the proclive weight and rush
Of His inner nature—the spontaneous love
Still proof and outflow of spontaneous life?


But Ruth, with its heavy emphasis on unselfconsciousness, habit, and gradual moral growth, is impossible to read as a plea for spontaneous transcendent heroism. If, as Anderson cogently argues, “Gaskell is using a story of fallenness to criticize utilitarian calculation and determinism” (129), it is no less true that the narrative of Ruth's history is minutely determined by Gaskell's materialist, cause-and-effect explanation of character:

The traditions of those bygone times, even to the smallest social particular, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances which contributed to the formation of character. The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes—when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities. Therefore it is well to know what were the chains of daily domestic habit which were the natural leading-strings of our forefathers before they learnt to go alone.



I will first argue that Ruth, though graced with a conventional Victorian set of modest and compassionate female instincts, actually represents Gaskell's attempt at a psychological realism, based on an empirical model of consciousness. Grappling with the (for her very concrete)8 problem of female fallenness, Gaskell draws her paradigms not from her Romantic literary influences, but from the Enlightenment-era associationist psychology of David Hartley and Joseph Priestley, fathers of her rational Unitarian belief system.9 I read Ruth by tracing Gaskell's dependence on three basic associationist principles: first, the primacy of sensible pleasure and pain as the building-blocks of consciousness; second, the emphasis on moral learning as the gradual acquisition of salutary associations and habits of mind; and third, the optimistic, Christian teleology whereby all behavior, virtuous or vicious, inevitably leads to moral advancement (manifested by a deep sense of humility) and salvation. Finally, I will discuss Gaskell's emphasis on unselfconsciousness and the extent to which moral reflexes are, in Ruth, superior to moral reasoning.

The first clue that Ruth is an associationist heroine comes from Gaskell's meticulous attention to the sensory environment and her tendency to describe Ruth's inner life as a series of more-or-less reflexive reactions to pleasures and pains. In Hartley's hedonistic scheme of human motivation, “all our internal feelings seem to be attended with some degree either of pleasure or pain … [by which] we are excited to pursue happiness, and … fly misery” (Introduction ii-iii). All “intellectual” values, from aesthetic enjoyment to moral choice, draw their force, by association, “from sensible and selfish pleasures” (1.461), and moral learning proceeds through healthy doses of pain. That Ruth's first awakening to her own “fallenness” arises from a punch in the nose is perhaps Gaskell's most literal application of Hartleyan principles:

Flitting about through the village, trying to catch all the beautiful sunny peeps at the scenery between the cold stone houses, which threw the radiant distance into aerial perspective far away, [Ruth] passed by the little shop; and, just issuing from it, came the nurse and baby, and little boy. The baby sat in placid dignity in her nurse's arms, with a face of queenly calm. Her fresh, soft, peachy complexion was really tempting; and Ruth, who was always fond of children, went up to coo and to smile at the little thing, and, after some “peep-boing,” she was about to snatch a kiss, when Harry, whose face had been reddening ever since the play began, lifted up his sturdy little right arm and hit Ruth a great blow on the face.

“Oh, for shame, sir!” said the nurse, snatching back his hand; “how dare you do that to the lady who is so kind as to speak to Sissy.”

“She's not a lady!” said he, indignantly. “She's a bad naughty girl—mamma said so, she did; and she shan't kiss our baby.”

The nurse reddened in her turn. She knew what he must have heard; but it was awkward to bring it out, standing face to face with the elegant young lady.

“Children pick up such notions, ma'am,” said she at last, apologetically to Ruth, who stood, white and still, with a new idea running through her mind.


Immersed in pleasurable sensations, a single-minded consciousness of aesthetic enjoyment in the natural world, young Ruth is particularly drawn to an infant (described sensually in terms of a forbidden fruit) only to receive a shocking physical blow and shaming words. Hilary Schor has read this scene persuasively as the violent socialization of a Romantic “natural heroine” (65). I want to suggest that, on associationist terms, Harry's little fist works as a benign instrument of what Priestley terms “natural education” (10), whereby the strong mental link between moral error and the “ridicule and inconveniences which naturally attend it” (12) fosters habits of right behavior. Hartley warns that only when “the moral sense is sufficiently generated … [after] some considerable progress in life,” can one love virtue “with great secret indeterminate pleasure” (1:452) rather than for its outer advantages. In the meanwhile, “one real wound received in fighting will make a man much more attentive … than having the same part touched many times with a foil” (Priestley 11). Instructive “wounds” include “the pungency of shame or disgrace” (Priestley 12).10

If pain is the tool, and association the process, of Ruth's education, then its goal is the unconscious formation of virtuous habits (rather than the conscious acquisition of virtuous principles). In Ruth's story the great preceptor is not shame, but the heartbreak of Bellingham's desertion (“sorrow” rather than moralized “guilt” or “remorse”), and Gaskell carefully traces the minute causal links by which this pain, however selfish, effectually inculcates virtuous reflexes. Ruth's fall begins with her naive acceptance of a gift (Bellingham's gallant camellia) from a stranger. But in Wales she refuses the fifty pounds from Bellingham's mother because it bears hurtful associations: “While he … loved me, he gave me many things—my watch … and I thought of them as signs of love. But this money pains my heart. He has left off loving me, and has gone away” (127). We soon learn that Ruth has also sold the watch; though Faith Benson interprets this as an act of “sacrifice” (129), Gaskell's narrative logic suggests that Ruth's real motive was the desire to rid herself of a painful reminder while at the same time warding off new gifts of still-uncertain meaning (the price of the watch pays the bills incurred by the Bensons during her illness). Ruth's moral reflexes are thus schooled to reject Mr. Bradshaw's patronizing advances, which she now instinctively regards as uncomfortable obligations: “I never reasoned why I felt as I did; I only knew that Mr. Bradshaw's giving me a present hurt me, instead of making me glad” (157). Reluctance to accept unearned gifts becomes a hallmark of Ruth's virtuous character and influence in her new community; Jemima Bradshaw, even at her sulkiest, is “thankful and glad” to know that Ruth has rejected one of her father's bribes—“that she was sure Ruth would never accept” (239).

The universalist eschatology Gaskell inherited from associationism provides a context for reconciling young Ruth's innocuous naivete with the “cardboard repentant Magadalene” (Stone 151) of the novel's second half.11 Submitting God to the law of His own infinite benevolence, Hartley deduces the “ultimate happiness of all mankind” (Preface v) from association's “evident tendency to convert … happiness, mixed with … misery, into … pure happiness” (2.26). Ruth's increasing sense of her own sinful unworthiness (“how many things I have done wrong … what I have been” [434]) is merely the “positive humility, or deep sense of our own misery and imperfections” (1.455) of which Hartley claims that “when men are far advanced in this state, they may enjoy quiet and comfort, … for they approach to the paradisiacal state, in which our first parents, though naked, were not ashamed” (2.269). In this teleological Christian, but still fundamentally hedonistic scheme of character-development, self-sacrifice is not atonement but rather its own reward, and “such a one as [Ruth] has never been a great sinner; nor does she do her work as a penance, but for the love of God, and of the blessed Jesus” (429). Even Bradshaw ends up in Eccleston Chapel humbly “bowed down low in prayer” (422).

One central element of Gaskell's moral psychology not explicitly drawn from associationism is her emphasis on unselfconsciousness as an essential virtue from which other virtues draw their power; Gaskell assures the reader that all virtue will have its reward, “provided only it be pure, simple, and unconscious of its own existence” (103). Ruth's love of natural beauty, though not a highly evolved virtue itself, contributes to her moral development insofar as “the grandeur of this beautiful earth absorb[s] all idea of separate and individual existence” (65), and her various impulses of sympathy are important primarily because they call her temporarily “out of herself,” an effect which Benson predicts motherhood will permanently reinforce: “‘Why, it draws her out of herself! If her life has hitherto been self-seeking, and wickedly thoughtless, here is the very instrument to make her forget herself, and be thoughtful for another. Teach her (and God will teach her, if man does not come between) to reverence her child; and this reverence will shut out sin,—will be purification’” (119). Ruth's path thus moves her from an early blank-slate hedonistic “thoughtlessness” to an evolved state of selfless unselfconsciousness, mediated by God's teaching as manifested in the natural experience of motherhood. The implicit tension in this passage is related to the apparent paradox of associationism which, while denying the existence of any instinctive virtue, nonetheless looks for educational experience to create automatic virtuous reflexes resembling instinct more than self-conscious moral choosing.

Gaskell uses associationism's recuperative, non-essentialist view of character to re-write the fatalistic narrative of female fallenness so typical of Victorian discourse. In so doing, she contrasts two kinds of determinism. On the one hand she presents Bradshaw's essentialist determinism, as summed up in the damning words “wanton” and “bastard” that he hurls at Ruth and her son when he discovers her true past (339). According to this view, Ruth is eternally and intrinsically vicious; any good behavior on her part is “hypocrisy” (337) rather than redemption. Gaskell neatly flips this paradigm by making Bradshaw's cruelty itself the direct cause of Ruth's one lapse into the state of apparent mental decay usually attributed to prostitutes: “her eyes were deep sunk and hollow, but glittered with feverish lustre” (352)—a direct allusion to the “bright, feverish, glittering eyes” of Esther, the doomed streetwalker from Gaskell's first novel Mary Barton (464). The narrative itself thus upholds Gaskell's allegiance to a God-centered but empirically observable determinism whereby human consciousness is subject to divine providence (as manifested in the natural laws of cause and effect) but has an infinite capacity for moral growth “if man does not come between” (119). Ruth's seducer has always already “come between,” but in the novel's optimistic moral scheme even this “stain” (299) works toward her early and efficient (but in any case inevitable) salvation.


Whereas Gaskell's reference-point is rational, Enlightenment materialism, Barrett Browning's is emotional Romantic idealism, performed through poetry as an explicit refutation of mechanistic models of selfhood. Though the poet's watchword is spontaneity, an examination of Marian's story reveals the systematic application of a personal life-theory distilled from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and German idealism. Barrett Browning's frustrated search, in Casa Guidi Windows, for a hero possessing the kind of obvious greatness Carlyle could celebrate (great artists, visionaries, statesmen or generals) collapses by the poem's end into the domestic image of poetess/mother and prophet/child quietly affirming the continued possibility of Christian hope: “Poets are soothsayers still / … and creatures young / And tender, mighty meanings may unfold” (2.739-41). Marian's story, then, can be seen as an exploration of this alternative, feminized heroism, and though she fits none of his (male) categories of greatness, Marian functions very much like a Carlylean hero within the moral dynamics of Aurora Leigh. My reading will emphasize four idealist characteristics of Marian's consciousness: first, the soul is in some measure independent from and certainly superior to the body; thus Marian's moral learning proceeds through inspiration rather than sense-perception; second, this moral education happens against or in spite of Marian's environment; third, the implicit goal of moral education is righteous dignity rather than self-abasement; and fourth, the universe is a steep, hierarchical landscape, in which the virtuous few answer God's call by striving upward.

Marian's moral education is shaped to illustrate Aurora's idealist metaphysics of consciousness, whereby the sensual body and the reasoning mind are little better than encumbrances to the intuiting spirit. This scheme places physical sensation not only below but actively against the faculties of the pre-existing “conscious and eternal soul” (3.284).12 Thrown into the physical world, man “feels out blind at first, disorganised / By sin i' the blood—his spirit-insight dulled / And crossed by his sensations” (1.817-19). Logic and reason are not much better: “books that prove / God's being so definitely, that man's doubt / Grows …” (1.782-84). Thus Marian's spiritual initiation at age three comes as a supernatural repudiation of both earthly sensation and human instruction:

A-hungering outward from the barren earth
For something like a joy. She liked, she said,
To dazzle black her sight against the sky,
For then, it seemed, some grand blind Love came down,
And groped her out and grasped her with a kiss;
.....This skyey father and mother both in one,
Instructed her and civilised her more
Than even Sunday school did afterward. …


Like Carlyle's “Great Man,” Marian will henceforth be “not a kindled lamp only, but rather a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a fountain of native original insight” (Carlyle 3-4).

“She learnt God that way, and was beat for it / Whenever she went home—yet came again” (3.895-96). The brutal conditions of Marian's childhood serve not only to foreground the social evils of Victorian poverty, but also to emphasize the transcendent spiritual strength by which Marian makes sound moral choices in spite of her environment. Once exposed to the fundamentals of revealed religion, “What God was, what he wanted from us all, / And how in choosing sin we vexed the Christ” (3.931-32), Marian's moral judgments are clear-cut though painful; she recognizes “the vileness of her kindred” (3.940) and can select “the sweet and good” (3.990) from among the “jangling influence” (3.984) of all the random poetry she encounters. Later she abandons her dressmaking apprenticeship to go nurse a sick needlewoman, though “She knew, by such an act, / All place and grace were forfeit in the house” (4.32-33).

Having thus acquired virtue through spiritual intuition guided and refined by catechism and poetry, Marian faces a challenge, as it evolves in the poem, to recognize and rise to the heroic dignity of her own God-given powers. At their first meeting, Aurora bitterly compares the coming marriage of Marian and Romney to a willing bride-sacrifice (“gracious virtues worn, / … to consume entire / For a living husband” [4.198-200]), while bemoaning the girl's ignorance of her own self-generated glory: “The cataracts of her soul had poured themselves, / And risen self-crowned in rainbow: would she ask / Who crowned her?—it sufficed that she was crowned” (4.184-86). The subsequent abduction, rape and madness paradoxically serve to focus Marian's knowledge of her own inner strength.13 Thus on learning that she will be a mother Marian watches herself, this time, overflowing with consciously powerful oceanic passion:

                                                                                                              [T]hrough all
The upbreak of the fountains of my heart
The rains had swelled too large …
.....                                                            … [W]hat was there to confess,
Except man's cruelty, except my wrong?
Except this anguish or this ecstasy?
This shame or glory? The light woman there
Was small to take it in: an acorn-cup
Would take the sea in sooner.


Now Marian, earlier described as “doglike” (4.281) in her devotion to Romney, points out her sublime indifference to Aurora's news of Romney: “‘Why, a beast, a dog … / Would show less hardness. But I'm dead, you see …’” (6.846-49).

If, by raising downtrodden Marian to the level of moral heroism, Barrett Browning directs a broadside at Victorian social elitism, she overturns the social hierarchy only to replace it with an equally rigid spiritual one.14 The moral landscape of Aurora Leigh is a steep one, where Christian reversal (the low shall be high) is possible but compromise is fatal. Evil and perdition surface as serious risks when Aurora condemns the snakelike Lady Waldemar to a Dantesque punishment-to-fit-the-crime: “Pay the price / Of lies, by being constrained to lie on still: / 'Tis easy for thy sort: a million more / Will scarcely damn thee deeper” (7.358-61). And her advice to Marian is equally harsh:

                                                            “If his mother's palms are clean
They need be glad of course in clasping [her child];
But if not, I would rather lay my hand,
Were I she, on God's brazen altar-bars
Red-hot with burning sacrificial lambs,
Than touch the sacred curls of such a child.”


Moral heroism requires an ascetic program of striving toward the highest goals while declining, or (from the elevated vantage point of one's ideals) disdaining worldly rewards. Marian's self-claimed “death” to this world and its values signals her attainment to a higher sense of duty and absolute commitment to her own holy vocation of motherhood. Were Marian's mother-love any less exalted by moral sacrifice, it would be vicious complacency: “We make henceforth a cushion of our faults / To sit and practise easy virtues on?” (6.726-27).

I hope it is beginning to be evident just how far removed Barrett Browning's brothel is from Gaskell's Welsh inn. The shift from Ruth's seduction to Marian's rape is only the most obvious marker of a shift from a materialist to an idealist paradigm of human learning and from a rational, universally applied explanation of human behavior (in Ruth) to an emotional and intrinsically elitist measure of character (in Aurora Leigh). This underlying philosophical difference also is evident in the two authors' treatments of their characters' experience of motherhood and the temptation of marriage.


The distance between Gaskell's rational materialism and Barrett Browning's romantic idealism can be seen through a comparison of the way motherhood brings moral advancement to Ruth and Marian. For Universalist Gaskell, good mothering is neither instinctual nor the result of virtue, but rather can be elicited from anyone under the right circumstances. The hierarchical universe of Aurora Leigh conversely abounds with bad mothers, and Marian's devotion marks her as exceptional and heroic. Gaskell's emphasis on pleasure/pain learning shows up in Ruth's childish ideas of motherhood and her need for instruction, whereas Marian's sudden, sublime, and passionate embrace of maternal responsibility reflects Barrett Browning's faith in the efficacy and immediacy of divinely-inspired intuition. Gaskell shows us the step-by-step associationist process whereby Ruth's mother-love leads to god-love; but for Marian the reverse is true; her superior quality of soul-connection to God endows her with holy powers of motherhood. Finally, the effect of motherhood on Ruth is to inculcate humility and absence of self-regard, whereas for Marian it initiates an articulate consciousness of her own inner strength and individual worth as a worker for God.

In Ruth, good motherhood is the result of associationist cause-and-effect learning and is accessible to anyone who experiences the necessary stimuli. Priestley explains this mechanical model of motherhood-as-habit in his parenting manual: “It is the constant, hourly attention a mother gives to her child, … and not any thing properly instinctive, that is the cause of the idea of it becoming associated with almost every idea and affection of her soul. … These are mechanical things” (56-7). And further: “[T]he more attention any child requires, as on account of sickness, & c., the more strongly is the affection of the parent attached to it” (42). Gaskell's confidence in the universal applicability of this mothering-mechanism surfaces in her depiction of Faith Benson: “I do not know whether she was older than her brother, but, probably owing to his infirmity requiring her care, she had something of a mother's manner towards him” (111). Later, Ruth's sickness produces mothering responses in Faith by much the same process: “the very dependence of one so helpless upon her care inclined her heart towards her” (115). Even harsh Mrs. Mason—“a widow [who] had to struggle for the sake of six or seven children left dependent on her exertions” (33)—and haughty Mrs. Bellingham—who “had sat by [her sick son] the night through, and was now daring to change her position for the first time” (84)—are capable of devoted nurturing under the right circumstances.

In Aurora Leigh, on the other hand, motherhood is a holy commission to which many are called but only the heroically virtuous few will rise. Mothers who fail are unworthy of the name:

“I thought a child was given to sanctify
A woman—set her in the sight of all
The clear-eyed Heavens, a chosen minister
To do their business and lead spirits up
The difficult blue heights. A woman lives,
Not bettered, quickened toward the truth and good
Through being a mother? … then she's none! although
She damps her baby's cheeks by kissing them,
As we kill roses.”


Although in speaking of her own mother Aurora states broadly that “Women know / The way to rear up children” (1.47-48), the poem is nonetheless haunted by bad mothers. Aurora's aunt as surrogate mother is loveless and judgmental. Marian's mother is of course abominable, though herself the victim of abuse, and Lucy Gresham's paralytic grandmother is the type of vicious ingratitude. The wedding scene includes an evocation of “babies, hanging like a rag / Forgotten on their mother's neck—poor mouths, / Wiped clean of mother's milk by mother's blow / Before they are taught her cursing” (4.576-79). As matter for lofty poetic thought, “mother's breasts / … round the new-made creatures hanging there, / Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres” (5.16-18). But when they belong to real women, these mother-breasts are emblems of deceit, for example Lady Waldemar with her “bare breasts, / On which the pearls, drowned out of sight in milk, / Were lost … If the heart within / Were half as white!” (5.619-25). The procuress who abandons Marian at the brothel is described as “A woman … not a monster … both her breasts / Made right to suckle babes” (6.1183-84). Marian ultimately blames the numerous perverse mother-figures in her life for her undoing: “‘When mothers fail us, can we help ourselves?’” (6.1229).

Ruth and Marian both receive the news of impending motherhood with joy, but the quality and context of their responses again differs according to Gaskell's materialist and Barrett Browning's idealist approaches. Ruth, as we know, “was always fond of children” (71) and approached little Harry's baby sister, whose “fresh, soft, peachy complexion was really tempting” (71), with characteristically sensual gusto. Ruth's response to motherhood is, accordingly, childlike and hedonistic; she anticipates it as “a strange, new, delicious prospect” (126), like some exotic flower or charming view. Ruth's initial resolution to “be so good” (118) for her child lacks the moral strength to back it, and she continues to be preoccupied with thoughts of Bellingham, “depressed and languid under the conviction that he no longer loved her” (127). The heartbroken girl sulks over her baby for months before sharp-tongued Sally finally chides her: “‘My bonny boy! are they letting the salt tears drop on thy sweet face before thou'rt weaned? … Anyone but a child like thee, … would have known better than to bring ill-luck on thy baby by letting tears fall on its face …’” (173-74). By contrast, Marian's grief after her rape precludes all possibility of either pleasure or mere melancholy in this “cast-off life” (7.18). Deadened through suffering, like “a beaten ass / … having fallen through overloads” (7.19-20), she is “cold, numb” (7.51) and “grave and silent” (7.33). Marian's mother-joy carries a strength rooted in awareness of her irrevocable death to other joys, and immediately inspires the emotional self-discipline that Ruth must be taught. Thus Barrett Browning in a parallel crying-scene casts the young mother herself as knowing remonstrator:

          “I wish indeed you had never come
To make me sob until I vex the child.
It is not wholesome for these pleasure-plats
To be so early watered by our brine.
.....And so I've kept for ever in his sight
A sort of smile to please him. …”


Motherhood leads Ruth to a deepened sense of humility but Marian to a heightened sense of personal worth. It is a clearly-traced line of association that carries Ruth from the physical experience of having a young neighbor-child asleep in her arms to “the thought of the tiny darling who would lie on her breast before long” (151), and thence to the memory “that she was once white and sinless” and the realization “that she had gone astray” (151). Later that morning in Eccleston Chapel, Ruth is newly “contrite … and she sank down, and down, till she was kneeling on the floor of the pew and speaking to God in the spirit, if not in the words of the Prodigal Son: ‘Father! I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am no more worthy to be called Thy child!’” (154). Marian conversely receives her child as a token of God's redemptive favor—“[God] says ‘I dropped the coin there: take it you, / And keep it—it shall pay you for the loss’” (6.683-84)—and proudly uses her son's love as evidence to defy Aurora's moralizing accusations in a dramatic deployment of Aurora's own eschatological and hierarchical vocabulary:

“You're great and pure; but were you purer still—
As if you had walked, we'll say, no otherwhere
Than up and down the New Jerusalem,
And held your trailing lute-string up yourself
From brushing the twelve stones
.....                                                            … The child would keep to me
Would choose his poor lost Marian, like me best. …”


For both Ruth and Marian, mother-love is strongly integrated with God-love, but again here the order of operations betrays a disparity in the underlying world-views. For Ruth, who “often feared that she loved [her son] too much—more than God Himself” (209), maternal passion is a sort of stepping-stone to the profound faith which later empowers her to choose moral duty over parental affection as her prime motivating force. This transfer of priorities happens gradually, through association and acquired habits of thought, as Ruth, praying nightly, would “speak to Him of her one treasure as she could speak to no earthly friend. And so, unconsciously, her love for her child led her up to love to God …” (209). For Marian, her son comes as a direct and efficacious revelation of divine providence; “‘And so I lived for him, and so he lives, / And so I know, by this time, God lives too’” (7.112-13). A sacred love triangle is thus formed:

He saw his mother's face, accepting it
In change for heaven itself with such a smile
.....So happy (half with her and half with Heaven)
.....                                                            … then, slowly as he smiled
She smiled too, slowly, smiling unaware,
And drawing from his countenance to hers
A fainter red, as if she watched a flame
And stood in it a-glow.


And this rapturous state (though not destined to last in the temporal world) is itself complete, holy and elevated: “seeing that love / Includes the whole of nature, rounding it / To love … no more—since no more can never be / Than just love” (6.601-4).


The scenes in which Ruth and Marian reject socially-redeeming marriage offers serve as culminating demonstrations of their respective character development, insofar as “character,” in both the idealist and materialist belief-systems, is defined as the individual's ability to make moral decisions independent of societal rewards or punishments. Here it is worth quoting at length from J. S. Mill and Thomas Carlyle, representing respectively the materialist and idealist perspectives. The Mill of The Logic of the Moral Sciences, though secular, is Hartley's true inheritor with his associationist stress on pleasure/pain learning, and the reduction of “will” to the category of acquired “habit.” Like Hartley, he strives to persuade us that high moral standards can be derived from this mechanistic model of self:

As we proceed in the formation of habits, and become accustomed to will a particular act or a particular course of conduct because it is pleasurable, we at last continue to will it without any reference to its being pleasurable. … [T]he habit of willing to persevere in the course which he has chosen does not desert the moral hero, even when the reward … is anything but an equivalent for the sufferings he undergoes or the wishes which he may have to renounce. … It is only when our purposes have become independent of the feelings of pain or pleasure from which they originally took their rise that we are said to have a confirmed character.


Carlyle's idealist portrait of “character” (here from an essay on Goethe) displays the catastrophic and immediate concept of the self as intrinsically separate from and in struggle with its environment, along with the elitist assumption that this struggle can be won by only a “gifted” few: “… a will is cast abroad into the widest, wildest element, and gifted also in an extreme degree to prevail over this, to fashion this to its own form; in which subordinating and self-fashioning of its circumstances a character properly consists” (qtd. in Behnken 47). Thus we see that the measure of character for Mill is, in a sense, the individual's capacity for self-sacrifice (“wishes which he may have to renounce”), whereas the idealist character of Carlyle's Goethe realizes itself through categorical self-assertion. We see how materialist and idealist models of temptation and character are reflected in Ruth and Aurora Leigh: Ruth resists marriage-temptation through the instinctive martialing of unconscious habit, and in spite of her persistent, irrational love for Bellingham; whereas Marian rejects Romney through the strong-willed insistence on her own “death” (a metaphor that, as David Riede points out, Barrett Browning uses to evoke a kind of elevated and exclusive relationship to the divine) and affirmation of love as a holy power possessed in the individual choosing heart.

Gaskell adapts associationist models of intellectual and moral growth to her novelistic task of portraying character development. On Hartley's scale of “intellectual pleasures” we find “the pleasures arising from the beauty of the natural world” (1.418) on the bottom rung, one step above brute sensualism. Fittingly, then, Ruth's early state of innocent unselfconsciousness is consistently expressed in terms of a spontaneous enthusiasm for scenery. Indeed, Gaskell frequently offers lush descriptions of Ruth's visual impressions rather than narrating the girl's thoughts, thus suggesting a state of unanalyzed receptivity: “Bright colors flashed on the eyes and were gone … Ruth did not care to separate the figures that formed a joyous and brilliant whole …” (14). Ruth's emblematic posture—gazing through a window at a landscape—allegorizes the empirical model of selfhood whereby the inner life is built up from outer perceptions. As her heroine acquires the sublimated inward motivations that Hartley classifies as the pleasures of “sympathy,” “theopathy,” and “the moral sense,” Gaskell reverses her narrative's outward-striving organization of space and vision. Thus Ruth's nascent powers of compassion and reverence coalesce during her confinement in Bellingham's “hushed and darkened” sickroom in Wales (80); and when banished to a windowed gallery nearby, “Ruth crouched where no light fell … her senses seemed to have passed into the keeping of the invalid” (83). Now plants shadowed dimly on the inner walls are “more graceful thus than in reality,” and outside the window Ruth finds only “grey darkness” and disillusionment, until the sun rises over a newly spiritualized landscape (84). The description of Eccleston Chapel similarly gazes inward through vine-draped windows to where the bare inner walls receive mere “shadows of the beauty without,” but the very birds in the ivy are “emulous of the power of praise possessed … within” (152).

Gaskell sets the scene for Ruth's test of character by evoking a return to young Ruth's innocent hedonism and vulnerability to influence from the outer, sensory world. Journeying to the house at Abermouth, where the fatal reunion with her lover will occur, Ruth is “much delighted with all the new scenery” (253) and “was as great a child as any” (267). The house itself emphatically brings back the window-gazing imagery from the first half of the novel. “Bleak and exposed,” the house is virtually all windows and “wild sea views … from every part of the rooms, they saw the grey storms gather on the sea horizon” (259). Ruth's enchantment with the ever-changing sky recalls her days of cloud-watching in Wales before Bellingham's desertion and her initiation into sorrow and responsibility. But at Abermouth, the view is panoramic and the storm all-engulfing; “the house was wrapped in sheets of rain shutting out sky and sea” (259), thus emphasizing how far removed Ruth is from the pleasant and secure walled garden which has guarded and confined her outward gaze during seven years of sober life in the Benson home. Here at Abermouth, Gaskell seems to be saying, Ruth must once again stand alone in the world against temptation.

Though Ruth must face temptation alone, however, she is hardly unarmed; in Eccleston she has acquired the associations, habits, and sublimated desires which will, far more than any conscious principles of virtue, prove a sufficient bulwark against her former lover's new advances. Symbolically, the Abermouth house, though storm-lashed, is “built on the summit of a rock” (259), echoing Matthew 7:24-25. Ruth's childlike joy in new surroundings is constantly counterweighted by mother-yearning in “her absence from her child, which made one great and abiding sorrow” (258), and her determination “to be prudent” (253) is reinforced by the instructive pain of her recent self-laceration over Elizabeth's illness. Habits of care and responsibility thus serve to anchor her responsiveness to tempting pleasures. In the strongest throes of confused yearning occasioned by her first reunion with Bellingham, Ruth's still-fresh love for her betrayer is tempered and modified by the new values she has assumed as a mother. The torn, divided consciousness which epitomizes a state of temptation or moment of moral choice is literalized as Ruth “threw her body half out of the window into the cold night air” (274), but a chain of associated thoughts brings her safely back inside: though in her dazedness she views the clouded moon with “a foolish kind of pleasure” (274), the very storm now brings to mind consoling scriptural texts and the memory of having comforted her son on other rainy nights by reminding him of “the goodness and power of God” (274). Ruth has a strong and simple habit of prayer, up to now performed almost by rote: “It might be superstition … but, somehow, she never lay down to rest without saying, as she looked her last on her boy, ‘Thy will, not mine, be done’” (209). At Abermouth this same prayer returns to aid her on the morning of her ordeal.

Barrett Browning figures Marian's moral growth through water images. Water appears throughout the poem as a metaphor for the destructive forces of time and fate; especially, in this fallen temporal world, it is that which separates and destroys: “in between us rushed the torrent-world / To blanch our faces like divided rocks, / And bar for ever mutual sight and touch / Except through swirl of spray and all that roar” (2.1245-48). The irrational and inchoate always appear in liquid form, as the gruesome parade of lower-class wedding guests “oozed into the church / In a dark slow stream, like blood” (4.553-54). Playing against the water imagery is Aurora's constant exhortation to “stand” and “walk”; in other words, to resist and willfully transcend the downward-sucking forces. Life is an inland (and upward) journey away from the sea and towards the sky. Interestingly, Marian is herself an embodiment of water through much of the poem; she is “mist” (3.811) and her soul contains “cataracts” (4.184), her hair is “a sudden waterfall” (3.1046) and her passionate wounded heart “overflowed the world and swamped the light” (3.1086). Barrett Browning thus places Marian in the same class of phenomena with nature and fate, but renders her passive as a personality; she is a willing Griselda to Romney when not the victim of raw emotional forces within herself. Marian's metaphorical “death,” figured strongly as a “drowning” (6.235-40 and 6.1117), paradoxically marks her rebirth in self-assertion against adversity and merely social conventions of morality. Reanimated, if not resurrected, by the holy call to motherhood, Marian finally attains to her full potential for self-sufficient and self-aware moral strength. Accordingly we see a pivotal role-reversal in Book IV, when Marian initially follows “As one who had forgot herself” (6.480) and then leads Aurora “by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters” (6.482-83 and 501-2). Henceforth it is Aurora who gloomily envies “The Dead's provision on the river-couch” (7.995), while Marian resolutely declines a bed “beneath the heavy Seine” (7.80).

The final test of Marian's character is fittingly presented as apotheosis rather than temptation as she usurps and surpasses the privileged rhetoric and totems previously reserved to Romney and Aurora. In place of Romney's angelic voice—“The music of an organ” (3.1219)—now Marian's voice, “thrilling, solemn, proud, pathetic” (9.196), commands and interrogates. Next to high Aurora, always so determined and “erect,” Marian is still further, and supernaturally, elevated:

She stood there, still and pallid as a saint,
Dilated, like a saint in ecstasy,
As if the floating moonshine interposed
Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up
To float upon it.


Most importantly, in this scene Marian is the sole remaining defender of Aurora's divine love-principle. In order to fulfill her narrative function as mediator between Aurora and Romney, Marian must come to a mature participation in the Christian project as envisioned by Aurora: she must value her independence and individual call to action, her vocation (which in Marian's case, conveniently, is that of Motherhood and Self-Sacrifice); and she must value Love, both conjugal and filial, enough never to desecrate its earthly institutions through accepting a false (loveless) marriage for herself and a second-hand father for her son. When Ruth rejects Bellingham at Abermouth, saying she no longer loves him, her change of heart is firmly rooted in the moral education she has imbibed with her daily bread in the humble, spiritual Benson household—and in fact the narrative hints strongly that, underneath her new moral attainments still beats the tender heart of strong yearning for her former lover. Marian, by contrast, has every moral reason to marry Romney except—and for Barrett Browning it is crucial—that her heart does not beat for him.

In this comparative study, I have tried to clarify the extent to which two writers' allegiances to very different models of selfhood shaped their divergent approaches to the highly gendered topics of innocence, motherhood, marriage, and self-sacrifice. In seeking to undermine the fatalism of the “fallen woman” narrative, both writers face the task of re-tooling male-centered philosophies of selfhood (Hartley and Priestley both illustrate their life-theories with examples almost exclusively drawn from male experience, and Carlyle placed no women in his pantheon of Heroes). Gaskell takes the feminine virtue of modesty and universalizes it as Hartleyan “humility,” while Barrett Browning feminizes Carlyle's masculine category of heroism by applying it to the womanly realms of chastity, sympathy, and love. Gaskell chooses a model of selfhood potentially more adaptable to social and political progressivism15—but the spiritual values apparent in her emphasis on humility and her mistrust of moral reasoning limit the expression of that radical potential in her characters' lives. Barrett Browning, on the other hand, contains identity within the conservative and elitist parameters of individual heroism; here the chief tool of reform is exhortation or inspiration through exalted personal example. Though this philosophy implicitly condemns the majority of womankind to patriarchal oppression and the ravages of vice, it also allows for the radical portrayal of Marian Erle as a strong, self-realizing woman who consciously celebrates her own right to desire and to choose.


  1. Cora Kaplan's exhaustive source-study offers Ruth as the major influence but also points out that Barrett Browning would have read The Scarlet Letter, and even finds threads of Marian in Mme. de Stael's Corinne and Arthur Clough's The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich. Dolores Rosenblum states pointedly that “The most obvious link is Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, from which Barrett Browning derived Marian Erle's story” (322, note 3).

  2. For a well-researched discussion of exactly how unprecedented Gaskell was in taking a fallen woman for her heroine and treating her not just with sympathy but admiration, see Rubenius (176-216).

  3. Amanda Anderson thoroughly and insightfully explores the relationship of female “fallenness” in literature to Victorian psychologies, moral philosophies, and social theories. I will follow Anderson's lead in questioning Ruth and Aurora Leigh from the standpoint of “materialist” and “idealist” concepts of character formation. For Anderson's analysis of the conventions and tendencies of narratives of fallenness in the Victorian press and social science, see especially the section headed “Moral Statistics and Magdalenism” (43-65).

  4. Aurora herself makes a strong distinction between seduction and rape in judging Marian's moral status. Watching mother and child together, Aurora is inwardly touched but nonetheless hurls more than forty lines of moralistic abuse, undeterred by Marian's ironic evocation of “‘The common law, by which the poor and weak / Are trodden underfoot by vicious men, / And loathed for ever after by the good’” (6.667-69). Aurora relents only on hearing the crucial fact that the girl was not “‘seduced, / But simply, murdered’” (6.770-71). Did Marian not wield this circumstantial defense, we may well suspect that Aurora, like Charlotte Brontë's St. John Rivers, would have offered “evangelical charity” but no “spontaneous, genuine, genial compassion” (349).

  5. Leighton makes a strong case for reading Aurora Leigh as a radical feminist critique of the Victorian social code, persuasively foregrounding the poem's many ironic sideswipes at the unjust and exploitative “law.” However, Leighton's reading underemphasizes the poem's explicit ongoing rejection of large-scale reform efforts and consistent condemnation of individual vice: “[A]ll society, / Howe'er unequal, monstrous, crazed and cursed, / Is but the expression of men's single lives …” (8.875-77). Stone points out Gaskell's allegiance to Carlyle's “industrial chivalry” model of social reform, whereby “Individualism is both the evil and its cure, provided that industrialists transform themselves by donning the chivalric trappings of the presumably selfless knights of old” (137).

  6. The opening line of Aurora Leigh directly quotes Ecclesiastes and links the poem to an age-old stance of resignation to oppression:

    If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice, … marvel not at the matter; for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.

    (Ecc. 5:8)

  7. All Aurora Leigh quotations follow the McSweeney edition.

  8. We know from Gaskell's correspondence with Dickens that she was personally involved in the “rescue” of at least one young unwed mother (Schor 49).

  9. Gallagher has aptly observed that “The ‘real’ reality for [Gaskell] does not lie behind human behavior in a set of scientific laws; it is on the very surface of life, and although it is often obscured by conventional modes of perception, it can be adequately represented in common language” (65). Indeed, Gaskell's use of associationist principles, though marked, is far from dogmatic (especially compared to the work of her contemporary, Harriet Martineau) and she regularly draws on literary and cultural conventions that, strictly examined, contradict them. For example, much of Ruth's early behavior can be explained in terms of the ideology of feminine modesty so thoroughly explored in Yeazell's Fictions of Modesty. That the writings of Joseph Priestley were well known to Gaskell is highly probable, as she was a well-educated and strongly-identified Unitarian; furthermore, both her father and Dr. William Turner (the model for Thurston Benson) had studied with Priestley as young men. Obviously I want to argue that this influence is more strongly felt than not in Ruth's portrayal of character and consciousness.

  10. The instructive value of pain is never explicitly propounded in Ruth; indeed the scene of Leonard's whipping (202-4) would seem to be a plea against systematic (“artificial” as opposed to “natural” in Priestleyan terms) corporal punishment. In Mary Barton, however, we find the tragically undereducated John Barton hoping that God “would, may be, teach me right from wrong, even if it were with many stripes. I've been sore puzzled here. I would go through Hell-fire if I could but get free from sin at last, it's such an awful thing” (433). Such a vision could only stem from the Hartleyan associationist eschatology (here paraphrased by Goeffrey Rowell) whereby “In Hell, resurrected bodies of the wicked will undergo torment, all senses intact, but … the purpose of this punishment is primarily reformatory” (Rowell 34).

  11. Ruth's psychological (rather than circumstantial) innocence has invited critics to literary categorization instead of political assessment, the majority pigeonholing her as a Romantic “natural heroine.” Misled by the novel's clear, non-bombastic exposition and the aptly observed fact that it is Ruth's most sympathetic qualities (love of nature and spontaneous trust) that lead to her fall, Schor, Stone, and Easson come to the anachronistic conclusion that Gaskell's project was one of radical exculpation rather than rational explication of Ruth's sexual fall. Such readings are perplexed by the deeply Christian rhetoric in the novel's second half:

    [H]asn't Gaskell, in presenting her character sympathetically, contrived to make her sinless in the event and yet to react afterwards as though she had sinned?

    (Easson 118)

    Ruth, as a natural heroine, cannot “fall,” except into confusion and guilt; as a socialized being and, in the terms of the rest of the novel, as a Christian heroine, she is already fallen.

    (Schor 66)

    Ruth, who is entirely lacking in will at the time of her seduction, must gain a sense of identity precisely so that she can repudiate and atone for the presumed willfulness of her youth.

    (Stone 151)

  12. For the purposes of my argument I am focusing on the anti-materialist aspect of Barrett Browning's philosophy; for a more complex discussion of her model of spiritual/material cohesion, see Joyce Zonana.

  13. According to Barrett Browning, Marian “had to be dragged through the uttermost debasement of circumstances to arrive at the sentiment of personal dignity” (Letters [The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning] 2:242).

  14. Deborah Byrd similarly remarks on Barrett Browning's conservative and essentialist affection for hierarchical models of value: “Accepting the patriarchal notion that some verse forms are inherently more noble than others, she apparently does not realize that the idea of a hierarchy of literary forms historically has been used to disparage and to exclude from the literary canon much of the verse written by women” (28).

  15. “Interestingly, associationism … was seen as the progressive theory of mind at that time and politicized by being connected with the radical ideas of Bentham. … [It] was taken seriously as the democratic form precisely because it emphasized the influence of environment and the external world on the self rather than the innate and privileged independent power of mind. Associationism held out the possibility of transforming consciousness through training and education, culture and nurture. Moreover, the tabula rasa meant that everyone starts off with the same handicap” (Armstrong 32-33).

Works Cited

Anderson, Amanda. Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Behnken, Eloise M. Thomas Carlyle: “Calvinist Without the Theology.” Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1978.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1847.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Kerry McSweeney. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

———. Casa Guidi Windows: A Poem, in Two Parts. In The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Oxford UP, 1932. Pp. 340-73.

———. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 2 vols. Ed. Frederic G. Kenyon. London: MacMillan, 1898.

Byrd, Deborah. “Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet.” Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 23-41.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Eds. Michael K. Goldberg, Joel J. Brattin, and Mark Engel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832-1867. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ed. Stephen Gill. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.

———. Ruth. Ed. Alan Shelston. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Hartley, David. Observations on Man: His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations. 3 vols. London: J. Johnson P, 1801.

Kaplan, Cora. Introduction. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: The Women's Press, 1978.

Leighton, Angela. “‘Because men made the laws’: The Fallen Woman and the Woman Poet.” Victorian Poetry 27 (1989): 109-27.

Mill, John Stuart. The Logic of the Moral Sciences. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1988.

Priestley, Joseph. Observations Relating to Education. London: G. Smallfield. Vol 25: 1-79 of The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley. Ed. John Toweill Rutt. 25 vols. 1817-1832.

Riede, David. “Elizabeth Barrett: The Poet as Angel.” Victorian Poetry 32 (1994): 121-39.

Rosenblum, Dolores. “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry.” Victorian Studies 26 (1983): 321-38.

Rowell, Geoffrey. Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies Concerning Eternal Punishment and the Future Life. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974.

Rubenius, Aina. The Woman Question in Mrs. Gaskell's Life and Works. New York: Russell and Russell, 1950.

Schor, Hilary. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Stone, Donald. The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8 (1989): 241-62.

Further Reading

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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. 134-64. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Declares Aurora Leigh to be the most dramatic and complete exploration of “the woman question” in mid-Victorian literature.

———. “Introduction to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh and Other Poems.” In Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Sandra Donaldson, pp. 71-101. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Reprinting of the extensive introduction to the 1978 edition of Barrett Browning's work.

Lewis, Linda M. “Rape and Resurrection in Aurora Leigh.Studies in Browning and His Circle 19 (1991): 56-65.

Analyzes Barrett Browning's “troubling theology” in terms of spiritual resurrection and death.

Martinez, Michele. “Sister Arts and Artists: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and the Life of Harriet Hosmer.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 39, no. 2 (April 2003): 214-26.

Treats sculpture as a chief metaphor in Aurora Leigh.

Mermin, Dorothy. “Aurora Leigh.” In Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry, pp. 183-224. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Characterizes Barrett Browning as a Homer-like figure who desired to alter the social order of Victorian England.

Steinmetz, Virginia V. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 21, no. 4 (winter 1983): 351-67.

Analyzes symbols of maternity in Aurora Leigh through an examination of the poem's three major characters.

Sutphin, Christine. “Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh.Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54.

Discusses the poem's ending as a synthesis of conflicting feminine identities as Aurora Leigh becomes poet and wife.

Taylor, Beverly. “‘School-Miss Alfred’ and ‘Materfamilias’: Female Sexuality and Poetic Voice in The Princess and Aurora Leigh.” In Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, edited by Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor, pp. 5-29. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Compares and contrasts the treatment of women's issues in Alfred Tennyson's The Princess and Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.

Thum, Maureen. “Breaking Loose from ‘Chin-Bands of the Soul’: Barrett Browning's Re-Visioning of the Patriarchal Family in Aurora Leigh.” In Family Matters in the British and American Novel, edited by Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, Elizabeth Mahn Nollen, and Sheila Reitzel Foor, pp. 79-96. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.

Contends that Aurora Leigh questions middle-class values, specifically those of the nuclear family.

Turner, Paul. “Aurora versus the Angel.” Review of English Studies 24, no. 95 (July 1948): 227-35.

Examines connections between Aurora Leigh and Conventry Patmore's The Angel in the House.

Vanden Bossche, Chris R., and Laura E. Haigwood. “Revising The Prelude: Aurora Leigh as Laureate.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 22 (May 1999): 29-42.

Describes William Wordsworth's The Prelude and Aurora Leigh as circular quests.

Additional coverage of Barrett Browning's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 4; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 32, 199; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, 61, 66; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 6; Poetry for Students, Vols. 2, 16; Poets: American and British; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

Sarah Annes Brown (essay date autumn 1997)

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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 John's vision of the New Jerusalem:1

He stood a moment with erected brows
                    In silence, as a creature might who gazed—
                    Stood calm, and fed his blind, majestic eyes
                    Upon the thought of perfect noon: and when
                    I saw his soul saw—“Jasper first,” I said,
                    “And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
                    The rest in order—last, an amethyst.”(2)

The framing of the poem with recollections of Genesis and Revelation, fall and redemption, can be seen to find an echo in the deeper pattern of Aurora Leigh, in which Aurora and Romney begin by misunderstanding each other and parting, but by the end of the poem have reached mutual comprehension and love. However, additional tensions and complexities may be identified if we place Aurora Leigh not simply within a biblical, but within a specifically Miltonic, context. For although in many ways Aurora Leigh most obviously recalls the poetry of Wordsworth, and particularly The Prelude, it can also be read as a palinode to Paradise Lost. The tensions within Aurora Leigh, the way the poem's ostensibly measured plea on behalf of women seems to conceal hints of a more inflammatory view lurking beneath its surface, are mirrored in the poem's slippery relationship with Paradise Lost.

The first line of Aurora Leigh, “Of writing many books there is no end” is an unmistakable echo of Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV [King James Version], “And further, by these my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But within the context of reinvented epic, the text most strongly invoked, by means of difference, is not the Bible, but Milton's Paradise Lost. We are prepared for a statement of epic content by the very first word—whether it be man's first disobedience, arms and the man, or the wrath of Achilles—but are cheated when we are instead presented with a rather oblique assertion. The apparently epic opening was but a feint. In direct contrast with the public, grandiose, all-encompassing importance of the subject matter of Homer, Virgil, and particularly Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem seems to be folded inward:

And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine—
Will write my story for my better self
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.


The immediate retreat into subjectivity, concealment, even sentiment, adumbrates the peculiar problems of writing as a female poet, problems which dominate the entire poem, and which fulfill the hint contained in the first line, that this will be a poem about writing poetry, rather than about the conventional matter of epic.4

Instead of Milton's Muse we are taken into the presence of Aurora's dead parents; the influence of her father is particularly felt. Whereas Milton seeks to be uplifted, Aurora appears to court literal depression:

                                                                                          What in me is dark,
Illumine, what is low, raise and support;
That to the highth of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.


                                                                                                                        O my father's hand,
Stroke heavily, heavily the poor head down,
Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee!
I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone.


Aurora Leigh's dependence upon her natural father may be aligned with her creator's reliance upon her masculine poetic ancestry, particularly when we remember her oft-quoted lament, “I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none.”7 The importance of Milton as a poet against whom later female writers, such as Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, reacted, subverting his supposed misrepresentation of woman through the character of Eve, has been widely discussed.8 But although Aurora Leigh can be seen as a paradigmatic female riposte to Paradise Lost, this aspect of the poem has been strangely neglected by Barrett Browning's critics.9

Her conversation with Milton began some time before the writing of Aurora Leigh. The work which bears the most obvious debt to Paradise Lost is her lyric drama set immediately after the Fall, A Drama of Exile. In her preface to this piece, Barrett Browning expresses her sense of unfitness to follow in Milton's footsteps: “I had promised my own prudence to shut close the gates of Eden between Milton and myself, so that none might say I dared to walk in his footsteps. He should be within, I thought, with his Adam and Eve unfallen or falling,—and I, without, with my EXILES,—I also an exile!” Yet even as she voices her doubts, we are offered a hint of self-assertion, of self-justification:

For the rest, Milton is too high, and I am too low, to render it necessary for me to disavow any rash emulation of his divine faculty on his own ground; while enough individuality will be granted, I hope, to my poem, to rescue me from that imputation of plagiarism which should be too servile a thing for every sincere thinker. After all, and at the worst, I have only attempted, in respect to Milton, what the Greek dramatists achieved lawfully in respect to Homer. … For the analogy of the stronger may apply to the weaker; and the reader may have patience with the weakest while she suggests the application.10

Clearly A Drama of Exile is the most obvious starting point for a discussion of Barrett Browning's engagement with Milton, focusing as it does on the role of Eve which the poet claims has been “imperfectly apprehended hitherto” (2:143).11 Yet an apparently innocuous reference to Milton in Casa Guidi Windows could be said to strike an even more important first blow in a battle which is continued in Aurora Leigh. In the passage quoted above, Barrett Browning talks of Milton within the context of a literary heritage embracing Homer and the Greek tragedians. Bloom's Map of Misreading offers an analysis of one particular aspect of this imitative process, Milton's allusion to the leaves of Vallombrosa, used to express the impotence of the fallen angels:12 “His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced / Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks / In Vallombrosa” (1.301-3). Bloom traces the relationship between these lines and a whole array of previous comparisons between men and leaves in the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Inferno. Here, and in other densely allusive passages, Milton is seen to be engaging in a dialectical relationship with his illustrious forebears, eluding anxiety of influence by “troping upon his forerunners' tropes.”13

By the nineteenth century, references to the leaves of Vallombrosa often specifically alluded to the image's Miltonic provenance. The following quotation from Casa Guidi Windows establishes that Barrett Browning shared this consciousness that Vallombrosa was particularly associated with Paradise Lost:

The Vallombrosan brooks were strewn as thick
That June day, knee-deep, with dead beechen leaves,
As Milton saw them ere his heart grew sick,
And his eyes blind.


So when Vallombrosa is mentioned in Aurora Leigh it seems reasonable to assume that Milton was at the back of Barrett Browning's mind: “Not a grand nature. Not my chestnut woods / Of Vallombrosa, cleaving by the spurs / To the precipices” (1.615-7). Whereas Milton uses the simile to belittle the fallen angels, for Aurora the woods of Vallombrosa represent an Italian ideal, beside which the countryside of England appears tame and subdued. Immediately prior to these lines comes a description of English sheep who run “Along the fine clear outline, small as mice / That run along a witch's scarlet thread” (1.612-4).

An anxiety of influence slippage seems to be at work here—the puny leaves of Milton's simile have been magnified, transformed into an unattainable object of Aurora's imaginings. If Milton's leaves may perhaps be seen as a sign of the male poet, the lines preceding them invoke a specifically feminine discourse, with their little mice, transgressive witches, and suggestion of some feminine art in the mention of the scarlet thread—weaving or embroidery.15

There is a second flurry of Italian leaves in book 2 of Aurora Leigh, when the heroine spurns her cousin's offer of financial assistance by tearing up his deed of gift. It is significant that her refusal of masculine support is accompanied by this return to the image of falling leaves—just as Aurora rebuffs Romney, so Barrett Browning explicitly checks herself from emulating Milton:

                                                                                                                        As I spoke, I tore
The paper up and down, and down and up
And crosswise, till it fluttered from my hands,
As forest-leaves, stripped suddenly and rapt
By a whirlwind on Valdarno, drop again,
Drop slow, and strew the melancholy ground
Before the amazed hills … why, so, indeed,
I'm writing like a poet, somewhat large
In the type of the image, and exaggerate
A small thing with a great thing, topping it.


Again, she is going against the grain of Milton's use of the leaf simile, claiming that it is too large for what she has to describe and not, as in Milton, suggestive of something tiny and derisory. Part of the reason why she thinks it is too large is that it has become part of the male epic tradition. The reappearance of the leaves in the context of a written document highlights their potential to represent leaves in a book such as those in Paradise Lost itself.

Another faint echo of Milton's leaves comes in book 5. Aurora has been describing the shortcomings of her poem “The Hills.” Yet again, the leaves are associated with the difficulty of living up to a poetic tradition, although perhaps Aurora's gradual growth in confidence is signaled by the fact that they have returned to their proper Miltonic place as an indicator of weakness:

          For us, we are called to mark
A still more intimate humanity
In this inferior nature, or ourselves
Must fall like dead leaves trodden underfoot
By veritable artists.


A final invocation of leaves which, as they are of the chestnut, are associated with Vallombrosa, comes in book 6:

                                                                                                              Through the grate
Within the gardens, what a heap of babes,
Swept up like leaves beneath the chestnut-trees
From every street and alley of the town,
By ghosts perhaps that blow too bleak this way
A-looking for their heads!


Perhaps this is the final stage in the battle for poetic control: finally the leaves are no longer a symptom of poetic anxiety, but merely a descriptive tool as they were for Milton. The fact that she uses them to evoke babies might be an indication of Barrett Browning's apparent interest in carving out a feminine niche for herself, a less spectacular but perhaps just as telling detail as the extraordinary passage in book 5, where artistic creation is explicitly associated with the female body:

                                                                                                                                  Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
“Behold—behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.”


But it is not only in the imagery of Aurora Leigh that we can trace a struggle between Barrett Browning and her poetic ancestor. A parallel conflict is played out between their two heroines, Eve and Aurora.

Returning to the first allusion to Vallombrosa in book 1, Aurora goes on further to characterize England in feminine terms. It is tame and enclosed, it discourages aspiration, it is conciliatory but stifling—it is also explicitly compared to the prelapsarian Eden. “On English ground / You understand the letter—ere the fall / How Adam lived in a garden” (1.628-30). But although Edenic, the landscape also offers echoes of the temptations faced by Eve. At the beginning of book 5 Eve recounts a troubling dream to Adam:

Close at mine ear one called me-forth to walk
With gentle voice, I thought it thine; it said,
Why sleep'st thou, Eve? …
.....                                                                                                                                                      in vain,
If none regard, heaven wakes with all his eyes,
Whom to behold but thee, Nature's desire,
In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment
Attracted by thy beauty still to gaze.


Aurora is also summoned by an external agency—the sun—to wake and rise:

The sun came, saying, “shall I lift this light
Against the lime tree, and you will not look?
I make the birds sing—listen! but, for you.”


As with Eve, the invitation is made more tempting by the suggestion that Nature's works are in some way there for her special benefit. Aurora goes on to describe her nighttime escapade in terms of temptation and transgression:

                                                                                                                        Capacity for joy
Admits temptation. It seemed, next, worth while
To dodge the sharp sword set against my life;
To slip downstairs through all the sleepy house,
As mute as any dream there, and escape
As a soul from the body, out of doors,
Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane.


The reference to the sword in particular might recall Adam and Eve's eventual exile from Eden, whose gate will henceforth be guarded by “the brandished sword of God” (12.633).16

Within the chronology of Paradise Lost Eve's disturbing dream is the prelude to her decision to work apart from Adam, and thus to her fall itself. In Aurora Leigh too, the heroine's nighttime vision is followed by a disputation in the garden, in this case concerning the viability of Aurora's poetic vocation, and Romney's desire to marry her. Both Eve and Aurora assert their wish for independence and for separation, whereas both Romney and Adam counsel caution and invoke feminine weakness to back up their case. In both works the argument is tossed back and forth, and in each case the woman has the final word and secures her desired independence. But whereas in the case of Eve the parting with Adam leads to her ruin, for Aurora it is the beginning of a successful career as a poet. This very broad structural affinity would not of course in itself suggest a link with Paradise Lost, but there is a complex network of allusions to the earlier poem which, taken together, place Aurora Leigh in opposition to Milton. One of the most telling connections with Paradise Lost is the simple fact that the heroine's name, Aurora, is of course the Latin name for Eos, goddess of the dawn, and she is thus by implication the opposite of Eve. Aurora is thus a second Eve—and yet that is a role which, in Christian tradition, has already been triumphantly fulfilled by Mary. Perhaps there is a further significance in the fact that the name of the poem's secondary heroine is the adjectival form of Mary, Marian.

Garlands have an important function in both poems. Aurora has gone outside to crown herself with ivy leaves:

Ah—there's my choice—that ivy on the wall,
That headlong ivy! Not a leaf will grow
But thinking of a wreath. Large leaves, smooth leaves,
Serrated like my vines, and half as green.
I like such ivy, bold to leap a height
'Twas strong to climb.


Her choice of plant is interesting; the ivy is explicitly connected with feminine subjection by Milton—Eve mentions the need to “direct / The clasping ivy where to climb” (9.216-7). The suggestion that Aurora is reinventing the ivy as a bold and aspiring plant, fitting in with her desire to find a new feminine poetic idiom, is upheld by the apparently gratuitous comparison between the ivy and the vine, for the latter plant is also a type of woman's dependence upon the male in Milton (4.307-8, 5.215-7).

In Paradise Lost Adam weaves a garland for Eve while he awaits her return, only to let it fall in dismay when he realizes she has eaten the apple. This incident is echoed when Aurora, made a little petulant by Romney's caution against writing poetry, drops the wreath she has made as a prelude to speaking to her cousin with defiance:

“You'll see—you'll see! I'll soon take flight,
You shall not hinder.” He, as shaking out
His hand and answering, “Fly then,” did not speak,
Except by such a gesture …
.....                                                                                                    he abruptly caught
At one end of the swinging wreath, and said


A little later he explicitly invokes Eve:

                                                                                                                        You, you are young
As Eve with nature's daybreak on her face,
But this same world you are come to, dearest coz,
Has done with keeping birthdays, saves her wreaths
To hang upon her ruins.


But the difference between the two women is signaled when, at the end of the argument, Aurora bends to retrieve her garland; she, unlike Eve, is capable of crowning her own merit if no one else will do it for her.

The wreath is only one sign of Milton's presence in this section of the poem. One striking passage recalls Eve's dream as well as her debate with Adam:

                                                                                          “Now,” I said, “may God
Be witness 'twixt us two!” and with the word,
Meseemed I floated into a sudden light
Above his stature.


Aurora's mysterious assertion that she seemed to float might recall Eve's words to Adam in book 5. She explains that she was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit:

                                                                      the pleasant savoury smell
So quickened appetite, that I, methought,
Could not but taste. Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide
And various: wondering at my flight and change
To this high exaltation; suddenly
My guide was gone, and I, me thought, sunk down,
And fell asleep.


Aurora contrasts her ambition with Romney's wish that she should turn to a more “worthy work” (2.538). Her own side of the debate is imaged forth in language which again invokes her as an overreaching Eve, yet without conceding that her position is evil or flawed. She speaks of Romney:

                                                                                                                                            finding me
Precisely where the devil of my youth
Had set me, on those mountain-peaks of hope,
All glittering with the dawn-dew, all erect
And famished for the noon—exclaiming, while
I looked for empire and much tribute.


Clearly the story of the temptation of Christ is on the surface more firmly suggested than Eve's fall. But within the context of an established connection between Aurora and Eve, it is the latter tale which resonates most strongly. The phrase “famished for the noon” might recall the following lines in particular: “Mean while the hour of noon drew on, and waked / An eager appetite” (9.739-40). A further proof that Barrett Browning had Eve rather than Christ at the back of her mind is the strong similarity with a passage from her earlier Drama of Exile, describing the moment at which the Fall took place:

                                                                                          On a mountain-peak
Half-sheathed in primal woods and glittering
In spasms of awful sunshine at that hour,
A lion couched, part raised upon his paws.


Perhaps the strongest Miltonic resonance in book 2 may be found in its lines:

                                                                                                                                                      But so,
Even so, we let go hands, my cousin and I,
And in between us rushed the torrent-world
To blanch our faces like divided rocks,
And bar for ever mutual sight and touch
Except through swirl of spray and all that roar.


We might recall that lovely, but foreboding, moment when Eve lets fall Adam's hand: “Thus saying, from her husband's hand her hand / Soft she withdrew” (9.385-6) or else the poem's famous final lines: “They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (12.648-9). The reference to their letting go of hands at the end of book 2 is made more prominent by Romney's earlier plea to Aurora: “Ah my sweet, come down, / And hand in hand we'll go where yours shall touch / These victims, one by one!” (2.385-7).

Barrett Browning's reformulation of the traditional relationship between the sexes is twice described in a way which offers a ghostly echo of some of the most famous lines in Paradise Lost:

Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him.


                                                                                                    Always Romney Leigh
Was looking for the worms, I for the gods.
A godlike nature his; the gods look down,
Incurious of themselves.


Barrett Browning simultaneously accepts Milton's division between the sexes and slyly questions its validity. If the gods look down on worms they are making scant use of their lofty stature. We might also compare: “he, overfull / Of what is, and I, haply overbold / For what might be” (1.1108-10). Here too present male superiority is presented as having the potential for reversal, for diminution, within itself.

The strength of Barrett Browning's oppositional voice is most evident toward the end of the poem, when Romney reminisces back to that meeting in the garden of ten years ago in terms which vividly recall Paradise Lost, yet which also acknowledge that his own second Eve was right in leaving him:

                                                                                                                                  you, who keep
The same Aurora of the bright June day
That withered up the flowers before my face,
And turned me from the garden evermore
Because I was not worthy.


He recalls her garland very clearly, saying that he

                                                                                came here to abase myself,
And fasten, kneeling, on her regent brows
A garland which I startled thence one day
Of her beautiful June youth.


Their reconciliation is marked by the joining of their hands, which Romney associates with the idea of a “fall”:

                                                  Ah, you've left your height,
And here upon my level we take hands,
And here I reach you to forgive you, sweet,
And that's a fall, Aurora.


Indeed their reunion has in a sense less to do with the final note on which the poem ends—Revelation—than with Milton's description of the Fall. It is as though Eve, after leaving Adam in order to court temptation, had returned to him, not to be blamed and wept over, but to be feted, not to have her garland cast down, but to be crowned in triumph with it. This reversal may be compared with Shelley's subversive reconfiguration of Miltonic material in Prometheus Unbound. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there are only nine books in Aurora Leigh.17 Barrett Browning gives her heroine the traits which in Eve led to the Fall, and shows them to be the precise qualities which enable Aurora to achieve fulfillment as both poet and woman, binding her and Romney together rather than driving them further apart.

So far there would appear to be a strong degree of congruity between the Miltonic echoes in Aurora Leigh and the poem's brave, yet essentially conservative, feminism. The reworking of Paradise Lost suggests Barrett Browning's own view of the relationship between the sexes; she desires greater autonomy for women than did Milton, yet still envisages men and women working together in partnership. Whereas Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may be viewed as a radical rejection of Milton, Aurora Leigh seems to represent a far more measured reinvention of Paradise Lost, particularly as there is no overt questioning of divine authority as there is in Prometheus Unbound. On the surface at least, Aurora Leigh rejects any truly radical attack on patriarchal society, and the poem ends in a comfortingly traditional way, with a marriage and a happy ending. However, the conclusion of the poem is not of course entirely unproblematic. The strong resemblance between the fates of Romney Leigh and Mr. Rochester was apparent to the poem's earliest readers, and the interpretation of Jane Eyre as a novel whose hero must be punished, even symbolically castrated, before he is rewarded with the heroine is equally applicable to Aurora Leigh.18

One of the strangest links with Paradise Lost may be found in book 4, in the description of the abortive wedding of Romney and Marian. It is not unlikely that Barrett Browning was in at least partial control of the Miltonic echoes in book 2, in which explicit references to Eve and to Eden are included. According to the pattern of connections already described, Romney must be seen as a type of Adam, who may need to have some of his views modified, but who is essentially a positive force. But in book 4 he seems to have been metamorphosed into a Satanic figure. How far, if at all, this was a deliberate strategy on Barrett Browning's part is difficult to ascertain. In book 10 of Paradise Lost Satan returns to Hell to celebrate his supposed triumph against God and Man. But even as he awaits the applause, he finds that he and all his fellow fallen angels are being transformed into snakes. A vision of the tree of life springs up, but when the snakes attempt to eat the apples they taste of ashes.

Many poor people come to the wedding of Romney and Marian. The description of their entrance provides an extraordinary comparison with Milton's account of the fallen angels:19

They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream like blood …
While all the aisles, alive and black with heads,
Crawled slowly toward the altar from the street,
As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole
With shuddering involution.


                                                                                                              dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now
With complicated monsters head and tail,
Scorpion, and asp, and amphisbaena dire,
Cerastes horned, hydrus, and ellops drear,
And dipsas (not so thick swarmed once the soil
Bedropped with blood of Gorgon, or the isle


The comparison between the congregation and a bruised snake strengthens the potential biblical and Miltonic resonance, and the shared association of snakes and blood provides a further link between the two passages. A little later in Aurora Leigh we are explicitly invited to think of hell: “'twas as if you had stirred up hell / To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost / In fiery swirls of slime” (4.587-9). Satan's audience had been “now expecting / Each hour their great adventurer from the search / Of foreign worlds” (10.439-41). Romney's audience is also expectant, although they pass the time while they await Marian by indulging in spiteful gossip, until it is revealed that Romney has been jilted. The horrific transformation which Aurora witnesses, making it difficult for her to believe it is really him, and his inability to speak both stem from natural causes yet recall the similar effects of Satan's metamorphosis:

A murmur and a movement drew around,
A naked whisper touched us. Something wrong.
What's wrong. The black crowd, as an overstrained
Cord, quivered in vibration, and I saw …
Was that his face I saw? … his … Romney Leigh's …
Which tossed a sudden horror like a sponge
Into all eyes—while himself stood white upon
The topmost altar-stair and tried to speak,
And failed, and lifted higher above his head
A letter … as a man who drowns and gapes.


                                                                                                    from the door
Of that Plutonian hall, invisible
Ascended his high throne …
Forth rushed in haste the great consulting peers,
Raised from their dark divan, and with like joy
Congratulant approached him, who with hand
Silence, and with these words attention won …
          So having said, a while he stood, expecting
Their universal shout and high applause,
To fill his ear, when contrary he hears
On all sides, from innumerable tongues
A dismal universal hiss, the sound
Of public scorn …
                                                                                                    he would have spoke,
But hiss for hiss returned with forked tongue
To forked tongue.


Ostensibly, within the narrative of the poem, Romney and the congregation are opposed; however, the Miltonic context serves to draw them together, implicating Romney in the disturbing hideousness of his audience. The crowd of poor people, thinking Romney has cast off Marian, erupts in fury, treating Romney's conciliatory words in the same way Satan's cohorts do the fruit:

                                                                                Through the rage and roar
I heard the broken words which Romney flung
Among the turbulent masses, from the ground
He held still with his masterful pale face—
As huntsmen throw the ration to the pack,
Who falling on it headlong, dog on dog
In heaps of fury, rend it, swallow it up
With yelling hound-jaws—his indignant words,
Whereof I caught the meaning here and there
By his gesture … torn in morsels, yelled across,
And so devoured.


But on they rolled in heaps, and up the trees
Climbing, sat thicker than the snaky locks
That curled Megaera: greedily they plucked
The fruitage fair to sight, like that which grew
Near that bituminous lake where Sodom flamed;
This more delusive, not the touch, but taste
Deceived; they fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes, which the offended taste
With spattering noise rejected.


The context of Satan's metamorphosis sheds some light on these curious echoes. Within the chronology of Paradise Lost he has just brought about the fall of Eve. In Aurora Leigh the departure of Marian, instigated by the jealous Lady Waldemar, has ensured her own fall in the eyes of society. By aligning him with Satan at the very moment when we learn of her disappearance, Romney is, by analogy, implicated in the brutal treatment of Marian. A literal reading of the poem completely clears him of any such charge, yet Barrett Browning may be unconsciously projecting her own awareness that she lives in a society where a wealthy man is far more likely to seduce and abandon a penniless girl than be jilted by her.

The significance of this link between Romney and Satan is strengthened by a further association between Romney and a snake in book 8, when he apologizes to Aurora for doubting the wisdom of her earlier choice.

                                                                                                              Set down this
For condemnation—I was guilty here;
I stood upon my deed and fought my doubt,
As men will—for I doubted—till at last
My deed gave way beneath me suddenly
And left me what I am:—the curtain dropped,
My part quite ended, all the footlights quenched,
My own soul hissing at me through the dark.


The idea of his real self being revealed and shown to be wanting, the reference to a triumphant spectacle being undercut, and particularly the image of his soul hissing at him in darkness, all contribute to reinforce the Satanic link. These suggestions of a submerged hostility to Romney are consistent with his eventual “punishment.”

Helen Cooper believes that the analogy which Barrett Browning draws between Milton and Romney through their shared blindness, a similarity explicitly referred to in one of the poet's letters, suggests that she has “finally made peace with her precursor” (p. 190). But if Romney may also be aligned with Satan, such “peace” seems more problematic, and Deirdre David's assertion that the poem represents a “ratification of a deep-rooted foundation of Victorian patriarchy—women serve men, and men and women together serve God” (p. 151) is called into question.


  1. The epigraph is from Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (London: Methuen and Co., 1969), p. 144. Revelation 21: 18-20 KJV.

  2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Kerry McSweeney (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 9.958-64. All references are to book and line number(s) in this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. See also Margaret Reynolds, “Aurora Leigh: ‘Writing her story for her better self,’” Browning Society Notes 17, 1 (1987/8): 5-11.

  4. The generic status of Aurora Leigh has been discussed by more than one critic. See Susan Stanford Friedman, “Gender and Genre Anxiety: EBB and H. D. as Epic Poets,” TSWL [Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature] 5, 22 (Fall 1986): 203-28, for a discussion of the way Barrett Browning reformulated epic conventions to suit a female perspective. Holly A. Laird also places the poem within an epic context in “Aurora Leigh: An Epical Ars Poetica” (in Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones [Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1991], pp. 453-70). See also Dorothy Mermin, “Genre and Gender in Aurora Leigh,VN [Victorian Newsletter] 69 (Spring 1986): 7-11.

  5. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (London and New York: Longman, 1968; rprt. 1971). All subsequent references are to this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. For a discussion of hand imagery as a patriarchal motif in Aurora Leigh, see Virginia Steinmetz, “Beyond the Sun: Patriarchal Images in Aurora Leigh,Studies in Browning and His Circle 9, 2 (Fall 1981): 18-41.

  7. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Letters, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1897), 1:232. The treatment of maternity in Aurora Leigh has been extensively discussed. See Sandra M. Gilbert, “From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento,” PMLA 99, 2 (March 1984): 194-211, and Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 183-224.

  8. See particularly Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979); Joseph Wittreich, Feminist Milton (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987); and Lucy Newlyn, “Paradise Lost” and the Romantic Reader (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

  9. Helen Cooper sketches the outline of such a reading of Aurora Leigh, but does not expand on her suggestive comments (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist [Chapel Hill and London: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988]).

  10. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, preface to A Drama of Exile, in The Complete Works, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1973), 2:143-5.

  11. For a discussion of the relationship between A Drama of Exile and Milton, see Deirdre David, Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot (London: Macmillan Press, 1987), pp. 107-10, and Wanda Campbell, “Isabella Valancy Crawford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documentary, Reviews 29 (Fall-Winter 1991): 23-37.

  12. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 135-8.

  13. Bloom, p. 132.

  14. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Casa Guidi Windows, ed. Julia Markus (Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1977), pp. 35-6. Cooper alludes to this passage as follows: “Having established her right relationship to the ‘dead,’ she can make her literary peace with ‘John Milton.’ Italy provides a common ground: she can praise Milton without being threatened, because she too loves the country that she imagines ‘helped to fill / The cup of Milton's soul’ (1.1155-56)” (p. 138).

  15. In German folklore witches were supposed to be able to make mice out of cloth which would then come to life. The scarlet thread may recall Joshua 2:18 (explanatory annotation, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992], p. 596).

  16. Joyce Zonana equates a different passage, Aurora's vision of herself as Ganymede, ravished by Jove and then falling back to earth, with Eve's dream (“The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics,” TSWL 8, 2 [Fall 1989]: 240-62).

  17. The significance of the number nine is not of course limited to the fact that the Fall takes place in book 9 of Paradise Lost. Nine is a curious number of books to comprise an epic poem. This point is discussed by Herbert Tucker who remarks that “For the variously divisible number twelve Barrett Browning substitutes the odd square nine, a triad trebled” (“Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends,” in Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, ed. Alison Booth [Charlottesville and London: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1993], pp. 62-85).

  18. The other figure whom the blind Romney might remind us of is of course Milton himself. The connection was explicitly recognized by Barrett Browning, and discussed in a letter to Anna Jameson which she wrote from Florence on 26 December 1856: “Afterwards he had a fever, and the eyes, the visual nerve, perished, showing no external stain—perished as Milton's did” (Letters, 2:246).

  19. This powerful episode has disturbed many critics of the poem, perhaps because it seems to imply some distaste for the poor on the poet's part. David, for example, is quick to exonerate Barrett Browning from any charge of fastidiousness or snobbishness (p. 125).

Anne D. Wallace (essay date 1997)

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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 through early 1995, thirty-one name Aurora Leigh as a specific object of study, more than any other single Barrett Browning title.2 Such a concentration of effort may be problematic, but there it is: Aurora Leigh is the text of the moment in Barrett Browning studies. Our primary concern, as revealed by both these conference presentations and other recent scholarship, is to describe Aurora Leigh's position in the contemporary discussion of women and in our current discussion of gender.

Like Susan Brown and Laura C. Berry at the 1993 conference, readers often approach such a description through genre study, regarding Barrett Browning's poem as a simultaneous reiteration and explosion of established genres.3 Marjorie Stone, in her comparative study of Aurora Leigh and Tennyson's The Princess, articulates the critical rationale for this approach:

assumptions about gender interact in complex ways with the assumptions about genre that structure the creation and reception of literary texts. Analyzing the writing of texts, feminist critics have explored the ways in which women write between existing genres or adapt male-defined genres such as the bildungsroman to their own needs and rhetorical purposes, often creating new hybrid genres. Analyzing the reception of literary works, they have shown how the privileging of certain genres, the use of misleading categorization by genre, and the formulation of generic features in female or male terms have functioned to perpetuate the marginalization of women's writing.4

In adopting such methods, we may pursue the questionable course of reading a text in the ways it says it wishes to be read. Certainly Aurora Leigh explicitly sets out a necessary connection between genre revision and gender revision, so that our work along this line functions conservatively (at least with respect to Aurora Leigh's aesthetic proposals) rather than otherwise. Nonetheless, in this essay I too follow Aurora Leigh's suggested methodology, and our current critical bent, to the end of addressing what seems a more immediate problem.

Given Stone's expression of our general perception that gender and genre “interact in complex ways,” our conclusions about these interactions in Barrett Browning's poem reduce to the curiously simple dichotomy Stone then implies: subversive hybridization or continuing marginalization. Stone's own work exemplifies the celebratory argument that Barrett Browning's hybridization of epic, romance and novel successfully subverts dominant categories: “Setting up a dialogue of genres to reinforce her dialogue of genders, she challenges the ‘violent order’ of gender and genre hierarchies: turning men into compulsive nurturers and women into knights-errant, substituting Aurora for Achilles, bringing plain Miss Smith face to face with Homer's Helen and Homer's heroes.”5 Dierdre David represents what currently seems the only alternative. Pointing to the often-questioned end of the poem, she concludes that “the novel-poem Aurora Leigh becomes a form-giving epithalamium for the essentialist sexual politics formed primarily through Barrett Browning's very early apprenticeship to male modes of intellectual training and aesthetic practice. In this poem we hear a woman's voice speaking patriarchal discourse—boldly, passionately, and without rancour.”6

Nowhere in Barrett Browning studies, whether genre focuses the discussion or not, does there seem to be any way around one of these two resolutions of Aurora Leigh's conflicted representations of gender. That Aurora Leigh's constructions of gender are conflicted is well-accepted, and, like most other critics, neither Stone nor David suppresses the poem's difficulties in the progress of her interpretation. But all finally press for what I regard as unfruitfully restrictive “solutions” to these difficulties. I wish to argue that we cannot, after all, choose either the essentialist endgame, or the revisions of genre/gender most prominent in the early books, as the final disposition of the poem. In particular, Aurora Leigh resists a conclusive reading of its attitudes toward the crucial relations among women, work and writing.

I suspect that this resistance plays a large part in our repetitive interrogation of Barrett Browning's poem, for it refuses our own desires. It is surely obvious to anyone working in literary criticism that these relations among women, work and writing form an ideological nexus at which we now, in late twentieth-century literary culture, most vigorously seek resolution. For many of us, this is no abstract or “purely literary” matter. Women writers paid (albeit indirectly) for what we write, we feel an immense, personal, at times desperate need to limn clearly and so shift the cultural constructions that inflect our own lives. Feminist readers of various persuasions, pressuring textual constructions of gender, seek some overriding principle by which the apparent paradoxes of Barrett Browning's narrative might be settled. Traditionally, however, our discussions ignore the important connection between the issues of women and artistry, and of women and paid labor, confining “work” to professional writing itself and not relating (except by opposition) that work to other kinds of work, laborious or professional, paid or domestic. I want to return our attention to this connection by reading gender against the genres which metaphorize art as “labor.” Thus, rather than considering the genres most prominently “named” by the poem—poem, novel, epic, lyric, bildungsroman and kunstlerroman—I turn to the sotto voce genres of georgic and its early nineteenth-century extension, peripatetic.7

A reading of these genres, made available for us in Aurora Leigh's linked representations of sewing and walking, foregrounds the relationship between the poem's shifting valuations of “women's work” and its accompanying efforts to regender poetic labor.8 Georgic and peripatetic valorize common, materially productive labors, and metaphorically associate these labors with the work of the poet, firmly attaching the characteristics of “good labor” to poetic composition. Any poem that invokes these genres in representing a woman poet necessarily undertakes a larger task: since georgic and peripatetic have already gendered “labor” and “writing” as masculine, the poem must now re-define the relations among women, work and writing, selecting for its celebration a material labor commonly practiced by women.

In the case of Aurora Leigh, as we shall see, this labor is sewing, a kind of work done by almost all women, of all classes, both as unpaid domestic labor and as paid public employment. But here, as one might suspect, further complications arise from mid-nineteenth-century English ideologies of labor. In Nancy Armstrong's influential commentary on eighteenth-century conduct books, she describes the codification of “an absolutely rigid distinction between domestic duty and labor that was performed for money,” a distinction still plainly governing representations of women's work in Barrett Browning's time.9 Domestic duty, as Armstrong maps the category, is private, unpaid, and offers the appearance of leisure, which is to say that women's good work is precisely not “labor.” If, as Armstrong suggests, this boundary between domestic work and labor is “a distinction on which the very notion of gender appeared to depend,” then revaluing women's work in order to regender poetic labor would dismantle not just an effect, but a foundation of constructed gender.10

It is in the negotiation of these difficulties, indicative of complex interactions indeed between gender and genre, that Aurora Leigh's irresolution on the crucial relations among women, work and writing becomes evident. In its first two books, Barrett Browning's poem sets up a deliberate opposition between the female/domestic labor of sewing and the masculine/artistic “labors” of walking and writing. This opposition, sensible enough given Victorian domestic ideologies, also follows a traditional definition of poetry by means of its difference from “lesser,” specifically domestic, arts. Anne Finch's “The Spleen” (1701) perhaps most memorably sets out this poetics. “Whilst in the Muses' paths I stray,” her frustrated poet tells us,

My hand delights to trace unusual things,
And deviates from the known and common way;
Nor will in fading silks compose
Faintly th'inimitable rose,
Fill up an ill-drawn bird, or paint on glass
The Sovereign's blurred and undistinguished face,
The threatening angel and the speaking ass.(11)

To a certain extent, Barrett Browning's poem follows this account, in which embroidery (and glass-painting, and all the leisurely domestic arts they stand for) not only mocks but displaces poetry's truth-telling mimesis, its practice preventing the practice of poetry. But in Aurora Leigh, sewing is not only a leisurely, decorative, domestic art, but a productive labor of women working for wages in public, rather than domestic, economies. Moreover, the poem's extended metaphorical representation of poetry as walking relies not on the tradition of contemplative poetry embodied in Finch's straying lady, but on Wordsworthian peripatetic, in which fatherly pedestrian-poets' laborious, materially productive walking performs intellectual and moral cultivation.12

Peripatetic inevitably implicates its source-genre, georgic, and here the reader may notice the possibility of a more positive reading of sewing.13 Some eighteenth-century georgics include passages in which domestic sewing functions as a labor imitative of agricultural cultivation and so imitative, in a positive sense, of poetry. But Aurora Leigh's attention to sewing as public wage-labor, and its proposal of a woman poet who imagines herself as one of Wordsworth's pedestrian-poets, suggest further complicating connections between sewing and walking and poetry. Peripatetic, like georgic, figures a common material labor—walking in peripatetic, farming in georgic—as cognate with the “labor” of poetry-writing, and constructs these labors' mutual function as cultivating forces in the poet's/laborer's society.14 If sewing appears as productive labor, and if women may be walking poets, then no simple opposition between women's domestic work and men's public, cultivating, poetic work may be drawn. Nor may women's sewing be seen as merely imitative of men's cultivating labors. Rather, it must be recognized as yet another possibly cognate labor, a potentially cultivating agency in itself.

The poem deliberately carries these complications forward. Aurora Leigh interleaves sewing imagery with the vegetative imagery central to peripatetic and georgic, producing images of poets' mantles, of pricking roses and ivy, of green-clothed rooms bridging domestic interiors and poetic paths. This kind of imagery pervades the early books of the poem, and while it never fully displaces negative interpretations of sewing, it leaves sewing, walking and poetry problematically entangled. Marian Erle's story sets out the full dimensions of this entanglement. For Marian, whose labor as a seamstress proves a stable economic support, sewing also resurrects the moral harvest she first gathers in walking and poetry, and functions as the saving cultivating labor that preserves her past into a potential future. In Marian's story, indeed, it seems as if Barrett Browning might be constructing sewing as georgic labor, using the same tactics of juxtaposition and replacement that Wordsworth used to construct peripatetic—“adapting a male-defined genre,” in Stone's terms.15 But that adaptation, if underway, is broken off, the negative force of the first oppositions never fully denied. The last two books of Aurora Leigh rarely image either sewing or walking as the sister-labor of poetry; metaphors of material agency give way to those of transcendent love. The apparent impossibility of either exchanging or separating male and female labors suggests an ideological impasse, in which the poem's varying pressures on the categorical boundaries of art, labor and gender leave us with no clear solutions to the problems it describes. The reading that follows sets out the successive stages of the developing deadlock: a thorough devaluation of women's work, a reconstruction of women's work as materially and artistically valuable, and a tacit refusal to use the rhetorical weapon so constructed.

Barrett Browning saturates Aurora Leigh with references to sewing, a term I will use broadly to indicate the multiple overlapping categories of processes, materials and products of sewing named by the poem.16 Varieties of sewing mentioned in the poem include tying, stringing, darning, pricking, knitting, stitching, wrinkling, pressing, wreathing, twisting, spinning, embroidering, netting, braiding. As we would expect, these things are done to threads, yarns, silks, brocades; they produce or are wrought on veils, gowns, shrouds, skirts, mantles, fringes, baldaquins, stoles, shoes. But literal sewing expands quickly, and everywhere, into metaphor. Children hang on their mothers' skirts like living ornaments; hair is braided or “pricked with grey”; conscience becomes wrinkled, duties are smooth-pressed; a distant horizon becomes a “witch's scarlet thread”; talk is a different, masculine thread, while women may string pearls and rhymes and cowslips alike; nets of money catch the metaphorical lioness-poet; ivy is wreathed and twisted and worn as a pricking crown.17 By my own rough count (of instances, not necessarily discrete images), there are more than fifty such references in the first two books alone.

Such an extensive and various system of imagery refuses any single reading, but its earliest consistent use is decidedly negative. In Aurora's account of her education, sewing provides the primary symbols of conventional limitations on women's lives. Aurora's first image of her aunt shows her aunt's “somewhat narrow forehead braided tight / As if for taming accidental thoughts / From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey / By frigid use of life” (1.273-77). The image's connection of braiding and pricking with intellectual and emotional confinement corresponds with the following account of the aunt's “cage-bird life,” defined in part by her clearly insufficient expression of Christian charity in “knitting stockings, stitching petticoats / Because we are of one flesh after all / And need one flannel” (1.298-300). Submitting to her aunt, Aurora lets her “prick me to a pattern with her pin” (1.381): she braids her own curls and follows a course of education that keeps her learning metaphorically and literally in skirts. The sciences are “brushed with extreme flounce”; she copies costumes from engravings for her drawing lesson, learns to spin glass (a decorative art), and reads instruction manuals which show a proper woman's “angelic reach / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn, / And fatten household sinners” (1.404, 438-40). Last of all she learns to cross-stitch, producing a mis-colored shepherdess whose “round weight of hat” reminds her of the tortoise shell that crushes the “tragic poet,” Aeschylus (1.453, 455).18

Helena Mitchie, drawing out the psychosexual implications of such representations, connects sewing's status as inferior artistry with Freudian repression, reading sewing as “a way of repressing and controlling the self,” particularly in “the sacrifice of physical self and the repression of bodily urges.”19 Placing Aurora in the company of Maggie Tulliver and Caroline Helstone, Mitchie argues that “sewing is the tiny and fragile channel into which their creativity and their sexual energies must be poured to maintain feminine decorum.”20 Even if one wishes to avoid the possible anachronisms of such a reading (a reading I feel is at least partially justified by the passage above), the traditional poetic devaluation of sewing is plainly in play here. The final image, particularly, recalls Finch's rendering of embroidery as a false art that distorts its subjects while displacing (in this case “killing”) the true art of poetry.

At this point, however, Aurora breaks off her account of her education to add a general denunciation of women's work. I want to attend to this “aside” in detail, unfolding the various ways in which it compounds the simpler opposition of sewing and poetry:

                              By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary—or a stool
To tumble over and vex you … “curse that stool!”
Or else at best, a cushion where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this … that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.


“Symbolical,” although ironic and, in this limited context, perhaps no more suggestive than Finch's “composed,” gestures toward a possible conflation of sewing and poetry. Mitchie suggests that the sheer weight of the poem's references to sewing implies such a conflation. Repressed though they are, “leisure-class sewers” like Aurora seam the texts, leaving “a trace of the heroine's physical presence.”21 Thus, despite Barrett Browning's particularly “sinister” figuring of Aurora's whole body into fabric to be marked and pricked, Mitchie postulates the simultaneous elevation of sewing as epic figure: “female occupations, however, [sic] trivialized by the culture are—to use Browning's idiom—the fabric of the poem.”22

Perhaps because of her focus on the (Freudian) body, however, Mitchie does not notice the grounds on which these implicit connections eventually become explicit, grounds indicated by this passage's shift away from “leisure-class sewers” toward paid needlewomen.23 Here the products of sewing shift from purely decorative to more utilitarian items, domestic furniture unregarded by the men of the household but nonetheless designed for their use (specifically, their comfort). At the same time, explicitly economic language drives us toward a perception of sewing's public potential as production and paid labor.

These rhetorical moves underscore other effects of Barrett Browning's mass of specialized sewing terms: we are constantly being reminded that there are many different kinds of sewing, with different interpretative potential, and that the issues raised by variant terms include, rather prominently, issues of class. In the common shorthand of nineteenth-century British novels, for instance, the relatively simple distinction between “fancy” and “plain” work signals the difference between Maggie Tulliver, who has mastered only the plain hemming that earned some money during her family's indebtedness, and Lucy Deane, who (like Aurora) has been trained for a respectable upper-middle-class “lady's” station and plays at pretty embroidery.24

These class differentials are further complicated, as we might expect, because they are attached to issues of feminine virtue by the “separate spheres” clause of domestic ideologies. As Maggie's case partially demonstrates, women who sew for money, whether doing plain or fancy work, may read as virtuous in their devotion to the family they help support, or in their desire to maintain themselves without resorting to various forms of prostitution (including loveless marriage). But these women also read as sexually vulnerable, apparently as a result of a combination of innocence, passion, beauty, poverty, and a lack of both male protection and female supervision. In this ideological double-bind, paid sewers' sexual virtue seems threatened both by the inadequacy of their pay, which makes them vulnerable to various seductions, and by the fact that they are paid at all, the acceptance of money for a properly domestic task mimicking prostitution.25 As Nancy Armstrong observes, even that most genteel of paid women, the governess, still violated that harsh line between “domestic duty” and paid labor, “a distinction so deeply engraved upon the public mind that the figure of the prostitute could be freely invoked to describe any woman who dared to labor for money.”26 That women's domestic sewing is not paid for at all, on the other hand, is precisely the sign of domestic sewers' “worth,” both in the sense of economic well-being and in that of sexual/social respectability.

So one meaning of Barrett Browning's economic language in this passage, not a surprising one given the indictment of middle-class women's education that precedes it, is its literal claim that domestic sewing is “worthless” in domestic terms as well as in the market terms in which it is figured. Providing neither pleasant decoration, useful furniture, nor emotional connection, women's domestic sewing serves only to support men's sleepy fantasies “of something [women] are not, / But would be for your sake.” But the figuring of domestic worth in the language of production and pay also identifies domestic sewers with those who are paid for their labor. Our attention is drawn, briefly but uncomfortably, to the sexual economies of domesticity: a respectable married woman's unpaid work is always, silently, sexual as well as domestic. The distanced but suggestive signs of the pillow, sleep, and dreams of women may help extend our covert recognition of this possibility. Thus the domestic and paid varieties of sewing implicate each other in an involuted field of negative values ranging from low pay to sexual failure or promiscuity.

The apparently simple terms “works” and “work” which frame Aurora's aside amplify its reciprocal devaluations of domestic and paid sewing. Raymond Williams notes the stable, extremely broad function of the word “work” from its Old English origins to the present day as “our most general word for doing something, and for something done.”27 The “predominant specialization to paid employment” as a dominant meaning of “work” occurred gradually, Williams says, as “the result of the development of capitalist productive relations,” presumably from the late eighteenth century forward (he implies rather than names the period).28 Williams offers “one significant example” of this usage: “an active woman, running a house and bringing up children, is distinguished from a woman who works: that is to say, takes paid employment.” A paragraph or so later, he recurs to this example as he more fully describes the specialization of the term: “Work then partly shifted from the productive effort itself to the predominant social relationship. It is only in this sense that a woman running a house and bringing up children can be said to be not working.29 As Williams's repetition suggests, the exclusion of domestic labor from the status of “work” is not just “one significant example,” but the primary rhetorical distinction effected by the simultaneous processes of industrialization and the increased ideological separation of private and public spheres.30 The possible movement between a general sense of “work” as a productive effort, a sense essentially cognate with older meanings of “labor” and “toil,” and a specialized sense of “work” as paid labor (allied to the more specialized “labor” as productive of value) provides the ironic force of Barrett Browning's usage: women's work is not, in one sense, work at all.

There is, however, a further detail of the usage of “work” which Williams does not explore. From the fourteenth through at least the late nineteenth centuries, “work” also meant sewing, in the expanded sense I have employed throughout this essay. The OED places this definition of “work” (substantive) sixteenth in its extensive list of possibilities: “The operation of making a textile fabric or (more often) something consisting of such fabric, as weaving or (usually) sewing, knitting, or the like; esp. any of the lighter operations of this kind, as distinctively feminine occupation; also concr. the fabric or the thing made of it, esp. while being made or operated upon; needlework, embroidery, or the like.” The tone of this entry, with its implicit equation between “lighter” and “feminine,” speaks to the traditional distinctions made above. But it also tells us that even while “work” changed to exclude women's domestic labor, it retained another specialized sense, one defined as feminine and, despite the depreciating tone, vital to certain public as well as domestic economies.

It is in this sense that nineteenth-century novels so often use the word “work,” unqualified by any explanation as to the kind of work at hand. Adjectives modifying the kind of sewing—plain, fancy, or even “company,” as in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, are common, and context generally adds a gloss.31 We know, for instance, that Dinah Morris has been hemming a sheet when she “let[s] her work fall” to speak of her call to preaching, and that Hetty Sorrel's basket of “little workwoman's matters,” which Arthur Donnithorne's advances make her drop, holds sewing implements because she is returning from her lessons with the lady's maid.32 But the unadorned word “work” nonetheless plainly carries an understood meaning, “sewing,” which would be unavailable in a twentieth-century text.

Moreover, in nineteenth-century fictional accounts of domesticity, sewing “stands in” for almost all domestic labor. As in the ideal middle-class practice of housekeeping, in which all signs of actual physical labor were to be kept from view, cooking, water-carrying, cleaning, washing, and so forth, are relentlessly elided.33Adam Bede offers a few moderately extended discussions of a wider range of domestic work, but these are constrained by class boundaries. Mrs. Poyser, Dinah and Lisabeth, although fully respectable, fall just below the classes of women defined by their laborious maintenance of an appearance of leisure.34 Occasionally, nursing appears, offering pathetic scenes of self-sacrifice, or child care provides charming views of maternal emotion. Both Gaskell's Ruth and Barrett Browning's Marian Erle engage in such domestic work—and, interestingly, in both cases the visible labor is done by a woman who earns money by sewing, a woman already in the “working” classes.35 But I believe we may state more strongly Mitchie's observation that sewing is “perhaps the most common feminine occupation” of leisure-class heroines: the most common meaning of “work,” as read in the nineteenth-century and applied to a middle-class respectable woman, is “sewing.”36

I have played out Aurora's aside to such an extent in order to establish the comprehensiveness of the poem's early devaluation of “the works of women.” Aurora's indictment of sewing as constraining, superficial, trivial, spiritually retrograde, fatal to poetic arts, and economically worthless, constitutes an indictment of women's work in every sense. The needlewoman working for pay, the domestic sewer darning her family's clothing, the (apparently) leisured lady embroidering items both useful and decorative, all are discounted, the very variety of their cheapening enforcing the most negative views of women's work and women's worth. This indictment operates, moreover, at every rhetorical level, literal, figurative, and linguistic. Paradoxically, this same conflation of domestic and paid sewing opens the door to new interpretations of the most positive sort, as peripatetic intervenes in the generic structure of the poem. As Book I closes, however, what we feel is the sharp contrast between the enforced worthlessness of sewing and the deliberately chosen, excursive possibilities of walking.

Barrett Browning narrativizes Aurora's growing self-consciousness, and particularly her identity as a poet, as an increasing ability to walk alone outdoors, literally outside the domestic realm defined by sewing.37 Her poetic walks begin, Bunyan-like, with dreams of walking. In the early morning or before she goes to sleep, Aurora looks out of her window, seeing beautiful grounds which nonetheless limit her vision. She can only imagine the lane, “sunk so deep” beyond the bounding trees that “no foreign tramp / Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales / Could guess if lady's hall or tenant's lodge” lies inside the line of woods (1.589-91). Although the negative syntax reinforces their purely speculative existence, these poor or working walkers from outside England proper suggest the possibility the poem will open: that Aurora will walk and work in foreign lands, becoming a tenant instead of a lady. But at the moment, we remain focused on the smaller possibility that she will walk out of her house. “Then, I wakened up,” Aurora writes, “More slowly than I verily write now, / But wholly, at last,” taking actual walks in a lane she no longer has to imagine:

                    It seemed, next, worth while
To dodge the sharp sword set against my life;
To slip down stairs through all the sleepy house,
                                                                      … and escape
As a soul from the body, out of doors,—
Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane,
And wander on the hills an hour or two,
Then back again before the house should stir.

(1.661-63, 690-97)38

In the following lines, we learn that the only activity that gives Aurora comparable relief from the constraints of domesticity is reading. The juxtaposition alone suggests some equivalence between walking and reading, but Aurora makes it explicit by metaphorizing her reading as walking. She describes her reading as following

                    The path my father's foot
Had trod me out, which suddenly broke off,
… alone I carried on, and set
My child-heart 'gainst the thorny underwood.

(1.730-31, 733-34)

On her path of reading Aurora finds the classics, a hodgepodge of “books bad and good,” and finally poetry, in which she recognizes her own potential identity as a poet. Walking then becomes a sign, in both her practice and her metaphors, of writing as well as reading, and so of her vocation, her livelihood, and her art.39

But Aurora does not always walk alone. Besides her “unlicensed” morning walks, Aurora also walks, by her aunt's permission, with her cousin Romney, sometimes with his painter friend Vincent Carrington as well (1.1093). When she is in this company, another potential interpretation of her walking threatens Aurora's construction of herself as pedestrian-poet. Aurora claims that she and Romney walk not as “lovers, nor even friends well-matched; / Say rather, scholars upon different tracks, / And thinkers disagreed” (1.1107-8). But she cannot completely evade the meaning implied by her disclaimer, the traditional meaning of a woman's rural walks with a man as “courtship,” “engagement,” even “sexual intercourse.”40 Aurora holds this old country meaning at bay by shaping the natural images gathered on their walks into argument against Romney's social philosophy—a Wordsworthian tactic in full accord with her vision of herself as pedestrian-poet. But the possibility of reading their walking as a courtship which might lead to Aurora's complete domestication challenges Aurora's interpretation of her deliberate, solitary walking as poetic labor.

The poem makes this challenge explicit in Book II. Aurora, taking one of her solitary walks on the morning of her twentieth birthday, crowns herself with ivy “to learn the feel” of the laurel wreath to which she aspires (2.34). What this walk means to her, plainly enough, is agency and aspiration, specifically the power to work and succeed at poetry. Unexpectedly, however, Romney joins her, engaging her in a long conversation on art and women's proper roles which rather rapidly resolves into a proposal of marriage—the natural result, to his mind, of walking with Aurora all this time. When Aurora rejects his proposal, her aunt appears to continue the confrontation, demanding that Aurora consider before she gives a final answer. The impasse between them ends with the aunt's death and Aurora's decisive rejection of Romney's financial support (which, to do his character full justice, he offers without expectation of their marriage).

The plot of Book II opposes Aurora's poetic walks, open-ended walks intended to continue into the future, to the courtship walk favored by Romney and her aunt, which would end with marriage, “stopping” Aurora's youthful walking. The supporting imagery sets up this opposition a bit differently, rendering domesticity as clothing, especially long dresses, that hinders walking. Both the narrative description of Aurora's walk and the three-way debate that follows rely on images of women's work (here, quite appropriately, the results of women's work, the sewn “works” themselves) and of walking to realize the difference between protected domesticity and the physical, moral, and economic effort of an independent, potentially artistic life. As Aurora leaves the house, she does not stop “even to snatch my bonnet by the strings, / But, brushing a green trail across the lawn / With my gown in the dew,” hurries to her self-coronation as poet (2.20-22). The images convey both the potential for constraint by a tied bonnet and a gown that must be dragged through the wet grass, and Aurora's refusal of that constraint, even a partial reversal as the gown becomes an instrument of path-making. Romney's language, on the other hand, emphasizes the propriety of domesticating clothing. He advises her to keep her aspirations in bounds since “even dreaming” of great or lasting fame “[b]rings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles / The clean white morning dresses” (2.94-96). Rather paradoxically, he identifies poetry as a kind of decorative sewing (different somehow from those white dresses) that accomplishes no

work for ends, I mean for uses, not
For such sleek fringes …
                                        as we sew ourselves
Upon the velvet of those baldaquins
Held 'twixt us and the sun.


But the point of both figures is the same: women's work gains its only worth through the very thing that renders it useless, its restriction to the cleanly private sphere.41 Even when Romney presses her to accept the fortune he meant to give her through her aunt, he seems concerned not so much to give her personal autonomy as to remove any taint of labor or earned money from her work at poetry:

                    Dear cousin, give me faith,
And you shall walk this road with silken shoes,
As clean as any lady of our house
Supposed the proudest.


If Aurora must walk and write, then Romney wants to be sure that she remains a lady, kept stainless by the silks of domesticity.

Aurora, of course, rejects Romney's consignment of her life to “ease and whiteness,” using the figure of walking as poetry to assert her art as both moral and laborious:

I would rather take my part
With God's Dead, who afford to walk in white
Yet spread His glory, than keep quiet here
And gather up my feet from even a step
For fear to soil my gown in so much dust.
I choose to walk at all risks.

(2.99, 101-6)

As the language of this passage suggests, Aurora's formulations most often connect walking with the transcendent spiritual mission of poetry. Romney's best social reforms mean nothing, she asserts, “Unless the artist keep up open roads / Betwixt the seen and the unseen” (2.468-69). Nonetheless, Aurora's exchanges with Romney also make it plain that her work must be public, worldly, and paid work. Her figure of the road-opening artist comes just after Aurora argues that her poetic vocation constitutes “Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists';” a little later, she comments pointedly on Romney's implied offer to “pay [her] with a current coin / Which men give women,” the domestic coin which precisely is not coin and, to Aurora, has no value (2.459-60, 540-41).

Interestingly, it is Aurora's aunt who engages in direct discussion of the relations among money, marriage, and poetry. Interestingly, too, when she hears that Aurora has turned Romney down, the aunt first accuses her niece of too great a reliance on her status as a leisured lady, and figures that reliance as greed for fancy work. “Are they queens, these girls?” she asks, complaining that “They must have mantles, stitched with twenty silks” laid before them by their suitors “before they'll step / One footstep for the noblest lover born” (2.576-79). Aurora, asserting her own interpretation of walking against this image of walking as an approach to domesticity, responds, “But I am born … / To walk another way than his” (2.580-81). Her aunt turns the metaphor again, telling Aurora that “A babe at thirteen months / Will walk as well as you,” and then asking if Aurora thinks herself “rich and free to choose a way to walk” (2.582-83, 588). Despite her own desire to read Aurora's walking as courtship, as an avenue to respectably unpaid domesticity, the aunt here explicitly sets out the economic dimension of the figure, raising the specter of public, paid work: Aurora's walking potentially means an out-of-doors economic independence.

Ellen Moers and Helena Mitchie both have commented on the function of walking for women in nineteenth-century fiction, and specifically in Aurora Leigh, as an assertion of self, a physical effort that provides an outlet for otherwise repressed physicality and may signal the woman's struggle for personal independence.42 Mitchie classes walking as the most common “pastime” of leisure-class heroines, but also notices the possible interpretation of walking as domestic work, work leading toward the desirable domesticity of marriage: “Aimless as the heroine's walking sometimes appears to be, it beats out a path toward marriage and physical fulfillment; it is an important effort on the part of the heroines to influence the direction of the novel and of their lives.”43 Clearly, however, Book II of Aurora Leigh asserts an alternative reading of walking. Barrett Browning's construction of Aurora's walking follows the conventions of Wordsworthian peripatetic: walking coincides with the writing of poetry; both walking and writing are figured as labor, materially and economically productive; and both traditionally are identified with the masculine.

William Wordsworth derives peripatetic from classical georgic, replacing Virgil's virtuous farmer with a moralizing pedestrian.44 One may think here of the many Wordsworth poems in which pedestrian narrators and characters link poetry, material economies, and moral renovation. “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” “Michael,” “The Brothers,” “When to the attractions of the busy world”—the list is quite long and includes both Wordsworth's earliest publications and his two book-length poems. While these poems vary in their emphasis on particular aspects of peripatetic's rhetorical equations, they participate in a common strategy. Juxtaposing agriculture with walking, and then representing walking's greater effectiveness as a cultivating agent, Wordsworth transfers the multiply-cultivating powers of Virgil's farmer to the Wordworthian pedestrian-poet. Aurora's beliefs about poetry's power to effect reform correspond to peripatetic's expectation that the labors of the pedestrian-poet will mediate cultural conflicts, reconciling old and new, rural and urban, public and private, poor and rich. As the rhetoric of The Excursion claims far-reaching effects for the Wanderer's discourse, so Aurora Leigh asserts the potentially culture-wide effect of Aurora's poetry.

As one might suspect from this brief overview, Wordsworth's pedestrian-poet, like Virgil's farmer, is male. Certainly there are women walkers in Wordsworth's peripatetics. They often appear as members of the discursive community necessary to produce poetry, and are sometimes represented as uttering the raw materials of its composition. Joanna's laughter echoes among the mountains and, recalled by her companion, impels his inscription of the rock and his composition of “To Joanna”; “The Solitary Reaper,” singing as she walks the field, becomes the subject of the passing poet. Significantly, however, these women walkers' utterances are usually wordless, and are always re-narrated to us by a male pedestrian-poet. Even when the woman of “There is an Eminence” names a mountain after her poet-companion, the reader reads it in the poet's first-person voice:

… She who dwells with me, whom I have loved
With such communion, that no place on earth
Can ever be a solitude to me,
Hath to this lonely Summit given my Name.


Although the woman names, she does not narrate or make poetry. In the rhetorical constructions of these closing lines, the impetus for her naming becomes the male poet's active love of her, which creates a permanent sense of community for him. He then narrates the act of naming into a first-person poetic event, the attachment of “my Name” to the Eminence (these disturbingly egoistic capitals are Wordsworth's). Interestingly, Wordsworth's revisions of the last line further submerge the woman's power of speech: in the earliest published version of this poem, the last line reads “Hath said, this lonesome Peak shall bear my Name.”46

Significantly, too, Wordsworth's women walkers rarely participate in any public, materially productive activity. Most, like the “dearest Maiden” of “Nutting,” or Emma of Home at Grasmere, remain inarticulate companions in the metaphorical cultivations of walking, never shown “laboring” at anything but walking, their economic condition simply not an issue. One of the few exceptions is “The Solitary Reaper,” whom we see “at her work, / And o'er the sickle bending,” and whom we may infer earns a livelihood (27-28). But this inference is possible precisely because the poem is completely silent about the Reaper's material well-being. Instead, the male pedestrian-narrator draws our attention to her wordless, exoticized song, and to his own emotional use of the music. In Book I of the Excursion, Margaret works in her garden and spins flax, and the poem associates both productive labors with path-making (1.690-96, 882-87). But her cultivation fails, the garden falling into ruin, and her poverty steadily increases, her flax spinning insufficient to keep her from illness and death. In fact, the poem frames Margaret's most extensive walking, her accustomed wanderings in the fields near the cottage, as simultaneous sign and cause of her growing neglect of her garden (and her child, who is left to cry inside the cottage while she walks) (1.710-76). For Margaret, as for Wordsworth's various female vagrants, walking functions not as productive cultivating labor, but as a sign of economic and moral failure. With the possible exception of the Reaper, then, Wordsworth's women walkers may strive, but do not succeed, at material labor and economic self-sufficiency.

Since genre always carries all its interpretative baggage, there is a level at which Barrett Browning's use of peripatetic implicitly reinforces the differences between male and female work, hardening the distinction between walking and sewing, between public, paid work (or “works”) and domestic labor. But Aurora Leigh's representation of a woman pedestrian-poet, its crucial placement of her as narrator, and its recurrence to the possibility of her walking being materially and economically productive, necessarily shifts and opens peripatetic, using peripatetic conventions to unsettle the gender distinctions the mode implicitly supports.

Although the poem's use of peripatetic is concentrated in its first three books, the figure of Aurora as the Wanderer's successor persists in plot and imagery. Aurora first figures her travels in Europe as a walking tour, wondering whether selling her manuscript “Would fetch enough to buy me shoes, to go / A- foot” (5.1214-15). Both her search for Marian in London and her chance meetings with her in Paris are accomplished on foot (and have the character of arduous walking as well). And despite the disappearance of walking images from the poem's conclusion, a typically Wordsworthian scene of Aurora walking and “musing,” “imagining / Such utterance” from the faces of poor Florentian women, occurs as late as the end of Book VII (7.1257-58).

More importantly, Aurora does not merely emulate Wordsworth's pedestrian-poets, but succeeds both at poetry and at economic self-sufficiency. From the beginning of Book III, with scarcely any lapse in reader's time between her peripatetic resolutions and the beginning of their fulfillment, we learn that Aurora's poetic achievements have gained admirers and critics. While she generally sets aside others' praise for the products of her writing, driving herself on toward her own standards, she nonetheless claims success through the process itself:

I prosper, if I gain a step, although
A nail then pierced my foot: although my brain
Embracing any truth, froze paralysed,
I prosper. I but change my instrument;
I break the spade off, digging deep for gold,
and catch the mattock up.


Typically, Aurora speaks of spiritual matters: she defines the “I” of this passage as “the conscious and eternal soul” rather than “the doublet of the flesh” (3.284, 286). But, also typically, she figures these spiritual gains in terms of labor and economic value—prospering, digging, gold. Indeed she does not cast off the doublet of flesh, the material metaphor, in her rhetoric of poetic gain. When we read the next words, “I worked on,” we are well aware of their reference to the self-cultivation of poetic labor (3.295). But we are also well-prepared to follow their other implications into the succeeding passage, in which Aurora describes earning money by writing prose: “being but poor, I was constrained, for life, / To work with one hand for the booksellers, / While working with the other for myself / And art” (3.302-5). Although inheritances from her aunt and her father (his books, which she sells to get to Europe) give Aurora some support, she works for pay in the public (literally published) world in order to survive. How well she does this may perhaps be measured by her ability to take Marian in when she finds her in Europe: although Italy may not have been as expensive as England, Aurora nonetheless becomes the sole support of a family of three.

By now it is no doubt obvious that the apparent opposition between walking and sewing in Aurora Leigh must be complicated by a field of more positive relations. Aurora's linked poetic and material achievements are, by definition, “women's work,” and yet are public, cultivating, artistic, self-sustaining. If women's work makes poetry, then poetry may be sewn—or, to play the peripatetic rubric back into georgic, to sew is to sow. And if sewing itself reads as material and economic production, if even domestic sewing is figured as wage-labor, then sewing becomes “work” in every sense of the word, a construction fully capable of supporting these rhetorical links to walking and writing.

If, without recognizing peripatetic, one only reads classical georgic in Aurora Leigh, a part of this revaluation is still possible.47 In English georgics of the late eighteenth century, sewing is one of the figures through which women may (briefly) enter the otherwise decidedly male preserve of cultivation. One important example is the passage in Book IV of William Cowper's The Task, which begins satirically but rapidly settles down to a serious celebration of laborious, secluded, middle-class rural life.48 This book, “The Winter Evening,” extols the virtues of a family gathered to “Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness, / And all the comforts that the lowly roof / Of undisturbed retirement, and the hours / Of long uninterrupted evening know.”49 First among these is the women's work at hand:

here the needle plies its busy task,
The pattern grows, the well-depicted flower,
Wrought patiently into the snowy lawn,
Unfolds its bosom; buds, and leaves, and sprigs,
And curling tendrils, gracefully disposed,
Follow the nimble finger of the fair;
A wreath that cannot fade, of flowers that blow
With most success when all besides decay.(50)

Here is a woman's form of cultivation, embroidery yielding a kind of permanent decorative harvest, and rhetorically identified with “the task,” that is, both the general task of cultivation by the private rural farmer lauded by Cowper and Cowper's own poetry-writing, as signaled by the title of his poem. The difficulties of carrying this identification to the point that Aurora Leigh does, however, are manifest. Not only is the women's work merely imitative of actual cultivation (and then only of the growing of feminized flowers), but it is confined to the presumably leisurely evening hours of “enjoyments,” “comforts,” and “retirement.”

Susanna Blamire makes similar identifications, and practices similar containments, in her “Stoklewath; or, The Cumbrian Village,” which valorizes the life of rural villages. It is only when “The morning toils are … completely o'er” that “The daughter at the needle plies the seam,” while her mother goes to check the “long webs” of bleaching linen spread by the stream.51 Blamire's brief portrait of two old women at their spinning wheels, mourning the loss of old values, figures revolutions industrial and political as the end of spinning, weaving, and home-sewing: “the world's turned upside down,” Margaret says, “And every servant wears a cotton gown, / Bit flimsy things, that have no strength to wear.”52 Although the moment is humorous, it seriously identifies women's work with the conservation of culture, and sets out spinning as discursive. But once again, although these women are engaged in productive work, work actually associated with factory labor in their talk, Blamire prefaces the section in which their portrait appears with the comment that “From noon till morn rests female toil.”53 It seems astonishing that Blamire excludes sewing, spinning, and textile manufacture from the realm of “toil,” but she clearly does, and that exclusion makes it impossible to make a full identification between women's work and men's cultivation.

In both georgics, typically, the ideological lines between women's work and men's, and between the domestic enclosure and the more public world of farming, hold firm. In Aurora Leigh, Aurora deliberately undertakes work that is traditionally male, and succeeds at it. More importantly, however, the early books of Aurora Leigh change not only the gender of the worker, but the gendering of the work. Barrett Browning's use of peripatetic alludes to the possibility of reconstructing “sewing,” as Wordsworth does “walking” (a similarly improbable move, given earlier ideas about walking), as genuine georgic labor, redrawing women's work as true cultivation. In her crossing of the vegetative imagery common to georgic and peripatetic with sewing imagery, and in Marian Erle's tale, Barrett Browning seems bent on just such a reconstruction.

In georgic and peripatetic, the details of vegetative images signify the nuances of cultivation's success. Lush vegetation, plants let go to seed, weeds overrunning gardens, orderly gardens—these kinds of images characterize the cultivator's work and so, in the extended meaning of cultivation, indicate the quality and success of poetic work.54 Assisted by the sheer pressure of her constant references to sewing, Barrett Browning reconfigures this conventional signification to implicate sewing in a three-way conflation. The prime locus of vegetable images is Aurora herself, the poet constantly figured as plants ranging from seaweed to roses. In Book II, the ivy wreath she chooses to signify her dedication to poetry seems opposed to the rose, the emblem Romney uses to emphasize her sexual / generative blooming and potential for married love. Both images, however, carry traces of sewing with them. The ivy's “serrated” leaves and long vines suggest the scissors and needles and threads of sewing; Aurora wreaths and twists the vines around a comb to form a crown. Although the poem emphasizes the scarlet color and budding or mutlifoliate forms of the rose, the thorns are always there too, mimicking the pricking needles of the seamstress.55 Similar vegetative images connect Aurora and Marian. Appearing as a rose, a nettle (again a pricking plant), a buttercup, an arranger of lilies, Marian the seamstress bears a figurative resemblance to Aurora the poet, providing another extended juxtaposition of walking and poetry with sewing (3.818, 853-57, 4.212-18, 7.669-71). Implications of women's work, together with Aurora's success as poet, not only shift our sense of these vegetative images in the early books, but potentially undermine Book IX's almost frantic recurrence to rose imagery in its claims for marital love.

Similarly, the occasional appearance of sewing or clothing as the agents or accoutrements of the poet makes it impossible to distinguish completely between the inadequate, restricted work of women and the desirable, cultivating, masculine labors to which Aurora aspires. Just before Aurora figures her reading as following her father's path, for instance, she speaks of the “large / Man's doublet” of his learning, in which he wraps his girl-child, “careless did it fit or no” (1.727-28). We twice hear that Kate Ward regards Aurora's cloak as the emblem of her poetic prowess. In Book III she asks Aurora for the pattern of the cloak, and in Book VII Vincent Carrington reports that Kate insisted on wearing a cloak like Aurora's for her portrait, suggesting that Kate sews or has sewn the copy she wears for the sitting (3.53-54, 7.590-600). And the women around Leigh Hall give Romney a copy of Aurora's poems “bound in scarlet silk, / Tooled edges, blazoned with the arms of Leigh” (8.913-14). Certain figures of this sort imply the inferiority of sewn poetry. Dubious poets may string rhymes “As children, cowslips;” a “smell of thyme about my feet” means true admittance to the company of poets, while “the rustling of [their] vesture” happens in a dream of such community (1.947, 883, 886). To some extent, however, the presence of adjacent vegetative imagery reinflects the implication by alluding to georgic.

The “green room” passage of Book I demonstrates the importance of peripatetic and its walking images to Aurora Leigh's conflation of vegetation, with its implication of poetic harvests, and sewing. This passage is the second of two textual bridges between Aurora's description of her domestic education and her first dreams of walking out alone. The first is a description of Romney's early relations with her, including her aunt's encouragement: “At whiles she let him shut my music up / And push my needles down” to walk out with him (1.533-34). But this kind of walking leaves the gap between men's and women's worlds as broad as before: when Romney ventures to touch Aurora, “dropp[ing] a sudden hand upon my head / Bent down on woman's work,” she shies away from his protective male affection (1.543-44). How she finds her way out is through a rhetorical transformation of woman's work into man's, sewing into sowing, and then into walking.

I had a little chamber in the house,
As green as any privet-hedge …
                                                                      the walls
Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
Hung green about the window which let in
The out-door world with all its greenery.
You could not push your head out and escape
A dash of dawn dew from the honeysuckle
But so you were baptized into the grace
And privilege of seeing. …


The green fabrics of Aurora's domestic space, the carpet, bed-hangings, and curtains, become continuous with the green plants of the outdoor world, the province of the male pedestrian-poet. By pushing through the green-hung window and on through the second green curtain, the honeysuckle, the inmate baptizes herself into poetic vision—and sees, just before the passages about the “deep lane” quoted earlier, a mass of vegetation, a lime, broad lawns, shrubs, acacias, elms, arbutus, laurel. This vegetable curtain keeps her from seeing the lane; she actually will see the path only by actually walking. But Aurora's movement into poetry hinges on a conflation of sewn fabrics and cultivated vegetation that gives her access to walked paths.

This reconfiguration of imagery closely resembles Wordsworth's rhetorical strategies: juxtapose and conflate the metaphorical terms, and then replace one with the other. The problem seems to be in the last move. That is, to reconstruct sewing as true georgic labor, sewing should replace cultivation, or walking, or both, and this does not happen in Aurora's story. In Marian Erle's story, however, sewing functions as a salvation from walking.

Aurora twice retells part of Marian's life story. In both cases, the stories are framed like Wordsworthian peripatetic: the narrator seeks or encounters another person while walking, recalls or hears that person's story, and then retells it to the reader. Wordsworth generally asserts a symbiotic relationship between narrator and character as necessary to the production of poetry. For instance, “while” the narrator of The Excursion walks to the ruined cottage to meet the Wanderer, he recalls how he reencountered his old friend on the road, recollects the time they spent walking together when the narrator was a child, tells the story of the Wanderer's life; arriving at the cottage, he hears (and recounts to us) the story of the cottage, which the Wanderer learned in his repeated visits (on foot, of course) as a peddler. The narrator explains his desire to tell us these stories as a desire to “record in verse” the Wanderer's “eloquent speech” and high moral views (1.103, 98). The Wanderer, he claims, is one of the “Poets sown / By Nature” who lacks only “the accomplishment of verse” to be recognized as a poet in the world's eyes (1.77-78, 80). Poetry results, then, from the joint efforts of the two walkers, the natural philosopher and the versifier.

With respect to this collaboration, Marian more nearly resembles Wordsworth's leech-gatherer or his old Cumberland beggar, walking characters who less consciously articulate moral lessons, than his magisterial Wanderer. But like the narrator of the Excursion, Aurora must perform laborious, searching walks through the poor quarters of London and the streets of Paris to find Marian before she can tell her story. In the latter case, once Aurora finds Marian, first one and then the other must serve as guide to the place where the story will be told, leading and following as if they walked “by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters, step by step” (6.4882-83; 6.501-3). And like the narrators of Wordsworthian peripatetics in general, Aurora draws attention to the collaborative requirements of poetry and to her own “poeticizing” of Marian's moral content:

                                                                                She told me all her story out,
Which I'll retell with fuller utterance,
As coloured and confirmed in after times
By others and herself too …
I tell her story and grow passionate.
She, Marian, did not tell it so, but used
Meek words that made no wonder of herself
For being so sad a creature.

(3.827-30, 847-50)

Equally striking, despite some obvious differences, are the similarities of Marian's childhood to the Wanderer's childhood. Like the Wanderer, Marian is born to parents who earn a marginal existence with agricultural labor, and whose livelihood requires walking—in Marian's case, constant tramping in search of “random jobs / Despised by steadier workmen” (3.858-59). Like the Wanderer's, too, Marian's outdoor life, although materially impoverished, provides moral instruction reached by walking. Having learned very early to “walk alone,”

This babe would steal off from the mother's chair,
And, creeping through the golden walls of gorse,
Would find some keyhole toward the secrecy
Of Heaven's high blue …
This skyey father and mother both in one,
Instructed her and civilised her more
Than even Sunday-school did afterward.

(3.883-86, 898-901)

This is, of course, pure Wordsworth, as is the quick contrary validation of Marian's book-learning. Significantly, her experience of books outside of the ineffectual Sunday-school comes to her through manifestly Wordsworthian peddlers whom she meets on the road:

                                                                                                                                                      Often too
The pedlar stopped, and tapped her on the head
.....And asked if peradventure she could read:
And when she answered “ay,” would toss her down
Some stray odd volume from his heavy pack,
A Thomson's Seasons, mulcted of the Spring,
Or half a play of Shakespeare's torn across
.....Or else a sheaf of leaves (for that small Ruth's
Small gleanings) torn out from the heart of books,
From Churchyard Elegies and Edens Lost,
From Burns, and Bunyan, Selkirk, and Tom Jones.

(3.968-69, 971-75, 979-82)

The conflation of book-leaves with plant leaves, again straight out of the Excursion, turns tramping Marian into a harvester, a participant in cultivation and (note the particular texts named) in poetry.56 Nor does she merely accept what she is given, but selects and recomposes it, becoming an active cultivator: “she weeded out / Her book-leaves, threw away the leaves that hurt … And made a nosegay of the sweet and good” (3.988-89, 990).57

At this point Marian's story functions like pure peripatetic. Even her despicable parents, so unlike the Wanderer's upright, settled family, feel the expected moral influence of walking in rural lands:

                                                                                                              though perhaps these strollers still strolled back,
As sheep do, simply that they knew the way,
They certainly felt bettered unaware
Emerging from the social smut of towns
To wipe their feet clean on the mountain turf.


But in the end Marian's walking leads not to greater moral wisdom, nor to the Wanderer's economic self-sufficiency, but to continued dependence and endangered virtue. Marian proves useless at most odd jobs, and walking cannot remedy that insufficiency. “In this tramping life,” Aurora tells us, “Was nothing to be done with such a child / But tramp and tramp” (2.1032-33). This materially unproductive circuit irks her abusive parents, and eventually Marian's mother tries to sell her to a man, driving Marian to flight and illness.

That Marian's walking should lead toward a possible loss of virtue matches the traditional association of women's walking and sexual straying, an association not significantly altered by the masculinist constructions of peripatetic.58 What saves Marian, the figure that replaces walking as generator of moral and economic value, will not now surprise us: it is, of course, sewing. Though Aurora ironically revoices the parents' view that nothing can be done with Marian but to “tramp and tramp,” the next lines show Marian's way out:

                                                                                                    And yet she knitted hose
Not ill, and was not dull at needlework;
And all the country people gave her pence
For darning stockings past their natural age,
And patching petticoats from old to new,
And other light work done for thrifty wives.


When Marian, after running away from her pandering mother, recovers from her illness in the London hospital, her new patron Romney places her in “a famous sempstress-house / Far off in London, there to work and hope” (3.1231-32). Again, in Book VII, we learn that after Marian's rape, wandering, and brief unhappy work as servant to an adulteress, finds a place with “a mistress-sempstress who was kind / And let me sew in peace among her girls,” thus earning enough to support herself and her son (7.108-9).59

Sewing promises not just material but moral sustenance. When Romney provides for Marian to enter the seamstress's house, he does so not only for her livelihood but “to snatch her soul from atheism, / And keep it stainless from her mother's face” (3.1229-30). Similarly, Marian's return to sewing after her rape saves her from the repugnant alternatives that always threaten penniless, ruined women in Victorian stories, prostitution and loveless marriage. Most significantly of all, it is while Marian sews, not while she walks, that she recollects the poetry passed on to her by Wordsworthian peddlers:

[Marian] told me she was fortunate and calm
On such and such a season, sat and sewed,
With no one to break up her crystal thoughts:
While rhymes from lovely poems span around
Their ringing circles of ecstatic tune.


Although Aurora here emphasizes her difference from Marian, noting her shame at Marian's superior cheerfulness, they share the experience of sewing as the labor enabling poetry. After she has realized her vocation, hiding the “quickening inner life” fostered by walking and reading, Aurora bends to her sewing:

                                                                                                    Then I sat and teased
The patient needle till it split the thread,
Which oozed off from it in meandering lace
From hour to hour. I was not, therefore, sad;
My soul was singing at a work apart.


For Aurora, as for Marian, poetry sings in the silence of her sewing; the book-leaves gleaned from peripatetic wanderings are revoiced in her stitching.60

Barrett Browning's reconstruction of sewing as georgic labor, worked through peripatetic, seems complete. In Marian's story, sewing replaces walking as a superior agent of cultivation. But once this reconstruction is accomplished in the middle of Book IV, sewing gradually disappears from Aurora Leigh. Despite the reiteration in Marian's second narrative of the pattern of a wanderer redeemed by sewing, sewing never again appears as a present activity in the plot. Imagine, if you will, an Excursion in which the walking tour ends with Book I, or perhaps with the single reiteration of a journey to the Solitary's hut in Book III, and in which walking is rarely alluded to again. Imagine, more to the point, an Excursion which ends without the promise extracted from the Solitary “That he would share the pleasures and pursuits / Of yet another summer's day, not loth / To wander with us through the fertile vales, / And o'er the mountain-wastes” (9.776-79). Despite the endless discourse on other matters in Wordsworth's poem, walking remains the fount of the discourse, the structuring principle of the plot, the foundation of that last appeal to Wordsworthian community. Not so with sewing in Aurora Leigh. The possibility of reading sewing as true cultivation, of rewriting women's work as a possible source and vehicle of poetry, gradually fades from the poem.

One might feel, although I do not, that there are problems with a “sewing plot” not presented by a “walking plot.” But even if Barrett Browning chose not to write the final books as, for instance, confabulations in a seamstress's shop, or conversations conducted as Aurora and Marian weave or hem, sewing imagery might carry the weight of reconstructed genre. Here again, however, the poem does not bear out its early suggestions. Of about 125 instances of sewing imagery in Aurora Leigh as a whole, roughly two-thirds—about 85—of those instances occur in the first four books; in the last two books, there are only twelve instances of sewing imagery, none of them illustrating the famous exchange of love and work Romney proposes in Book IX.

Certainly I am not suggesting that Barrett Browning “should” have written Aurora Leigh differently, in accordance with late twentieth-century notions of gender and gendered labor. But imagining the alternatives helps reveal the implications of her choices, as we strive to understand the poem's ideas about women, work and poetry. The elaborate set-up for the generic exchange effected by Marian's story, and the compelling construction of the story itself, suggest Barrett Browning's thorough comprehension of the possibilities opened by that exchange. Nearly everything that follows, on the other hand, refuses those possibilities—almost immediately, in fact. The famous opening of Book V, the defense of domestic epic, has long been lauded as one of the finest parts of the poem, and so it is. But this same section also revises the wheel of Virgil, the progress of genres, in a telling way: Aurora moves from pastoral directly to epic, omitting the “middle way” of georgic.61 Swept along by the fiery beauty of Aurora's manifesto, we scarcely notice that this omission retroactively excludes the moral lesson of Marian's story, in which sewing relies upon its relation to peripatetic and georgic for the valorization of labor and natural religion.

It is easier to find this dislocation at the end of the poem. In books 8 and 9, Barrett Browning almost completely drops her references to the laborious material agencies of walking and sewing in favor of an abstract discourse on love, which now is made to transcend labor. The final quotation of Revelation underscores the interpretative difficulty. The lines directly foreshadowing that quotation are spoken by Marian at the beginning of her second narrative, as she chides Aurora for righteous ignorance:

You're great and pure; but were you purer still,—
As if you had walked, we'll say, no otherwhere
Than up and down the New Jerusalem,
And held your trailing lutestring up yourself
From brushing the twelve stones, for fear of some
Small speck as little as a needle-prick,
White stitched on white,—the child would keep to me.


In this formulation, Aurora walks in the New Jerusalem, carrying an instrument of poetry analogous to the threads of sewing, her purity signified by the invisibility of pricked, stitched “faults.” As usual, the connotations are complexly mixed. But the juxtaposition of walking, poetry, and sewing is entirely consistent with Marian's reiterated reliance on sewing as saving labor. In the poem's final lines, on the other hand, only the stones and the Biblical text remain.

Satisfying though the poem's last books may be in other ways, their appeal to divine and transcendent human love simply passes over the questions of gendered labor set out in its beginning, leaving us with what I have come to regard as unresolvable textual ambivalence.62 I want to privilege what I believe are the hard boundaries of cultural usage, to claim that rhetorical and generic definitions of women's work ultimately prove intractable, holding Barrett Browning to her own version of the old laws: if women walk, they must not walk alone; and men don't sew at all. But I cannot honestly say that the readings I have done here permit such comfort. Rather than settling into any of our proposed positions, feminist or patriarchal, Aurora Leigh's representations of the relations among women, work and writing refuse complete resolution. In this irresolution, then, combined with our own preoccupations, lies one part of our current fascination with Barrett Browning's poem.


  1. I presented an early version of this essay at the conference, which was held 4-6 November, 1993, at the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.

  2. This number is conservative. I used the MLA Bibliography on CD/ROM, searched under “Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” and counted entries that named Aurora Leigh. So this number excludes even extensive commentaries on the poem which appear in general studies of Barrett Browning, or in studies for which the Bibliography may have named topics differently—for instance, Dierdre David's Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, which offers an influential discussion of Aurora Leigh (cited below). The real number of important readings of the poem, then, is probably somewhat higher than my rough count.

  3. Susan Brown, “Writing Beyond the Ending: Aurora Leigh and the Married Women's Property Campaign,” and Laura C. Berry, “When fathers say ‘my child’: Settlements, Illegitimacy and Aurora Leigh,” as presented at “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victorian Culture.” See also Alison Case, “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 17-32; Dierdre David, “A Clerisy of Poets and the Softer Sex,” in Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), 97-113; and Marjorie Stone, “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27.

  4. Stone, 101.

  5. Stone, 127.

  6. David, 157.

  7. For a full account of the mode I have termed “peripatetic,” in which walking replaces farming as the agent of georgic cultivation, see Anne D. Wallace, Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

  8. In this essay, I use the terms “labor” and “work” both in their general senses of productive activity, and in the more specialized senses that appeared in the eighteenth century. As Raymond Williams formulates these, “labor” came to mean “that element of production which in combination with capital and materials produced commodities,” while “work” specifically referred to paid employment. (Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976], 146, 282). See also the extended discussion of “work” below, in which further complications arise.

  9. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 79.

  10. Armstrong, 79.

  11. Anne Finch, “The Spleen,” in The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, ed. Myra Reynolds (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1903), 250. See also “A Description of One of the Pieces of Tapistry at Long-Leat,” which proposes the same deprecatory poetics (47-51). Carol Shiner Wilson details the interaction of this poetics with the cult of the “Good Mother” in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century women's writing, charting its simultaneous persistence and growing subversive uses. “Lost Needles, Tangled Threads: Stitchery, Domesticity, and the Artistic Enterprise in Barbauld, Edgeworth, Taylor, and Lam” in Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 167-90.

  12. See Wallace, 119-165, for a detailed account of Wordsworth's definitive extension of georgic into peripatetic. A brief discussion of Aurora Leigh as peripatetic appears on 208-10.

  13. For traditional histories of georgic in English literature, see John Chalker, The English Georgic: A Study in the Development of a Form (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) and Dwight Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1935). See also arguments by Anthony Low and Kurt Heinzelman for the continued viability of georgic after 1800, and for “georgic” as a critical term in the twentieth century (Low, The Georgic Revolution [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985]; Heinzelman, “Roman Georgic in the Georgian Age: A Theory of Romantic Genre,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33 [1991]: 182-214).

  14. See Chalker, 9-10, and Low, 6.

  15. On Wordsworth's tactics, see Wallace, 120-23.

  16. I use “sewing” as Mary Lamb does “needlework” in her 1815 essay to include any work done with needles and/or fabrics, including such various activities as millinery and darning. But I also extend Lamb's usage as Barrett Browning's language seems to direct. See “On Needle-work” in The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, 5 vols. (London: Methuen and Co., 1903; rpt. in facsimile by G. P. Putenham's Sons, New York, 1968), 1:176-80. See also the OED's use of “sewing” in their entry on “work,” quoted below.

  17. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Cora Kaplan (London: The Women's Press, 1978), 1:106, 273-75, 356, 363, 614; 2:245, 206; 1:946-47; 2:1097, 46-53. All further quotations from Aurora Leigh will be drawn from this edition, and will be cited by book and line numbers in the text.

  18. See the matching allusion to Aeschylus at 5.292-99.

  19. Helena Mitchie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 41.

  20. Mitchie, 42.

  21. Mitchie, 42.

  22. Mitchie, 43, 44. Similar arguments about sewing's subversive sexual content/textual function are made by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press), 519-28, and by Pamela Royston Macfie, “Sewing in Ottava Rima: Wyatt's Assimilation and Critique of a Feminist Poetic,” Renaissance Papers (1987): 25-37. The difference between these arguments and mine is their formulation of sewing as subversion, whereas I think Barrett Browning reconstitutes sewing as positive agency. However, for material more apt to Mitchie and others, see Barrett Browning's contemporaneous short poem “Amy's Cruelty” (1857). Finally, see also David's extended discussion of Aurora Leigh's frank sexual expressiveness in Intellectual Women and the Victorian Patriarchy (“The Social Wound and the Poetics of Healing,” 114-27; “Women's Art as Servant of Patriarchy: the Vision of Aurora Leigh,” 143-58). David concludes that the language of sexual love is turned to conservative uses, assisting in the assertion of Barrett Browning's “essentialist sexual politics” (157).

  23. Mitchie does not mention Marian Erle in “Working Class Women: A Public Body,” the section closing the chapter in which Mitchie discusses Aurora. Given Mitchie's use of T. J. Edelstein's important work on the “iconology” of seamstresses (see note 25 below), her continued attention to sewers in her commentary on working-class women, and Marian's aptness to Mitchie's points about sewing and the body, this seems an odd omission.

  24. George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), 378-79. See also 363. The presence of the dubious Stephen Guest in both scenes suggests the interactions between sewing and sexual respectability discussed below.

  25. The most thoroughly developed example of this pattern, and one of the many source texts for Aurora Leigh is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853). In this essay I remain focused on rhetorical constructions of “sewing,” but see T. J. Edelstein's commentary on the relationship between artistic representations of the seamstress and the material conditions of the impoverished needlewoman in Victorian England, and Mary Lamb's proposals, based on her own experience as a working sewer, of the measures necessary to change those conditions. Edelstein, “They Sang ‘The Song of the Shirt’: The Visual Iconology of the Seamstress,” Victorian Studies 23 (1980): 183-210; Lamb, “On Needle-work.”

  26. Armstrong, 79.

  27. Williams, 281-82.

  28. Williams, 282.

  29. Williams, 282.

  30. For a discussion of the way census terminology followed and enforced this development, see Nancy Folbre, “The Unproductive Housewife: Her Evolution in Nineteenth-Century Economic Thought,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16 (1991): 463-84. See also Armstrong's commentary, 59-75.

  31. In one of the many sewing scenes in Wives and Daughters, Molly takes her “company worsted-work,” obviously a particularly beautiful, useless piece of sewing, in to Mrs. Hamley. Mrs. Hamley observes, “Ah! you've got your sewing, like a good girl,” and then offers a revealing explanation of her own lack of work at hand: “Now, I don't sew much. I live alone a great deal. You see, both my boys are at Cambridge, and the Squire is out of doors all day long—so I have almost forgotten how to sew. I read a great deal. Do you like reading?” (Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, ed. Frank Glover Smith [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969], 96). Sewing, for Mrs. Hamley, is what women do while they keep men company, and signifies labor rather than leisure. But “good girls” should sew: only women at relative leisure, living “alone” and not engaged in attending to men, can choose to read.

  32. George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 136, 178.

  33. An early essay by Patricia Branca, although naïvely celebratory in some respects, partially articulates this “disappearing” of domestic labor. (“Image and Reality: The Myth of the Idle Victorian Woman,” in Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, ed. Mary S. Hartman and Lois Banner [New York: Harper Colophon, 1974], 179-91). Armstrong offers a brief comment on the same subject (79). For a detailed account of the “nitty-gritty” of keeping house (again presented in rather conservative dress), see Caroline Davidson, A Woman's Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles 1650-1950 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982).

  34. Eliot, Bede 117-26, 148-54.

  35. Contrast these examples with two scenes of the Meyrick household in Eliot's Daniel Deronda, in which the narrator mock-delicately speculates that a servant might have been beyond their means “before Kate got paid work” as an illustrator, and, later, in which the embroidery frames of the other sisters literally fill up the front rooms, leaving little space for Klesmer to enter and hear Mirah's singing. The possibility that these women once had “to light their fires and sweep their rooms” themselves remains a matter of speculation—they cannot be seen to do so—while sewing, although undertaken for pay, displaces any other public or domestic labor. (Deronda, ed. Barbara Hardy [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967], 237, 538). Dickens's novels are full of similar confirmations of the elision of domestic labor and the exceptions made when women fall below the middle class. In Bleak House, for instance, Esther Summerson's domestic labor is firmly displaced into her keys, and visible signs of housekeeping in Mrs. Jelleyby's house mean she has failed at it; but Charley is first seen with the suds of the washbasin on her hands (although not actually washing), and Mrs. Bagnet washes and cooks (although briefly) in plain view. See also the former governess Ruth Pinch cooking in Martin Chuzzlewit—and so forth. But while Hetty's buttermaking, like Ruth Pinch's cooking, is heavily sentimentalized, Bede remains unusual in its relative lack of distancing of “visible” labor.

  36. Mitchie, 41.

  37. Wordsworthian peripatetic requires at least two walkers to produce poetry, and generally favors a large community of walkers engaged in renovating discourse. As we shall see, Marian Erle fills out this minimum community for Aurora (and Romney arguably joins them). At this point, however, the poem emphasizes Aurora's solitude as a sign of her departure from the domestic world.

  38. David establishes an “informing structure of wounding and healing” in Aurora Leigh, a structure she describes as “emphatically etched by the imagery of knifing” throughout the poem. While I have not done so in this essay, the sword in this passage, and indeed all David's knifing images, may also be connected with the piercing, cutting tools of sewing, further supporting David's reading by underscoring the role of women's domestic education (the immediate contextual reference) in the wounding of the body social (David, 122-24).

  39. See also 1.739-47, in which she becomes “a young wayfaring soul” venturing into the world of books. I should pause to emphasize that, of course, walking is just one sign of Aurora's art. My commentary here is certainly not meant to exclude the various other symbolic systems in play—for instance, the classical regendering via the Ganymede story at 1.915-34—but to underscore the particular interpretative possibilities of peripatetic.

  40. See Wallace, 29-30, 57, and 221-22; and, for a fuller discussion, Kim Taplin, The English Path (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1979), 65-84.

  41. See Mitchie, 33, for a brief discussion of the material and metaphorical connections between cleanliness and respectability.

  42. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 130; Mitchie, 40-41. See also Meena Alexander's commentary on Dorothy Wordsworth in Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1989), 78-99.

  43. Mitchie, 41.

  44. For a different view of Wordsworth's uses of georgic, see Bruce Graver, “Wordsworth's Georgic Pastoral: Otium and Labor in ‘Michael,’” European Romantic Review 1 (1991): 119-34.

  45. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations from Wordsworth are drawn from William Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), and are cited in my essay by line number only. The Excursion appears in 2:35-289.

  46. This is the version published in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, chosen by Stephen Gill for his Oxford Authors William Wordsworth (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984) in keeping with Gill's decision to print “a text which comes as close as possible to the state of a poem when it is first completed”—in this case, as in most, “the text of the first appearance in a Wordsworth volume, i.e. not in a newspaper or magazine” (xxxi). “There is an Eminence” appears in Gill, 203.

  47. I have not undertaken to read georgic, as distinct from peripatetic, in Aurora Leigh. Among the specifically georgic allusions are 2.27, 4.1161-68, 5.8-11, 7.669-71, and 7.732-33.

  48. According to Gardner B. Taplin, Barrett Browning read Cowper's biography (by Robert Southey) and included him in “a summary of English verse” published anonymously in summer 1842. (The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning [1957; Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970], 96, 102.)

  49. William Cowper, The Task, in The Poetical Works of William Cowper, ed. William Benham (1870; London: Macmillan and Co., 1921), 234. The reference is to 4:140-44.

  50. Cowper 4:150-57.

  51. Susanna Blamire, “Stoklewath; or, The Cumbrian Village,” in The Poetical Works of Miss Susanna Blamire, ed. Henry Lonsdale (Edinburgh: John Menzies, 1842), 5.

  52. Blamire, 11.

  53. Blamire, 8.

  54. See, for instance, the descriptions of Margaret's garden in Book I of the Excursion, or the fir-grove in “When to the attractions of the busy world.”

  55. For one reading of the rose's red in Aurora Leigh, see David, 119-22.

  56. Again, see the passages in the Excursion describing the decay of Margaret's garden—at, for instance, 1.715-29—and the parallel description of her disordered books at 1.824-28.

  57. Marian's nosegay may also allude to millinery and/or sewing, since arranging and rearranging nosegays was evidently part of preparing a proper costume, and could involve sewing. In Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Cynthia pulls flowers from the nosegays sent to her and Molly to make Molly a wreath for her head. “There!” she tells Molly, “when that is sewn on black velvet to keep the flowers from dying, you'll see how pretty it will look.” Cynthia has ulterior motives, of course, but earlier passages emphasize her skill at millinery and dress-trimming (Gaskell, 319). Lynn M. Alexander remarks the conflated usage of “dressmaker” and “milliner”: “most shops made entire outfits encompassing both so that the terms became interchangeable.” (“Following the Thread: Dickens and the Seamstress,” Victorian Newsletter 80 [1991]: 1, note 3.)

  58. Besides the references to Wallace above, see Laurie Langbauer, “Dickens's Streetwalkers: Women and the Form of Romance,” ELH 53 (1986): 411-31, and Ellen Mores, “Bleak House: The Agitating Women,” The Dickensian 69 (1973): 13-24.

  59. Edelstein discusses the explosion of visual and literary representations of seamstresses after the December 1843 publication of Thomas Hood's “The Song of the Shirt,” describing a consistent iconology widely available in popular as well as artistic circles. Marian fits this iconology in many respects. A country girl moved to the city, she lives alone in rooms above the street; seduction, starvation and disease threaten her; and she is figured in various ways as a saint (Aurora explicitly calls her “my saint” at 7.127). There are also telling variations—the evils that threaten Marian, for instance, are at first located in the countryside. A fuller analysis of Barrett Browning's use of seamstress iconology would no doubt underscore Aurora Leigh's conflicted stance toward women's work, since the iconology itself, in Edelstein's view, is fundamentally conservative. Hood's “Song,” Richard Redgrave's painting “The Sempstress” (exhibited at the Royal Academy six months after Hood's publication), and the flood of similar work that followed, intended a trenchant criticism of seamstresses' virtual enslavement. But their coherent design of an admirable, beleaguered seamstress with whom their audience might feel strong sympathy involved the stabilization of the very structures responsible for the terrible conditions they decried. In Edelstein's words, “these visual [and literary] works tend to assuage concern while they incite it” (184).

  60. See also Barrett Browning's “Work and Contemplation” (1844).

  61. While georgic is usually called “pastoral” after 1800, Aurora's condemnation of her pastoral suggests that this is not what is happening here. Rather than the scenes of rural labor or tales of common life in nineteenth-century “pastorals” like Wordsworth's “Michael,” landscape, classical allusion, and unpeopled nature seem to have been the substance of Aurora's poem. Without even sheep on the scene, one may wonder if it is classical pastoral. Certainly, however, the charges Aurora levels against it—“pretty, cold, and false”—sound like the charges made against eighteenth-century English pastoral, rather than those against the “realistic pastoral” that silently encompassed georgic a little later. For a longer discussion of the transformation of pastoral, see Wallace, 133-44.

  62. Of course the poem asserts the primacy of spiritual love from its opening pages, and the last books thoroughly complete that line of thought. David notes that the first line of Aurora Leigh quotes Ecclesiastes; Biblical allusion and Christian ideologies permeate the poem. Formally, then, and in terms of its fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian image/idea structures of the poem, the final quotation of Revelation also is consistent and satisfying.

My thanks to Laura C. Berry, Bruce Graver, and Richard Sha, whose comments were instrumental in shaping this essay, and to Jacqueline Rhodes, who helped me edit the final text.

Cheri Larsen Hoeckley (essay date summer 1998)

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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)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights of Roncesvalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur's self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Fleet Street to our poets.(1)

The call for contemporary subject matter was nothing novel in English poetry; the Romantics, whom Barrett Browning knew well, had made common life the realm of poetry. Aurora does not envision making poetry out of her Romantic predecessor's pastoral rustics, but rather a verse novel out of urban, middle-class activities and people—out of drawing room squabbles, fashion trends, and the monetary transactions that inspire cheating and calculating.

As Aurora details the diurnal circumstances that must engage the poet, she does not flinch from sexuality—the passion and heat spent between the mirrors of drawing rooms. More explicitly, she refuses to flinch at female sexuality, even female sexuality that other Victorians registered as transgressive. While Lady Guenever may have found King Arthur's self “commonplace,” Victorian readers would have remembered that the queen felt quite differently about Lancelot. Certainly Barrett Browning's depictions of a female aristocrat who voraciously pursues the heroine's beloved, and of a raped working-class woman who refuses to be shamed by the crime against her, and of a heroine who frankly bemoans the discomfort of her own celibacy all attest to the poet's firm commitment in representing this aspect of her age.2 This allusion exceeds even those depictions, though, in mentioning the transgressive sexuality of a married woman without censuring her acts. With this allusion to the English literary tradition's most famous adulteress, Aurora's poetic credo refuses to evade the most problematic elements of female sexuality: a married woman's assertion of her independence.

The second allusion to Arthurian lore, however, indicates a notion that causes Barrett Browning more anxiety: while throughout the poem, she discusses and genders sexuality, she is more circumspect about literary property. Tellingly, Aurora chooses for her final simile the literary business district in London, rather than The City, the synecdochal figure for London finance.3 Aurora realizes that Fleet Street's combination of finance and literature eludes poetic sympathy, even though she claims the district is potentially as poetic as Camelot. Aurora Leigh overtly proclaims the poet's role as social critic, yet it also obliquely returns to writing, including poetry, as a business or profession—the aspect of authorship that Fleet Street journalists made all too apparent. When Aurora refers to working for money, she prompts the reader to understand those efforts as qualitatively different from the higher art that she considers her true work. The very structure of Book 5 betrays this desire to keep writing as a profession separate from writing as a vocation, or writing for money separate from writing for art's sake. Barrett Browning safely distances Aurora's discussion of aesthetics in Book 5 from the revelation later in that book that she has literary earnings by interposing Lady Waldemar's libidinously scandalous pursuit of Aurora's cousin, Romney Leigh. This interruption parallels the poem's larger structure in which the scandal of Romney's messily foiled marriage separates Aurora's early aesthetic musings from her professional life in Italy.

Aurora's reliance on allusion to discuss literary property indicates her share in a general Victorian ambivalence about the writer as worker, regardless of gender. Aurora opens her pronouncement of the heroism of her age by agreeing with Thomas Carlyle that no age recognizes its own heroes (5.155-157). In “The Hero as Man of Letters,” Carlyle portrays the writer as “a Great Soul living apart in that anomalous manner; endeavouring to speak-forth the inspiration that was in him by Printed Books, and find place and subsistence by what the world would please to give him for doing that.”4 Carlyle mystifies the process by which writers acquire money, emphasizing the anomaly of the writer's life. The inspirational value of the author's words leaves Carlyle and his fellow Victorians uncomfortable with these words acquiring monetary value, so he refuses to describe the process as an economic exchange, constructing instead a nebulous, and therefore irreplicable, process of gifts falling upon the Great Soul. Aurora Leigh, like any Künstlerroman, must reconcile this desire to transcend the economic realm with the desire for sufficient financial success from literature to guarantee freedom to devote oneself to literature. As Carlyle's mystification displays, that process of reconciliation often eludes concrete narration. While both Carlyle and Barrett Browning want to claim transcendence over financial concerns, each one is immersed in financial discussion, a phenomenon that suggests Victorian authors' vexed, but constant, concern with property matters. In other words, every claim that he or she was not bowing to mammon brought a Victorian author back to a discussion of the literary marketplace and his or her position in that economic system. Fleet Street poets' monetary transactions—calculating, cheating and aspiring—signify in the age Aurora wants to represent, even while those poets insist their preoccupations are more picturesque than economic.

Aurora's description of poets' “sole work” ends, then, in two final couplets, linked by Camelot allusions, bringing together a wife's independent, even transgressive, acts and literary property. The intricate relation of these aspects of the Victorian woman writer hinder Barrett Browning from confronting them in a coherent, direct fashion, but the combination pervades and preoccupies the entire narrative of Aurora Leigh. In the verse novel, domestic and sexual scandals repeatedly overshadow problems that were perhaps more unsettling for the Victorians, and in particular for Barrett Browning: intricacies of female literary property and professionalism. While recent criticism of the verse novel has followed richly varied trajectories to explore the Victorian female literary sensibility, it has drawn attention away from the property plot that pervades Aurora Leigh. It is certainly true that the “center” of Aurora Leigh is “Aurora's literary development and her struggle to reconcile the warring claims of work and marriage, art and love” (Mermin, p. 184) and it is also accurate that, in this poem, Barrett Browning “enacted and re-enacted her own personal and artistic struggle for identity” (Gilbert, “From Patria to Matria,” p. 26). It is still further the case that women's authorial earnings complicate this well documented struggle to achieve female authorial identity—in both the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's and her poetic heroine's relations to the market in Fleet Street.5

Browning's reluctant attention to the female poet's finances suggests that, perhaps more than she fully understood, Aurora Leigh represents its own “live, throbbing age,” particularly with respect to debates on authorial ownership and wives' property. Two separate legal discussions—lingering agitation for extended copyright protection and the beginnings of marital law reform—brought discussion of authorial property and of marital property into Victorian drawing rooms while Barrett Browning was developing her book-length poem. Tensions between arguments over copyright, on the one hand, and coverture, on the other, especially as those parliamentary debates were expanded in Fleet Street periodicals, rendered female literary property ideologically threatening to a middle-class readership in the early 1850s. Moreover, these tensions illuminate the mid-Victorian tendency to emphasize the anomaly of an economically successful married woman writer, even while some wives were famously earning literary money. Reading Aurora Leigh in the context of these Victorian debates brings to the forefront the verse novel's property plot, illuminating Aurora's economic strength, especially in her friendship with Marian; such a reading also accounts for the poem's final narrative peculiarities in its apparent abandonment of representing its age for the visionary realm of the mythic poetic tradition.

Barrett Browning's participation in copyright debates together with her support of the Married Women's Property Movement validates a reading of the verse novel with attention to female literary property. The property plot in Aurora Leigh highlights conflicts between Victorian copyright struggles and the debate over wives' property reform. Together these debates figure harmoniously married women as outside the literary marketplace, even while married female authors were earning independent incomes. I argue that since Victorian coverture denied writing wives independence, it created a conflict between cultural definitions of “wife” and “author.” Barrett Browning's verse novel reflects the complexity of this dilemma, tracking Aurora's growth through various plot intricacies where she earns considerable literary profit, but culminating in the final inability to narrate the poet's egalitarian marriage.

As early as 1842, Elizabeth Barrett was beginning to follow the public discussion of copyright reform. She wrote to her friend Mary Russell Mitford that she was “amused” by Thomas Hood's exemplary piece from the Athenaeum, “Copyright and Copywrong.”6 The poet quickly diverts her commentary from financial interests to Hood's use of humor, noting that “he is the master of his art.” A series of questions—“were you not amused by Hood's letter on the copyright” and “Do you not confess to the same feeling?”—place the rhetorical burden on Mitford to return to the matter of literary property itself. As Barrett would have known, if Hood's comic letter was all she read, most of the complexities of English copyright law were considered settled in the eighteenth century, but a sense of intensifying international literary piracy and a desire for extended authorial ownership prompted a renewed interest early in Victoria's reign.7 No sooner was the matter of domestic copyright settled than a disgruntled public discussion began of the plight English authors suffered at the hands of literary pirates in other countries.

Either side of the Victorian debate on copyright occasionally offered arguments that sounded strikingly similar to those of its opponents.8 Participants resisted arguing for remuneration based entirely on the author's economic rights in order to preserve authors' cultural status as geniuses. The few guarded references to literary labor that do exist in the discussion betray an anxiety about suggesting that authors are merely laborers peddling their wares. In their specific discussion of copyright, then, the debates replicated the general tendency of the early Victorian literary industry to style itself as distanced from economic concerns in order to guard its ostensible allegiance to aesthetic matters. Barrett Browning's correspondence often captures this Victorian tendency to consider remuneration, then to deflect that consideration with the mention of related, immaterial concerns. In an often quoted letter to Anna Jameson, Barrett Browning describes the poem that would become Aurora Leigh as the work she is “about” that “will fill a volume when done … ; the heroine, an artist woman—not a painter, mind. It is intensely modern, crammed from the times (not the ‘Times’ newspaper) as far as my strength will allow.”9 Less often discussed are the earlier paragraphs where Barrett Browning mentions that her publisher wants her to add original poems to a new edition of Poems (1844) “to secure the copyright under the new law” (2:111). She passes over the publisher's motivation to focus on her objections to revision's minimal aesthetic rewards, quickly turning the weight of her remark to art, away from money. The poet then discusses Jameson's copyrights, lamenting that the widely published art historian had alienated her literary property, because selling copyrights is “a bad plan always, except in the case of novels which have their day, and no day after” (2:112). The letter largely concerns itself with news of poetic acquaintances, and of the Brownings' poetic endeavors, but almost obsessively returns to literary property, suggesting what aspects “from the times” the poet found engaging as she developed her “intensely modern” poem about a woman artist.

Others who discussed copyright more publicly eventually turned away from either economic or aesthetic claims and referred to the rights of the reading public for rhetorical support.10 Booksellers and publishers against extended copyright claimed that it would hamper the circulation of good literature, or good cheap literature, stifling efforts to improve the minds of the British masses. Authors generally claimed that it would increase the circulation of quality literature by giving inducements to authors to produce more enduring texts. References to the rights or needs of the reading, and paying, public allowed competing sides to mask self-interest. Blackwood's Magazine took this stance most high-mindedly, announcing its “disdain to argue it upon the footing of the interests of authors,” and vowing to take up “this great question of copyright upon its true ground—the national character, the national interests, the elevation and improvement of the classes.”11 Those who joined Blackwood's in denying authorial self-interest as the motive behind the campaign to extend copyright could position themselves as interested only in the benefit to English culture. To allow fully for the position, they finally appealed to the literary needs of the reading public, willfully ignoring the public's economic significance as the market for the commodity authors owned. Rather than defining readers as consumers, the debates constructed them as those with the ability to gain access to and be improved by the culture authors had to offer. The opening clause of the 1842 Act, as it was finally adopted, reflected this posturing of the greatest good for the greatest number, finding it “expedient to amend the law relating to copyright, and to afford greater encouragement to the production of literary works of lasting benefit to the world.”

A version of this argument appears in Elizabeth Barrett's correspondence with Cornelius Mathew, the American writer who served in the 1840s as her literary agent in the United States. When Mathew sent Barrett a copy of his pamphlet on international copyright, she circulated the pamphlet to Sergeant Talfourd and to her friend Richard Hengist Horne. She wrote to Horne that

the American booksellers who can get everything (thanks to the state of the copyright!) for nothing, would not thank me for proposing “a bargain” to them. No literature of the soil sells there scarcely, except Magazine literature. … The condition of native literature in America appears to be most melancholy,—crying out from beneath the chain & lash as loudly as the slaves of the southern states, if not as pathetically.12

Clearly, Barrett is aware of her own economic loss to literary piracy, but she rapidly, and melodramatically, turns the discussion to the greater loss American authors suffer in a market flooded with pirated texts. Bad economic policy leads to bad literature. The “melancholy” lack of a “native” literary tradition is a national dilemma on the order of slavery, harming the American readership as much as it harms America's underpaid authors. Barrett's simile evokes issues of literary value and social justice to eclipse parenthetical mention of her personal losses. Her comments show that she was aware of her economic interests; it also suggests her resistance to dwelling on the monetary aspect of her profession.

Several years later, when she was writing Aurora Leigh, both Barrett Browning and Robert Browning took precautions to protect their economic interests by negotiating for the poem's American printing. The couple was sufficiently concerned in protecting their copyrights to plan as early as 1853 “to obtain some payment for the habitually pirated republication in America,” even though she had actually composed only the first few lines of the verse novel.13 After considerable negotiation, the Brownings agreed to send proofsheets for Aurora Leigh to C. S. Francis in New York, before the English edition was available for sale. The arrangement allowed him to print his own edition before pirates could import copies of the British edition. In further return for Francis' £100 payment, a notice of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's assignment of rights was published in the first American edition: “Having received what I consider to be sufficient remuneration for my poem of Aurora Leigh, from Mr. Francis of New York, it is my earnest desire that his right in this and future editions of the same, may not be interfered with” (see Reynolds, p. 98). The notice avoids any mention of aesthetic or cultural interests; it simply publicizes an author's economic transaction. The receipt in American editions of Aurora Leigh indicates that Barrett Browning was not adverse to publicly demanding fair compensation if arguments for aesthetics and the greater cultural good failed; she simply tended to try those other avenues first.

Barrett Browning was not alone in causally connecting literary quality and strength of copyright, as the bulk of Victorian copyright arguments indicate. Ironically, in making those similar claims, however, published arguments systematically excluded married women writers, the group Barrett Browning belonged to for her career's most lucrative years. To argue for strengthened copyright, participants in the debate drew portraits of literary figures who had shaped English culture—male authors, most frequently Shakespeare, Milton and Johnson. Of course, Shakespeare, Milton, and Johnson had little to gain from copyright reform in the nineteenth century, but for a number of women writers who were receiving critical acclaim, the changes would matter.14 Elizabeth Barrett's name might have come rapidly to mind for the parliamentary debaters, since her second volume of poetry The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) was being widely reviewed while copyright reform was under discussion, but not one of the speeches recorded in Hansard's refers to her. Even when debaters offer lengthy catalogues of authors, they failed to mention Harriet Martineau and her widely read fictional series Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1833), or Maria Edgeworth and her vast corpus, or any other woman writer who had gained public notice and might have copyright agreements that would be affected by a judicial change. With the exception of Thomas Babington Macaulay's passing reference to Madame D'Arblay and Jane Austen, the parliamentary debates also assumed male authorship.15 Debaters, fortifying this defense based on cultural merit, focused their illustrations on the greatest literary masters in the English tradition, occluding any sense that women had stakes in the economics under discussion.16

Proponents of extended copyright also displaced anxieties over authorial self-promotion with arguments that stressed the economic well-being of authors' families.17 Not surprisingly, this representation of authorship further distanced writing women from the public's image of literary figures. Thomas Carlyle, one of the few Victorian authors to submit a parliamentary petition in support of extended copyright, painted the authorial domestic dilemma most charmingly. Carlyle confesses that his work thus far has brought him only meager earnings, and that if he ever profits from writing, “it will be at some distant time when he, the labourer, will probably no longer be in need of money, and those dear to him will still be in need of it.” On those familial grounds, Carlyle (himself a childless husband of a wife whose family could support her) asks Parliament “to forbid extraneous persons, entirely unconcerned in this adventure of his, to steal from his small winnings for a space of sixty years at shortest. After sixty years, unless [the] honourable House provides otherwise, they may begin to steal” (quoted in Scrutton, p. 44). Generally considering the writing father as primary provider, the arguments stressed the importance of protecting paternal earnings for future generations and for wives.18

This construction of the author as paterfamilias was central in the debates and pushed women into the supporting role of wives, out of the realm of authors. Even if the multitude of Victorian women who were writing for money had assumed more prominence in the debates, the Lockean account of property that supports these arguments further underscores the particular obstacles that still confronted married women writers who wanted to secure their literary property rights. John Locke's well-known passage on rights of self-ownership as the basis for private property murmured behind any argument supporting an author's claims to textual ownership in common law.19 The Lockean discussion of property asserts that if a person takes something from the common estate, as long as he mixes that commodity with his own labor, he has an ownership claim to the newly fashioned commodity.20 Because each person owns his body, the argument follows, any labor the authorial body performed in generating a text out of the common estate of ideas and experiences granted that author the right to own that text.21

If claims to ownership rested on self-possession and bodily labor, Victorian wives had no grounds from which to argue their right to literary property. Under the legal condition of coverture, the husband, not the wife, owned her body, and therefore any physical or intellectual fruit of it. Coverture is the legal principle that places a wife under the protection and authority of her husband; literally, her civic personhood is covered by his. Under Victorian law, a writing wife's independent status in the literary marketplace was obviated by her prior dependent status in the family; she could not be independent anywhere. A Victorian wife was not merely economically dependent; more gravely, laws of coverture rendered her ontologically dependent on her husband. A married woman could not make contracts, be held liable for debt, collect debts, sue or be sued. She could not hold her own copyright because she ceased to hold a civil existence after marrying. Barbara Leigh Smith wittily marks the extent of this dependent status when she explains that a married couple “cannot be found guilty of conspiracy, as that offence cannot be committed unless there are two persons.”22 A wife technically lost all control of her literary earnings when she married. Of course, many couples lived as if ignorant of a husband's despotic economic control over his wife. The Brownings' mythically harmonious marriage most famously exemplifies a couple whose resources may have never been separated by differences of psychological will. The legal technicality, in other words, had little practical bearing on some couples' personal finances. In fact, defendants of coverture often relied on couples acting with disregard for this particular aspect of marriage law.

Barrett Browning's sense of their commonality of interest is not only preserved through the romantic myth of the Browning couple, but on first glance seems to have left its traces in their correspondence. Robert Browning wrote much of the correspondence to arrange publishing and remuneration details for Aurora Leigh, leaving his wife leisure to compose. Her husband asks all the questions about accounts, makes requests for payment and takes on all the tasks of managing literary property.23 However, after she had completed Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning was bold enough to write to her sister that “the success of Aurora [Aurora Leigh] is a great thing—will be as to money-results.”24 Perhaps the weightiest impediment to an understanding of Barrett Browning as a poet and wife who enjoyed simultaneous popular, critical and economic success was the anomaly of her position. Other women writers enjoyed critical and financial success, and a few of those women were contentedly married, but no one had the full degree of fame for both her writing and her marriage that Barrett Browning embraced. Furthermore, she seems to have carefully avoided the public display of that anomalous status.25 In the unstable medium of personal correspondence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning can manage the complex class and gender politics of her age, and write her self as perfectly married, critically acclaimed, and successful “as to the money-results.” Within the narrative restrictions of her poetry, or in the public pages of Victorian journalism, however, her readers would have found that economically independent, female heroic status more difficult to comprehend.

Although images of writing women only lurked in the wings of the copyright debates, they took center stage in 1856 when Barbara Leigh Smith formed the Married Women's Property Committee to agitate Parliament to repeal the coverture laws that barred all wives from property ownership. Thirteen years after the passage of the Act to Amend the Law of Copyright, Barrett Browning was preparing Aurora Leigh for publication, and the periodical press was beginning to speak of economically successful writing women, but largely as domestically unsuccessful wives. In mustering support for its cause, the Committee inadvertently contributed to this representation of the incompatibility of marital happiness and economic success from literature. According to the petition that the Committee submitted to Parliament, the advance of literary women into the marketplace was the driving force behind this reform movement that would affect all British families, regardless of the wife's occupation. Furthermore, the women who joined Leigh Smith on the Committee wrote essays, novels, social criticism, and poetry, and were recognized by their contemporaries as authors: Bessie Rayner Parkes, Adelaide Proctor, Mary Howitt, and Anna Murphy Jameson. Committee members Howitt and Jameson were among many women who had gained recognition as writers when the copyright debates appeared in the press, and who escaped mention in the 1830s debates.

Leigh Smith's band of political agitators relied on their familial and literary networks to gain the nominal support of other respectable wives, including Jane Carlyle, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During most of the life of the Committee, Barrett Browning was writing Aurora Leigh in Italy and France, while her confidante and frequent correspondent Anna Jameson familiarized her with the Committee's activities. Like Gaskell, Barrett Browning required some prompting to lend support.26 Her stance on women's issues appears to have wavered; at times she denied any expectation that Aurora Leigh would be seen as addressing “the woman question,” and other times, she linked herself whimsically with the women publicly fighting for legal reform: “Oh if you heard Bessie Parkes!—she & the rest of us militant, foam with rage.”27 Parkes (whom Barrett Browning would have known through Jameson, Parkes's mentor) adopts a generally even-tempered tenor in her writing, which argues for an impish hyperbole in Barrett Browning's vision of herself foaming with rage. In fact, the Committee placed her signature early in the list of signatories in order to gain sympathy with the moderation she represented. The petition was called “The petition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anna Jameson, Mary Howitt, Mrs. Gaskell, & c.,”28 and repeatedly noted as the work of literary women. The activism of the Committee brought to public attention that many of those women, because they were married, had not yet reaped legal benefit from Victorian copyright reform. The literary status of the prominent signatories also worked against the movement, however, allowing opponents to claim that coverture harmed only “a few literary ladies whose peculiar talents had helped to place them in a rather anomalous position.”29

Opponents to marital property law reform were fairly successful in portraying women in need of protection from coverture as anomalous. Still, the periodical debate over married women's property publicized writing wives as generally not as harmoniously married as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Committee anticipated their opponents' arguments that legal reform was an excessive desire when spousal unity sufficed to protect the interest of wives like Barrett Browning. To counter such claims, they exerted their energies to gather and publish tales of spousal abuse and of husbands who absconded with their wives' carefully hoarded last shillings.30 Moreover, independent of the Married Women's Property Committee's publicity efforts, press coverage had acquainted Victorians with the poet and novelist Caroline Sheridan Norton's various matrimonial and property trials. Norton's public battles to separate from her husband and to retain her property and child custody rights spanned the decade and a half between the copyright debates and the 1850s composition of Aurora Leigh, and reminded Victorian readers that while, in practice, shared property may have existed in many middle-class families, coverture guaranteed husbands ultimate possession.31

Norton published her wrongs when she was legally forbidden to testify in her own defense at her adultery trial (that all participants acknowledged as her husband's malicious attempt to defame her character and to extort money from Lord Melbourne, her alleged paramour) and unable to regain custody of her children. In English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854) Norton calls attention to her role as a proclaimer of truth and declares her removal of herself from the literary marketplace, since coverture has given her estranged husband the right to her “own soul and brains,” by making her literary profits his. She has ceased writing literature to “amuse those who had leisure to read,” turning her talents instead to a hortatory “Story of Real Life” which she published herself for private circulation, highlighting the failure of copyright law for wives (p. 146). Her writing and the press coverage of her disastrous marriage educated the reading public on the tangled state of British matrimonial law; it also blended those legal complications with a writing wife's domestic plight.

Norton's trials highlight the vexed portrayal of women authors in the copyright and coverture debates. On the one hand, copyright debates had constructed the worthy author normatively as male, rarely as female, and never as a wife. Independent writing women complicated arguments about authorial patrimony that saved literary figures from claims of self-interest. On the other hand, the coverture arguments had suggested that only unhappy, or hostile, wives would seek control of their own earnings. Together, the debates suggest that, unlike middle-class male authors, female authors generally must be subsumable by the family for the sake of a stable society. Women with their own independent property through literature are best understood as cultural eccentricities. As Aurora Leigh's insistence on remaining single demonstrates, even unmarried women embody danger when they choose professional lives over their proper role in socially stabilizing domesticity. Further, through the particular ways that the Norton story publicized the injustices of current matrimonial law, it introduced the writing wife into the public psyche as disastrously married.32 It also raised the specter of female autonomy in the public sphere if reform succeeded. By pushing on too many of the beams in the complicated framework that supported Victorian middle-class ideology, the concept of independent female literary property threatened to shake the whole cultural edifice.

While these two debates were going on around her, Barrett Browning progressed from considering what poem she might write to “represent the age,” through conceiving specifically of Aurora Leigh, and finally to completing the poem. Barrett Browning's verse novel acknowledges the obvious point that Aurora Leigh is like those legally unrepresented Victorian women in attempting to maintain economic independence with her pen. However, as I suggested earlier, the poem resists any intimate connection between literature and property. Early in the narrative of her writing life in London, Aurora confesses that

                                        there came some vulgar needs:
I had to live that therefore I might work,
And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life,
To work with one hand for the booksellers
While working with the other for myself
And art: you swim with feet as well as hands,
Or make small way. I apprehended this,—
In England no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopaedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud.


Aurora represents the incongruence of literature and profit in a bodily metaphor as the division of her two hands, one separated from her true self and writing for money, the other integrated to her being and working for art. The poet can construct a generic separation of “art” and “weekly papers,” but as her trope emphasizes, both kinds of writing are still to some extent manual labor. Further, the subsequent swimming metaphor collapses the distinction she attempts to maintain: both poetry and journalism generate from the same body, enlisting all of its limbs for propulsion. The journalism Aurora produces with her commercial hand sustains her physically, but endangers her literary reputation so drastically that she can only let it be published anonymously—“holding up” her name as she would her skirt hems—in an attempt to protect the sphere of her verse from the “vulgar needs” and muddying acts of her body. The final trope in these lines implies that a man in trousers might wade carelessly through puddles, but a woman poet who understands the corporeal nature of her labor also understands the potentially sullying effect of prose. Just as she uses the elaborate figures from Camelot to link female sexuality and poetic property, here she cryptically suggests, with a reference to a skirt hem, gender's added complications to the literary property dilemma. Soon after this passage, Aurora begins her series of confrontations with the consequences of sexuality and the frailty of a female's name in a sexual economy. She experiences both Lady Waldemar's unapologetic lasciviousness and Marian Erle's assailable passivity, increasing her awareness of the female body's multifarious ability to tarnish her reputation. Unlike male poets, Aurora carries the additional burden of protecting her social reputation from the sullying implications of her female body.

The conjunction of gender and genre to endanger a woman poet's reputation might explain Aurora's perplexing silence about the “book” that earns her sufficient income to emigrate to Italy and to support Marian and her son. Aurora explicitly lists the various offending genres that earn her the money “to make a space to sphere [her] living verse.” She also specifies that her financial failure, “The Hills,” is a critically successful pastoral (5.90-94). Yet she speaks only enigmatically about both the content and the form of the book that finally brings her both critical acclaim and financial solvency. The book's copyright is lucrative enough that her silence upon receipt of her earnings concerns Vincent Carrington, whom she left to act as her literary agent (5.1262-65). When Carrington, concerned that she has not received the money he forwarded, writes to Italy he acknowledges she has “been silent as a poet should” about the financial gain (7.544). As Carrington suggests, the Künstlerroman's conflict—between aesthetic transcendence of material pleasures and the delight in the success that financial literary gain indicates—might explain Aurora's reticence about this successful book. More particularly for Aurora, this book that “has some truth in it” (7.744) forges a link for her between the literary earnings that can mark a work as soiling, or muddying, and the literary earnings that bring her necessary artistic and emotional liberty; for a female poet, the earnings are both dangerous and desirable because they give a woman autonomy.

Aurora grows increasingly aware of the gendered status of poets while living as a professional writer in London. This sense of difference augments her understanding of the ways a woman writer might muddy her artistic name. Women, she says,

                              are too apt to look to One,
Which proves a certain impotence in art.
We strain our natures at doing something great,
Far less because it's something great to do,
Than haply that we, so, commend ourselves
As being not small, and more appreciable
To some one friend. We must have mediators
Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge;
Some sweet saint's blood must quicken in our palms,
Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold.

(5. 43-52)

Explicit self-critique lies shallowly buried in this view of female art based on emotional dependence; Aurora has just been thinking of Romney. She turns again to the figure of hands. In this case both “palms” belong to the woman, but are only valued when an approving intermediary male's blood quickens in them. Her aesthetic self can be reintegrated only when it is subsumed whole by a beloved male “friend.” The young Aurora may be able to imagine herself separate from the vulgar marketplace that threatens her reputation in the poetic sphere—the separation male authors constructed for themselves in copyright debates—but she finds it more difficult to esteem herself with the personal autonomy required for great art. Even the openly defiant Aurora imagines her artistic personality as absorbed by a man, in a kind of psychologized coverture.

Female poets seem especially susceptible to this artistic impotence, while simultaneously having most at stake in this loss of being. They can fall prey to envisioning themselves as “small,” as less embodied, without the approval of their beloved, intercessory males. Women, Aurora decides, are vulnerable in monetary and emotional economies, and her challenge as a female poet is to evade both economies. She ends this melancholy romantic musing with a female artist's pledge: “We'll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect, / Although our woman-hands should shake and fail” (5.71-72). The hand that labors for money and the hand that creates sublime literature may manifest the physical toll of her activity, but her pledge reunites them in the gendered compound “woman-hands.” Aurora heroically recognizes the difficulty of her task. However, she asserts the strength of her own body, from her erect eyes through both her quivering hands, to enlist sublime art as a shield against possible assaults on her literary character, and further to ward off attacks on her self-ownership through avoiding the romantic relationship that would eventually force her to bind her body over to a husband in coverture. Aurora's pledge is individual and limited. Rather than acting to change women's condition systemically, she merely vows to act sublimely against emotional and external pressures to act ridiculously.

The poem, of course, tells the tale of Aurora's continued forays into this emotional battle for her art, but it also offers several instances of Aurora engaging in personal struggle against Victorian property customs. As the previous paragraphs indicate, Aurora follows representations of authors from the copyright debates in her anxiety about earning money from writing while preserving her status as an artistic figure. Additionally, the concern she exhibits for her literary autonomy when she worries about her emotional subjection to Romney echoes with strains of the marital property debates. Aurora's interactions with other characters clarify the difficulty of combining notions of respectable literary property with those of appropriate female property into one narrative.33 Repeatedly, Aurora's family and friends attempt to direct the narrative of her life by providing her with economic security by any means other than the literary marketplace. The earnestly paternalistic Romney makes the first motion to provide for Aurora without granting her any autonomy. After she refuses Romney's proposal on the grounds that she cannot forfeit her poetry to become his helpmate in philanthropy, Romney devises a more wily plan to provide for her. When he writes to their unnamed aunt to give her thirty thousand pounds that must pass to Aurora on the elderly woman's death, Romney attempts an economic transaction akin to an equity settlement, and outwits a Leigh family mandate in order to benefit the all-but-disinherited Aurora (2.996-1000). Because her mother was Italian, a codicil in an uncle's will forbidding inheritance by any Leigh children of foreign-born mothers prohibits Aurora from acquiring her father's estate (2.606-622). Romney's settlement on their aunt, which is intended as a gift to Aurora, recalls middle- and upper-class fathers filing in the Court of Equity to settle money on soon-to-be married daughters, eluding coverture. Occasionally these agreements protected some independent income for a marrying daughter, but equity settlements often simply allowed a father to preserve family property from a squandering son-in-law for future male heirs. Since Romney is the sole heir to the Leigh family fortune, his gift suggests a sincere effort at justice when the law fails to advocate just behavior. Fittingly, because the aunt dies without ever opening Romney's envelope after the maid places it in her hand, the gift becomes legally problematic. Can it be hers to give to her niece if the aunt never agreed to its terms? The verbal sparring that Aurora and Romney engage in over the validity of the gift reminds readers of the unexpected and inevitable difficulties in complicated equity settlements (2.996-1176). Throughout the debate Aurora likens herself to a man and insists that she will only take what she deserves by indisputable right, or that which a just system allows her. Aurora refuses a gift that will leave her financially and emotionally indebted to her protective cousin. Aurora's refusal to accept Romney's shrewd benevolence reveals not only her denial of the appearance of dependence, but further her proud rejection of a familial system that will not provide for her through established channels.

Aurora more contentedly accepts the £300 per annum that a reading of her aunt's will confirms as her bequest from her aunt's private property. In fact, the budding poet welcomes the shelter from poverty and the sufficient independence to begin a literary career in London (2.984). As the heroine stands with her bonnet on, ready to step into the carriage that will take her to her new life, the cousins indulge in a grandiloquent farewell characteristic of their sometimes pedantic youthful conversations. Romney's business-like quotation of the will interrupts the poetic dialogue: “Three hundred pounds, and any other sum / Of which the said testatrix dies possessed” (2.987-988). The legal language of the aunt's will (not to mention the appearance mid stanza of italic type) emphasizes the settlement's realism, connecting it to extra-textual systems of Chancery where such saving bequests were often settled on single female relatives, or on married women's husbands. While Romney stresses the gift's meagerness, Aurora insists that this female bequest suffices to purchase her “clear standing-room / To stand and work in” (2. 984-985). The narrative of Aurora's working life, however, reveals the income's insufficiency for her determined, artistic sensibility. She writes alone in her Grub Street lodging, at texts that she often finds unsatisfying, succumbing to bouts of loneliness. Moreover, the bequest depends entirely on Aurora's appropriate female behavior and submission to discipline during her benefactor's lifetime. This dependence is amply demonstrated in all of the aunt's efforts at female discipline and education, to the exclusion of poetry writing, or even of much reading, excepting the books that prompt Aurora's quip about “a score of books on womanhood / [that] prove, if women do not think at all, / They may teach thinking” (1.427-429). Though Aurora prefers her aunt's money over Romney's, it still fails to grant the fulfillment and freedom that she continues to seek in literary labor and its earnings.

Finally, Aurora has the opportunity to enjoy simultaneous economic prosperity and poetic success, but only if she will marry in order to gain economic security. Her friend Lord Howe encourages her to consider the wealthy John Eglinton's proposal because she is poor and Eglinton's estate would allow her wealth “for art's sake” (5.922-951). When Aurora rebuts that Eglinton only barters for a “star upon his stage of Eglinton” rather than the more usual “worthy wife at home” (5.914-915), Howe rather tactlessly reminds her that, as a single female poet, she can only hope for a life of genteel poverty. Eglinton, she then replies, desires the role of patron more than of romantic partner. She supports her opinion with praise of the actress and the opera singer who have received identical attention from Eglinton; his lack of appreciation for either the individual talents or the personalities of the female objects of his largesse offends her (5.898-910). Aurora again refuses indignantly any hint of economic dependence, willingly sacrificing more leisure for art in order to maintain her personal autonomy. She completes her refusal with an oration:

                                                  compromise the wheaten bread
For rye, the meat for lentils, silk for serge,
And sleep on down, if needs, for sleep on straw;
But there end compromise. I will not bate
One artist-dream on straw or down, my lord,
Nor pinch my liberal soul, though I be poor,
Nor cease to love high, though I live thus low.


Through her catalogue of rustic, if not entirely idyllic substitutions, Aurora's insistence on choosing poverty over the pinching comforts of patronage recalls the rhetoric of the copyright debates. Like the male authors who claimed to prefer independent poverty rather than submit to claims of economic self-interest, or lose their independence in patronage, Aurora will not accept Eglinton's domestic comforts at the cost of her poetic independence. Unlike those male authors, Aurora also risks her ontological independence in the particular form of patronage that Eglinton offers as suitor. The juxtaposition of the poetic vision, or “artist-dream,” with the final language of love and repetition of sleeping alternatives reminds Howe, and Barrett Browning's readers, that Aurora risks not only her professional liberty, but her physical independence when she chooses a marriage bed. In each of these attempts to guarantee Aurora stability—Romney's familial gift, her aunt's legacy, and Lord Howe's matchmaking—established patriarchal channels control the flow of property, eliminating a dangerous rush of excessive female economic independence. In other words, these events suppress precisely the kind of independence from oppressive family structures that Aurora hopes to gain living by her pen.

Aurora's use of the profits from her prosperous ballads (5.84) poetically enacts the cultural ramifications of female literary independence; her earnings threaten the model of Victorian middle-class domesticity from several angles. In her role as the seamstress Marian's benefactor, she frees the female body from the sometimes violently sullying influences of a culture that controls it, releasing one woman from the excessive surveillance that protects patrilineage. When Aurora unexpectedly re-encounters Marian in Paris—after Marian has deserted Romney at the altar—the working-class girl's lack of repentance for bearing a child outside the bonds of matrimony initially disgusts the poet (6.726-736). Soon, however, Marian's narration of her victimization shocks Aurora into a different kind of outrage. Marian recounts how Lady Waldemar uses some of her vast fortune to convince Marian to flee from Romney for his own good, then betrays the naive young woman, letting her be kidnapped, raped, and abandoned, pregnant in a foreign country. Hearing Marian's story forces Aurora to distinguish between a woman's own sexuality, and the traces of another's violent sexuality that a woman can be forced to bear bodily. In other words, Aurora extricates Marian's maternity from the realm of sexuality, refiguring her as the purest form of woman, an immaculate mother. Clearly, this construction of Marian erases—more than liberates—her sexuality, but it is a more generous construction than writers concerned with patrimonial lines in the copyright and coverture debates were willing to grant.34 Convinced of Marian's purity of heart, despite the evil procuress's success at marring her body, Aurora enlists her literary earnings to counter the aristocratic Lady Waldemar's family coffers and successfully protect Marian from the sting of undeserved but inevitable punishment. The poetic heroine occupies no public forum to pontificate on middle-class morals and keep the unwed mother in shame, nor does she use Marian as a public symbol of injustice. She simply uses her literary earnings to construct a new system that encourages Marian's and her beloved son's prosperity. One explicit danger of Aurora's literary property is, thus, its potential to hamper cultural warnings against unpoliced female sexuality by refusing a blithe acknowledgement of unwed maternity as transgression.

Possibly even more provocative than its ability to tamper with the perceived dangers of female sexuality, Aurora's independent property also allows her to break class boundaries. The verse novel's utopian desire for mixing classes, which appears to fail with Romney and Marian's wedding plans, finally succeeds in Marian and Aurora's mutually productive cohabitation raising Marian's son abroad. Further, with this female household, Aurora eliminates men from the sphere of the protecting hearth, setting up a secure and prosperous matriarchy—a domestic model that clearly eluded the imagination of the debaters over both copyright and coverture. When Aurora learns Marian's story, her invitation to the seamstress shows the poet moving beyond a traditional sororal bond, and fashioning a revolutionized family unit.35 While they huddle together over the crib containing Marian's sleeping son, Aurora pledges:

Come,—and henceforth thou and I
Being still together will not miss a friend,
Nor he a father, since two mothers shall
Make that up to him.


Further, in taking on this new family, Aurora atones for Romney's sins of sanctimoniousness, describing her actions in economic terms: “Oh, Romney Leigh, I have your debts to pay, / And I'll be just and pay them” (7.143-144).36 Aurora's literary earnings allow her a kind of benevolence that eluded the best intentioned member of the patriarchy, giving Marian a kind of freedom Romney could not have imagined and saving her from an identity loss in his Fourieristic program. The new egalitarian Leigh family rests on middle-class female economic independence; Aurora earns her independence through personal industry and talent rather than receiving it as a gift or inheritance. This economic independence, without extended familial surveillance, allows Aurora and Marian to avoid sexual chastisement and to attain class alliance. Granted, Aurora falls back on her literary patrimony, selling her father's books to fortify her travelling funds (5.1211-18). Her friend and ad hoc literary agent, Vincent Carrington, however, has forwarded the profits from the sale of her manuscript to Paris, allowing the three to thrive in their Italian villa (7.548-549). The dual-mother household prospers, in fact, as the poem's bastion of British domestic culture, Leigh Hall, burns.

Aurora's quiet determination to set up housekeeping with her literary independence threatens mid-Victorian middle-class culture by recasting the traditional domestic tale. Both Marian's rape and resulting motherhood, on the one hand, and Lady Waldemar's bribery leading to white slavery, on the other hand, dwell in the realm of scandal, safely different from the poem's narratives of middle-class respectability. The contrast with the fates of the other female characters highlights the power of Aurora's middle-class status when empowered with some independent property. Lady Waldemar not only sees all of her plans to capture Romney foiled, she falls a victim to public vilification, an example of aristocratic excess. Without the heroine's sympathy, Lady Waldemar's sexuality encounters the discipline from which Marian is protected by Aurora's money and bourgeoise respectability; Romney coldly abandons the noblewoman, and the kindly Lord Howe can only remark that he acquits her “of the heaviest charge of all,” that of deliberately financing Marian's rape. Contrastingly, the passages that describe Aurora, Marian, and her son together all indicate a harmonious, even pastorally innocent, family existence—a family that sounds exactly like those in other domestic fiction, except for the absence of a male figure. Aurora and Marian's household, in fact, is purified by its double maternity. Aurora's literary property allows her the independence to replicate middle-class domestic respectability without its understood foundation of male economic prosperity and controlled female procreation and property.

Of course the temporary matriarchal family of Aurora's independence cannot last, nor is it the final Leigh family the verse novel promises. By way of a troubling deus ex machina, Marian disappears as soon as the properly humbled Romney, obviously in love with Aurora, arrives at the female villa. After the seamstress blesses the cousins' love, we are simply told “She was gone” (9.452). Readers are left to believe that Marian—who has been so closely tied to Aurora's existence—disappears from the balcony, vanishing with her complicating son. With the disappearance, the way is clear for Romney and Aurora's slightly more suitable Victorian marriage. Perhaps because of its higher degree of implausibility, but more likely because of its fleeting nature, the female utopia of Aurora and Marian's family is more easily narrated than is the union of male and female equals or the simultaneous economic and critical success of a writing woman that allows for that equality.

Barrett Browning contemplates Romney and Aurora's newly fashioned marriage, but only allusively narrates it; the poem ends with a promise of the egalitarian marriage, not with its representation.37 Near the end of the book that Aurora has been narrating, she gives Romney the lines that abstractly describe the effects of their love. His sketch indicates the erasure of Aurora's literary and economic independence. The recently outspoken Aurora listens enraptured, as Romney characterizes her future writing life:

Our work shall still be better for our love,
And still our love be sweeter for our work,
And both commended, for the sake of each,
By all true workers and true lovers born.
Now press the clarion on thy woman's lip
(Love's holy kiss shall still keep consecrate)
And breathe thy fine keen breath along the brass,
And blow all class-walls level as Jericho's.


Since the poem asserts repeatedly that Aurora composes its lines, it is possible that she appropriates Romney as a mouthpiece here, revising his words for the lovers' dialogue of her imagination. The content of Romney's speech, though, suggests otherwise. In the final mention of her authorial work, Romney appropriates Aurora's poetry. When her literary labor becomes a part of “our work,” Aurora settles into the wife's role—legally, civilly, and psychologically covered by her husband. The subsuming of her person that Aurora battles with her “woman-hands” in the earlier books finally occurs. Further, although Romney prophesies that Aurora's verses will level all class distinctions, he seems unable to imagine her as an earning author. She is purely the spiritually consecrated mouthpiece of Romney's social vision—elevated above all economic transactions. Powerful though that social critic's role may be, it brings the poem out of the maddening, calculating, ambitious daily trials that Aurora claims as the territory of poets. Romney's perception of the poet's class-leveling prophetic role becomes even more mystical when contrasted with the activities of the family that Aurora constructed for herself and Marian with her literary earnings.

While the marriage plot commonly ends with simply the promise of wedding, or only the hint of its occurrence, the final revelation in Aurora Leigh of a wall of precious gems oddly supplants any description of Aurora and Romney's nuptials.38 Romney directs his blind eyes over the balcony, presumably to the spot where Aurora had only recently been watching Marian frolic with her son. When Aurora follows his gaze, in the space where the mother and child would have been, she visualizes St. John's Revelation of the walls around the New Jerusalem descending from heaven:

Beyond the circle of the conscious hills,
Were laid in jasper-stone as clear as glass
The first foundations of that new, near Day
Which should be builded out of heaven to God
.....                                                                                                                        and when
I saw his soul saw,—‘Jasper first,’ I said,
‘And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
The rest in order—last, an amethyst.’


The eschatological nature of the conclusion forces us to attempt to envision the wedded couple somewhere “[b]eyond the circle of the conscious hills.”39 The foundation they will lay for God's new day leaves the couple literally homeless; there's no Leigh Hall to return to, but their ordained home is further than the distant hills from the home Aurora established for herself and Marian. Furthermore, despite its figurative opulence, the new order elides any of the material wealth Aurora has amassed through her literary independence. The hierarchical structure of the jewelled city eliminates the problem of female literary property by turning traces of wealth into a transcendent sign of renewal, in a kind of reverse alchemy. The poet's wealth does not disappear, it is simply transfigured through her marriage. The couple's vision of the jewelled city highlights the unique fantasy solution which marriage provides a female poet for the problem of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of literary wealth. In marriage, she forfeits all personal earnings to her husband. A married woman poet makes no profit, no matter how economically successful she is. Coverture laws keep literary earnings from tainting a Victorian wife's artistic or moral integrity. The cost, however, is also clear in the refusal to grant Romney and Aurora's union any realism, or even the realist promise a reader expects from a marriage plot. Readers are only allowed to conceive of the marriage as a part of the new social order it anticipates; not a new social order as represented by the human figures of a content mother-child dyad, let alone by a harmoniously working couple, but only cryptically by the jeweled city of the New Testament Book of Revelation (21.18-20). The jewelled city yanks this poem's conclusion out of the material, middle-class particulars of her age, which Aurora claims ought to occupy a poet.

In keeping with earlier segments, the ending is more explicit about Aurora's final sexual fulfillment with Romney than it is about her continued financial success as his literary wife. When Aurora writes “I saw his soul saw” the jewelled city, she commingles their visions, and re-establishes her own voice as controlling the narrative. She also creates a spiritualized union that recurs throughout the poem's final lines. Frequently, that union of souls is more explicitly embodied and erotic. When they finally embrace, Aurora questions the boundaries of their bodies:

                                        Could I see his face,
I wept so? Did I drop against his breast,
Or did his arms constrain me? were my cheeks
Hot, overflooded, with my tears, or his?
And which of our two large explosive hearts
So shook me? That, I know not. There were words
That broke in utterance.. melted, in the fire,—
Embrace, that was convulsion,.. then a kiss
As long and silent as the ecstatic night.


Aurora's questions about her own stability here suggest that the two of them have become one. In keeping with the laws of coverture, that one would be Romney. Aurora's description of the passionate embrace demands a more nuanced reading, however. Certainly, Aurora is unsure of her own agency—whether she cried, whether she “dropped” into the embrace, or he constrained her. However, the encounter that crescendos in a convulsive embrace begins with Aurora's joyful tears erasing Romney's face. The night's ecstasy is Aurora's. Empowered by her self-provided, stable independence with Marian, Aurora realizes that their union necessarily destabilizes Romney as it does her. The final vision of Aurora and Romney exceeds the role that Aurora claims for poets, that of reimagining to remake; instead, it mythologizes the couple. Aurora and Romney transcend the world of Marian Erle, Vincent Carrington, and Lord Howe, beyond even the quasi-historical realms of Roland, Arthur, and Guinevere to the supernatural sphere more appropriate to Biblical prophets, or Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. This mythical ending avoids critiquing the historical status quo, dropping any suggestion of the working authorial wives of Aurora's age.

Barrett Browning conjures such a woman in the imaginative realm of poetry. The realist aspirations of Aurora Leigh, however, are finally put to a test in the mystical revelation of the ending. As the periodical press increasingly sought to remind her readers, Aurora's continued insistence on writing for economic sustenance might jeopardize the transcendent happiness of their ideal marriage-to-be. Paradoxically, the marriage that elevates Aurora out of the diurnal material that should be the stuff of poetry also finally frees her from the taint of economic gain through literature that anguished Victorian writers. Marriage provided the female Victorian poet with the means to cede all her property to her husband; as Aurora's tale suggests, the aesthetic costs of such forfeiture were high. Despite her efforts to versify her age, Barrett Browning tangles the web as she weaves together the disparate threads of literary property, activism, and harmonious domesticity to make room in her age for a peacefully married, professional woman writer. Perhaps Barrett Browning most aptly captures her own “live, throbbing age, that brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates,” and “aspires” with the portrayal of the unfathomableness of a happily married woman's literary property; the poem must end with a ideal vision to express an anomaly too often unseeable in readers' imaginations.


  1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992), 5.200-213. Subsequent parenthetical citations for Aurora Leigh refer to this edition. Angela Leighton also quotes this passage and notes that “the poem confronts the contemporary world, ‘this live, throbbing age,’ from the express point of view of a woman” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press], p. 143).

  2. Several recent critics have made variously insightful comments about Barrett Browning's boldness in treating female sexuality in this poem. For instance, Cynthia Scheinberg innovatively and compellingly explicates Barrett Browning's reliance on Hebraic typology to revise traditional heterosexual relationships (“Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Hebraic Conversions: Feminism and Christian Typology in Aurora Leigh,VLC [Victorian Literature and Culture] 22 [1994]: 55-72). Sandra M. Gilbert reads Italy as a metaphor for female independence in the sexual politics of both Aurora Leigh and Casa Guidi Windows (“From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento,” in Angela Leighton, ed., Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader [Oxford: Blackwell, 1996], pp. 24-52). Marjorie Stone (Elizabeth Barrett Browning [New York: St. Martin's Press], 1995) and Dorothy Mermin (Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989]), as well as Leighton, examine Barrett Browning's treatment of sexuality not only in Aurora Leigh, but also extensively throughout her poetry.

  3. A late nineteenth-century discussion of Fleet Street describes the district as “the accepted home of those who gained a living by the production of books” (E. Beresford Chancellor, The Annals of Fleet Street: Its Traditions and Associations [London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1912], p. 317). See also Ray Boston, The Essential Fleet Street: Its History and Influence (London: Blandford, 1990).

  4. Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Man of Letters” in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History, ed. Michael K. Goldberg (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993), p. 133.

  5. Reynolds' “Editorial Introduction” gives a detailed account of Barrett Browning's professional involvement in the business of publishing Aurora Leigh, but she gives little heed to that research in her “Critical Introduction.” Stone's rich analysis of Aurora Leigh's participation in the debate over women and work does not take Barrett Browning's interest in copyright debates into account, nor does it discuss her concern with authorial profit (pp. 170-177). Rachel Blau DuPlessis mentions professionalism only in passing to concentrate on the poet's artistic growth: Aurora “asserts female right to a profession not because of financial exigency or family crises, but out of sheer desire and for the sake of power” (Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Writers [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985], p. 86). One notable exception to this trend of downplaying Barrett Browning's professionalism is Linda Shires' “The Author as Spectacle and Commodity: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Thomas Hardy.” Shires concentrates on the poet's professional relationship to fame, rather than to the market, and her interest is in the poet's shorter works, not Aurora Leigh (in Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, ed. Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995], pp. 198-212). See also Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), esp. pp. 575-580.

  6. “EBB to Mary Russell Mitford,” July 4, 1842, letter 981 in The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1988), 6:26. For Hood's essay, see “Copyright and Copywrong, Letter IV,” Athenaeum, 11 June, 1842, p. 524. I am grateful to Marjorie Stone for pointing me toward Barrett Browning's correspondence regarding copyright.

  7. For the most complete study of English copyright law through the eighteenth century, with some notes on contemporary law, see Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993). For a thumbnail sketch of the parliamentary history of Victorian copyright, see Thomas Edward Scrutton, The Law of Copyright, 3rd ed. (London, 1896), pp. 42-47. For an illuminating contextualizing of the 1830's-40's copyright debates (albeit without attention to gender or coverture), see Chris R. Vanden Bossche, “The Value of Literature: Representation of Print Culture in the Copyright Debate of 1837-42,” VS [Victorian Studies] (Autumn 1994): 41-68. Mary Poovey argues incisively on the force of nationalism behind Victorian copyright law debates (“The Man-of-Letters Hero: David Copperfield and the Professional Writer,” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988], pp. 89-125). Offering a more exhaustive treatment, Martha Woodmansee explores a continental context to analyze the role of copyright arguments in the construction of authorship in The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994).

  8. Thomas Tegg marshalled the public campaign against extended copyright (Remarks on the Speech of Sergeant Talfourd on Moving for Leave to Bring in A Bill to Consolidate the Laws Relating to Copyright [London, 1837]). In Parliament, Thomas Babington Macaulay originally led the opposition to the extended copyright, but by 1841 Macaulay was also in favor of an extension. See Hansard's Parliamentary Debates 61 (March 4, 1842-April 6, 1842): 1363-71.

  9. Letter To Mrs. Jameson, April 12, [1853], The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (London, 1898), 2:111-112.

  10. In addition to Hood and Tegg, see Thomas Noon Talfourd, A Speech Delivered by Thomas Noon Talfourd, Sergeant at Law, in the House of Commons on Thursday, 18th May, 1837, on Moving for Leave to Bring in A Bill to Consolidate the Law relating to Copyright (London, 1837); and William Howitt, “International Copyright,” Athenaeum, April 20, 1844, p. 359.

  11. Blackwood's Magazine 51 (January 1842): 107-121.

  12. Elizabeth Barrett to Richard Hengist Home, May 29, 1843, letter 1265, The Brownings' Correspondence, 7:155.

  13. Reynolds, “Editorial Introduction,” p. 82. Reynolds' research of the American negotiations for Aurora Leigh is quite detailed, and I am indebted to her work in this portion of my argument.

  14. For two lively accounts of the number of British women who were writing, and earning money for their effort before the Victorian age, see Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), and Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (London: Blackwell, 1986).

  15. Hansards 1365. D'Arblay is better remembered by her birth name, Frances Burney.

  16. One exception to this norm is a letter that William Howitt wrote defending his wife Mary's right to copyright protection for her translations of the Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer (“International Copyright”).

  17. “Our Weekly Gossip,” Athenaeum, May 19, 1838, p. 359.

  18. See Lockhart for a summary of two of the speeches making a plea for historical literary offspring.

  19. See Talfourd and [J. G. Lockhart], “The Copyright Question,” Quarterly Review 69 (December 1841): 186-227, for two arguments resting on Locke. In The Afterlife of Property: Domestic Security and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), Jeff Nunokawa discusses how the Lockean model of appropriation haunted the Victorians.

  20. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1690 (pp. 305-306). I use the male pronoun advisedly here, for reasons that should become evident.

  21. Irene Tucker has pointed out the problems, especially for female authors in the eighteenth century, in assuming mental labor in the liberal definition of property. See “Writing Home: Evelina, The Epistolary Novel, and the Paradox of Property,” ELH 60 (1993): 419-439.

  22. A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women: Together with a Few Observations Thereon (1854). Reprinted in Candida Ann Lacey, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 27. See also William Blackstone, Commentaries, 2:433.

  23. See New Letters Of Robert Browning, ed. William Clyde De Vane and Kenneth Leslie Knickerbocker (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1950), pp. 96-97, 99-100.

  24. Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Arabel Barrett, December 10-18, 1856, Moulton Barrett Collection, quoted in Reynolds, p. 146n.

  25. See Shires on Barrett Browning's use of her fame.

  26. Though Mermin's analysis of Aurora Leigh invokes Bodichon's Women and Work (p. 202), she never links Barrett Browning to the married women's property movement which Bodichon fostered. Although Stone masterfully details Aurora Leigh's influence on Victorian women's rights activists, including Leigh Smith's Langham Place group (see especially pp. 171-177), she does not mention Barrett Browning's support for the Married Women's Property Committee.

  27. EBB to Isa Blagden, [October 20, 1856], unpublished letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, quoted in Reynolds, “Critical Introduction,” p. 18.

  28. Mary Howitt, Mary Howitt: An Autobiography, ed. Margaret Howitt (London, 1889), 2:116.

  29. “Law for Ladies,” Saturday Review (May 24, 1856), p. 77.

  30. See for instance, Caroline Francis Cornwallis, “Property of Married Women,” Westminster Review 10, n.s. (1856): 331-360.

  31. Mary Poovey describes the details of the Norton trials and reads them as the most significant context of the married women's property debates (Uneven Developments, pp. 62-88). Poovey's emphasis turns more toward the male debates of Parliament than to Norton's influence on the female Committee members. For further details on Caroline Sheridan Norton, her writings and trials, see Mary Lyndon Shanley, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989) and Lee Holcombe, “‘The Germs of an Effective Movement’: Feminism in the 1850's,” Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Women's Property Law in Nineteenth-Century England (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1983), pp. 48-87.

  32. Mermin connects Barrett Browning specifically to this spectre of the disastrous writing wife when she comments on the poet's search for cultural models: “But none of these women offered her acceptable models for living. Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Jameson, and Mrs. Norton were separated from their husbands, and Mrs. Norton's most effective works were her attacks on the divorce and custody laws by which she was herself oppressed. The names of Landon, Sand, and Norton were tarred by sexual scandal, and Harriet Martineau's uterus became a matter of public debate (because of her claim that mesmerism cured her uterine cancer)” (p. 197).

  33. Both Reynolds (p. 11) and Stone (pp. 137-138, 182-183) have commented on the productive incoherence of the verse-novel.

  34. In a discussion of marital property law reform, Fraser's Magazine elaborated on the social necessity of chastising any appearance of female transgression: “We admit that the woman's infidelity is followed by social effects graver than those which follow the infidelity of the man, and that it is therefore for the interest of society the one should be punished more promptly and more severely than the other. The one is an offence which may be forgiven with advantage to both parties; the other is an offence rarely forgiven, and which ought not to be forgiven, except for reasons which must be special to each case” (“The Law of Marriage and Divorce,” Fraser's Magazine 52 [August 1855]: 150).

  35. Mermin's analysis of Aurora's attraction to Marian as an artistic (rather than an economic subject) notes the intensity of this “sororal bond … something like a ‘magic circle’ of female connection” (p. 208). Joyce Zonana also elegantly discusses the aesthetic implications of Aurora's friendship with Marian in “The Embodied Female Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics,” in Angela Leighton, ed., Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader, pp. 53-74.

  36. Leighton tracks the image of the coin, which she reads as a metaphor for Aurora's growing power to negotiate her own desire, rather than as evidence of Aurora's literal economic strength attained through her writing (Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart [Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1992], pp. 102-108).

  37. Recent readings of the conclusion of Aurora Leigh vary in the role they see the marriage playing in the poet's development. Mermin views this marriage as unqualifiedly beneficial for Aurora (p. 215). Taylor notices that the poem denies closure, but sees that closure as politically positive for the female poet in that it “prepares readers to interrogate the seeming conservatism” (p. 6). Barrett Browning's shift to the mythological in the final lines seems to me to minimize this political optimism. However, I disagree also with Deirdre David's more pessimistic reading that simplifies the conclusion as an instance of “a woman's voice speaking patriarchal discourse” (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987], p. 157).

  38. Gilbert and Gubar note that Aurora picks up where Jane Eyre leaves off in rejecting St. John and settling into the unnarrated domestic paradise with Rochester: “Aurora has a whole career ahead of her, and a career—poetry—whose perils are precisely those dangers of hyperbolic self-aggrandizement” (p. 576). They do not, however, discuss Barrett Browning's failure to narrate the poetic career in this marriage.

  39. Stone insightfully reads this apocalyptic rhetoric as in keeping with nineteenth-century reform discourse (pp. 184-85).

Margot K. Louis (essay date 1998)

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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 engage with a feminine tradition of sentimental verse which they resist and criticize but nevertheless find of essential value. Only by viewing the poem against the backdrop of the sentimental tradition can we fully appreciate Barrett Browning's challenge to the cult of privacy and the doctrine of separate spheres, her dual emphasis on poetry as at once a job requiring doggedness and a vocation requiring wide social and religious vision, and, finally, her sense of the connection between herself and her female predecessors. Such poets as Felicia Hemans and L. E. L. (Letitia Elizabeth Landon) stand in a relation to Barrett Browning which resembles the unsentimental aunt's relation to Aurora in Book 1 of Aurora Leigh: there is more conflict than sympathy in the relationship; the older woman represents a version of femininity which the younger must at all costs resist; and yet the older woman leaves the younger a legacy which is both narrow and enabling, an essential basis for the young poet's future achievement.1

That Barrett Browning resists the sentimental tradition in many ways is evident. Angela Leighton observes:

Although she is in many ways a true inheritor of the tradition of female sensibility which Hemans and L. E. L. had popularised (Aurora Leigh, with her long, self-conscious disquisitions on the nature of female creativity, is the natural descendant of Properzia Rossi and the Improvisatrice), Barrett Browning also rejects, from an early age, the idea of feeling as a poetic end in itself (Aurora is a poet because she works and writes, not because she suffers and dies).


So far I have found no critic who expands on this profoundly true comment with regard to the specific links connecting Aurora Leigh with Hemans's “Properzia Rossi” and L. E. L.'s “The Improvisatrice.” Here I explore these links, to show how Barrett Browning both resists and subsumes the sentimental vision of the poet within her own sacramental vision of art.2

It will be convenient to begin by reviewing the major qualities of the sentimental tradition, which developed out of the cult of sensibility (informed by John Locke's theory that sensation is the primary basis of human knowledge), and which was widely diffused through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's exposition of “les sentiments sublimes” as the basis of a true “élévation d'idées” (198). The sentimental vision dominated both high and popular literature throughout Barrett Browning's life.3 It celebrated private feeling as the only force which could prevent industrialism, capitalism, and even the process of civilization itself from turning human beings into mere units of self-interest, Hobbesian raveners. For L. E. L., the poet's function is to compensate for “that heartlessness attendant on refinement” by developing readers' sensibilities and softening their hearts:

Aware that to elevate I must first soften, and that if I wished to purify I must first touch, I have ever endeavoured to bring forward grief, disappointment, the fallen leaf, the faded flower, the broken heart, and the early grave. Surely we must be less worldly, less interested, from this sympathy with the sorrow in which our unselfish feelings alone can take part.

(1: xiv)

As this quotation suggests, female sentimental poets like Hemans and L. E. L. feel that to achieve the highest intensity the writer should focus on love, and, specifically, on frustrated rather than satisfied love—just as Rousseau had done through most of Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise, a text which Aurora Leigh mentions approvingly in the course of expounding her poetics (5.361-64). In sentimental poetry, the intensity of hopeless love is somatized in a peculiarly paradoxical way. Starting from the “tears, blushes, and palpitating hearts” (Markley 219) attendant on any burst of sentiment (especially love), the lover proceeds to somatize her feeling and desomatize herself, simultaneously: she wastes away and dies. (We shall see that in the works of Hemans and L. E. L. the poetry itself is attenuated into a superrefined expression of disembodied emotion, which is perhaps inevitable given the aesthetic basis of the writing.) Further, in the sentimental concept of love the lover's soul strains toward perfect fusion with the soul of the other—“cette étroite union des âmes,” which, according to Rousseau, is preferable to the more sensual “fureurs de l'amour,” “ces emportements trompeurs” (123, 212). The two souls yearn to be “shared, exchanged, blended” (Gelpi 160), and although in Hemans's and L. E. L.'s work this rarely happens through physical union it may be achieved in other ways. If the loving woman can influence the soul of her beloved so that he feels as she feels, she has achieved her appropriate triumph even when physical union is impossible; and the female poet of sentiment may similarly influence the soul of her reader (who is figured, therefore, as her perpetually distanced beloved). Female erotic influence is thus spiritualized and glorified.

This made it easy for conservative advice manuals of the early nineteenth century, such as Sarah Ellis's Women of England and its sequels, to employ sentimental language in the service of the separate spheres,4 although sentimental theory had originally attempted to feminize the masculine (by emphasizing the propriety of masculine tears, for instance) and to lessen the distinctions of gender. In the same way, the sentimental female poets' emphasis on a peculiarly private experience of frustrated passion (which a woman could only convey obliquely, if at all) fit well with the popular nineteenth-century doctrine of separate spheres, which allotted the domain of the heart and hearth to women and the interconnected realms of brain, body, and business to men.5 Hemans's “Properzia Rossi” and L. E. L.'s “The Improvisatrice,” therefore, present Barrett Browning not only with a discouragingly influential model of the woman poet, but also with a set of assumptions which narrowly channel, restrain, and control female power.

Some parallels are obvious. Hemans's Properzia Rossi and L. E. L.'s Improvisatrice are both Italian artists (the latter also writes verse); Aurora is half-Italian. All three love a man, but love in vain, at least until the very end of the poem; both the Improvisatrice and Aurora love a man who does in fact return their love, but who—for reasons explained only at the end—acts most of the time as if he does not. All three droop and pine, but only Aurora survives. All three create pictorial or verbal art which communicates—or is meant to communicate—with the men they love; but only Barrett Browning criticizes this use of art, through Aurora's desperate struggle against her own need for Romney's approval.6 Finally, all three protagonists espouse a poetics based explicitly on the heart. Rossi calls her bas-relief of Ariadne a “form, whose life is of my burning heart” (158); the Improvisatrice states that the harper's hand must be “true to the heart pulse” (1: 5); Aurora works to make her “heart's life [throb] in her verse” (3.339), and at one point writes with tremulous, fluid, tempestuous immediacy,

                                                            as I had just caught up
My heart to write with. …
At least you'd take these letters to be writ
At sea, in storm!


As we shall see, however, Aurora also complicates and enriches sentimental poetics by insisting that the poet's heart must be “large-rounded as the globe,” easily able to “swell to a pair of nationalities” (5.1181, 6.50-51—a sentiment that illuminates the symbolic importance of Aurora's Italian-English heritage). To express this large heart (Barrett Browning implies) will require work, not merely an easy or oozing spontaneity.7

For L. E. L.'s Improvisatrice, both before and after she falls in love, hopeless passion seems the only possible topic of her spontaneous art. All of the heroine's poems and paintings deal with affection frustrated or “ill requited,” “[t]he echoes of the broken heart” (1: 51, 38). But eventually the poet's despair undermines both her health and her interest in poetry; the metal strings of her lyre rust, and her final painting (of Ariadne, naturally) is created only so that her lover “might these tints behold, / And find my grief;—think—see—feel all / I felt” (1: 47). This aspiration diverges from her original poetic purpose, which was to achieve the excitement of “[w]onder and praise” (1: 2). In both purposes, however, the Improvisatrice succeeds; she wins “sounds of praise” from “many a lip” early in the poem, with her rendition of “A Moorish Romance,” and, although the knowledge comes too late to do her any good, she also succeeds in communicating her feelings to her lover. Near the close of the poem, Lorenzo confesses that her “sweet revealing / Of woman's own most gentle feeling” had created an equal love in his heart (1: 50).

In Felicia Hemans's “Properzia Rossi,” published in 1828 (four years after “The Improvisatrice”), the desire to make the male lover feel the artist's feelings is the primary motive for art. The seeming modesty of this aspiration disguises the curiously phallic aggression or “sad mastery” involved when Rossi yearns to “send the passion of [her] melody / Through his pierced bosom” via her basso-relievo of Ariadne, “Winning but one, one gush of tears” (Hemans 158; author's emphasis). In both poems the female speaker longs to invade the male's sensibility, to force him to feel her feelings: “For thee alone, for thee!” she sighs, hoping that her work will succeed in “Shaking [his] inmost bosom with a tone / Of lost affection.” Only in the final section of the poem are we told that, like the Improvisatrice, Rossi once longed “for praise”; but “those high longings” are gone. In lines which look backward to Wordsworth and Shelley and forward to Poe, Rossi exclaims, “That which I have been can I be no more? / Never! oh, never more!” (157, 159). But the lost self is not, as for the male Romantics, a source of joy and glory, a power which once projected its transforming illumination over all the earth. For Hemans, as for L. E. L., the lost self is the self which can desire anything (even something so crude as celebrity) for its own, instead of wishing vainly to recreate its sensibility within another psyche.

Barrett Browning's Aurora goes through a long and wearing depression, the result of her love for Romney—but also of her attempts to repress that love. She is not the forsaken Ariadne, but the “loving Psyche who loses sight of Love” (1.156). Unlike the tearful pinings of earlier heroines, her sorrow expresses itself sometimes as anger (against Romney, against herself as a woman, or even—in 3.25-35—against her unfortunate maid); but she too experiences a frightening sense of disintegration, most obviously when she compares herself to a “passive broken lump of salt,” “[d]issolving slowly, slowly, until lost” in a “bowl of oenomel” (7.1308-11). Her “trade of verse” at this moment seems over, as she has prayed that God will hear, not what she says in words, but what is spoken by “the run and beat / Of this poor, passionate, helpless blood” (7.1302, 1270-71). Here Barrett Browning incorporates the sentimental school's “aesthetics of physical fluency” (Leighton 58) and of psychic dissolution. Clearly she does not simply reject what Hemans and L. E. L. have taught her. And yet, against the self-doubt and self-hatred fostered by her state of emotional loneliness and sexual denial, Aurora has enabled herself to survive and act: first, by treating her writing as a job rather than as the spontaneous outpouring of helpless emotion; second, by using her writing to communicate a vision which both includes and transcends her personal desires.

Viewing poetry as a job, Aurora manages to find a compelling satisfaction in the daily labour of exploring the various genres, becoming adept with each—ballad, sonnet, descriptive poem, epic—and learning to resist the temptation toward a passive, dishonest, inhuman adeptness which has won her applause (5.84-138); Aurora's distrust of her critics, and especially of their praise, constantly rebukes her predecessors' quest for popular and commercial success, and still more the critics and readers who dropped tender tears over such pages (3.227-244). Yet in tearing up her early verses Aurora finds in them an embryonic heart “[w]hich never yet had beat,” and as she works more effectively she gradually feels her “heart's life throbbing in [her] verse to show / It lived, it also” (3.248, 339-40). The whole poem insists repeatedly that heart, blood, and passion are the necessary root of poetry (5.353-57), but also emphasizes the need for growth and effort: “Art / Sets action on the top of suffering” (5.368).

That ability to feel which Hemans and L. E. L. sanctify is only half of what makes a poet, though an indispensable half; Barrett Browning thought that if L. E. L. “had been more intellectual she wd. have been more pathetic,” more deeply touching (Letters [The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854] 1: 1-19).8 But what Barrett Browning adds in Aurora Leigh is not simply intellect, but rather that effort of intellect and feeling which alone can transform ordinary experience into art. The artist must turn “outward, with a sudden wrench, / Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing” originally felt, in order to communicate it (5.370-72). This too is part of the job.

But if improvisations inspired by pure feeling are technically inadequate to the creation of great poetry, Barrett Browning also insists that a poetry of pure feeling is an inadequate end in itself. Her anxiety on this point may have been intensified by the short and miserable lives of L. E. L., Hemans, and virtually all their heroines, a very melancholy set of role models. Aurora survives, both as a woman and as a poet, because she has a wider range. Even with regard to the character of the protagonists, we find in the poems of Hemans and L. E. L. a thinness which seems deliberate: the tastes, amusements, even the physical appearance of Rossi and the Improvisatrice are a perfect blank while they live. At the emotional climax of each poem, these heroines appear as disembodied abstractions: Rossi mournfully celebrates her “devotedness—the sad and deep, and unrepaid” (159); and the Improvisatrice finally appears (literally disembodied) in the memorial painting, as “a form of light and life, / All soul, all passion, and all fire” (1: 55). By contrast, Barrett Browning makes concrete even the slow forlorn despair which brings Aurora closest to these sad heroines, reminding us that the flood of feeling suffuses the “soaked / And sucking vesture” of the body (7.1031-32).

And as Aurora seems to herself to be dissolving, our own sense of her despair is vividly heightened by the fact that she locates herself within a contrasting, solid world of life and appetite, a world swarming with moths, butterflies, fire-flies, owls, bats, nightingales, snakes, frogs, lizards (7.1055-84), farmers, lovers, and worshippers (7.1123-1256). Neither “The Improvisatrice” nor “Properzia Rossi” conveys any sense of a world outside the tortured mind of the speaker: even the men beloved by the heroines are very shadowy creatures, and what social background exists in “The Improvisatrice” (there is none in “Properzia”) is just that, a background of glittering movement against which the heroine's despairing stasis is thrown into strong relief. Like Aurora, the Improvisatrice attends a party and a wedding at which her beloved is to marry another woman, but these are silver-fork festivities, vaguely “gay and gorgeous” (1: 32, 45). We have no sense of the tensions produced by class, religion, and politics, as we do at Lord Howe's party and still more at Romney's abortive wedding. Indeed, if there is poverty, oppression, or any social tension whatever around them, neither Properzia nor the Improvisatrice has noticed it; the latter at one point remarks, “my heart / Had ever been the world to me” (1: 35). Aurora begins in an equal state of unseeing privilege, but much of the poem deals with her gawky, never completely successful efforts to connect with the working class, or at least with one member of it. And Barrett Browning makes it clear that her heroine's initial ignorance of social problems is due to her sheltered and disabling status as an upper-class woman (2.305-32), and is something which must be overcome. Lady Waldemar's ignorance that her maid has sold Marian into prostitution typifies the harm done by a ladylike blindness.

Here we can see that, far from being conservative as Deirdre David has so eloquently argued, Barrett Browning subverts the ideology of domesticity by transforming its private realm of sentiment into a world of political action. Robert Markley's comments on A Sentimental Journey illuminate the isolated sufferings of Hemans's and L. E. L.'s heroines:

The prisoner must be romanticized and isolated from his “millions” of fellow creatures because otherwise he would lose his status as a helpless victim: one unfortunate individual engenders sympathetic tears; “millions” pose a threat to … class-based ideologies.


In one sense, of course, Rossi and the Improvisatrice do represent “millions,” since both Hemans and L. E. L. leave one in no doubt that their heroines' lot is that of women in general: “silent tears to weep, / And patient smiles to wear through suffering's hour, / And sumless riches, from affection's deep, / To pour on broken reeds” (“Evening Prayer at a Girls' School,” Hemans 384). But no class action on behalf of the female sex, no amelioration of their lot, is ever encouraged or even contemplated in the work of these two poets. By contrast, in Aurora Leigh, Aurora's difficulties and Marian's sufferings are representative in a different way: like the distresses of other helpless victims in Oliver Twist or Bleak House, they exploit the conditioned responses of the sentimental reader in order to impel the reader beyond sentiment, into a transformation of moral vision which will produce effective social action. This is still a distinctively middle-class approach, but it goes well beyond the passive acceptance of the status quo in the poems of Hemans and L. E. L.

By importing the conventions and reforming energy of the 1840s “social problem” novels into her poem, Barrett Browning challenges sentimental privacy. The heroine of her verse-novel is also, of course, connected to other individuals in a way unmatched in “The Improvisatrice” or “Properzia Rossi,” where family and financial needs are unknown. Aurora, unlike her predecessors in women's poetry, has a variety of formidable relations, friends, and enemies (not to mention financial needs, of which we hear a good deal in Books 2 and 5). Aurora's alienation in the midst of this Victorian populousness is not a form of romantic solipsism; it is partly a function of her womanhood in a patriarchal society, and partly a function of her unconventionality—that is, her honest attempt to face the difficulties of interacting rightly with diverse, demanding, often wrongheaded characters. Her depression and loneliness become dangerous only when she isolates herself with Marian and the baby in a domestic ménage consistent in form (though not in content) with the conventional Victorian family. Absolute female privacy, for Barrett Browning, is not only immoral; it is psychologically destructive.9

Yet “praise”—the one form of publicity, of public engagement, celebrated by Hemans or L. E. L.—is equally destructive. Aurora learns early to avoid the self-conscious posturing by which L. E. L. and Hemans reduce the woman poet to the status of a sculptured or painted spectacle. Moers (182) and Leighton (8-90) have finely analysed the scene in which Aurora, at twenty, poses as Corinne and is shamed into recognizing the uselessness of a pose; finally she decides to “walk at all risks” (2.106) rather than become a static spectacle. But we should also notice that later in this scene—at a moment when Aurora is not posturing, is indeed bewildered, embattled, desperately trying to salvage her sense of the significance of poetry—she unwittingly becomes for Romney a very haunting image: moving, both literally and emotionally; not a static piece of property, but a frightening and tormenting oracle. As he confesses later,

                                                            “… oh, I recollect
The sound, and how you lifted your small hand,
And how your white dress and your burnished curls
Went greatening round you in the still blue air,
As if an inspiration from within
Had blown them all out when you spoke the words,
Even these,—‘You will not compass your poor ends’
‘Of barley-feeding and material ease,’
‘Without the poet's individualism’
‘To work your universal. …’
                                                                                So I failed indeed
Once, twice, and oftener,—hearing through the rents
Of obstinate purpose, still those words of yours,
‘You will not compass your poor ends, not you!’ …”

(8.421-30, 452-55; Barrett Browning's emphasis)

When Aurora stops practicing a pose and works at writing and justifying poetry rather than at “being a poet,” her impact becomes both monumental and transformative. Romney, for one, is transfigured, and through her writing; but his metamorphosis is made possible only when she shows him something beyond her own sensibility.

                                        ‘… You have written poems, sweet,
Which moved me in secret, as the sap is moved
In still March branches, signless as a stone:
But this last book o'ercame me like soft rain
Which falls at midnight, when the tightened bark
Breaks out into unhesitating buds
And sudden protestations of the spring.
In all your other books, I saw but you:
                                                            … in this last book,
You showed me something separate from yourself,
Beyond you. …’

(8.592-99, 605-07; author's emphasis)

But it is not only Aurora's most recent publication that has affected Romney; he has also been moved by her letter about Marian Erle, and it is this that brings him to her at a moment when she seems to have lost herself. (This turn of the plot may dimly reflect the place of writing in Barrett Browning's own emotional life; if her poetry first attracted Robert Browning's attention, it was their interchange of letters that made possible their meeting and subsequent union.) Her letter, though motivated in part by a loving (and jealous) desire to save him from marriage with Lady Waldemar, also showed him “something separate from [her]self”: the facts about Marian's disappearance. Aurora sheds light not only on the lofty theoretical issues which Romney discusses in Book 8, but also on the sordid realities of sexual exploitation and the abuse of working-class women.

Romney's blindness to working-class reality (and workers' perceptions) has disastrously compromised his social work and has contributed indirectly to his literal blindness. Another contributing factor, interestingly, is his devotion to a passive image, the picture of the Lady Maud which reminds him of Aurora. In his attempt to save the picture from the fire (set by the discontented class on which he was trying to impose help), he is struck by a “falling beam” which helps to bring on the fever that blinds him (8.955-59, 9.542-48). The static picture helps to wreck him; the speaking and moving sibylline vision of the youthful Aurora which haunts his memory helps to save him, as her writings help to save him. This contrast implies a criticism of the frequent pictorial setpieces in sentimental poetry: a frozen image which glamorizes the female body ultimately becomes a Medusa, and turns the male viewer into a “mere bare blind stone” (9.570) or “marble man” (8.1100) similar to Landon's statue-like Lorenzo at the end of “The Improvisatrice.”

In every case, however, Barrett Browning makes it clear that Romney's separate nature and his perception of Aurora play a significant role in her influence on him. His image of her book as rain and of himself as a tree in bloom implies that her writing moves and nourishes in him a latent, unconscious possibility of life and growth; the contrasting impacts of Aurora's picture and of his memories of her speaking presence show how, depending on Romney's response to female motion and energy, woman as family property can destroy him, while a woman to whose prophecy he will listen can show him something new. I stress this point—that Romney himself plays a significant role in the salvation which he finds through Aurora—because it contrasts sharply with the conservative ideology of influence, both as it is sometimes expressed within sentimental poetry, and as it developed within the doctrine of “separate spheres” that stifles the capabilities of both men and women.10

In this ideology of domestic influence, the male is (supposedly) the passive recipient of beneficent female influence. We have seen how Hemans suggests this through the violence of her language: Rossi wishes to pierce and invade the man's “bosom” and to recreate her own sensibility, her own feelings, within him. L. E. L.'s Improvisatrice is more successful, even though, like Aurora, she does not realize her own success until the beloved male admits it near the end of the poem. (After the Improvisatrice dies and is reduced to an image, a memorial painting, her lover too turns into something more like a sculpture or a written page than a living being; his beloved is now reduced to an artefact in his possession, but we might also say that he is reduced to a mere voiceless appurtenance of her image.)11 And even when such a conservative in issues of gender as John Ruskin takes up the ideology of influence, in order to incorporate it into his own doctrine of the separate spheres, he presents men as the entirely passive recipients of female influence. For example, he claims that Walter Scott's admirable heroines offer an ennobling love which “forms, animates, and exalts the characters of the unworthy lovers” (134). Magnificently obtuse to the real power politics within Victorian marriage (and outside it, for that matter), Ruskin even goes so far as to claim that women are ultimately “answerable” for every evil that men commit:

There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it; not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered. Men, by their nature, are prone to fight. … It is for you to choose their cause for them, and to forbid them when there is no cause. There is no suffering, no injustice, no misery in the earth, but the guilt of it lies lastly with you.


Barrett Browning has no truck with this vision of ultimate female power and absolute, passive male vulnerability. Aurora has considerable power to persuade and transfigure those who are willing to be persuaded and transformed; but she does not choose Romney's cause for him. Rather, his example stimulates her to take up his cause within her own work, and hers stimulates him to accept that work, both as a necessary means to his end of social justice (9.929-32), and as evoking a still larger vision which includes but also transcends social justice (9.933-36). The quasi-comic series of misunderstandings through which the lovers struggle emphasizes how difficult it is to gain even an approximately just sense of another person's attitude. To do so involves great intellectual and verbal effort, fuelled and sustained by the volcanic energy of passionate feeling (as does the parallel “[t]urning outward” involved in creating poetry [5.370]), but it also involves cooperation: both sides must be willingly, actively, stubbornly involved.

In a passage approvingly quoted by Ruskin, Coventry Patmore presents woman as “bread” and “wine,” as the eucharist which can perform a work of grace on the man who partakes of it—can make “brutes men, and men divine” (qtd. in Ruskin 144).12 But for Barrett Browning, what is sacramental is not woman, not even the poet, but, rather, the truth which the poet shares simply as another communicant:

                    if we say a true word instantly
We feel 'tis God's, not ours, and pass it on
Like bread at sacrament we taste and pass
Nor handle for a moment, as indeed
We dared to set up any claim to such!


But the truth which she has to share is itself the sacramental vision, which in turn is the theoretical underpinning for the theological, social, and psychological thought of the poem. In this vision, developed throughout the text but most explicitly stated in Book 7, every material thing both embodies and represents a spiritual truth or power: the chaffinch implies the cherubim, and the “little tremor of the blood” in Aurora's own wrist utters “[t]he whole strong clamour of a vehement soul” (7.817-21).

This sacramental vision gives us the essential clue to Barrett Browning's dealings with the sentimental tradition. The heart for her is as sacred as it was to Hemans or L. E. L., but it contains and expresses much more, for the material cardiac muscle embodies and represents a soul with infinite capacity for growth. Repeatedly throughout the poem we are shown the falsehood of Romney's early claim that women's “quick-breathed hearts” are “incapable of deepening … / To hold the world-full woe” (2.184-89). Aurora says that, when she first began to write poetry, her “heart beat in [her] brain” (1.961), but her heart is paradoxically enlarged, “made … great,” when she is forced to deny it—to repress her love for Romney so that she can continue her vocation (2.719-20). Gradually thereafter her heart is, with difficulty, enlarged to embrace not only poetry and Romney, but Marian as well, and, to some extent, Marian's class with all its “world-full woe.” Indeed, unlike Romney, Aurora finally perceives the working class as more than a woeful victim; for her, the beggar-boy “bears yet a breastful of a fellow-world” and “Contains … both flowers and firmaments / And surging seas and aspectable stars” (6.190, 194-95). She is even forced to admit that women like Lady Waldemar may have “[w]arm, live, improvident, indecent hearts” (3.462) conforming only to “the human heart's large seasons” (5.13); Aurora's own heart then must grow to admit beings who are not mere images, but who themselves have expansible hearts that may contain seasons and worlds. Some of Barrett Browning's cardiac metaphors actually suggest, not merely the vital untamable pulse of life, feeling, and sexuality, but also the process of birth, as if the heart is a womb which swells with new experience and brings forth child of it. When Marian realizes she is pregnant, she recalls her emotional lability since her rape, “all / The upbreak of the fountain of my heart / The rains had swelled too large: it could mean that? / Did God make mothers out of victims, then … ?” (7.53-6; author's emphasis). Even the victimized heart may, like the victimized Marian, prove to be pregnant with new and sacred life.

Early in her career Aurora receives a fan letter sealed with “a heart marked Emily / (Convicting Emily of being all heart),” and sighs “That such a love could scarcely raise [her readers] up / To love what was more worthy than [her]self” (3.213-14, 227-29). To be “all heart” is a heartless pose; Emily's wax heart is flat, passive, and fleshless. But when the “two large explosive hearts” of Romney and Aurora are finally joined (9.718), their union is possible because both hearts are large enough to express a whole personality—physical desire, emotional longing, poetic and political aspiration, intellectual and religious vision—and to embrace, not only another individual, but society and heaven too (9.877-90). Each love within the heart intensifies and informs the others. The divine fire of love which God has crammed into every convulsing cardiac muscle is in fact the origin of great poetry as of effective social action (7.821-22, 9.648-59). What Barrett Browning does is to take “the heart”—that focus of sentimental writers—and enlarge it so that it is no longer the site of passively gushing feeling, but, rather, the sacramental source of volcanic energy, and the womb of the new world. It draws this power from the “‘one central Heart’” which is God's, and which reddens, sweetens, and sustains the whole multifoliate rose of secular and spiritual love (9.890).

Against the backdrop of the sentimental construct of the female poet, Barrett Browning's importation of such a novelistic convention as the happy ending is unexpectedly daring. Robustly, she insists that disappointed love need destroy no woman (Marian manages to survive not only disappointed love but rape, pregnancy, and poverty on top of that); Barrett Browning also finds it possible—and insists that her audience should find it possible, too—to do what L. E. L. and Hemans could not: conceive of a female poet in a happy sexual union. (In fact, as Dorothy Mermin has pointed out, Aurora wins “much more than the nineteenth-century marriage-plot usually allows its heroines: love and work and fame and independence and power” [215; Mermin's emphasis].) Unlike Ariadne (the helpless victim of seduction), Psyche loses her lover because she insists on bringing her own light to explore his nature—as Aurora does when she applies the light of reason to Romney's male prejudice in Book 2. But, if Psyche (literally) and Aurora (psychologically) lose sight of Love for a time, yet both regain their loves after a successful and laborious quest, finding the godhead within Love. And, while Psyche is deified, Aurora discovers, first in theory and then by experience, that she, like the rest of earth, contains—and lives by—the divine fire of Love which is God.

Contemporary feminist readers are often disconcerted by Barrett Browning's final privileging of Love over Art, but this privileging is inevitable given the poet's concept of God as the energy of love at work in this world and the next. Barrett Browning is not saying that a woman fulfilled in love will find it unnecessary to create art, but that women, and men too, will be able to work most effectively when they acknowledge their passional and emotional desires and needs.13 Aurora spends most of the poem resisting love only because Romney's proposal has made it seem incompatible with her poetic vocation. The works of Hemans and L. E. L. would not be much more helpful; Hemans's Properzia Rossi does envisage what her life as an artist might have been if her love had been returned, but her fantasy is largely passive:

                                                            With thee to watch the sky
Speaking not, feeling but that thou wert nigh;
With thee to listen, while the tones of song
Swept even as part of our sweet air along—
To listen silently. …


To “watch” and “gaze,” to listen silently—this is to be a consumer rather than a participant in the creative energy of art and nature. And even when Rossi imagines her spirit soaring, presumably in the creation of still greater sculptures, her motivation is still ancillary and narrowly personal: she would have made her fame “A glory for [her lover's] brow” (160). By contrast, although Aurora Leigh also ends with the lovers physically or spiritually “watch[ing] the sky,” Aurora in this scene actively performs a prophetic function, describing an apocalyptic dawn, and foretelling the advent of a New Jerusalem which is no mere aureole for her lover's brow. Yet this scene, like many others in the poem, depends for its resonance on an understanding of how Barrett Browning subsumes and rewrites the feminine sentimental tradition. It is, therefore, simply not true that—as Deirdre David would have it—Barrett Browning enjoys “no sustaining sense of attachment to a female literary tradition” (157).

In fact, in the final books of Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning frankly and even enthusiastically embraces what she views as most valuable in the sentimental tradition. First, Romney appears at the beginning of Book 8 in a manner fully consistent with the first principle of sentimental Gothic novels: “To think of the other is to see him”—especially when the heroine and the reader “have been led to assume he is far away” (Castle 237; her emphasis). Aurora has been longing for a “sea-king with a voice of waves … and slippery locks,” and within twenty lines cries, “O my heart, … the sea-king!” as Romney stands before her (8.41-42, 59-61). Later in Book 8, this sentimentally “slippery” hero himself becomes a sentimental work of art, “So pale and patient, like the marble man / A sculptor puts his personal sadness in / To join his grandeur of ideal thought” (8.1100-02). Romney is at last beginning to express his own “personal sadness”; Aurora and the reader simultaneously discover that Romney's coldness was never real—it is a paralysing image of frigid calm which he has imposed upon himself (just as Aurora has also imposed it upon herself, in her interactions with him and with other aristocrats, and even in some of her self-communings). On the contrary, Romney is “competent … / To love's grand sunrise” (9.754-56); but, like Aurora, he cannot work effectively while he refuses to acknowledge his personal, passional needs and desires.14 However, he too must move beyond being a static work of art to becoming an active articulator of sacramental vision. When he does so, he at last makes possible that sentimental ideal, the fusion of souls.

Romney has accepted Aurora's vision of the world, not passively like the infantilized and amorphous male of Ruskin's model, but after much debate, thought, and bitter experience (the last of which he has gained separately from Aurora). At the end, however, though physically blind, he does “see,—hear,—feel all” that Aurora sees, hears, and feels; his fusion with her has a sentimental fluidity, physical, intellectual, and emotional. Well may Aurora ask,

                                                                                were my cheeks
Hot, overflooded, with my tears—or his?
And which of our two large explosive hearts
So shook me? That, I know not. There were words
That broke in utterance … melted, in the fire,—
Embrace, that was convulsion, … then a kiss
As long and silent as the ecstatic night,
And deep, deep, shuddering breaths. …


The sharing of breath within the kiss is a primary “[m]edium and metaphor” in sentimental writing for the exchange or fusion of souls (Gelpi 160), and we are told that Romney's breath “Confused his words, yet made them more intense”; his “intimate presence” in itself becomes “Complete communication, as with souls / Who, having put the body off, perceive / Through simply being” (9.744, 749-52). In what Barrett Browning boldly describes as this “hurtle of united souls” (9.835), we find that soul is diffused through the mind, heart, and body, just as in sentimental literature (McGann 31), but this diffusion also is redemptive, like Christ's incarnation: “It is the hour for souls, / That bodies, leavened by the will and love, / Be lightened to redemption” (9.939-41). The primacy of soul in Barrett Browning's vision is as sentimental as it is Christian, but what she has done to the sentimental tradition is explicitly to sacramentalize it. Insofar as sentimentalism works, in her view, it works because God works this way, infusing flesh with soul so that, through sexual passion, Aurora and Romney are spiritually nourished by the flesh and united in “a sacrament of souls” (5.15-16).

Here Barrett Browning runs the risk taken by other sentimental writers; she is in danger of “spectralizing the other,” in Terry Castle's phrase. Certainly in the last two books, and especially in the closing scene, it would be easy to say that Romney ceases to be a separate character; the union of the cousins seems rather like a hieros gamos of two complementary elements within the human psyche. Indeed, Romney's presence as a “spectral other” within Aurora's mind has been documented ever since his proposal to her in Book 2 (e.g., 5.30-41, 411-18); the other “is always present—especially when absent” (Castle 238). However, in Books 8 and 9 we also see the difference between Aurora's fantasy of Romney as implacable critic and the real Romney who is now Aurora's humble and understanding reader; between Aurora's fantasy of the male so unfeeling that he could contemplate marrying Lady Waldemar (a delusion of Aurora's which Romney delightedly laughs to scorn) and the real Romney who has merely erred in suppressing his personal feelings as irrelevant and worthless. Although in some ways the climax of Aurora Leigh suggests the fulfillment of all the most wistful fantasies of the female sentimental poets, Aurora's growth also involves her discovery that Romney can grow too—and his growth is not entirely dependent on her influence; the poor folk who burn down his house teach him as much as she does. Barrett Browning thus warns her female readers, on one hand, not to overrate their possible influence unrealistically or to view the uplifting exercise of erotic influence as a sufficient end in itself; on the other hand, she implicitly urges them not to despair of male nature (as she had done, in such poems as “A Man's Requirements,” before she met Browning).15

Marjorie Stone has suggested that Barrett Browning “does not depict in any detail … her own growth from a young woman who writes male to a mature poet who writes female: a poet who shifts from imitating male genres, identifying with male protagonists, and addressing her ‘brothers,’ to addressing her ‘sisters,’ depicting female protagonists, and adapting genres previously defined in male terms” (124). But I believe that in showing Aurora moving toward a greater acceptance of her emotional and (female) physical self, and in making her finally move beyond sonnet, descriptive poem, and epic to a first-person narrative describing, inter alia, disappointed love—to a narrative, that is, like “Properzia Rossi” and “The Improvisatrice”—Barrett Browning does depict a progression beyond the traditional maturing process of the male poet who reaches his apogee in epic's broad social and historical vision. The “mature poet who writes female” is Aurora writing Aurora Leigh (or, rather, finishing it, since before the poem changes from memoir to journal in Book 5, and until the meeting with Marian Erle in Books 6-7, Aurora is still strongly male-identified) and incorporating the feminine sentimental tradition within her understanding of herself, without accepting its restrictions on female power.

In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning engages with and criticizes the sentimental tradition of women's poetry, yet finds within it something of value which the masculine epic tradition lacks. Just as Aurora and Romney each require the corrective and inspiring influence of the other in order to realize their own possibilities most fully, so too the epic and the sentimental traditions must complement one another, must fuse within a poetry which is personal in intensity but transpersonal in scope. The primacy and centrality of “the heart”—that is, of personal feelings (and specifically of sexual desire) as the source of poetic energy—is the central doctrine of the sentimental school, and Barrett Browning powerfully reinforces that doctrine; but she also insists that what we understand as “the heart” must be enlarged, that we must learn to take the entire structure of society personally. That is, we must respond to the public world with the passionate intensity usually reserved for our “private” affairs. To cling to the delusion that the heart can be nourished in a private nook—to embrace, in short, the doctrine of separate spheres—is to collude in social injustice, and to run the risk that one's heart will shrivel into a mere empty signifier of pretended feeling.

Perhaps Barrett Browning's most famous and characteristic image is that of the “full-veined, heaving” bosom of the age, which the poet is to “catch” for us in a mould (5.214-17). Yet this image was itself inspired by Hemans's lyric, “The Image in Lava”; in a footnote to this poem Hemans explains that the lava of Vesuvius caught the “impression of a woman's form, with an infant clasped to the bosom, found at the uncovering of Herculaneum” (Hemans 463). It is typical of Hemans that she sees in this image a memorial of “woman's heart” and of the female conviction that death is better than the loss of the person one loves—in this case, the child (463-64). It is equally typical of Barrett Browning that she both borrows Hemans's image and transfigures it. The bosom now is “heaving,” the lava “burning”—a sight that should set the hearts of those who see it “beating.” This profusion of present participles constructs feeling as large and energetic action, essential to “living art” (5.221). More importantly, however, the bosom itself is no longer an image of private devotion; it embodies “the age, … this live, throbbing age” (5.202-3).16 Only when her heart contains this busy vastness can Aurora become a true and effective poet.


  1. On Barrett Browning's development into a feminist writer who has a sense of kinship with other women writers, see Byrd, passim. It will be evident throughout that I disagree fundamentally with Deirdre David's argument that Barrett Browning offers us essentially “a woman's voice speaking patriarchal discourse” and expressing “conservative male ideals” (157, 98). Her ideals are not those of the Victorian liberal mercantile class, but they are in some ways more radical, and are certainly subversive of the Victorian ideology of the home. The extent to which her Christianity makes her vision patriarchal can be established only when a thorough critical discussion has explored what Barrett Browning meant by God—and when such discussion has also defined “patriarchy” more precisely than David does. However, it is worth noting that such an ardent feminist as Angelina Grimké, for instance, uses Christian language to contest a society which subjects woman “to the despotic control of man,” when God alone ought to be her “king,” “lawgiver,” and “judge” (Bell and Offen 1: 185). Grimké's insistence on women's “right to think and speak and act on all great moral questions” finds a parallel in Aurora Leigh, as does her attack on “all that multifarious train of evils flowing out of the anti-christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues” (1: 184).

  2. I would agree with Margaret Reynolds that, although Aurora is an unreliable narrator in regard to her own feelings and her varying interpretation of the action, her “poetic theories” are essentially “the same principles as those which inspired Barrett Browning” (36). This assumption is borne out by the consistency of Aurora's explicit poetics throughout the epic: there is no substantial difference between the aesthetic theories presented in Book 5 and those of Book 7 or Book 9, although Aurora's sense of herself changes radically as the poem progresses.

  3. I am indebted to Gelpi's essay, “‘Verses with a Good Deal about Sucking,’” for drawing my attention to the importance of the sentimental tradition. I am also indebted to Jerome McGann for information provided in his lecture, “The Growth of Sentiment,” Lansdowne Lecture, University of Victoria, 31 Oct. 1994, and for further information provided in a personal interview, 1 Nov. 1994. This article has also benefited by the advice of Gordon Fulton and Judith Mitchell, who read it carefully and made valuable suggestions.

  4. For instance, Ellis in The Mothers of England refers in the very first line to “the feelings of a mother” (emphasis hers), and in the last line of the book to the mother's immediate family as “those whose affection constituted her happiness on earth” (1, 300). Ellis thus places her whole body of advice to mothers firmly within a sentimental context. See also n. 10.

  5. On the pervasiveness of the doctrine of separate spheres, see the excerpts from works by Hannah More, the Vicomte de Bonald, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Sarah Ellis, and Marion Kirkland Reid in Bell and Offen 1: 85-91, 190-92, 193-99, as well as the editors' comments in 1: 3, 19, 83-85, 133-41. Reid observes that such a remark as “‘What have women to do with that? … Let them mind … their house affairs!’ … is, perhaps, only occasionally expressed in words, yet the spirit of it runs through all society: if not often spoken in conversation, it is constantly acted upon by our institutions” (1: 235; Reid's emphasis).

  6. 5.42-46; Leighton comments on part of this passage in connection with “Properzia Rossi” (39).

  7. At one point Aurora does remark, “I had writ my heart / And wept my tears”—but what she had written on this occasion was an intemperate, and as it transpired unjust, letter to Lady Waldemar (7.377-78).

  8. In the same passage Barrett Browning also suggests that L. E. L.'s nature might have been “more harmonious with that music which is in the Chief Intellect,” and speaks warmly of “a lovely tender closing passage in her Improvisatrice.” In a later letter (2 July 1841), Barrett Browning regrets that L. E. L. did not sincerely express her own feelings in her poetry: “What is the poet, without the use of his own heart?” (1: 232).

  9. Compare the terrible ménage of Lucy Gresham and her invalid grandmother in Book 4 (which we see at its nadir, after Lucy has become too ill to work); Lucy's conventionally feminine self-sacrifice merely sustains a hideous exploitation and destroys Lucy herself.

  10. “[I]nfluence,” according to Sarah Ellis, is “the great secret of woman's power in her social and domestic character” (41). Elsewhere Ellis goes on to compare female influence with that of a “guardian spirit” and quotes Amié Martin's explanation of the importance of specifically maternal influence: “in children,” says Martin, “sentiment precedes intelligence; … to her who first arouses the feelings, who first awakens the tenderness, must belong the happiest influences. She is not, however, to teach virtue, but to inspire it. This is peculiarly the province of woman” (Ellis 58-59, 55-56). This sentimental sexism highlights an interesting contradiction within the sentimental tradition itself: although sentimental theory, as originally applied to adult male/female relationships, tended to lessen the distinctions of gender, yet when writers began to apply sentimental theory to the education of children they tended to stress the distinction rather than the similarity between the sexes. This odd inconsistency can be traced directly back to Rousseau, whose posthumous treatise on education, Emile, stresses throughout Book 5 what he sees as the essential differences between men and women. Although both books were written in the early 1760s, the impact of Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise (published 1761) on thinking about gender was very different from that of Emile (published 1780).

  11. “His brow, as sculpture beautiful, / Was wan as Grief's corroded page. / He had no words … :—his sole employ to brood / Silently over his sick heart / In sorrow and in solitude” (1: 54). In other words, Lorenzo now feels and acts (or ceases to act) precisely as the Improvisatrice had done before him. This situation seems to be L. E. L.'s expansion on the hint given at the end of Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise, where all who have loved Julie are invited to live under the dead woman's spiritual aegis and around her tomb: “Que son esprit nous anime, que son coeur joigne tous les nôtres; vivons toujours sous ses yeux” (Rousseau 732).

  12. This quotation is originally from Patmore, Book I, Canto VII, Prelude 1 (1: 86). Patmore is turning the sacramental imagery in Barrett Browning's previously published verse-novel to his own more conservative purpose.

  13. The American feminist Susan B. Anthony, hardly an advocate for traditional marriage, recorded in her own much-read copy of the poem her wish “that woman may more and more be like Aurora Leigh” (qtd. in Barry 122). Beverly Taylor has argued at length that Aurora Leigh presents female sexuality in a revolutionary way for her time, as valuable in itself and as a significant element within the female poetic voice (Taylor passim). In my view, this part of Barrett Browning's revolutionary program is derived from the sentimental tradition.

  14. Here Barrett Browning suggests that “that peculiarly female subgenre in nineteenth-century poetry where the claims of home [and feeling, I would add] are weighed against the claims of art [or work]” (Reynolds 71, n. 124) may also be enlarged to apply equally to the difficulties of both females and males. The subgenre which Reynolds identifies is, in poetry at least, essentially a sentimental one, since the question is always decided, not on the basis of the social good which woman might do at home or in the world, but on a sentimental basis: which “sphere” provides the purest and most intense happiness to woman herself? (See, for instance, Hemans's “Joan of Arc in Rheims,” where Joan's joy in her accomplishments and fame is described as less than her early calm happiness in “the paradise / Of home” and nature [177-79].) Barrett Browning's view that happiness for both sexes can only be won by combining private feeling and public action provides a new answer to what is essentially the same question.

  15. On Romney's maturation, and on the feminist aspects of Barrett Browning's conclusion, see Sutphin, esp. 50-53.

  16. It is interesting to contrast Barrett Browning's politicized use of the volcano/breast metaphor with the treatment of the same image in a recent poem, Michèle Roberts's “rediscovering Pompeii” (from All the selves I was, 1995). Although Roberts enlarges the metaphor itself, identifying the lost mother and hidden daughter not only with the corpses and the emptiness inside the mould but also with the mountain and the lava, she shrinks the content again to fit “inside me / in my heart's house / in the scorching flow / of lava and tears” (105): the poem expresses a very private loss and rage within the mother-daughter relationship. Roberts's lyric shows the continuing vitality of the sentimental vision; the flowings and oozings of the human body, the primacy of emotion and its connection with the body, and the nature of “feminine” writing are all subjects still important in contemporary poetry, especially the work influenced by French feminist theory: see the writings of such authors as Monique Wittig, Daphne Marlatt, and Marlene Nourbese Philip, who—like Barrett Browning—all attempt in their different ways to politicize the sentimental tradition.

Works Cited

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

Bell, Susan Groag, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents. 2 vols. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. Cora Kaplan. London: Women's Press, 1978.

———. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854. Ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan. 3 vols. Winfield: Wedgestone, 1983.

Byrd, Deborah. “Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet.” Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 23-41.

Castle, Terry. “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho.” Nussbaum and Brown 231-53.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Ellis, Sarah. The Mothers of England: Their Influence and Responsibility. London: Jackson, n.d.

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. “‘Verses with a Good Deal about Sucking’: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Christina Rossetti.” Influence and Resistance in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry. Ed. G. Kim Blank and Margot K. Louis. London: Macmillan, 1993. 150-65.

Hemans, Felicia. The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. Ed. William Michael Rossetti. London: Ward, Lock, 1873.

Landon, Letitia Elizabeth. Poetical Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853.

Leighton, Angela. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

Markley, Robert. “Sentimentality as Performance: Shaftesbury, Sterne, and the Theatrics of Virtue.” Nussbaum and Brown 210-30.

McGann, Jerome J. “‘My Brain is Feminine’: Byron and the Poetry of Deception.” Byron: Augustan and Romantic. Ed. Andrew Rutherford. London: Macmillan, 1990. 26-51.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Nussbaum, Felicity, and Laura Brown, eds. The New Eighteenth Century. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1863.

Reynolds, Margaret, ed. Aurora Leigh. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.

Roberts, Michèle. All the selves I was. London: Virago, 1995.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloise. Ed. René Pomeau. Paris: Garnier, 1988.

Ruskin, John. Sesame and Lilies. London: Smith, Elder, 1865.

Stephenson, Glennis. “Letitia Landon and the Victorian Improvisatrice: The Construction of L. E. L.” Victorian Poetry 30 (1992): 1-17.

Stone, Marjorie. “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27.

Sulloway, Alison. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.

Sutphin, Christine. “Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh.Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54.

Taylor, Beverly. “‘School-Miss Alfred’ and ‘Materfamilias’: Female Sexuality and the Poetic Voice in The Princess and Aurora Leigh.Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art. Ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1992. 5-29.

Maureen Thum (essay date 1999)

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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 from the Portuguese, have never been eclipsed. Her Sonnet 43, “How do I love thee?” is one of the most anthologized and best known nineteenth-century love poems. But her novel poem, Aurora Leigh, presents a very different picture. Celebrated after its publication in 1857, the “novel poem”1 went through thirteen editions in England by 1873. After the turn of the century, however, the work was disregarded. Writing in 1978, Cora Kaplan cites Virginia Woolf's comment, made over forty years previously: “‘Fate has not been kind to Mrs. Browning as a writer. Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.’” Kaplan continues: “Virginia Woolf's comment is almost as true today as in 1932” (5).2 Only in the past two decades have critics, following Kaplan's lead, begun to reassess Aurora Leigh and to recognize the novel poem as one of Barrett Browning's major achievements.

Nevertheless, despite their renewed interest in this long-neglected work, critics have not yet abandoned the somewhat deprecatory and apologetic stance evident even in Kaplan's fine introduction. With few exceptions, critics have regarded Aurora Leigh as a powerful but essentially imperfect work. It is flawed, they argue, by the author's lack of critical distance from her protagonist, by her failure to come to terms analytically and intellectually with the issues she raises, and by her unconscious antifeminism and woman-hating.

Aurora Leigh is seen as a highly personal, confessional statement, restricted to the relatively narrow scope of the author's subjectivity. Author and narrator are viewed as fully identical.3 Neither is regarded as capable of coming to terms with wider social, historical, and philosophical issues. While admitting that the narrator, Aurora Leigh, is an unconventional figure and that the author expresses her discontent with the patriarchal status quo, critics have nonetheless seen Barrett Browning as incapable of challenging the patriarchal mindset and its underlying assumptions. Neither the author nor her protagonist is viewed as capable of escaping from the imprisoning framework of a dominant ideology. Imprisoned within a confining mindset, both suffer, critics contend, from a sense of alienation they share with most nineteenth-century women writers and intellectuals. Their exclusion from culture's hegemony leads to self-alienation and to debilitating feelings of helpless resentment and suppressed rage.4 One comes away from a survey of critical literature with the impression that although Aurora Leigh may be a literary masterwork, it is in some ways still a period piece, a Victorian heirloom whose author is so immersed in traditionalist views of women and in personal conflicts about her own femininity that she is unable to think her way out of patriarchy.5

This study argues for a very different reading of Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning demonstrates a far greater analytical and critical understanding of the complex traditionalist and feminist issues she raises than previous critics allow. Her critical stance vis-à-vis an entrenched status quo is particularly evident in her use of hitherto unrecognized ironic distancing techniques through the mediation of her fictive narrator, Aurora Leigh. Despite their undeniable similarities, Aurora Leigh is not simply a thinly disguised Barrett Browning in fictive garb. On the contrary, unlike the British-born poet, Aurora is an exotic outsider, born in Italy, raised in an isolated mountain setting, and orphaned at an early age. She is not merely an autobiographical figure, identical to the author.6 Aurora not only speaks a different language but also, due to an unconventional upbringing, has a set of assumptions very different from those of her British counterparts. She observes British culture with the defamiliarizing and critical eyes of a foreigner. Even as an adult, she never completely loses her sense of strangeness or her critical view of masculinist codes.

Barrett Browning's foreign-born narrator, an outsider to British culture provides the estranged perspective that M. M. Bakhtin refers to as “experimental fantasticality.” A key subversive strategy of carnivalized literature, “experimental fantasticality” involves, in Bakhtin's words, “observation from some unusual point of view, from on high, for example, which results in a radical change in the scale of the observed phenomena of life” (116). In the case of Aurora Leigh, the defamiliarizing perspective is provided by the little foreign child who has been orphaned and who enters England for the first time at the age of twelve. She views with uncomprehending eyes a world familiar to the British reader. Her dislocated perspective is not the evidence of neurotic self-alienation as critics contend. Instead, her view from the “outside” becomes the locus for a culturally relative critique of contemporary British and European customs and attitudes, particularly attitudes toward women.

Book One of Aurora Leigh provides a particularly clear illustration of Barrett Browning's subversive and critical strategies. It traces the childhood development of the Italian-born narrator and from the outset, depicts the child as an outsider to mainstream values and conventions. After her mother's death, Aurora is raised by her father in an isolated setting among the mountains of Italy. She is thus removed from the expected acculturation processes that prepare women to play traditionalist roles within contemporary European and British culture. An unconventional tutor, her father provides her with an equally unconventional education. Her upbringing apart from contemporary society sets the stage for her subsequent role both as outsider and as defamiliarizing foreign observer.

After her father dies, the orphaned child enters British society as a naïve foreigner. Her uncomprehending observations, charted in retrospect by the adult narrator, defamiliarize and shed critical light on the contemporary British norms from the double perspective of the unknowing child and the knowing—but equally unconventional—adult. Barrett Browning uses the doubled perspective to question patriarchal codes and values and to demonstrate both their limitations and their injuriousness as controlling forces in women's lives.

In Book One, the author moves beyond a sharp criticism of the status quo to suggest an alternative paradigm for female education and development. Basing her argument on the premise that traditional gender roles are not grounded in natural law but are socially constructed, the author posits an alternative, nontraditional model for the construction of female identity. She places this unconventional model—embodied in her protagonist—in direct opposition to traditionalist views of women's nature and women's roles as restricted exclusively to the domestic sphere, to motherhood, and to childrearing.


In the first part of Book One, Barrett Browning carefully sets up a test case that will permit her to engage in an acerbic, yet concealed critique of patriarchal norms. She depicts her protagonist's formation of consciousness as an outsider to mainstream culture, and as a result her later views of British society will, by necessity, be estranged and unfamiliar. It is no accident that Aurora Leigh's education parallels that of Rousseau's fictive model of child development in Emile, or On Education (1762). Rousseau also provided a test case, but it is restricted to male education. Emile, Rousseau's pupil, is intentionally kept apart from and educated outside mainstream culture. In depicting Aurora's education, Barrett Browning provides a female counterpart to Rousseau's pupil and appropriates Rousseau's revolutionary model of education for women as well as for men.7

The striking parallels between the two texts suggest that Barrett Browning, like many other nineteenth-century feminists (Moers 151-58), intentionally used Rousseau as her point of departure. Rousseau posits a “negative” education of the child who is raised in isolation from society according to a nontraditional pedagogical model. From birth to age five, the child, Emile, is kept apart from institutions, prejudice, authority, and traditional models of childrearing; from five to twelve, he grows up in close association with nature; from twelve to fifteen, he develops his intellect as his tutor begins to educate his mind; and finally, from the ages of fifteen to twenty, he receives his moral and religious education, and he travels in preparation for marriage to a suitably educated young woman, Sophie.

Aurora Leigh's development parallels Emile's stage by stage. From birth to age four, she grows up in Italy in the care of her Italian mother and thus apart from British institutions and prescribed models of female education. Her mother's death leaves her without a female mentor, who could form Aurora Leigh according to traditionalist paradigms. Having removed her to an isolated mountain setting where she remains from ages four to thirteen, her father, like Emile's mentor, Rousseau, provides his pupil with a nontraditional education. After her father's death, from ages thirteen to twenty the orphaned child undergoes a continuing formation of consciousness, which, like Emile's, includes the education of her mind, her religious training, and her travel to foreign countries.

Despite clear parallels, however, Barrett Browning takes issue with Rousseau's educational treatise in one crucial area: his singularly unenlightened views of women. In the “Sophie” chapter of Emile, Rousseau makes the traditionalist case that women are submissive, “passive and weak” creatures whose role according to “natural law” is to bend to the “active and strong” male (358). The resulting “inequality” of men and women, unlike the inequality created by difference in social class, is not an artificial, “unjust, man-made inequality” (361) but is based on “well-grounded general laws” (362), which are “established by nature” (363).8

Barrett Browning departs radically from the eighteenth-century philosopher by appropriating his exclusively masculinist model for the education of her female protagonist. Because of her unconventional upbringing, Aurora Leigh, as a test case, resembles Rousseau's male child, Emile. In contrast to Rousseau's Sophie, Aurora is a stranger to, not a product of, traditionalist views of women's education.

Nor only her foreign birth and her “hybrid” parentage—her father is a “cold” British northerner, her mother a warm, emotional Italian woman—but also her mother's death and her father's unusual tutelage play decisive roles in creating a child who falls outside societal norms. Her mother's death is certainly a painful and traumatic experience. But contrary to critical consensus, her mother-want is not to be seen solely or even primarily in negative terms as producing the narrator's traumatized, unstable, and even “diseased” personality.9 The absence of a female mentor means that the child is unencumbered by the “female” education her mother would have provided. The orphaned child has no female guide who would initiate her into—and shape her according to—socially and culturally prescribed pattern of female behavior. Her mother would, in the narrator's words, have “reconciled and fraternized my soul / With the new order” (I: 38-39) by “kissing full sense into empty words” (52). These retrospective reflections express the narrator's understandable longing for the comforts of a normative upbringing; at the same time they suggest that were her mother alive as guide and model, Aurora Leigh would, like any other young woman, be conditioned through love and example to accept these conventional forms and “empty words” without question.

In the absence of her mother and female mentor, the enigmatic portrait, painted after her mother's death, plays a significant role in defining—or better, resisting all definitions of—women's roles for the motherless child. The portrait played a pivotal role in numerous critical studies that argue that the picture demonstrates the author's reaffirmation of masculinist codes and patriarchal stereotypes as well as her concomitant neurotic dividedness as a woman. Thus, viewing the portrait as a symbol of the child's unhealthy and fearful relationship with her dead mother, some critics argue that the images she sees on the portrait cripple the child emotionally and mentally and cause her to detest women, particularly mother figures. Others see the projected images on the portrait as the uncritical reaffirmation of male-defined images of women. The author and her narrator project “male defined masks and costumes” (Gilbert and Gubar 19) of a “dead sign system” (Rosenblum 328), which she attempts in vain to “revive” (335). The “horrified” and “confused” child (Leighton 8) remains transfixed before this “object of worship, desire, repugnance and fear” (Mermin 191). The portrait is seen to signal the poet's and Aurora's inability to escape the oppressions of patriarchy and to question its binary views of women's identity as angel or demon, Madonna or Eve, virgin or whore, nurturer or destroyer.10

Critics have failed to note that the mother's portrait resists traditionalist views of women, and that the binary images the child projects upon the portrait not only are self-canceling but also fail to adhere to the surface of the portrait. Thus, the pure and motherly Madonna and the threatening, snakey-locked Medusa, a mythical destroyer and fatal woman, are united in a single, paradoxical woman as a “still Medusa with mild milky brows” (I:156-57). The author depicts Medusa as having attributes associated not with violence, death, and destruction but with mildness, maternity, and motherhood. All the images the child has gleaned from her reading are presented as a similar self-canceling conflation of antithesis.

In faulting the author for reaffirming patriarchal stereotypes, critics have failed to note that for the narrator, these iconic images are little more than a masquerade of external forms. No single image, whether positive or negative, Madonna or Medusa, remains clearly etched upon the enigmatic surface of the portrait, “which did not therefore change / But kept the mystic level of all forms” (I:151-52). These traditionalist icons not only cancel each other but also fail to adhere to the blank screen of the portrait; they are but a passing and shifting picture upon the face of immortality where—as in the paradox of the motherly Medusa—their “incoherencies … are represented fully, mixed and merged” (I:171-72). Far from reaffirming stereotypes, the portrait puts into question the rigid images and the literary clichés that fix female identity in preconceived forms.

In this context, Aurora's status as an orphan taps into what Kimberley Reynolds and Nicola Humble refer to as the “orphan-convention, with its established traditions of social critique and alienation” (28). Unencumbered by the usual restraints of a fixed nuclear family, orphans had an unusual freedom and autonomy to develop in unconventional ways. Their anomalous position allowed them to serve as vehicles “for radical comment” (Reynolds and Humble 31). Aurora is no exception.

While Aurora's mother shapes the child's development by her absence, the father plays a crucial role in forming Aurora's unconventional views of women's nature and women's roles by providing the child with an unconventional education. After his wife's death, he removes his four-year-old daughter to a remote mountain setting where she develops in direct contact with a sublime natural landscape (I:615-26) from which she draws sustenance. The father's flight from civilization and his desire to raise his child in unmediated contact with nature and the divine have clear Rousseauistic echoes. But unlike Rousseau, who, for fear of cultural contamination, initially refuses to have his child read any book other than Robinson Crusoe, the father stresses the importance of the cultural tradition as an essential part of the child's education. This does not mean that he gives his child a traditional upbringing. A nurturing mentor to his little daughter, he is the anti-type to the oppressive, patriarchal tyrant and to Barrett Browning's own despotic father. Refusing to acknowledge the gender barriers and prescribed notions governing a woman's education, he gives his daughter the education traditionally reserved for sons: “He wrapt his little daughter in his large / Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no” (I:727-28).11

Contrary to a traditionalist approach even in men's education, her father does not inculcate or enforce a received view of knowledge. Nor does he regard the cultural heritage as an accumulation of sacred and authoritative texts to be venerated unconditionally. He approaches tradition with the mind of a skeptic and teaches his daughter a critical method of thinking: “He sent the schools to school, demonstrating / A fool will pass for such through one mistake, / While a philosopher will pass for such, / Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross / And heaped up to a system” (I: 194-98). He encourages his daughter to question received notions, and he gives her the intellectual tools and analytical strategies required to question cultural norms and thus to dismantle patriarchy itself. Her father is a liberating figure who provides his daughter with the means to argue her way out of patriarchy.


With her father's death, Aurora now enters British society as a defamiliarizing outside observer whose estranged perspective sheds critical light on cultural norms. She is an orphan, a child with an unconventional upbringing, a foreigner who speaks a different language. She looks at what appears to the British to be “normal” with the astonished eyes of a stranger, unversed in the customs she observes. The child's experience is narrated in retrospect by the adult narrator, now a writer and an unconventional adult who has continued to view the patriarchal world through the estranged eyes of the cultural outsider. Thus, the reader is presented with a doubled perspective. The unconventional adult looks back on the child's experience and comments acerbically on the wider implications of a conditioning process the child resists even though she does not fully understand its implications. The dual perspective allows the author—through the vehicle of her protagonist's narratorial voices as child and as adult—to present an unfamiliar and critical view of the conventional education designed for women.

The author also challenges the fixed binaries according to which her contemporaries constructed female—and male—identity. In portraying the child's encounter with her aunt, Barrett Browning exposes the binary paradigms represented by the Madonna-Eve, angel-demon polarity, as incomplete, reductionist, and distorted projections of womanhood. The meeting between Aurora Leigh, the exotic foreign child, and her aunt, the assiduous enforcer of normative attitudes, is a staged encounter between two patriarchal icons of womanhood: the stereotypical exotic other—the femme fatale and violator of normative codes—and a dark, negative figure who is clearly intended as the distortion or transmogrification of the “angel in the house.” Like the double-voiced narrative, the critique operates simultaneously on two levels. The foreign child epitomizes the exotic “other” in her most innocent and harmless of forms. She observes the aunt, a representative of British womanhood, with alienated eyes and thus provides an unfamiliar view of socially sanctioned images of women. At the same time, Aurora's aunt, who represents the conventional British outlook, observes an exotic intruder who is paradoxically her own flesh and blood. The interplay of mutually elucidating perspectives allows the narrator to question the stereotype of the exotic femme fatale, ludicrously seen in a little child, and to challenge the image of the angel in the house, who appears as a soured, embittered figure. Having failed to live out the domestic ideal, the aunt now appears in a dreadful caricature as the accomplice of patriarchy, imposing on others the very norms that have warped and dehumanized her.

In her negative depiction of the aunt, the author is not targeting helpless spinsters; on the contrary, by turning the angel in the house image on its head, she unmasks this conventional image as an unnatural, frigid, and harmful contraption. In the aunt, all the virtues and positive values generally associated with this feminine icon appear in her anti-type as negations of life, as sterile and harmful conventions. In her shaping of herself according to preconceived images of middle-class womanhood, in her internalization of patriarchal values, and in her conditioned responses, the aunt is shown to have warped or killed all her human impulses: “She stood straight and calm / Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight / As if for taming accidental thoughts / From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with gray / By frigid use of life” (I:271-76).

By reversing the expected image of the angel in the house, Barrett Browning demonstrates the frightening results of adhering to a code that imprisons women in a distorted view of femininity. The author targets less the enforcer figure herself than the pernicious conditioning process that produces such accomplices in the patriarchal “project.” The author anticipates such twentieth-century critiques of enforcer figures as one finds in Margaret Atwood's parablelike novel The Handmaid's Tale, in which women are enlisted in a tyrannical project to oppress and exploit other women.

Barrett Browning implicates an entire series of intersecting influences and factors that converge in the figure of the aunt, including the Church as a traditionalist institution. The Church uses “Christian doctrine” to underwrite the patriarchal status quo, preaching conventional views of women's roles—“inhuman doctrines”—that are “enforced at church” (I:358). This conditioning process produces women whose sinless veneer conceals suppressed hatred, anger, and resentment, “the gall of gentle souls” (I:341). Interestingly, Barrett Browning gives an astute analysis of the mechanisms of oppression and unconscious suppression that have, erroneously to my mind, been seen as preventing the author from seeing patriarchy in a critical light. Patriarchal conventions are seen as forming an ideological prison that traps its victims, dehumanizes them, and converts them in turn into avid enforcers of inhuman codes. Shaped by this injurious process, the aunt has “lived / A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage, / Accounting that to leap from perch to perch / Was act and joy enough for any bird” (I:304-6). The consequence of this imprisonment is that love has been displaced by duty, Christian charity by resentment, and maternal feelings for an orphaned child by an irrational and persistent hatred.

The aunt, unaware of the paradox of her own position as a victim who victimizes in turn, now attempts to program Aurora Leigh as she has been programmed. Aurora's comment demonstrates her insight into this vicious cycle: “I, alas, / A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage” (I:309-10). Because of her role as cultural enforcer who hates those who fall outside the culturally sanctioned norms, the aunt appears through the eyes of the child as a harmful, threatening creature, with her “two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes” that “stabbed” through Aurora's vulnerable face (I:327-28).

Citing the aunt and other negative female figures in the novel poem, critics have charged the author with woman hating and unconscious antifeminism.12 What the figure of the aunt illustrates, however, is not the author's antifeminism but her recognition that women who play stereotypical roles frequently act as accomplices who perpetuate the patriarchal conditioning process.13 In her negative portrait of the aunt, the author is not rejecting women, femininity, or maternity; instead, she is rejecting distorted images of women and the patriarchal ideology on which they are based.

The social and religious conditioning designed to create conventional women not only dehumanizes those who play the game and follow the codes but also produces a distorted view of outsiders and foreigners who resist or violate these codes. By examining the aunt's perception of her niece, Barrett Browning explores the mechanisms of cross-cultural stereotyping and dismantles the ethnocentric image of the exotic woman as femme fatale. For the aunt, English women are the absolute norm, “models to the universe” (I:446).

From the moment the child arrives, the ethnocentric aunt attaches fixed, negative labels to her niece as a foreigner and violator of normative codes. Aurora Leigh appears upon her aunt's doorstep as an abandoned, suffering, bereaved child. She is the exotic other rendered innocent and harmless. But the stereotype shapes the aunt's perceptions so profoundly that she searches Aurora Leigh's face for traces of the evil and demonic femme fatale whom she hates with a consuming passion and whom she sees as a threat to the social and psychological norms she has adopted and internalized.

Seen from the aunt's perspective, Aurora Leigh's Italian mother has led the child's British father to violate the terms of his inheritance, according to which the family fortune cannot be inherited by a child born of a foreign wife. Thus, Aurora is penniless after her father's death, a ward of the aunt who has inherited the fortune. Rather than blame her brother for marrying a foreigner, the aunt focuses on her brother's Italian wife as an interloper, a temptress and destroyer who has “fooled away / A wise man from wise courses.” Not only has she deprived the aunt “of the household precedence,” but she has “wronged his tenants, robbed his native land, / And made him mad, alike by life and death” (I:343-47).

Now that her brother's wife has died, the aunt shifts the blame to her thirteen-year-old niece standing on her doorstep. She therefore greets Aurora with suspicion and hatred, and she rejects the girl's displays of affection: “There, with some strange spasm / Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands / Imperiously, and held me at arm's length” (I:324-26). She searches for a “wicked murderer” in the child's “innocent face” (I:330). For the aunt, the exotic other is an emblem for the transgression of social codes, a stranger capable not only of sexually illicit behavior but also of robbery and even murder. As Aurora's case demonstrates, the guilt or innocence of those who are targeted plays little role in the injurious mechanisms of cultural stereotyping.

In describing Aurora's education at the hands of this enforcer of normative codes, the author sheds critical light on the conventional conditioning process designed to produce stereotypical women. The child is forced to read a “score of books on womanhood,” the very number suggesting the collusion of writers, and of the publishing industry, in reinforcing masculinist codes. Designed to inculcate traditionalist responses, the books “boldly assert” a woman's “right of comprehending husband's talk / When not too deep,” as well as “Their rapid insight and fine aptitude, / Particular worth and general missionariness, / As long as they keep quiet by the fire / And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’ / For that is fatal—their angelic reach, / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn, / And fatten household sinners—their, in brief, / Potential faculty in everything / Of abdicating power in it” (I:430-42). Accepting a woman's traditional role requires nothing less than the silencing of her individual voice and the denial of her intellect—in short, her complete abdication of agency, power, and autonomy.


In depicting her protagonist's development and critiquing the aunt's attempt to shape her in traditionalist molds, the author does more than simply undercut normalizing forms of female education. She also offers an alternative model for female identity based on the premise that human identity is not preordained by “nature” but is instead socially and culturally constructed to a marked degree. Although she adopts Rousseau's revolutionary model of the education process, Barrett Browning contests the philosopher's traditionalist argument that women are by nature subordinate and inferior to men. Women, like men, she argues, are capable of dramatic changes in their social and cultural roles. She thus makes the implicit case that nature and natural law are not skewed in favor of the male. In arguing that the concept of nature and natural law can be changed, Barrett Browning implicitly makes the case that nature is a culturally relative projection, in her words, something that we “name” Nature (I:676), rather than something that exists in its own right separately from our mental projections. She thus anticipates twentieth-century anthropological arguments that the nature-culture dichotomy is a culturally relative construct, not a universal value-free paradigm on which universal “laws of nature” may be based.14

In the final part of Book One, the natural world of the English countryside is both an empirical reality and a mental territory representing a nongendered view of nature. When Aurora discovers an alternative model for female identity, her dawning insight is depicted in metaphorical terms as her departure from the artificially segregated domestic sphere of the house and her entry into a natural landscape beyond gender.

The development occurs in stages. Upon her arrival in England, the homesick child had responded negatively to the foreign landscape, which appeared at first to be diametrically opposed to the sublime setting in the mountains of Pelagria where she had been raised in close contact with nature. There, for nine years, surrounded by “God's silence” (I:122), she had drawn sustenance from nature, “growing like the plants from unseen roots” (I:206). After her father's death, she discovers that the universe has “turned stranger” (I:250). To the foreign child, the “frosty cliffs” and “mean red houses” of England appear to represent a society devoid of human connection: “The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship / Of verdure, field from field as man from man” (I:260-61).

Aurora is indeed cut off from sustaining human contact and from nature. Stifled and straitjacketed by convention, the child is all but imprisoned in her aunt's house. She is even denied the sight of nature, previously her source of strength. Obedient to her aunt's wishes, the child “sat in just the chair she placed, / With back against the window, to exclude / The sight of the great lime-tree on the lawn, / Which seemed to have come on purpose from the woods / To bring the house a message” (I:483-87). Even when she is imprisoned in the domestic territory of the aunt, as the echo of Coleridge's “This Limetree Bower My Prison” (1797) suggests, the child hears the implicit call of a natural world beyond the conventions of the house and the narrowness even of the attached garden.

Summoned by the natural world, which penetrates the house and her room, the child gradually moves out of the imprisoning domestic confines into the garden and then beyond the garden into a wider world that stands in symbolic opposition to the narrowly defined domestic space over which her aunt presides. Nature is portrayed as entering the house and thus as eroding and overrunning the artificial barriers that separate the domestic sphere from the wider external and public world.

The mental process of Aurora's awakening is portrayed in physical terms: Aspects of the natural landscape appear to penetrate the confines of the house, as the window of her room lets in the “outdoor world with all its greenery” (I:574). The green of nature, spilling into her room, draws her outdoors. As she begins to see the English countryside with new eyes, she is freed, she discovers, not only from the stifling interior of the house but also from the shackles of a confining worldview.

Aurora Leigh's flight into the natural landscape is not simply an escapist, romanticized retreat from reality. On the contrary, it marks her entry into a mental, emotional, and philosophical territory not governed by gender-differentiated norms of behavior. Nature, for Rousseau, was classless but gendered. That is, according to Rousseau, class distinctions were not based on natural laws; they were man-made and hence artificial. Gender distinctions, by contrast, were ordained by nature and thus a direct outgrowth of natural law. Barrett Browning takes issue with this distinction, arguing that nature is not antifeminist; instead, it represents a symbolic substratum, a hypothetical territory beyond both class and gender. Nature does not underwrite inequalities based on sex any more than it underwrites injustices based on social class. Thus, when Aurora enters this hypothetical territory, she discovers a new alternative view of female identity.15

Barrett Browning portrays nature and a natural law as shaping her protagonist's formation of consciousness. But she also stresses the complementary role of the cultural heritage. Unlike Rousseau, who restricts the child's reading for fear of leading him astray, Barrett Browning portrays Aurora as discovering the freeing power of the cultural heritage through her father's books that she finds in the attic of the house. The cultural heritage is clearly a patrimony, a legacy from Aurora Leigh's father. The author thereby indicates her knowledge that the written records that constitute Western cultural tradition are male-centered and for the most part male-authored. Nevertheless, rather than discard the heritage because of its unavoidable bias, Aurora appropriates the male tradition when she discovers literature as an apt vehicle to express her unconventional view of women's nature. Rousseau argues that women are the better for having their education severely restricted, for he sees the cultural heritage, like civilization itself, in a negative light. Barrett Browning, by contrast, sees the restrictions in a woman's education as a deprivation. Significantly, it is Aurora's encounter with the poets, whom Plato banished from his Republic for their anarchistic and potentially subversive tendencies, that allows Aurora to develop a new view of herself and her place in society: “my soul, / At poetry's divine first finger-touch, / Let go conventions and sprang up surprised” (I:850-52).

By the end of Book One, Aurora Leigh has learned not only to discard “conventional gray glooms” but also to reject the claims of a male-centered ideology. She emerges as a young woman capable not only of criticizing patriarchal views of women but also of fashioning for herself an alternative identity as a woman writer. During a debate with her cousin Romney, she demonstrates her critical skills, contesting his traditionalist stance point by point. This “courtship” scene is surely an intentional smiling yet serious parody of the traditional “debat d'amour,” the sparring courtship that imitates verbally the rituals of male-to-male combat.16 During this intellectual and amorous sparring match, Aurora rejects every cliché of Victorian womanhood voiced by her would-be suitor and cousin. She also rejects his offer of marriage. Even though it would make her wealthy, marriage to Romney would confine her to a conventionally feminine role as his helpmate. She decides instead to make her own way, as poet and writer, living in poverty in a small garret in London. The subsequent narrative charts Aurora's progress as a woman whose choice of an unconventional profession causes her to transgress traditional barriers, to flout restrictions imposed upon female behavior, and to speak, successfully, in a public voice even while living in a society that consistently relegated women's achievements primarily to the domestic, nonpublic sphere.

In assessing Aurora Leigh's unconventional stance, critics have been consistently troubled by her marriage to her cousin Romney at the conclusion of the narrative. It is viewed as a conventional happy ending and as a capitulation, if not an abject self-abnegation by a formerly heroic protagonist who at the last minute relinquishes all she has gained in order to reinsert herself into patriarchy. This “happy ending,” however, only appears to provide a pat, socially sanctioned answer to all the difficult questions raised in the novel poem. The terms of Aurora's marriage are as unconventional as her education and her career. In a traditional marriage, the woman of the nineteenth century was expected to subsume her public, economic, and social identity into that of her marriage partner. As Glennis Stephenson has ably demonstrated, the marriage Barrett Browning portrays does not reinstate patriarchal values. Instead, the author provides for a marriage on very different, exceptional, and nontraditional terms. In Stephenson's words, Aurora and Romney “define their new roles and functions and expand the very boundaries of love itself” (115). Barrett Browning is not a separatist. She insists on including love and even marriage in her view of the potentialities of male-female relationships. But she does so, as Stephenson argues, by providing an alternative model replacing “the socially and culturally established form of male-female relationship with a new form of relationship which allows women to play a vital active role and which preserves female autonomy” (116).

The marriage by no means represents a conventional closure. Instead, it is the point of departure for what is depicted throughout the novel poem as a continuing and difficult process of self-discovery. It does not represent a pat solution to the problems raised by Aurora Leigh's anomalous form of identity within an essentially patriarchal context. Her protagonist provides the paradigm for an alternative form of female identity and of marriage. But this future process cannot be mapped in all its many possible variables. The lyric—and problematic—vision at the conclusion of the novel poem is not intended as a roadmap for a territory already explored and charted. It is, rather, the adumbration of a future potentiality based on the author's personal experience, an experience that by contemporary standards and within a late-nineteenth-century patriarchal context was admittedly exceptional.


  1. Barrett Browning refers to Aurora Leigh as “a sort of novel poem” (qtd. in Mermin 186). See also Case (17). I have retained the poet's own designation for this generic hybrid throughout my discussion.

  2. See also Kaplan's excellent overview and discussion of the critical reception of Aurora Leigh (6-8).

  3. Thus, for Cora Kaplan the “female voice” of the narrative is “simultaneously the author's and Aurora's” (10). Angela Leighton expresses a critical consensus when she designates Aurora Leigh as a “scarcely disguised representative of Barrett Browning herself” (117). See also Gelpi and Steinmetz, who assume but do not explicitly state that Aurora Leigh and Barrett Browning are identical. Donaldson (57) and Mermin (196-97) remark on the difference between author and narrator, but only in passing. See, however, Alison Case, who distinguishes clearly between implied author and fictive narrator (28-29). Case does not, however, see the protagonist's foreign birth and upbringing as playing a significant role in producing her estranged and critical perspective.

  4. Numerous critics have viewed Aurora's position outside the cultural mainstream as producing unhealthy internal conflicts and a sense of self-alienation that threaten to cripple her as woman, feminist, and artist. Gelpi speaks of the protagonist's “divided attitude toward being a woman” (41), and Leighton of her “profound anxiety of womanliness” (121), which causes her to reject her femininity and to see women in antifeminist and antagonistic terms. Seen in this light, the narrative depicts not the protagonist's critical distance from mainstream values but, instead, her unsuccessful “quest” to unite the painfully divided self into an integrated whole (Steinmetz 353). See also Sandra Gilbert, who speaks of Aurora's attempted “journey from disease toward what Sylvia Plath once called ‘a country as far away as health’” (200).

  5. See, however, Glennis Stephenson's treatment of love (91-116) and Holly Laird's discussion of Barrett Browning's approach to generic questions (371-83). Both make the case for Barrett Browning's intellectual grasp of the issues she raises.

  6. Most critics either disregard Aurora Leigh's foreign origins altogether (Gelpi, Steinmetz, Donaldson) or, like Gilbert and Gubar (575), Kaplan (4), Mermin (183), and Leighton (116), they dispense with her Italian birth and upbringing in a sentence or two. Rosenblum notes Aurora Leigh's “tainted lineage” (329), choosing words suggesting a negative interpretation of her ethnic origins and thus adopting—perhaps unintentionally—the prejudicial slant of Aurora's aunt.

  7. Most nineteenth-century feminists took issue with Rousseau's argument, which they knew either directly from reading Emile or indirectly through their contemporaries who continued to use variations of Rousseau's argument throughout the nineteenth century. See Ellen Moers (151-58). See also Kaplan's discussion of the parallel “liberal ‘separate but equal’ argument” in contemporary Victorian journals (9). For an astute commentary on these debates, see the collection of articles in Nature, Culture and Gender, edited by Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (1980).

  8. Rousseau's views on women's education are shaped by his conviction that women play an inferior, subordinate role to their male partners: The whole education of women ought to relate to men. “To please men, to be useful to them, to make herself loved and honored by them to make their lives agreeable and sweet—these are the duties of women at all times, and they ought to be taught from childhood” (365).

    Rousseau argues that women's roles are restricted to the private, domestic sphere where they are enjoined to live healthy lives and to bring forth “robust” male children. Men's roles, by contrast, consist of active participation in public and political life (366). Rousseau's groundbreaking—and anti-bourgeois—treatise thus helped to legitimize philosophically the doctrine of separate spheres, which, ironically, became a key tenet in the ideology of the very bourgeoisie Rousseau so bitterly detested.

  9. See Mermin (191), Gilbert and Gubar (19), Rosenblum (328-29), Steinmetz (354-55), Gelpi (40-41), and Leighton (120-21). Leighton speaks of the “distrust and antagonism towards the figure of the mother,” which is “vented in Aurora's confused, horrified attitude to her mother's portrait” (121). Only Kaplan suggests, briefly, that the absence of the mother could be seen in a positive sense as the absence of an enforcer of cultural norms (19).

  10. See Rosenblum, for whom the portrait is “a phantasmagoria of all the projections of female identity” (328) from which Aurora must free herself, and Leighton (121). See, however, Kaplan, who notes that the images do not determine the child's view of women (19).

  11. See Kaplan's comment: “Aurora's eccentric education in antipatriarchal attitudes equips her more fully for the life she will eventually lead than a traditional upbringing” (20). Gilbert and Gubar note, “Partly because of her un-English and therefore unconventional childhood, Aurora refuses to submit to her aunt's strictures” (575). Neither study pursues this line of argument further, however.

  12. Leighton refers to “threatening” women figures who express the author's—and Aurora's—fear of women and femininity, and she speaks of the author's “antagonism toward the figure of the mother” (120-21). See also Steinmetz and Rosenblum. A key problem in the above studies is the inadequate definition of terms. In arguing that the author rejects “motherhood,” they fail to note that she rejects only stereotypical patriarchal views of motherhood.

  13. Steinmetz's view of the aunt as a “mother substitute” (353) whose death represents the author's and Aurora's rejection of a mother or mother surrogate represents a misreading of the carefully and consciously constructed figure of the aunt. Although they do not see the aunt as an inverted angel in the house, Mermin and Gilbert and Gubar are much more to the point. Mermin sees the aunt as the type “who betrays her daughter by inculcating subservience to men” (192), and Gilbert and Gubar refer to her accurately—and wittily—as “patriarchy's agent in ‘breeding’ young ladies for decorous domesticity” (575).

  14. According to anthropologist Carol MacCormack, “Ideas about nature and culture are not value free. The ‘myth’ of nature is a system of arbitrary signs which relies on a social consensus for meaning” (6). Barrett Browning's restructuring of the myth of nature implicitly recognizes that, as MacCormack comments, “words such as ‘nature’ are polysemic, having many implicit meanings” (9), and that the metaphor or analogy may be extended or restructured to reveal hitherto unexplored meanings. For an excellent overview of recent studies, see MacCormack (1-25).

  15. See particularly Sherry Ortner's discussion of the nature-culture and corresponding male-female dichotomy in “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” See particularly MacCormack's critique of Ortner, Lévi-Strauss, and others (6-19). MacCormack makes the case that the traditional binary paradigm cannot be assumed to be a universal model representing universal values: “There is no way to absolutely verify that the nature-culture opposition exists as the essential feature of universal unconscious structure.” Since it is “not a universal feature of consciously held folk models” in other cultures (10), the assumption that the traditional Western view of the male-female dichotomy is universal is at best poorly grounded. MacCormack concludes: “The meanings attributed to male and female are as arbitrary as the meanings attributed to nature and culture” (18), and she argues explicitly—as Barrett Browning argues implicitly throughout Book One of Aurora Leigh—for a restructuring of our approach to gender relationships so we may recognize and escape the limitations imposed by the traditionalist binary paradigm.

  16. See Susan Crane's discussion of certain forms of “antagonistic” courtship ritual as verbally mimicking ritualized male-to-male combat in Romantic literature: “Courtship in romance, configured as combat's metaphoric recasting follows the logic of chivalric encounters in which adversarial struggle gives way to accord” (47). In Aurora Leigh, the expected “accord” is deferred until the conclusion of the novel when it can be brought about in nonconventional terms.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. Cora Kaplan. London: Woman's Press, 1978.

Bremer, Klaus-Jürgen. Montesquieus “Lettres persanes” und Cadalsos “Cartas Marruecas”: Eine Gegenüberstellung von zwei pseudo-orientalischen Briefsatiren. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1971.

Case, Alison. “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 29.1 (Spring 1991): 17-32.

Crane, Susan. Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Donaldson, Sandra. “Motherhood's Advent in Power: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems about Motherhood.” Victorian Poetry 18.1 (Spring 1980): 51-60.

Gelpi, Barbara C. “Aurora Leigh: Vocation of the Woman Poet.” Victorian Poetry 19.1 (Spring 1981): 35-48.

Gilbert, Sandra M. “From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento.” PMLA 99.2 (Mar. 1984): 194-211.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Kaplan, Cora. Introduction. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. Cora Kaplan. London: Woman's Press, 1978: 5-36.

Laird, Holly. “Aurora Leigh: An Epical Arts Poetica.” Writing and the Woman Artist: Essays of Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture. Ed. Suzanne Jones. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978: 371-88.

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1986.

MacCormack, Carol. “Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique.” Nature, Culture and Gender. Eds. Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Woman, Culture and Society. Eds. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974: 67-88.

Reynolds, Kimberly and Nicola Humble. Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Rosenblum, Dolores. “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry.” Victorian Studies 26.3 (Spring 1983): 321-38.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, or On Education. Trans and ed. Allan Bloom. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Steinmetz, Virginia V. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 21.4 (Winter 1983): 351-67.

Stephenson, Glennis. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1989.

Alison A. Case (essay date 1999)

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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 restrictions imposed on her by a male poetic tradition.1 The novel, with its long tradition of female authors and protagonists, provided a less anxious precedent for a poetic narrative centered on a woman than the unrelentingly masculine tradition of epic poetry. But viewing the novel form as a largely unproblematic release from more strictly gendered poetic genres obscures the more problematic aspects of novelistic convention and its impact on Aurora Leigh. In particular, in producing a story narrated by its artist-heroine, Barrett Browning had to work within and against the conventions of feminine narration.

If Barrett Browning broke up the conventions of epic poetry with her novel in verse, she also transgressed the conventions of the novel, and by more than her employment of poetic meter and flights of poetic language. Indeed, the sense among both Barrett Browning's contemporaries and modern critics that Aurora Leigh is “unwieldy” and “shapeless” as a novel2 suggests that Barrett Browning was taking on novelistic conventions concerning plot structure and control of narrative that she was unable to fulfill according to a novel-reader's expectations. Most disruptive of such expectations are her first-person narrator Aurora's confusing switches between retrospective and present-tense narration. C. Castan, for example, in the most extensive discussion to date of the work's narration, concludes that the “complaints” of some nineteenth-century critics about the novel's narration are “understandable,” since “Mrs. Browning did not have the narrative skill to solve the problem that she set herself in writing Aurora Leigh.3 But I will argue that Aurora Leigh's violations of novelistic genre, too, are a response to restrictions that generic conventions imposed on the expression of female artistic self-determination. The narrative confusions result from the coexistence of two seemingly incompatible plots: a female Künstlerroman and a feminine love story, for both of which Aurora serves as heroine-narrator. In the former, she confidently traces her intellectual and moral development as an artist in a retrospective mode; in the latter, she reveals to the reader, through the twists and turns of her more immanent and less self-aware narration, the self-delusions and misunderstandings that the plot will clear away to make possible her reunion with Romney.

Each narrative mode is suited to its particular plot. A first-person Künstlerroman, for example, ideally exemplifies the very artistic mastery whose acquisition it recounts.4 A conventional love story of the period, by contrast, typically offers us either a “perfect” heroine whose happiness is withheld through accidents or the machinations of others, or an “imperfect” heroine who overcomes her faults (usually pride and self-will) through a series of mortifications, and thereby becomes worthy to marry the hero. Both patterns (and Aurora Leigh participates in both) derive much of their pleasure from our participation in the heroine's naively unsuspecting state of mind at any given point in the story. They are hence well-suited to narrative forms that separate teleological narrative ordering from the protagonist's consciousness, whether omniscient third-person narration or forms of feminine narration such as letters or diaries. Like the feminine narrator, the conventional love-heroine, whether she narrates or not, is closed out of conscious participation in the hermeneutic and proairetic codes that structure the novel, while remaining subject to them.5 It is in this sense that Aurora, particularly in the later books, can be termed unreliable as a narrator.

The conflict between Aurora's dual literary roles itself represents a deeper tension within the text: that between the impulse to rebel against the restrictions of the traditional role of Victorian womanhood—an impulse that in the early books places a defiant Aurora squarely in the position of the traditionally male artist-hero—and the desire to co-opt the ideological power of that role, to form her “perfect artist” on the foundation of a culturally recognizable “perfect woman.” As many feminist critics have argued, Barrett Browning's novel-poem enacts a triumphant reconciliation of woman and artist, which necessarily rejects many aspects of the conventional Victorian dichotomy between femininity and artistic power.6 But its blissful denouement does not resolve all of the tensions between love-heroine and artist-heroine that it lays to rest. I would suggest that Barrett Browning's juggling of narrative modes does not so much reconcile these conflicting roles and impulses as allow them an uneasy coexistence.

Aurora Leigh presents itself in the first few lines as a retrospective first-person narrative, written by the narrator as part of an effort to make sense or order out of her own life:

I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will now write for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.(7)

In its declaration of a plan to write a “story” of one's life, this opening is analogous to that of David Copperfield, the other prominent first-person Künstlerroman of the Victorian period. Both promise not just an account of the events of a life, but a work of art of a recognizable form: David will produce a story that demands a “hero,” while Aurora will produce something analogous to a “portrait.” Both, too, posit a potential “other” central to this production, who may or may not be identical with the self who narrates: David suggests that “the hero of [his] own life” may prove to be someone other than himself, while Aurora ambiguously compares or associates her “better self” with a “friend” who has “ceased to love” her. Finally, the two are parallel in the ambiguity they suggest about whether the self-understanding that will provide coherence to the story—the “hero of my own life” whom David Copperfield expects his tale to identify; the “self” that Aurora writes to “hold together”—is the foundation for the narrative or only a hoped-for result of its composition (“these pages must show”).8

But the ambiguities of Aurora Leigh's opening are deeper and more troubling than those of David Copperfield's, for they threaten more profoundly our sense of what the “story” Aurora means to write will be about. Aurora's immediate self-identification as a successful writer—the first I of the novel-poem is one who has “written much in prose and verse”—asks that we be conscious of the work's status as a highly crafted literary autobiography; in other words, that we read with a certain faith in the narrator-poet's literary control. Doing so, we are presented with a complex metaphor for a self-consciously created and yet internally divided self. While narrative self-portraiture promises to reconcile past with present—to “hold together” what the poet “was and is,” and thereby create a unified self—the metaphor as a whole still leaves open the problem of how to reconcile the deeper self-alienation implied in the narrator's comparison of her “better self” to a “friend” who has “ceased to love” her.

At the same time, the oddness of the comparison, and particularly the fact that the “friend” is male, invites a counterreading: that behind the advertised story of artistic self-creation lies a tale of thwarted or denied romantic love. And this in turn undermines our faith in the poet-narrator's artistic control, her understanding of the shape or meaning of her story. It asks us to read her, not as a poet shaping her life into a work of art, but as a woman who does not know her own mind. The point is not that we must or do decide to read the work one way or the other. It is rather that the ambiguities inherent in the work's opening already reflect the tensions of dual narrative possibilities.

And in fact the narration of Aurora Leigh does not remain, like that of David Copperfield, consistently retrospective. Aurora writes herself into the present early in book 5. From there the narrative proceeds at times with a diary-like immediacy, as in her comment,

It always makes me sad to go abroad,
And now I'm sadder that I went to-night,
Among the lights and talkers at Lord Howe's.


and at times from a perspective somewhere in the future, the exact location of which is often difficult to determine.9 The vantage point from which Aurora delivers the account of her early life and development as an artist, then, is not, as the conventions of pseudo-autobiographical novels like David Copperfield would lead us to expect, somewhere at or beyond the satisfactory conclusion of her adventures.

At least one contemporary reviewer was considerably annoyed by these narratological mixed signals:

It is difficult to conjecture at what epoch of the story the book purports to have been written. It does not seem to have been written in the form of a journal, while the events were taking place; nor yet after the story was completed. It opens, indeed, as if this latter were the case … and the reader supposes that she had it all in her mind at that moment. When she says, therefore, in regard to Romney Leigh, “I attest / The conscious skies and all their daily suns, / I think I loved him not … nor then, nor since … / Nor ever,” the reader believes it.

In the third book we find her sitting, a maiden lady and an authoress, reading letters and commenting upon them … and the reader thinks that that is where the story must have left her; and though it looks very much as if she were in love with her cousin, yet he must be mistaken about it. Notwithstanding all this, she says in the last book: “I love you, loved you … loved you first and last, / And love you on forever. Now I know / I loved you always, Romney.” This contradiction confuses the reader, and he feels almost as if he were trifled with.10

The problem for this reviewer is not just that Aurora is unreliable as a narrator: the narrators of epistolary or journal-style novels, for example, often jump to conclusions about the state of their own feelings that later events call into question, and even the most authoritative retrospective narrators sometimes engage in what looks like emotional self-deception, as in David Copperfield's assertions of his abiding love and tenderness for Dora. But the one thing retrospective narrators can always be expected to know is the way events or feelings are tending—however little they may want to tell us about them. They are expected to have the interpretive advantage of hindsight, and to use that knowledge to guide the reader's responses and expectations. When Copperfield says that he sometimes wishes Emily had drowned when they were both children, for example, we may not know exactly why, but we know enough to be on our guard about Emily. By the same token, this reviewer complains, when the narrator of Aurora Leigh assures us that she did not and never would love Romney, the reader ought to be able to feel reasonably assured that whatever this book may prove to be about, it will not be the love story of Aurora and Romney Leigh. But of course, this is precisely what the novel, by the end, turns out to be.

It is easy to dismiss such a response as naive: there are a number of hints in the first few books of the poem that Aurora's feelings for Romney run deeper than she claims. But the reviewer has hit upon a real difficulty: at the point in the narrative where it occurs, Aurora's implicit claim of retrospective reliability asks that we take her renunciation of Romney at face value—a task that is made easier by her comparatively unerotic presentation of him. But if we do so, like the reviewer, we find our assumptions and narrative expectations rudely disrupted when the narrative perspective changes and the romantic plot assumes greater prominence later on. On the other hand, if we have been made suspicious by the hints of romantic self-deception in this section, or (more likely) if we already know how the novel will end, the disturbing dissonance between the claim of narrative authority and our sense of the actual direction of the narrative remains. As in the opening lines, we seem left with a choice between denying the romantic plot (only to find that we have been deceived) and denying the artistic/narrative mastery that validates the Künstlerroman.

The reviewer initially suggests authorial “carelessness” as the reason for his confusion—again, attributing the problem to Barrett Browning's imperfect command of novelistic conventions—but his complaint at the end of the paragraph that “the reader” feels “almost … trifled with” hints at his suspicion of an intent to deceive, a hint abandoned in the absence of any sense of what purpose such a deception might serve.11 But I would argue that there is a purpose to the deception—or to what is, at least, a temporary confusion—Aurora's narration creates, and it has to do, again, with the two kinds of stories that Aurora Leigh is telling: it is no coincidence that the central confusion created by Aurora Leigh's narrative oddities concerns that essential element in any novel about a young woman—her romantic entanglements and matrimonial fate.

In a male Künstlerroman like David Copperfield, love and artistic achievement can be made to coincide relatively easily: the male artist's lady-love can always be subordinated to or integrated into his artistic life as assistant or as inspirational muse—as Dora supplying David with pens, or as Agnes, pointing him upwards to ever-greater moral heights in life and art. The social and literary conventions by which the beloved woman finds her ultimate purpose in the man she loves—and therefore in his concerns—make for an easy integration of romantic love and male self-fulfillment. But when the sexes of artist and beloved are reversed, the conventions of the marriage-plot work against the artist's needs. For the woman to lose herself in love, to subordinate her interests and aspirations to those of her lover, necessarily means foregoing the self-exploration and intellectual independence that are needed to develop as an artist. For the author simply to reverse genders, to create a submissive and self-sacrificing male lover prepared to devote himself to his wife's career, generates problems of its own, running as it does against literary codes of acceptable and attractive masculinity.12

This conflict between romance and vocation, indeed, is the subject of Aurora's and Romney's great argument in book 2. Romney asks his cousin to abandon poetry to help him in his social projects with her love and “fellowship / Through bitter duties” (2.354-55), explaining that, as a woman, she is “weak for art” but “strong / For life and duty” (2.372-75). Aurora, in her defiant reply, contrasts herself with the kind of woman likely to respond to such a plea to “Love and work with me”:

                                        Women of a softer mood,
Surprised by men when scarcely awake to life,
Will sometimes hear only the first word, love,
And catch up with it any sort of work,
Indifferent, so that dear love go with it.


Such women may make “heaven's saints” (2.450)—not to mention good heroines for male novels—but their way is at odds with Aurora's own developmental agenda as a would-be artist: as she insists to Romney,

                                        me your work
Is not the best for,—nor your love the best,
Nor able to commend the kind of work
For love's sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir,
To be over-bold in speaking of myself:
I too have my vocation,—work to do,
The heavens and earth have set me since I changed
My father's face for theirs, and, though your world
Were twice as wretched as you represent
Most serious work, most necessary work.


We can see then, why it was important for Aurora to reject Romney at the time of his proposal—he demands her vocation with her love, and she is only—perhaps—prepared to give him the latter. But why should it be important to convince the reader, with all the authority of a retrospective narrator, that she “loved him not,—nor then, nor since, / Nor ever”? (2.713-14).

Narrators, of course, do more than tell the reader where things are heading; they also have to suggest what they will mean, and the two functions are closely intertwined. The stopping point of a novel becomes its center of value as well, the telos of a character's adventures—a convergence neatly signaled by the dual meaning of the term end. The point of view at which a hero or heroine arrives will tend, by its mere position, to represent the truth, in relation to which earlier deviations can be seen as error. Part of what a retrospective first-person narrator does, then, in establishing a relationship between events narrated and the end of the novel, is to signal a state of error—as David Copperfield does, for example, through his parodic account of his infatuation with Dora.

This pattern of making the end point a center of value from which all previous positions are seen as error is readily apparent at the end of Aurora Leigh. After many misunderstandings, both trivial and profound, Aurora and Romney are united, and the meaning of their lives is seen retroactively to lie in the struggle to bring art, love, and social improvement into relation with each other—a struggle that achieves symbolic success in their marriage. This truth established, both lovers rush to attribute all previous deviations from it to grievous error. Even before the clearing away of imagined obstacles on both sides has made it possible for Aurora and Romney to declare their love, Aurora suggests that, while she was “right upon the whole” (8.536) about the social value of art, she may have been wrong to reject him quite so vehemently (8.496-99).

By the time their love has been declared, Aurora's recantation of her birthday speech is virtually complete. She was “wrong in most,” she confesses: wrong to see his love for her as selfish or limited, to question his “power to judge / For me, Aurora” (9.630-31), and to insist on using her own gifts “according to my pleasure and my choice” (9.633). In the course of this repudiation, Aurora ultimately turns her back on all the most forcefully stated claims of that original speech: she wishes now that she had been “a woman like the rest / A simple woman who believes in love” (9.660-61) and castigates herself for having taken offense that Romney

                                        sought a wife
To use … to use! O Romney, O my love,
I am changed since then, changed wholly,—for indeed
If now you'd stoop so low to take my love
And use it roughly, without stint or spare,
As men use common things with more behind
(And in this, ever would be more behind)
To any mean and ordinary end,—
The joy would set me like a star, in heaven,
So high up, I would shine because of height
And not of virtue.


Such a full repudiation of the position taken in her youth may be necessary given the symbolic weight Aurora and Romney carry in the poem. As mere individuals, they might reasonably be seen as having only now changed and matured to the point where it was possible for them to love each other, but as representatives of the artist and the social idealist, their love needs to be seen as inevitable, foreordained. Aurora must have “always loved” Romney, because art must always need the connection to human strivings that he represents. That this should apparently entail embracing a position of feminine subservience to her husband's aims can be better understood in the light of Deirdre David's work on Barrett Browning's beliefs about the social role of the woman artist, beliefs David tellingly argues are more conservative than feminist critics have been willing to acknowledge.13

The thoroughness of Aurora's repudiation here of her earlier choice to reject Romney in favor of her artistic vocation should also begin to make clear how Aurora Leigh's peculiar narrative form came about. It is difficult to imagine how the Aurora of the conclusion could have narrated the scene in the garden with anything like the emphasis and conviction it deserved. It would have to emerge as the foolish and arrogant mistake she now believes it to be—to be represented, at best, with the gentle, distancing irony David Copperfield employs toward his own early errors. But in fact, Aurora's early conviction that art matters more than Romney is crucial to her development—not simply as an erroneous and misguided position the discovery of which will later make her repose more gladly in the truth; it is also the precondition of her development as an artist, and hence what makes possible the later position from which she can repudiate it. However mistaken Aurora may be about the state of her own unconscious feelings for Romney, she seems essentially right in her assessment of her own vocational needs: the poem itself is proof of that. She is right, too, in seeing marriage to Romney as likely to compromise seriously her artistic aspirations: while Aurora later casts herself as having unfairly distorted Romney's good intentions (as indeed she later often does), his own words here condemn him as arrogantly dismissive of Aurora's artistic efforts or prospects, and contemptuous of any suggestions that she may have plans of her own for easing the world's miseries. He does not even glance at the book of her poetry he finds, convinced that, even if it is better than the average woman's work, it can still have little to offer:

The chances are that, being a woman, young
And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes,
You write as well … and ill … upon the whole,
As other women. If as well, what then?
If even a little better, … still, what then?


Romney here represents the whole weight of male social authority, discouraging women from writing by assuring them that anything they do will inevitably be second-rate. It is a position he takes up quite self-consciously, as he ventriloquizes for Aurora the kind of critical response she can expect for her work:

                                        “Oh excellent,
What grace, what facile turns, what fluent sweeps,
What delicate discernment … almost thought!
The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women, competent to … spell.”


It is hence as symbolically necessary for Aurora to reject Romney the male critic at the outset, and prove herself independently as an artist, as it is at the end of the novel for her to realize she has “always” loved Romney the social idealist. Furthermore, to prevent the scene from being undercut by the undeniable foolishness of Aurora's position—she has been caught in the act of crowning herself with ivy and imagining herself as a great poet before she has fairly begun to create, and she defends her fledgling genius to Romney with all the high seriousness of someone who fully intends to become a great artist—it is important that the scene be narrated with all the authority of a now-accomplished artist, a later self who sees this moment, foolishness and all, as a crucially right choice in her own development.

Thus while the view from the conclusion would see Aurora's error as lying in her rejection of Romney—reunion with him being the telos of the novel as a whole—when the scene is narrated from a perspective that recognizes as an end the fulfillment of artistic talent, the configuration of error and truth is crucially different. The error now lies primarily in Aurora's foolish optimism about her own art. Writing “false poems” that she believes to be “true,” (1.1023) and accomplishing “mere lifeless imitations of live verse” (1.974), she sees the struggle of the artist as an easier one than her later self knows it to be, and crowns herself too soon. But even this foolishness is in some sense necessary for her later success: the bad verse is a useful apprenticeship, and without her artistic overconfidence she might never have braved the critical odds against the woman artist. Aurora's self-caricature in her account of her early artistic efforts is, significantly, as close to that of David Copperfield as anything in Aurora Leigh—it is the laughter of a narrator who sees in his or her earlier foolishness one's own best qualities: David's loving trustfulness, Aurora's artistic seriousness and aspiring soul.

What begins to emerge from Aurora Leigh, then, are two different kinds of story, which have in turn two different kinds of narration. The first, which corresponds roughly with the first four books of the poem, is the Künstlerroman. It is told as a fully conceived, retrospective narrative: as the reviewer says, “she had it all in her mind at that moment.” The form and subject here complement each other, the reader's sense of the narrator's conceptual control of her story, her authority over it, contributing as much to a belief in the tale's telos—successful authorship—as the events of the story itself. If we are aware of a potential counternarrative in her relations with Romney, it remains a dormant or subordinate one, precisely because of the narrator's conviction that it is tangential to the most important trajectory of her life: her development as an artist.

In book 5, the novel shifts both its subject matter and its mode of narration. At the opening of this book, Aurora makes her most forceful and coherent statement of what art in her age can and should be. She chides fellow poets for preferring a romanticized distant past to the heroism and beauty of the everyday present, speaking as someone confident both of her abilities and of her right to judge her fellow artists. Unsurprisingly, this section of the poem is frequently cited as Barrett Browning's own poetic manifesto. Thus, while Aurora expresses frustration with the shortcomings of her own artistic efforts, complaining that “what I do falls short of what I see” (5.345), it is clear that this is the frustration of the accomplished artist who cannot be satisfied with anything less than unattainable perfection. Indeed, even these frustrations, as they force Aurora to “set myself to art” (5.350), eventually issue forth in a work that Aurora implies is the long-awaited masterpiece: “Behold, at last, a book” (5.352).

But if Aurora's position as an artist is now as self-assured as it can be without casting doubt on her perfectionism, her emotional state is much more unclear. And as Aurora makes explicit in her discussion of her fellow poets Graham, Belmore, and Gage, the reasons for this have to do with the conflicts between her gender and her role as artist. While Aurora insists that she “never envied” these male poets for their “native gifts” or “popular applause” (5.505-17), she confesses to envying them for the adoring women who provide emotional support for their work and fill out the void in their personal lives: Belmore has a girl who, hearing him praised, “Smiles unaware as if a guardian saint / Smiled in her”; Gage's mother murmurs wonderingly, “Well done,” at each “prodigal review” of his new work, as unthinkingly proud of his poetry now as she was of his “childish spelling-book” years before, while Graham has “a wife who loves [him] so, / She half forgets, at moments, to be proud / Of being Graham's wife” (5.524-37).

Aurora herself suggests that the emotional lack she feels is that of orphanhood, but it is hard to see how either Aurora's silencing mother—whose only remembered words are “Hush—here's too much noise” (1.17)—or her melancholic, intellectual father could provide the kind of self-effacing, unconditional adoration these male poets receive from mother, lover, or wife.14 The passage points rather to Aurora's frustration at the gap her gender creates between artistic and emotional self-fulfillment—between the happy ending of a Künstlerroman and that of a love story.15 Indeed, in case we miss the connection, Aurora immediately shifts to a forcedly casual mention of the fact that she has “not seen Romney Leigh / Full eighteen months … add six, you get two years” (5.572-73). The passage thus makes an appropriate transition from one tale to the other—from the quest for artistic achievement and recognition to that for emotional fulfillment. The quest will lead her (unwittingly) first to Marian Erle, who with her “dog-like” (4.281) devotion seems a potential stand-in for the adoring women Aurora feels the lack of, and finally to Romney Leigh.

The discussion at the opening of book 5 not only marks the transition in subject matter from Künstlerroman to love story, it also, significantly, marks the switch to a different mode of narration. The peculiar account of time in the passage quoted above—with the poet apparently noting with ellipses a lapse of six months during which the manuscript had been abandoned literally midline—suggests a more immediate relation between the narrator and her tale. Immediately afterward, Aurora refers to “tonight['s]” events, and from here until the end of the novel, her narration approximates most closely to that of a journal, written, as she says at the end, “day by day” (9.725), sometimes in the immediacy of strong emotion—as when, after discovering Marian in Paris, she has to break off writing because her “hand's a-tremble” (6.416)—and sometimes with a degree of calm retrospection. Just as the retrospective narrative of the preceding portion of the novel-poem exemplifies the artistic control the acquisition of which it recounts, so here Aurora's more fragmented narrative reflects a certain lack of control and an absence of conscious purpose appropriate to her problematic relationship to the love plot.

Of course, the division between narrative modes is not absolute. As I have mentioned, there are buried strains in the early account of Aurora's dealings with Romney. The tensions between romantic involvement and artistic control show themselves in other ways with the introduction of Marian Erle and Lady Waldemar in books 3 and 4. From the beginning of book 3, in which the narrator lapses briefly into present tense to hint at her unhappiness—claiming that she has grown “cross” and “pettish” (3.35-36) for reasons she does not elaborate—Aurora's artistic self-confidence and determination begin to run parallel with an emotional dissatisfaction and even a certain self-distrust, as when she chides herself for failing to warn Romney and Marian about Lady Waldemar. This loss of control takes its most interesting artistic toll in the form of some curiously misused metaphors in book 4. In the first, Aurora attempts to account for her feeling of awkwardness with Romney by comparing the two of them to two clocks:

Perhaps we had lived too closely, to diverge
So absolutely: leave two clocks, they say,
Wound up to different hours, upon one shelf,
And slowly, through the interior wheels of each,
The blind mechanic motion sets itself
A-throb to feel out for the mutual time.


But, she goes on, “It was not so with us, indeed: while he / Struck midnight, I kept striking six at dawn” (4.426-27). The point of the metaphor seems to be to demonstrate its inapplicability to herself and Romney, as if its very inappropriateness would account for her discomfort.

Later, Aurora attempts to comfort Romney after Marian's disappearance by assuring him that Marian,

                                        “however lured from place,
Deceived in way, keeps pure in aim and heart
As snow that's drifted from the garden bank
To the open road.”


Romney is quick to point out the flaw in her comparison:

“The figure's happy. Well—a dozen carts
And trampers will secure you presently
A fine white snow-drift. Leave it there, your snow:
Twill pass for soot ere sunset.”


In both instances, Aurora introduces a comparison that seems curiously at odds with her intention, as each points to an end—in the first, reunion with Romney, in the second, defilement for Marian—that is the direct opposite of the situation it is intended to illuminate. Interestingly, the “mistake” in each metaphor lies not in Aurora's initial comparison but in the ending she assigns to its implicit “plot”: the clocks that should align themselves remain discrepant; the snow remains pure in a place where in fact it would be defiled. What is most significant about these mistaken metaphors is not simply the unconscious desires they presumably reveal (desires that the novel goes on to fulfill), but the fact that such desires should reveal themselves precisely in a lapse of artistic control—of the poet's power to make metaphors. The metaphors hence provide brief hints of a narrator not fully conscious of her own ends.

It is no coincidence that some of the most distinctive disturbances of Aurora's retrospective authority should be associated with Marian Erle and Lady Waldemar. Like Helen Burns and Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, the two figures represent Barrett Browning's engagement not only with the angel/whore dichotomy of Victorian culture, but with the artless/artful split that is its narratological equivalent. Initially the two figures appear to work to consolidate Aurora's status as master-narrator on a masculine model: Aurora appropriates and retells the artless Marian's story, highlighting its moral significance, broader social implications, and redemptive trajectory of plot in ways Marian is presumed to be unable to formulate for herself. Meanwhile, she frames the artful Lady Waldemar's speeches in terms that invite suspicious reading, calling attention to their duplicity and hidden “plots.” But unlike Helen and Bertha, Marian and Lady Waldemar both come to resist (with different degrees of success) their status as the feminine props of Aurora's narrative mastery, as both eventually offer narratives that explicitly contradict Aurora's readings of their characters, the meaning of their actions, and the appropriate endings of their plots. These resistant narratives not only disrupt Aurora's sense of narrative control (it is after one such episode, Marion's account of her rape, that Aurora confesses her “hand's a-tremble” as she writes), they also materially affect the end of Aurora's story: Marian's new self-understanding releases Romney from the obligation to marry her, while Lady Waldemar's embittered reflections help to reveal to Aurora the denied love between herself and Romney.

Aurora's eroded control over the ends of her narrative becomes more pronounced once the retrospective portion of the narrative stops. The relationship of events to the novel's ending—in other words, Aurora's continuing state of error—can no longer be signaled authoritatively by Aurora herself, as she now writes from a position of immersion in events rather than of confident hindsight. Instead, Aurora as narrator is continually revealed as unreliable, in error, both through her conspicuous repressions and denials regarding her feelings for Romney, and through the reversals in her dealings with Marian, in which she must confess to her own hasty misjudgments.

The best example of the former is Aurora's prolonged attempt to come to terms with Romney's (supposed) new engagement to Lady Waldemar, news of which she has picked up at Lord Howe's evening party. This section is apparently written immediately after her return—the party is referred to as having occurred “tonight”—and it shows Aurora in the very process of assessing and resolving her feelings by writing about them. Her reflections continually change direction, as she recognizes the significance of what she has already written and then pauses to redirect her thoughts. She opens, for example, with an effort to attribute her unhappiness after the event to a general discomfort with such occasions—“It always makes me sad to go abroad” (5.579)—but by the end of her poetic reproduction of the evening's conversation it has become clear to her that the real source of discomfort is Lady Waldemar:

                                                  The charming woman there—
This reckoning up and writing down her talk
Affects me singularly.


Aurora goes on to attribute this to what she sees as Lady Waldemar's genius for indirect social torture, but eventually pauses again to reflect:

And after all now … why should I be pained
That Romney Leigh, my cousin, should espouse
This Lady Waldemar?


From here she launches into an elaborate series of reflections on marriage, men, and Romney in particular, in an attempt to confront this “pain” and resign herself to the marriage. In the course of these, she examines and rejects every possible ground for objecting to Romney's marriage except the one that naturally presents itself to a reader—personal jealousy. That her attempt at resignation has ultimately failed is made clear by the broken, halting tone of her conclusion—

And then at worst,—if Romney loves her not,—
At worst—if he's incapable of love,
Which may be—then indeed, for such a man
Incapable of love, she's good enough;
For she, at worst too, is a woman still
And loves him … as the sort of woman can.


—and by her sense of physical irritation and discomfort at the close: “My loose long hair began to burn and creep, / Alive to the very ends, about my knees” (5.1126-27).

The repression and confusion that this passage reflects, the alternating suggestion and denial of romantic interest in the man being discussed, make the narration here closest to that of the heroines of epistolary novels. As innocent girls, such narrators are expected to be unable to hide or repress their tender feelings; as well-bred young women, however, they are not supposed to acknowledge, or even be fully conscious of, romantic feelings that are not (yet) reciprocated or approved. To the extent that, like Clarissa, they are being presented as morally serious and intelligent, such heroines often go through the kind of elaborate self-questioning and efforts at resignation that we see here, but as in Aurora's case, these reflections are often at least as significant for what is not recognized or acknowledged as for what is—for what they witness to, rather than what they consciously intend to convey. Aurora has become a feminine narrator.

Such a narrator, as we have seen, necessarily has a fundamentally different relationship, to her story and to a reader, from the authoritative retrospective narrator to which we were initially introduced. In essence, we are asked to read against her more than with her. Instead of trusting the narrator to signal the shape her own life is to take, we focus on the gap between narrator and implied author, and trust the author to make the narrator betray herself, to signal the novel's telos between the lines of her own ignorance. And with the loss of the power of narrative ordering, Aurora also comes to seem less the plotter of her own fate and more its passive object; it is no coincidence that the end of the novel sees such a concentration of accidental misunderstandings, missed meetings, and other twists of fate. Inevitably, the novel's satisfactory resolution comes to seem more the doing of the author acting as deus ex machina than of the narrator.

Herein lies one of the most recalcitrant discomforts of Aurora Leigh. Even after its sources and purposes have been traced, the contradiction between Aurora's initial “I loved him not, nor then, nor since, nor ever” and her later “I loved you always” remains as unsettling to modern feminist readers as it was to that early reviewer, for it points to a deeper contradiction between Aurora's self-confident, bitingly insightful argument for her right to vocational self-determination and her abject retroactive repudiation of that right after her reunion with Romney.16 Barrett Browning puts this repudiation in a context that ensures that it is materially irrelevant to Aurora's fate, since it is matched (after she has made it) by Romney's own implicit disavowal of the right he earlier claimed to “use” Aurora for his own ends. Indeed, it is now he, moved by the power of her poetry, who will provide the kind of full-time emotional support for her work he once asked her to provide for his: “[W]ork for two,” he tells her, “As I … for two, shall love!” (9.911-12). I do not wish to underestimate the power and importance of this final vision of a nonhierarchical union between a man and a woman. But this balance is not Aurora's compromise. While Barrett Browning's plot balances, against Aurora's unconditional self-abasement to Romney, Romney's own change of heart, her artist-narrator cannot reaffirm, in the face of romantic fulfillment, her right to have held out for that balance—calling instead for women to “believe in love” as a power to overcome the romantic/vocational contradictions she has experienced. The shift from the story of Aurora's artistic achievement to that of her romantic fulfillment is accompanied by a shift to a feminized narrative mode that distances Aurora from the shaping of her own fate. Yet, significantly, the same narrative shift is what allows her earlier affirmation to remain within the novel-poem in all its original force, in the form of Aurora's initial retrospective narrative.

Nancy Miller suggests that “implausibilities” of plot in many women's novels represent efforts to express an “ambitious wish,” a “fantasy of power” whose expression is impossible within the patriarchal conventions of the novel, because those conventions permit to female heroines only plots based on erotic wish-fulfillment. “The inscription of this power,” she writes, “is not always easy to decipher,” because it is necessarily covert. “When these modalities of difference are perceived, they are generally called implausibilities. They are not perceived, or are misperceived, because the scripting of this fantasy does not bring the aesthetic ‘forepleasure’ Freud says fantasy scenarios inevitably bring: pleasure bound to recognition and identification, the ‘agreement’ Genette assigns to plausible narrative.”17 Miller's argument about the conventions that govern “plausible” plots could be extended to cover those that govern “consistent” narration, for, as we have seen, the narrative improprieties of Aurora Leigh served to fold into the work its plot of female ambition. Barrett Browning would not, given the conventions she had taken on in writing a novel-poem, throw away altogether the idea of marriage as the required telos of a young woman's story—nor even fully subordinate it to a “higher” aim of artistic achievement. Nor, apparently, could she allow her heroine-narrator the same kind of self-conscious control over the shaping of her romantic experience into narrative as she did over her development as an artist. But the mixed narration of Aurora Leigh did allow her to create a kind of double teleology for the novel, in which the struggle toward artistic independence and success, the plot of poetic “ambition,” could be kept relatively isolated from the undermining influence of the traditional love-story, with its emphasis on female passivity and lack of emotional or sexual self-knowledge, its insistence on loving self-abnegation as the proper “end” of female existence.

Aurora Leigh seems, on the whole, less uniformly successful than Jane Eyre in its challenge to the convention of feminine narration. But it is also more ambitious: Barrett Browning seeks—and apparently achieves—an explicitly public and preacherly authority for her artist-heroine, and at the same time engages more self-consciously and complexly with the counter-figures of the plotting woman and the artless victim, granting them, at least provisionally, the power to speak for themselves.


  1. Mermin, Origins of a New Poetry, ch. 7; Friedman, “Gender and Genre Anxiety”; Stone, “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion.” See also Cooper, Woman and Artist, ch. 6.

  2. Radley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 125.

  3. Castan, “Structural Problems,” 77. Castan's argument transfers to the female author the presumed incapacity for narrative ordering conventionally attributed to feminine narrators.

  4. This is particularly true, of course, of a poet's Künstlerroman written in verse. According to Mermin, “the poetry … proves … by its energy, zest, and exuberance, the heroine's vocation” (Origins of a New Poetry, 215).

  5. See Barthes, S/Z, 17-18.

  6. See especially Cooper, Woman and Artist, and Zonana, “The Embodied Muse.”

  7. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, 1: 2-8. (Subsequently referenced parenthetically in the text.)

  8. Dickens, David Copperfield, 1.

  9. This is particularly the case in the last two books. As Castan establishes, although books 8 and 9 seem to provide an unbroken retrospective record of a single conversation between Aurora and Romney, Aurora makes various present-tense statements early in her narration of it that suggest she does yet not know what will emerge from the conversation later (“Structural Problems,” 76-77).

  10. Review of Aurora Leigh,North American Review 85 (1857): 415-41.

  11. There is also a veiled suggestion of sexual impropriety: the unsuspecting male reader is led astray and then “trifled with” by a woman whose ends are obscure.

  12. Here, as in so many ways, Victorian life was more flexible than its art. Both Barrett Browning and George Eliot, at least, seem to have been able to maintain relationships with men who were substantial figures in their own right without either sacrificing their own commitment to their art or impugning their companions' masculinity.

  13. David, “Woman's Art as Servant of Patriarchy,” 143-58.

  14. Leighton sees this passage as reflecting Aurora's obsession with her absent father, but notes that the invocation “ring[s] false” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 130-31).

  15. Cooper argues that the passage demonstrates to Aurora “her inability to give and take as the male poets … can from their mistresses or wives,” and hence “the fact that love is essential for art” (Woman and Artist, 169-70). But again, these do not seem like relationships of “give and take” so much as examples of women's selfless adoration.

  16. Cooper, acknowledging the discomfort critics such as Kaplan, Gilbert and Gubar, and Showalter have felt with this apparent capitulation, argues that it represents “a logical stage in her maturation,” which Aurora eventually “reject[s]” as a “delusion” (Woman and Artist, 183-84). But this rejection is never indicated in the poem.

  17. Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added,” 41-42.


Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1974.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. Cora Kaplan. London: Women's Press, 1978.

Castan, C. “Structural Problems and the Poetry of Aurora Leigh.Browning Society Notes 7 (1977): 73-81.

Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989.

Friedman, Susan. “Gender and Genre Anxiety: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D. as Epic Poets.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5 (1986): 203-28.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press, 1986.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Miller, Nancy K. “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction.” PMLA 96 (1981): 36-48.

Radley, Virginia. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: Twayne, 1972, 125.

Stone, Marjorie. “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27.

Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1999)

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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 heroine, Elizabeth Barrett was not born in Italy of an English father and a Florentine mother; she was not orphaned at age thirteen, raised by a spinster aunt, or (so far as we know) proposed to by a wealthy English cousin. To pursue her career as a writer, she did not move to London, take up residence in an attic garret, “a chamber up three flights of stairs,” or write “with one hand for the booksellers” to keep body and soul together.1 Nonetheless, critics of all persuasions have read Aurora Leigh, at least in part, as an autobiographical work—in Herbert F. Tucker's formulation, “a veiled autobiography, a reluctant novel, and an aspiring epic.”2 They have done so not from critical naiveté but from a consciousness of the poem's deliberate exploitation of autobiographical conventions, from its fundamental use of first-person narrative and self-reflection to its shrewd alternation of “the standard, postmortem mode of autobiographical finish and the serial mode of the diarist shaping forth a life in running installments.”3

In this chapter I read Aurora Leigh as an autobiography of the English woman poet—not so much analyzing the narrative conventions or techniques on which such readings usually depend, but rather considering the work in its literary and historical contexts as a rewriting of the auto/biographies, fictional and historical, of two major Romantic figures. The first, Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, or “L. E. L,” was one of Barrett Browning's most important female predecessors, perhaps the most prolific maker of biographical portraits of the poetess. The second, William Wordsworth, was the major (male) poet of the century, the author of its most important autobiography tracing the “Growth of a Poet's Mind” and the nineteenth-century predecessor against whom Barrett Browning measured her achievement—“a great poet and true,” as young Barrett declared to Mary Russell Mitford.4 My contention is that, in the opening books of Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning self-consciously revises and corrects the myth of the poetess constructed in L. E. L.'s History of the Lyre (1829), as well as in the spate of biographies of Landon published after the poetess's mysterious death in 1838. In the opening books of Aurora Leigh, moreover, as in the poem's resolution, Barrett Browning grafts onto this feminine tradition a masculine tradition of poetic autobiography represented by Wordsworth's Prelude, published just six years before Aurora Leigh. In both cases, the point is not simply literary allusion or allegiance. Barrett Browning treats the life writing of Romantic poets as preliminary to her own—that is, as “toil co-operant” unto her greater end, as preparing the way, historically and literarily, for the work of the modern poet. In both cases she corrects Romantic paradigms of poetic development, in the process redefining and expanding the woman poet's place and purpose in Victorian literature and culture.

For half a century after Mary Robinson published her Memoirs (1801), no major woman poet, and arguably no minor one, published an autobiography—perhaps because of the scandal of becoming a public spectacle that autobiography entailed, perhaps because so much lyrical poetry was considered autobiographical anyway, perhaps (and most important) because the feminine poetic tradition addressed itself to the myth of the poetess rather than the development of the individual woman writer.5 Autobiographies of women artists and authors necessarily required discussion of professional achievement, of vocation and career—something that early nineteenth-century women poets preferred to avoid. As Marlon B. Ross has argued, “whereas the male romantics [were] anxious to promote the vocational status of poetry-making, the woman poets [were] anxious to suppress the emerging relation between poetic activity and vocation,” preferring instead to envision their writing as a extension of their femininity or domesticity.6 Writing archetypal narratives or creating cultural myths of the poetess, whose verse was conceived as natural inspiration rather than achieved vocation, better suited these women's goals—goals that Barrett Browning meant to abandon.

Much Romantic and early Victorian women's poetry relied, nonetheless, on what we might call “autobiographical associations,” on a conflation or confusion of the poet's self with the figure of the poetess who so frequently appeared in her verse. Poetesses and their publishers often encouraged this conflation through prefatory memoirs that linked biographical details of the poetess's life with segments of her lyric verse or through frontispieces that displayed the woman poet in the stereotypic garb of the poetess (as in …, both frontispieces to Landon's work, the first depicting her as Sapphic poetess, the second as medieval woman troubadour). Laetitia Landon, far more than Felicia Hemans, made this conflation the subject of her poetry as well as a tantalizing enigma of her public career. Landon's major works—from The Improvisatrice (1824) with its Sapphic poetess and The Golden Violet (1826) with its female minstrel from Provence to “Erinna” (1826) and “The Lost Pleiad” (1829) with their innocent young poetesses brought to despair or death by thwarted love—all rework the dominant myths of the poetess, rewriting her life history and thus the tradition of women's poetry. In Landon's oeuvre the epitome of this rewriting is A History of the Lyre (1829), which, as its title suggests, presents an archetypal account of the poetess, her verse, and her career.

At the beginning of A History of the Lyre, an unidentified male speaker looks at the portrait of a poetess and meditates on the function of memory and autobiographical self-construction:

'Tis strange how much is mark'd on memory,
In which we may have interest, but no part;
How circumstance will bring together links
In destinies the most dissimilar.
This face, whose rudely-pencill'd sketch you hold,
Recalls to me a host of pleasant thoughts,
And some more serious.—This is Eulalie.(7)

At the beginning of Aurora Leigh, the speaker, now a woman poet, meditates on the function of memory and autobiographical self-construction in a simile alluding to Landon's poem but altering its import:

Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine—
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.


Like Landon, Barrett Browning remarks on the function of memory, which “hold[s] together” the subject, “what he was and is.” Like Landon, too, Barrett Browning analogizes portrait painting and autobiographical writing—with L. E. L.'s “rudely-pencill'd sketch” and its capacity for linking past and present becoming the portrait Aurora Leigh will create in verse to construct a coherent poetic self and a new vision of the woman poet.

Yet these opening passages are significantly different, and in the difference lies the germ of Barrett Browning's reconstruction of the Romantic poetess. In A History of the Lyre, it is the male lover who holds the poetess's sketch and contemplates it for “a host of pleasant thoughts” and the construction of his own history and identity, whereas in Aurora Leigh it is Aurora who writes of herself for her “better self.” She, not her male audience, takes charge of the woman poet's autobiography. Landon's analogy between autobiography and portrait painting is subordinated to a simile (“As when”)—as if Barrett Browning means to subordinate the traditional function of feminine memoirs to the more pressing need of the woman poet. There is a shift, in short, from a male viewer to the female poet, from art produced to satisfy masculine desire to art intended for the development of the woman poet, from a literary tradition of biographical memoirs about women poets to a new tradition of autobiography by women writers (hinted at in the next allusion of Aurora Leigh (ll. 9-13—to Wordsworth's Immortality Ode and Prelude). Barrett Browning corrects Landon's opening statement of purpose—and, more broadly, the plot of A History of the Lyre—by taking auto/biographical forms identified with the Romantic poetess and reconfiguring them to serve the Victorian woman poet. In so doing she revises the developmental narrative of the poetess as it appeared in Landon's works and in biographies about Landon published in the two decades before Aurora Leigh.8

Like many of Landon's poems, these biographies reproduced—indeed, they gave credence to—the myth of the Sapphic poetess, the most common early nineteenth-century myth of feminine poetic inspiration and production. As Glennis Stephenson has argued, the Romantic-Sapphic artist invariably associates her work with her body and depicts it “as the intuitive and confessional outpouring of emotion”: “Words like ‘gushing’ and ‘over-flowing’ abound. … These women are … fountains, not pumps. The flow is from nature, not art. Usually the creative woman in these poems is betrayed and abandoned, and finds that with the loss of love the flow dries up.” A poetess like Landon thus came to exemplify a debased or inferior form of Romanticism—“Wordworth's ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ which, rather than being recollected in tranquility, [were] immediately spewed out on the page.”9 Angela Leighton has further pointed out that “although L. E. L. insists on art as an overflow of the female body, she also frequently freezes the woman into a picture, a statue, an art object”—something that occurs in A History of the Lyre, where the poetess Eulalie appears first as a “rudely-pencill'd sketch,” finally as a marble monument. “Such frozen postures,” according to Leighton, have “a way of turning the woman into a form of sexual or artistic property for the man.”10

Landon's myths of the poetess—as improvisatrice, as statue or art object produced for man's pleasure, as abandoned woman—go back at least as far as the first nineteenth-century autobiography of a woman poet, Mary Robinson's Memoirs (1801), discussed in chapter 1. In the Memoirs Robinson, an actress turned author, describes scene after scene in which she dresses up and performs for her audience, usually described as male. Her daughter and editor links her mother's artistic production with improvisation. Maria Robinson recounts, for example, several episodes in which her mother “poured forth those poetic effusions which have done so much honor to her genius, and decked her tomb with unfading laurels”11—poems such as “Lines to Him Who Will Understand Them,” in which Robinson bids farewell to Britain for Italia's shore; “The Haunted Beach,” inspired by Robinson's discovery of a drowned stranger; and “The Maniac,” written, like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, in a delirium excited by opium. And, of course, Robinson was the archetypal abandoned woman, the first of several mistresses of the Prince of Wales, left in the lurch without financial support or social protection when another woman took his fancy.

Robinson's combination of improvisation and performance influenced the next generation of women writers, even if only as a cautionary tale. Generically a chronique scandaleuse, her Memoirs narrates the story of a popular actress who became the prince's mistress and turned professional writer when he abandoned her. Second-generation Romantic women poets, including Landon and Felicia Hemans, sought to avoid the scandal and self-aggrandizement of this form of life writing. They did not publish their own autobiographies, but in good early Victorian fashion let their lives be written for them—by family members, close friends, or other women writers who could testify to their feminine as well as literary virtues.12

We can nonetheless detect traces of Robinson's Memoirs in the biographies of Landon—and in just the features that Stephenson and Leighton point to: the poetess as improvisatrice, gushing forth her effusions like a natural spring; the poetess as statue, frozen into an artistic posture before the gaze of the male viewer; the poetess as abandoned woman, achieving fame but losing love. These were poetic myths that Barrett Browning inherited and resisted—not only because she, like Hannah More and Anna Barbauld before her, wished to assume the “sociomoral” role of the woman poet, writing as “the conscience of culture,”13 but, more important, because Landon's poetess represents a case of arrested development.

Biographies of Landon as Sapphic poetess began appearing as early as 1839, the year after her death, with Emma Roberts's “Memoir of L. E. L.,” included in the posthumously published “The Zenana” and Minor Poems. According to her friend and fellow writer, “While still a mere child, L. E. L. began to publish, and her poetry immediately attracted attention. … She rushed fearlessly into print, not dreaming for a moment, that verses which were poured forth like the waters from a fountain, gushing, as she has beautifully expressed it, of their own sweet will, could ever provoke harsh criticism.” Laman Blanchard, who brought out The Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L. in 1841, similarly treats her poetry as natural productions, “just as the grass that sows itself.” Like other biographers who would follow, Blanchard associates Landon with the title character of The Improvisatrice, noting that the heroine of that poem was “youthful, impassioned, and gifted with glorious powers of song; and, although introduced as a daughter of Florence … she might be even L. E. L. herself; for what were the multitude of songs she had been pouring out for three years past, but ‘improvisings’?”14 When William Howitt published his biographical Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets in 1847, he, too, associated Landon with her improvisatrice, suggesting that “the very words of her first heroine might have literally been uttered as her own”:15

Sad were my shades; methinks they had
                    Almost a tone of prophecy—
I ever had, from earliest youth,
                    A feeling what my fate would be.


Such associations had, of course, been encouraged by Landon herself, who, after translating the poetical odes of Madame de Staël's Corinne for its English publication, took to appearing in the Sappho-Corinne mode, dressed in Grecian costume with her hair done à la Sappho […], and then continued writing and rewriting the Sappho-Corinne myth, including the version in A History of the Lyre.

The myth of the poetess as improvisatrice gave certain advantages to the woman writer: it linked her to the cult of genius and her work to inspired rather than mechanical or pedantic production. But it had obvious disadvantages: in its emphasis on the poetess's naturalness and her youthful, sometimes even infantile poetic effusions, it tended to restrict her to an immature stage of development and to militate against more mature literary production. All of the major Romantic and Victorian women poets—Robinson, Hemans, Landon, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti—were infant prodigies, young geniuses who could recite hundreds of lines of verse as children (Hemans) or who composed poems and stories almost before they learned to hold a pen (Landon) or who published volumes of ambitious verses in early adolescence (Robinson, Hemans, Barrett Browning, Rossetti). This myth of youthful genius, as Norma Clarke has pointed out, worked against the development of the woman poet's career—and serious treatment of her poetry—once she move beyond youth into middle age.16

Despite the identification of Landon with the improvisatrice of 1824—and later with Erinna (1826) and Eulalie, the poetess of A History of the Lyre—Roberts and Blanchard both insisted that readers should not simply equate Landon with her imaginary counterparts, particularly not with the tragic Sapphic poetess who achieves fame but is unlucky in love. Roberts, who lived with her at 22 Hans Place, insisted that Landon was not a solitary, melancholy genius but a cheerful, domestic woman: “It may indeed be said, to L. E. L.'s honour, that she retained, to the last moment of existence all the friends thus domesticated with her, those who knew her most intimately being the most fondly attached.” The tales of unrequited love were, in Roberts's view, “the production of a girl who had not yet left off her pinafores, and whose only notion of a lover was embodied in a knight wearing the brightest armour and the whitest of plumes.”17 Blanchard declared that

no two persons could be less like each other in all that related to the contemplation of the actual world, than ‘L. E. L.’ and Letitia Elizabeth Landon. People would in this, as in so many other cases, forgetting one of the licenses of poetry, identify the poet's history in the poet's subject and sentiments, and they accordingly insisted that, because the strain was tender and mournful, the heart of the minstrel was breaking.18

On this point they were again taking their cue from Landon, who, in the preface to the volume that includes A History of the Lyre, wittily disclaimed the biographical link that so many of her readers assumed: “If I must have an unhappy passion, I can only console myself with my own perfect unconsciousness of so great a misfortune.”19

Yet such proclamations of domesticity and disclaimers of Sapphic tragedy, most written after Landon's mysterious death by an overdose of prussic acid and intended to offset rumors of suicide, have the strange effect of reinforcing the third feature of the myth of the Romantic poetess—that of model or statue, of the poetess as a performer who strikes a pose for the pleasure of her audience but to her own detriment. The plot of A History of the Lyre reinforces this conclusion. Like many of Landon's works, it presents an inspired poestess, half-Italian, half-English, who spends her daytime hours in solitude, awaiting inspiration, and her nights in company, performing for her audience and winning great fame. She meets a man who listens and gazes raptly but who, in the end, abandons her for a more conventional, domestic Englishwoman. In A History of the Lyre the Englishman tells the tale of his encounters with Eulalie and of his eventual marriage to Emily. Landon adds the touch of having Eulalie create her own statue, “a sculptured form” that becomes a funeral monument:

“You see,” she said, “my cemetery here:—
Here, only here, shall be my quiet grave.
Yon statue is my emblem: see, its grasp
Is raised to Heaven, forgetful that the while
Its step has crush'd the fairest of earth's flowers
With its neglect.”


Landon thus recognizes that the poetess sacrifices herself in performance for men: for their erotic pleasure, obviously, but also for their corporate benefit in that she does not interfere with (or intervene in) the patriarchal structures that allow Eulalie to die solitary and Emily, her passive domestic counterpart, to marry and reproduce English culture. In A History of the Lyre, far more than in earlier poems, the poetess becomes complicit in her own death.

Of the early biographers, only Howitt seems to have noticed the element of self-destruction in Landon's life and work. Although he presents it only as a possibility, he speculates that L. E. L. must have seen her fate “from earliest youth” and understood the danger of the poetic myths she was creating:

Whether this melancholy belief in the tendency of the great theme of her writings, both in prose and poetry; this irresistible annunciation, like another Cassandra, of woe and destruction; this evolution of scenes and characters in her last work, bearing such dark resemblance to those of her own after experience; this tendency, in all her plots, to a tragic catastrophe, and this final tragedy itself,—whether these be all mere coincidences or not, they are still but parts of an unsolved mystery.20

Despite the tentative phrasing, Howitt was not a believer in “mere coincidences.” His treatment of Landon's death makes it clear that he found foreshadowings in her poetical and fictional work of her tragic end. He recognized, as I believe Elizabeth Barrett did also, that Landon's self-construction as a Sapphic poetess, a reincarnation of Corinne, destined her for an early end—that Landon more or less wrote herself into a fatal plot.

Elizabeth Barrett was a careful reader (and admirer) of Landon's poetry, and she read carefully as well Blanchard's 1841 biography of the poetess. In a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, she compared Landon with Hemans, concluding that “if I had those two powers to choose from—Mrs. Hemans's and Miss Landon's—I mean the raw bare powers—I would choose Miss Landon's.” Yet Barrett also believed that Landon had not fully realized her promise or power. To Mitford she added, “I fancy it would have worked out better—had it been worked out—with the right moral and intellectual influences in application.”21 How might Landon's life or career (the it is ambiguous) have been better “worked out”? Barrett Browning's more sustained commentary on Landon comes, I suggest, in the opening books of Aurora Leigh, where she acknowledges yet rejects the auto/biographies of the poetess who preceded her.22 In these books she gives to Aurora the “right moral and intellectual influences” and then shows, in later books, how the life of the woman poet might look under their sway.

I have already noted that, in allusions to A History of the Lyre and The Prelude, Aurora determines to write an autobiography of her poetic development, as Wordsworth had done and Landon had failed fully to do. Her allusion to Wordsworth's poetry—

I, writing thus, am still what men call young;
I have not so far left the coasts of life
To travel inland, that I cannot hear
That murmur of the outer Infinite
Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep. …


—claims partnership with an undebased Romantic tradition and a masculine form of autobiography.23 Aurora Leigh is still young enough that she can recollect Wordsworthian joy and usefully trace “the growth of a poet's mind,” providing evidence, to adapt Wordsworth's phrase, that “May spur me on, in [wo]manhood now mature, / To honorable toil” (Prelude, 1:625-26). This turn to a Wordsworthian form of autobiography swerves from Landon's self-construction of the poetess as erotic object and performer for men's pleasure.

In Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning also abandons the model of the female poet as improvisatrice. In book I Aurora admits that she, like other young poets, often wrote spontaneously and effusively:

… Many tender souls
Have strung their loses on a rhyming thread,
As children, cowslips.


Although she figures such rhyming as natural, she is not content to remain in this juvenile artistic state:

… Alas, near all the birds
Will sing at dawn—and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.


In books II and III, taking the lark as her counterpart as other Romantic poets had taken the skylark, nightingale, or redbreast, Aurora traces her development beyond the stage of natural effusions toward mature poetic production.24 Midway through she notes: “So life, in deepening with me, deepened all / The course I took, the work I did” (3:334-35).

In that “deepening” one crucial influence is Aurora's discovery of and immersion in her father's books, “the secret of a garret-room” (1:833), the masculine literary tradition. In this discovery Aurora “chance[s] upon the poets” (1:845), learns the meaning of “imperative labour” (1:880), and determines her vocation. These details more likely derive from Felicia Hemans's life or Barrett Browning's own than from Landon's. Although Landon's biographers insisted on “her devotedness to reading,” which “was only equalled by the readiness with which she acquired whatever she chose to commit to memory, and the accuracy with which she retained whatever she had once learned,”25 Hemans was the Romantic poetess who acquired the reputation for enormous classical learning. Hemans's Victorian biographer William Michael Rossetti, not one given to overpraising women poets, notes: “Her accomplishments were considerable, and not merely superficial. She knew French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and in mature life German, and was not unacquainted with Latin.”26 Barrett added Greek to these linguistic achievements, making herself the equal of the best male classical scholars. Both Hemans and Barrett began their careers with publications in a classical mode, Hemans with The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) and Modern Greece (1817), Barrett with The Battle of Marathon (1820). And in the preface to The Battle of Marathon and other early volumes, as Vivienne Rundle has suggested, Barrett addressed her relationships “with her father, with her readers, and with the poetic tradition within which she was attempting to situate herself.”27

Yet in tracing Aurora's career, Barrett Browning avoids reproducing the early phases of Hemans's or her own life, instead deriving the most important details from Landon's literary career. The effect is to treat the life of the Romantic poetess as a stage in the development of the Victorian woman poet—as a case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. This tactic allows Barrett Browning to acknowledge the achievements of her predecessors but with the implication that she, representative of the next generation, will progress further.

In book III, for example, Aurora moves to an attic room in London, to “a certain house in Kensington” and “a chamber up three flights of stairs” (3:160, 158).28 Barrett Browning never lived in a writer's garret, but Landon certainly did—at 22 Hans Place, Brompton, in an attic space invariably described in the biographies as a “homely-looking, almost uncomfortable room, fronting the street, and barely furnished.”29 So, too, Barrett Browning makes Aurora a hack writer of prose as well as an aspiring poet. It was Landon, not Barrett Browning, who churned out reviews for the Literary Gazette and whose biographers mention, usually as evidence of her wide knowledge, her enormous prose production.30 Like Landon, Aurora works “with one hand for the booksellers / While working with the other for myself / And art” (3:303-5). Even Aurora's popularity with her readers suggests Landon's early career. The fan mail “with pretty maiden seals” from girls with names like Emily (3:212-13) or the “tokens from young bachelors, / Who wrote from college” (3:215-16) recall both the sweet domestic bride of A History of the Lyre and the anecdote related by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and repeated in virtually all of L. E. L.'s biographies:

We were young, and at college, lavishing our golden years, not so much on the Greek verse and mystic character to which we ought, perhaps, to have been rigidly devoted, as “Our heart in passion, and our head in rhyme.” At that time poetry was not yet out of fashion, at least with us of the cloister; and there was always in the reading-room of the Union a rush every Saturday afternoon for the “Literary Gazette;” and an impatient anxiety to hasten at once to that corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters “L. E. L.” And all of us praised the verse, and all of us guessed at the author. We soon learned it was a female, and our admiration was doubled, and our conjectures tripled. Was she young? Was she pretty? And—for there were some embryo fortune-hunters among us—was she rich?31

Such details in book III not only allude to Landon's life but signal more generally, I think, the determination of Aurora, like other early Victorian women writers, to pursue a professional career. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s many women, like Landon and Roberts at 22 Hans Place, Harriet Martineau in Fludyer Street, and George Eliot at 142 Strand, moved to lodgings in London to signal their professional aspirations, and they were not above writing reviews, translating foreign literature, or doing other hackwork to provide the financial means needed to support their literary careers. Aurora's life as a “city poet” represents this new, if not quite glorious, stage in the nineteenth-century woman writer's professionalization.32 It makes visible what the myth of the Romantic poetess hides: the real, hard labor of the literary woman's life.

The differences from Landon's life are also significant, however—most notably Aurora's unsullied reputation and her unwavering commitment, despite early fame, to produce high art. Landon's reputation had come to ruin (or close to it) with rumors of illicit liaisons with William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette; William Maginn, the heavy-drinking Irish journalist associated with Blackwood's and Fraser's; and Daniel Maclise, the painter. Although they name no names, the early biographers acknowledge these “atrocious calumnies,” in Howitt's phrase, invariably to refute them. Nonetheless, the biographers admit that Landon's public persona, “the very unguardedness of her innocence,” and her lack of concern “about the interpretation that was likely to be put upon her words” contributed to the problem.33 So did her fictions of the poetess. Eulalie in A History of the Lyre confesses that she is more like the “Eastern tulip” with its “radiant” yet short-lived colors than the pure “lily of the valley” with its “snowy blossoms.” In contrast, Aurora declares unequivocally,

                                                            I am a woman of repute;
No fly-blow gossip ever specked my life;
My name is clean and open as this hand,
Whose glove there's not a man dares blab about
As if he had touched it freely.


As she begins her career, Aurora self-consciously resolves to live “holding up my name / To keep it from the mud” (3:311-12).

More important to artistic development, Barrett Browning revises Landon's attitude toward fame, work, and sustained poetic achievement. Eulalie, like Erinna before her, laments that she has lost the desire (or perhaps she lacks the ability) to sustain her work:

I am as one who sought at early dawn
To climb with fiery speed some lofty hill:
His feet are strong in eagerness and youth
His limbs are braced by the fresh morning air,
And all seems possible:—this cannot last.
The way grows steeper, obstacles arise,
And unkind thwartings from companions near.(34)

But whereas Eulalie laments that early fame has proved a fatal opium—

I am vain,—praise is opium, and the lip
Cannot resist the fascinating draught,
Though knowing its excitement is a fraud,—


that she can “no longer work miracles for thee [fame],” and that now “Disappointment tracks / The steps of Hope,” Aurora determines that she will progress beyond simple “ballads,” a form identified with the Romantic poetess, and work her way up through the generic ranks that have long challenged English male poets: from pastoral through georgic to epic. Indeed, one can read the opening monologue of book V as Aurora's response to Eulalie's tragic lament in A History of the Lyre. Aurora presents a counterargument that women poets can indeed “last” as “The way grows steeper, obstacles arise, / And unkind thwartings from companions near.” Significantly, too, Barrett Browning turns Eulalie's admission of inadequacy into Romney's critique of the female poet's limitations (in 2:180-225 and 4:1115-24, 1159-68, 1202-11).35 In Aurora Leigh it is the male critic who denigrates the woman poet's abilities and achievements, not the woman poet who self-destructs.

What Barrett Browning does not alter or avoid is Landon's psychological insight that the woman poet longs for, perhaps even needs, the approval of her male reader. In A History of the Lyre Eulalie performs for large audiences but in particular for the pleasure of the Englishman who follows her about for a year; when he leaves Italy without offering marriage, she more or less “hang[s] [her] lute on some lone tree, and die[s].”36 Aurora confronts the issue of male approval in book V, where she not only lays out her plan for progress up through the generic ranks but also identifies the primary obstacle to her achievement:

                                                            —I must fail
Who fail at the beginning to hold and move
One man—and he my cousin, and he my friend.


Aurora fears “this vile woman's way of trailing garments,” yet determines that it “shall not trip me up” (5:59-60).

If Landon framed the issue in erotic or romantic terms, Barrett Browning reframes it to emphasize professional and aesthetic concerns. Aurora admits her loneliness as a woman writer and her envy of male artists who are rewarded with love, whether of a mother or of a wife. But the need for love, we should note, is not peculiar to the woman artist but includes male artists such as Graham, Belmore, and Gage, all of whom rely on domestic affection (5:502-39). Aurora expresses her desire for Romney's approval in rather different terms—that is, in terms of the poet's vocation and specifically the woman poet's terrain: Is her work, contrary to what Romney believes, equal to that of the social activist? Shall the woman poet be confined, as in Romney's view at the end of book IV, to “the mythic turf where danced the nymphs” (4:1161), or shall she treat, in her “imperative labour” (1:880), the whole range of human experience and passion that Aurora details at the beginning of book V? In Barrett Browning's poem it is Aurora's view, not Romney's opinion or Landon's precedent as poetess of lyric love, that finally determines the career of the woman poet—and the plot of the remainder of the poem.

After book V, very little of Landon's life and works informs Aurora Leigh—except, most significantly, that Barrett Browning revises the conclusion to A History of the Lyre, a conclusion some biographers thought Landon had enacted in her life. Eulalie, Sappho-like, dies an abandoned woman; Aurora lives to marry Romney. Eulalie's history is told only after her death by her male admirer; Aurora Leigh's is written at the height of her power by the poet herself. If the marriage ending of Aurora Leigh has been controversial among contemporary feminist critics, primarily for seeming to succumb to the conventions of the marriage plot,37 it looks different in its historical and generic contexts. In the context of women's autobiography, it represents a determination to write one's own life and not let others construct one's self. In the context of biographies of the nineteenth-century woman poet, it represents a writing against tradition, a rejection of Landon's dying for (male) pleasure, and a progression from feminine poetess to woman poet.

Barrett Browning is famous for having written, “I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none.”38 Perhaps Landon, born in 1802, only four years before Barrett, was too close in age to be considered a literary “grandmother.” Perhaps Dorothy Mermin is right that, in making such a comment, Barrett Browning was ignoring “the popular ‘poetesses’ who adorned the literary scene,” as they did not represent “the noble lineage with which she wished to claim affiliation.”39 But perhaps between her statement to Robert Browning in 1845 and the writing of Aurora Leigh a decade later, she owned up to the existence of the women writers who had influenced her, if only (or primarily) as negative examples. Whatever the case, when Barrett Browning came to write her autobiography of the new woman poet, she framed its plot and many of its features in terms of the female literary figures of the preceding generation. If in revising A History of the Lyre she lets Eulalie's lyre stay hanging on a tree and gives Aurora instead a Gideon's trumpet, “a clarion” to press “on thy woman's lip” (9:929), she nonetheless acknowledges, in the scope and density of her allusions, the importance of Landon's work in the tradition of nineteenth-century women's writing.

As Barrett Browning's allusion to “that murmur of the outer Infinite” suggests (1:12), Aurora Leigh also considers the woman poet in relation to her male counterpart and incorporates (as it interrogates) the Romantic masculine model of poetic development best known through Wordsworth's “Self-biography” The Prelude.40 Wordsworth was, for young Elizabeth Barrett, the preeminent English poet, the “poet-priest / By the high altar, singing prayer and prayer / To the higher Heavens.”41 Kathleen Blake has enumerated the many ways in which Barrett Browning identifies herself with Wordsworth, adopts his Romantic aesthetics, and aligns her poetic autobiography with his: in “her valuation of childhood, the loss of mother, then father, a turning toward nature, early poetic aspirations and self-doubts, a confrontation with social ills, the attraction of revolutionary or philanthropic hopes.”42 Yet for all the thematic parallels between Wordsworth's autobiography and Aurora's, the most essential features of the Wordsworthian paradigm, those ideological elements that define his particular Romanticism—the guiding role of Nature in the poet's development, the negative (or at best neutral) importance of the city, the sequential progress of love of nature leading to love of man and to a civic poetry—are questioned and modified in Aurora Leigh.

To begin with, Barrett Browning inscribes the Wordsworthian myth of Nature as “mother nature”—a moral teacher, protector of the child's psyche, and maternal substitute—not once but twice in Aurora Leigh, first in the account of Aurora's childhood in the Tuscan hills, “the mountains above Pelago” (1:111), and again in the account of Marian Erle's birth in the Malvern Hills, “in a hut built up at night / To evade the landlord's eye” (3:832-33). In both narratives, examples of nature's beneficent influence repeat scenes from The Prelude with genuine appreciation. But in the first Barrett Browning treats the myth of a maternal, nurturing nature with skepticism about its origins as a masculine literary construction, and in the second she considers its possibilities, negative as well as positive, in shaping the lives of the working-class poor. It is the need for repetition, I believe, that registers Barrett Browning's consciousness of the difficulties of the Wordsworthian model for the modern woman poet and her intention to revise the developmental sequence of The Prelude.

When Aurora's mother dies, her father removes his child from Florence and resettles in a Tuscan village. His rationale derives from literary mythology:

Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need
Of mother nature more than others use,
And Pan's white goats, with udders warm and full
Of mystic contemplations, come to feed
Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own—
Such scholar-scraps he talked, I've heard from friends[.]


Aurora's language reveals an ambivalence about poetic myths of “mother nature.” On the one hand, “the white walls, the blue hills, my Italy” (1:232) nurture the young girl, and the “vocal pines and waters” become “confederate” with books, which Aurora's father also brings with him, as the “strong words of counselling souls” (1:187-89). On the other hand, Aurora distances herself from her father's beliefs with the phrase “he thought,” as if to register the myth of mother nature as a masculine conception, not one fully or unequivocally shared by the mature woman poet who narrates her autobiography. With “scholar-scraps” Aurora suggests fragments of truth, patriarchal or academic learning that only half-comprehends the function of real mothers or the relation between mother nature and humankind.43 Barrett Browning thus incorporates the two great teachers of Wordsworth's Prelude, nature and books, into her poem, giving Aurora the credentialing experiences of the Romantic poet, yet questioning the adequacy of the model.

With the domesticated nature that replaces the Italian hills as Aurora moves to England and into puberty, Barrett Browning admits to an even greater ambivalence about the adequacy of the Wordsworthian model for the English woman poet. The landscape of Aunt Leigh's country house is clipped, controlled, and utterly domesticated with its lime tree, broadly sweeping lawn, “shrubberies in a stream / Of tender turf” (1:583-84), and line of elms that “stopped the grounds and dammed the overflow / Of arbutus and laurel” (1:587-88). This domestic English garden is not paradise but purgatory. England's is “Not a grand nature,” Aurora laments: “Italy / Is one thing, England one” (1:615, 626-27). The verbs Aurora associates with Italian nature—cleaving, leaping, crying out for joy or fear, palpitating, panting, and (finally) “waiting for / Communion and commission” (1:615-25)—all suggest that the aspiring young Englishwoman will not find the Wordsworthian sublime in her homeland, that her hope lies in deviating from English domesticity and reclaiming a larger European landscape and literary tradition.

In these early scenes Barrett Browning adopts the views of Germaine de Staël in De l'Allemagne (Germany, 1813), even as details of Aurora's birth and experience derive from Staël's “Italian” Corinne (1807)—that “immortal book,” as young Barrett had called it.44 In her work of comparative literature, Staël had characterized English literature and culture as thoroughly domestic: “Domestic affections holding great sway over the hearts of the English, their poetry is impressed with the delicacy and solidity of those affections.” Staël had also judged, as a consequence, that English poetry had lost “the principle of terror, which is employed as one of the great means in German poetry.”45Aurora Leigh reproduces these views to the extent that it locates the young poetess within an English country house and makes her early verse pastoral or weak georgic (poetry that Romney, incidentally, dismisses as “happy pastorals of the meads and trees,” with little relevance to the “hungry orphans” and “beaten and bullied wives” of modern urban life, 2:1201-10). Yet for all that her depiction of English culture concurs with Staël's, Barrett Browning never fully endorses Staël's judgment. For one thing, Aurora Leigh does not dismiss the beneficial influence of a specifically domesticated nature. Once Aurora has moved to the city, she regrets her loss of the English countryside—“A hedgehog in the path, or a lame bird, / In those green country walks” (3:147-48)—and she acknowledges its restorative power: “I seem to have missed a blessing ever since” (3:150). For another, in thinking about the domesticity and femininity of English poetry, Barrett excluded Wordsworth from such categorizations as Staël proposed: to Mary Russell Mitford she cited Coleridge as saying “that every great man he ever knew, had something of the woman in him, with one exception: and the exception was Wordsworth.”46 By excluding Wordsworth from feminization, Barrett Browning can maintain—and claim the advantages of—a domestic tradition of English verse, while simultaneously incorporating the power of masculinity and the Wordsworthian sublime into her version of the poetic tradition.

Why should Barrett Browning, then, repeat certain natural scenes from Wordsworth's autobiography in her minibiography of Marian Erle? Repetition, as J. Hillis Miller notes, can involve contradiction or counterpart, the latter “a strange relation whereby the second is the subversive ghost of the first.”47 Unlike Aurora's narrative of childhood, Marian's tale, told “with simple, rustic turns” (4:151), seems more directly to echo Wordsworth's belief in nature as moral teacher and protector of the child's innocence and integrity. If Wordsworth grew up in Nature,

                                                            as if I had been born
On Indian plains, and from my mother's hut
Had run abroad in wantonness, to sport
A naked savage, in the thunder shower,


Marian, too, is “born upon a ledge of Malvern Hills,” not in an imaginative Indian hut but in a less idealized “hut built up at night / To evade the landlord's eye, of mud and turf” (3:830-33). If Wordsworth spent his infancy beside the “ceaseless music” of the Derwent, which gave him

Amid the fretful dwellings of mankind
A foretaste, a dim earnest, of the calm
That Nature breathes among the hills and groves,


so the less fortunate Marian, at three, would “run off from the fold,”

And, creeping through the golden wall of gorse,
Would find some keyhole toward the secrecy
Of Heaven's high blue, and, nestling, down, peer out—
Oh, not to catch the angels at their games,
She had never heard of angels—but to gaze
She knew not why, to see she knew not what,
A-hungering outward from the barren earth
For something like a joy.


If Wordsworth learned his moral lessons from Nature's “fearless visitings” or her “Severer interventions, ministry / More palpable, as best might suit her aim” (1:352, 355-56), so Marian “dazzled black her sight against the sky” and “learnt God that way” (3:892, 895):

                    This grand blind Love, she said,
This skyey father and mother both in one,
Instructed her and civilised her more
Than even Sunday school did afterward.


Marian's childhood is more explicitly Wordsworthian than Aurora's, its narrative more imitative of the early scenes of The Prelude, the tone more appreciative, less ironically distanced from its Romantic model.

In making Marian the more direct descendant of the child Wordsworth, Barrett Browning validates the Wordsworthian model but also demotes it to a simpler or lower phase of development. She may have intended to associate Marian's simple rustic life and response to nature with the “naive” poetry of Friedrich Schiller's “Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung” (1795-96). In Schiller's classic formulation, nature in “naive” states of civilization, as in their literatures, “inspires us with a sort of love and respectful emotion, not because she is pleasing to our senses, or because she satisfies our mind or our taste, … but merely because she is nature. This feeling is often elicited when nature is considered in her plants, in the mineral kingdom, in rural districts; also in the case of human nature, in the case of children, and in the manners of country people and of primitive races.” In the Schillerean dichotomy, Aurora would in turn be associated with “sentimental” or “modern” poetry in that “nature, in our time, is no longer in man, and … we no longer encounter it in its primitive truth.” For Schiller this loss in modern experience is less a loss than an opportunity: “the end to which man tends by civilisation is infinitely superior to that which he reaches through nature.”48 Aurora's distance from Marian—and Wordsworth—represents in these terms an advance on The Prelude, an opportunity for progress and perfection.49 Writing at a distance from Wordsworthian myth, Aurora can recognize its values and limitations, while also seeing the direction in which modern poetry should go.

Yet such an evolutionary interpretation of Barrett Browning's repetition—an interpretation that makes Wordsworth in the “masculine” literary tradition preliminary to the new woman poet in the same way that L. E. L. is preliminary in the “feminine”—obscures a more potent reason for reproducing versions of Wordsworth's childhood in both female characters' lives. In both cases, we might note, nature fails. In Marian's case, nature cannot protect her from a derelict mother or the evils of city life; in Aurora's, nature is simply inadequate to the task of the modern city poet. Both cases are intertwined and essential to Barrett Browning's critique and revision of Wordsworth.

Despite the moral lessons that Marian gleans from nature and despite the psychological integrity that her experiences with nature and books consolidate, as a young woman she is virtually powerless against evil parents or the social and economic complexities of urban life. This difference of gender Wordsworth only dimly acknowledges in The Prelude, primarily in the tales of Mary Robinson, Maid of Buttermere, and in scenes of London life in book VII. In contemplating Mary Robinson's sad case, Wordsworth muses on their almost identical childhoods in nature:

For we were nursed—as almost might be said—
On the same mountains, children at one time,
Must haply often on the self-same day
Have from our several dwellings gone abroad
To gather daffodils on Coker's stream.


This feminine countertale, a minibiography of an “artless daughter of the hills,” shows the limits of nature's maternal nurture. Nature cannot save Mary from the “spoiler,” “‘a bold bad man’” who lies and seduces her, as it has saved Wordsworth from other evils.50 But Wordsworth passes over this lack, recording only that Mary has returned to her native habitation and now “lives in peace / Upon the spot where she was born and reared; / Without contamination doth she live / In quietness, without anxiety” (7:320-23). As Lawrence Kramer suggests, Wordsworth transforms Mary into a “pastoral Proserpina,” “a perpetually innocent child of earth, a figure of renewal and pastoral innocence.”51

To a female reader, however, as to a Victorian sensitive to the question of the “fallen woman,” Wordsworth's treatment of the Maid of Buttermere's tale reveals some strange inadequacies. In The Prelude Wordsworth imagines Mary egotistically as a version of his younger self or emblematically as a version of disrupted but restored childhood innocence;52 yet he neither considers the difference of gender nor imagines a life story for Mary after seduction nor thinks about her illegitimate child in any terms other than death:

Beside the mountain chapel, sleeps in earth
Her new-born infant, fearless as a lamb
That, thither driven from some unsheltered place,
Rests underneath the little rock-like pile
When storms are raging. Happy are they both—
Mother and child!


Such happiness is death or death-in-life. In contrast, in Marian Erle's narrative, Barrett Browning writes beyond the “fall,” making the social and economic causes of the “fallen woman” a matter of inquiry and imagining an afterlife for Marian's babe (if not quite for Marian herself).53 It is the burden of Aurora Leigh, books VI-VII, to extrapolate from the half-told tale of The Prelude, book VII, a more adequate account of the fallen woman's experience; to recognize the gaps in Wordsworth's understanding and fill them; and thus to remake the Romantic poet into a modern poet cognizant of sexual politics and modern urban experience. Aurora must recognize the repetition—the sameness as well as difference—in Marian's life story and her own.

Such recognition includes a shift of the poet's interest from nature to city. In The Prelude the Maid of Buttermere's tale falls within Wordsworth's “Residence in London”—that is, he recalls it by seeing (or hearing of) a play at Sadler's Wells, Edward and Susan, or The Beauty of Buttermere, and he associates it with his first encounter with an urban prostitute:54

I heard, and for the first time in my life,
The voice of woman utter blasphemy—
Saw woman as she is to open shame
Abandoned, and the pride of public vice.


Wordsworth's flight from the fallen woman is part of his larger flight from the city. As he admits in his “meditation” on “such spectacle” (7:393-94), he later feels “a milder sadness” rather than sheer distress, but he never gets beyond “grief / For the individual and the overthrow of her soul's beauty” (7:395-97). To put it starkly, Wordsworth never comes to terms with city life. When he summarizes his response to London and its place in his poetic development, the judgment is extreme:

Oh, blank confusion! true epitome
Of what the mighty City is herself
To thousands upon thousands of her sons,
Living amid the same perpetual whirl
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end—
Oppression, under which even highest minds
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free.


The city defies the power of the poetic imagination to make sense of it. Even if, as critics such as Lucy Newlyn have eloquently argued, Wordsworth's response to London was actually more ambivalent, including a recognition of “the vitality of London that nourishes his ‘riper mind,’”55 the fact remains that The Prelude does not credit the city with any significant force in shaping the poet's mind or art.

Nor is the city associated in The Prelude with any creditable form of autobiography. As Mary Jacobus and Laura Marcus have argued, “Wordsworthian ‘value’, which must remain untainted by textual commodification,” is “dependent upon the casting-out of the prostitute (Book VII of The Prelude) who stands not only, as in DeQuincey's autobiography, for disreputable confession and commodified selfhood, but in her ‘painted bloom’, for literary figuration, seduction or solicitation by Romantic personification itself.”56 By opening up Aurora Leigh to Marian Erle's story, even making it essential to the poet's own, Barrett Browning casts off not the fallen woman but fear of autobiography as a disreputable genre and the early nineteenth-century taboo against self-writing or any such self-display by proper women.

I have already suggested that Barrett Browning transplants Aurora from country to city to valorize the movement of professional women writers of her generation from provincial towns to London as artistic center. I would now add that Barrett Browning moves Aurora from country house to urban garret to insist upon the imaginative resources of the city and to underscore the necessity of the poet's engagement—not just encounter—with urban experience. It was no coincidence, I think, that when young Elizabeth Barrett cited an exemplary poem in defense of Wordsworth against criticism that he was a third-rate versifier, she chose the sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”:

Earth has not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty. …(57)

Aurora Leigh is not dull of soul. Her visionary moments in the city are not occasional, as are Wordsworth's, but integral to her development. She in effect recognizes what Wordsworth only reluctantly acknowledged: that it is the interchange not of the human imagination and nature but of the imagination and any aspect of the visible world that counts.

When in book III Aurora takes up residence in a garret chamber, “up three flights of stairs” (3:158), she becomes quite explicitly a city poet. Aurora's prospect is of “slant roofs and chimney-pots,” of “the great tawny weltering fog,” of “Spires, bridges, streets, and squares” (3:177, 179, 181)—the prospect vision of nineteenth-century London. Aurora's inspiration is not blocked, she is not one “in city pent” (as Wordsworth imagined the young Coleridge to be), nor does she lack visionary experience. “Your city poets see such things / Not despicable” (3:186-87), Aurora reports. Her account of her early days in London ends with a visionary moment as dramatic as that in Wordsworth's ascent of Snowdon:

… sit in London at the day's decline,
And view the city perish in the mist
Like Pharoah's armaments in the deep Red Sea,
The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,
Sucked down and choked to silence—then, surprised
By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,
You feel as conquerors though you did not fight,
And you and Israel's other singing girls,
Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose.


Harking back to the first Hebrew poetess and aligning herself with inspired epic and epideictic poetry, Aurora here answers Romney's earlier denigration of women's verse as merely “the cymbal tinkle in white hands” (2:170). She counters his assertion that Miriam ought to sing only “when Egypt's slain” (2:171)—that is, after Moses, the male leader, has done his work. Aurora insists that the poet's vision does the work, and celebrates it, too.

In the new model of poetic development and literary career that Barrett Browning constructs, this vision must occur in the city. As a young poet, Aurora must get past believing that her finest poetry will be “natural” or “landscape” poetry, that it will recollect her experiences in nature, whether in Italy or in England, whether autobiographical or fictive. The generic progression that Aurora outlines for herself in book V begins with “ballads” and “sonnets,” then continues with a “descriptive poem called ‘The Hills’” (5:90). Is this, we might ask, a Wordsworthian progression from the “lyrical” ballads of 1798 through the more sustained consideration of nature's work in The Prelude of 1805? Or is this a typically feminine progression from “ballads” (5:85) to the extended “pastorals” (5:130) that women poets such as Mary Howitt, Mary Mitford, and even Elizabeth Barrett herself wrote in the 1830s?58 Book V of Aurora Leigh is ambiguous: Aurora's early work is not fully Wordsworthian in that it lacks “thoughts that lie too deep for tears,” nor yet is it traditionally feminine in that Aurora aspires to the greater achievement of classical nature poetry, to what “well the Greeks knew” (5:96). Aurora dismisses her ballad writing as too easy: “the ballad's race / Is rapid for a poet who bears weights / Of thought and golden image” (5:84-86), and she criticizes her pastoral as verse only of “surface-pictures—pretty, cold, and false / With literal transcript” (5:131-32). The great poetry that she sets herself to write is instead epic—not the historical matter of Britain (in a swipe at Tennyson) or that of any ancient or medieval subject but an epic of modern life:

… this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncevalles.


Aurora's ars poetica in book V recalls Wordsworth's deliberation on epic themes in The Prelude (1:146-228). But Barrett Browning renounces historical subjects—the sorts of subjects Wordsworth enumerates and she herself chose in such early works as The Battle of Marathon (1820), Prometheus Bound (1833), and A Drama of Exile (1838)—and instead dedicates Aurora to the writing of a new epic, “the burning lava of a song” that celebrates “The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” (5:215-16).59

Although Aurora commits herself to this new poetry in book V, she does not write it immediately. Like Wordsworth at the beginning of The Prelude, she suffers a blockage. Aurora's blockage is distinctly un-Wordsworthian, however—not only in the pivotal place it gives to human love but in its misprision of the role of nature in the inspiration and production of poetry. At the end of book V, distressed by her unrequited if unacknowledged love for Romney, Aurora sells her father's books (in what has long been read as a rejection of the masculine poetic tradition) and heads to Italy, her maternal homeland. Her invocation of Italy expresses an expectation of what the maternal landscape can do for the woman poet:

                                                            And now I come, my Italy,
My own hills! Are you 'ware of me, my hills,
How I burn toward you? do you feel tonight
The urgency and yearning of my soul,
As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe
And smile?


Aurora expects the nurturance, psychological and poetical, that she has never had in England—an expectation derived from novels like Corinne or the “Italian” verse of the English poetesses. As it turns out, in Italy Aurora finds neither the nurturance nor the inspiration she seeks; Italy's hills “go / [Their] own determined, calm indifferent way” (5:1273-74). Expectations of the maternal homeland, of Italy as autobiographical and poetical origins, turn out to be unfounded.

What I am suggesting, to state it paradigmatically, is that the final books of Aurora Leigh reject both the Wordsworthian myth of nature as the primary source of poetic inspiration and the feminine myth of Italy, so dominant in the writings of Staël, Robinson, Hemans, and Landon, as the origin of women's poetry. At the beginning of The Prelude, Wordsworth escapes “From the vast city, where I long had pined / A discontented sojourner” (1:6-7), and, once returned to nature, feels poetic inspiration return:

For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven
Was blowing on my body, felt within
A correspondent breeze, that gently moved
With quickening virtue, but is now become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation.


At a parallel narrative moment, Aurora escapes London and “the marriage bells of Romney” (7:397), and on a ship bound for Genoa feels “the wind soft from the land of souls” (7:467). But while this Italian breeze and the landscape of her childhood possess a restorative power—

I could hear my own soul speak,
And had my friend—for Nature comes sometimes
And says, ‘I am ambassador for God’—


they produce no correspondent breeze of poetic inspiration. Once in Florence, the homeland of Landon's improvisatrice, “that land, / Where the poet's lip and the painter's hand / Are most divine,” Aurora sits quiet as death, producing nothing.60 While watching a Tuscan sunset or resting in her villa on “a perfect night, / Until the moon, diminished to a curve, / Lay out there like a sickle for His hand / Who cometh down at last to reap the earth”—at such times, she admits, “ended seemed my trade of verse” (7:1298-1302). Although Aurora tries to rationalize this quietude as divine—“With God so near me, could I sing of God?”—her language betrays other sources of silence, of why she “did not write, nor read, nor even think” (7:1305-6): a lost future, a spoiled life (“like some passive broken lump of salt / Dropped in by chance to a bowl of oenomel, / To spoil the drink” [7:1308-10]), a waiting for death (the moon as grim reaper, as “sickle” of God).

The problem of poetic inspiration—or its lack—is one that all Romantic biographies of the poet or poetess address, from Mary Robinson's semi-autobiographical Sappho and Phaon (1796) to Landon's archetypal histories of the poetess to Wordsworth's greater odes and “self-biography” tracing the “Growth of a Poet's Mind.” Indeed, in the final books of The Prelude Wordsworth explicitly raises the question of how the “Imagination,” once “Impaired,” can be “Restored.”61 This is the question that Barrett Browning poses in the final books of Aurora Leigh—not for herself (apparently she never suffered from writer's block) but for her archetypal woman poet. Wordsworth's answer involves the two primary “attributes” of nature—“emotion” and “calmness” or “peace and excitation”—that support the poetic imagination, at once stimulating it with “That energy by which he [the poet] seeks the truth,” while also soothing or preparing it with “that happy stillness of the mind / Which fits him to receive it when unsought” (13:1-10). Barrett Browning's answer reworks the Wordsworthian formula by dividing those primary “attributes” between nature and man rather than assigning them to nature alone. In nature, Aurora finds “calmness” and “peace,” but too much of it. She needs man—and, specifically, one man—to provide the “emotion” and “excitation” that will stimulate her to write great poetry.

Barrett Browning brings nature and man, peace and excitation, together in the final scene of Aurora Leigh, a scene that rewrites the climactic episode of The Prelude, Wordsworth's ascent of Mount Snowdon. In ascending Snowdon, the poet experiences a landscape that seems “the type / Of a majestic intellect” (14:66-67), one that reassures him of the power of the imagination. This Wordsworthian landscape—with Moon “hung naked in a firmament / Of azure” (14:41-42), “a silent sea of hoary mist” covering all but the tips of “headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes” (14:43, 46), and beneath “the roar of waters, torrents, streams / Innumerable, roaring with one voice / Heard over earth and sea” (14:59-61)—emblematizes the ideal relation of the human mind and nature. In it the imagination not so much usurps as “feeds upon infinity,” “broods / Over the dark abyss” (14:71-72)—the latter image suggesting a repetition in poetic creation of original, divine creation and a reminiscence of Paradise Lost (1:20-22), where the Holy Spirit broods over Chaos and makes it fertile.

The closing landscape of Aurora Leigh, books VIII-IX, transforms Wordsworth's seascape into a cityscape. Instead of the Irish Sea disappearing in a “hoary mist,” the city of Florence, seen from the hills above, disappears in shadows:

The purple and transparent shadows slow
Had filled up the whole valley to the brim,
And flooded all the city, which you saw
As some drowned city in some enchanted sea,
Cut off from nature. …


The sound heard from below is the roar not of waters but of the Duomo bell and “twenty churches [that] answer it” (8:46). There is a “golden moon” overhead (9:841)—but described fully only after Aurora and Romney embrace. Once again, Barrett Browning insists on the city as an equally valid and historically more likely source of the Victorian poet's inspiration. Yet if this cityscape provides Aurora with the “peace” and “calmness” that can restore her imagination, the “emotion” and “excitation” of Wordsworth's formula come from elsewhere. The seascape provokes a passionate, erotic desire to “leap and plunge”:

And find a sea-king with a voice of waves,
And treacherous soft eyes, and slippery locks
You cannot kiss but you shall bring away
Their salt upon your lips.


This erotic figure of Aurora's imagination puts man back into the originary scene of inspiration and creation; he provides the excitement that nature on its own lacks.

As Dorothy Mermin has suggested, Aurora's vision of a “sea-king,” a male version of the mermaid, “establishes her as the speaking subject whose desire elicits its object.”62 When Aurora imagines, Romney appears. This scene of a powerful female imagination revises, as I have already argued, the finale of Landon's History of the Lyre, in which the poetess, however inspired in personal solitude or public performance, cannot successfully move the man she loves. It also revises, if perhaps unconsciously, those scenes in The Prelude, book VII, in which erotic desire is seen as antithetical (or at best irrelevant) to the poetic imagination. But the most significant revision of the Wordsworthian model of poetic development comes in Barrett Browning's insistence that the new woman poet follow out the implications of what Wordsworth claimed to know (that love of nature leads to love of man) and what her womanly experience has taught (that “man” includes both a single man, Romney, and Man, all humankind).

For all Wordsworth's attempts to show a progression from his early love of nature to his mature concern for humankind, the dramatic scene on Mount Snowdon omits man, and the subsequent exposition of the poet's progress from “the ways of nature” to “the works of man and face of human life” to his “Faith in life endless” (14:198, 202, 204) seems less convincing as a result. In Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning never fully endorses the Wordsworthian progression, Aurora's earliest memories making human love more foundational than love of nature and her final vision suggesting a simultaneity rather than a hierarchy or sequence. Nonetheless, Aurora moves, as does Wordsworth, from a moment of personal vision to a concern for humankind itself, and her vision fully recognizes that “face of human life.” Just as Wordsworth on Snowdon finds an emblem of the ideal relation of nature and the human mind, so Aurora finds in marriage to Romney an emblem of ideal human relations and of man's work for other men.

It is a traditional emblem drawn from the Song of Songs, one of love and spousal union:63

                                                            First, God's love.
And next … the love of wedded souls,
Which still presents that mystery's counterpart.
Sweet shadow-rose, upon the water of life,
Of such a mystic substance, Sharon gave
A name to! human, vital, fructuous rose,
Whose calyx holds the multitude of leaves,
Loves filial, loves fraternal, neighbour-loves
And civic—all fair petals, all good scents,
All reddened, sweetened from one central Heart!


Aurora's emblem reverses Wordsworth's order, beginning with divine love, then moving to “the love of wedded souls,” and finally expanding into all varieties of human love: familial, brotherly, neighborly, and civic.64 It responds to the despair of The Prelude, book XI, where, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Wordsworth images the era as “a budding rose” that “did not wake to happiness” (11:121-23); Aurora's emblematic rose promises a full bloom even in the nation or civitas. And it allows Barrett Browning to bring together the anticipated endings of her generic mix: the traditional marriage of domestic fiction, the apocalyptic union of English epic, and, in a moment of autobiographical revelation, the happiness of her own marriage to Robert Browning.

Finally, Aurora's vision and union with Romney allow Barrett Browning to incorporate, if only provisionally, a difficult, sometimes excluded aspect of English poetic autobiography: the politics of poetry. Daniel Riess has written persuasively of the depoliticizing of poetry in Landon's volumes of the 1820s: The Improvisatrice, The Troubador, The Golden Violet, and (I would add) A History of the Lyre. Whereas Staël's Corinne and other writings of the Coppet circle on which Landon drew used literature to engage in political debate (to attack, for example, the “dead” neoclassicism endorsed by the Napoleonic empire), Landon's adaptation of the story of Corinne represents, in Riess's view, “a testament to her shrewd skill at transforming potentially controversial Romantic works into a non-polemical Romanticism suitable for the mass market.”65 In The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry Marlon B. Ross views this retreat from politics, notable in More, Barbauld, and other early nineteenth-century women writers, as part of a larger separation of women's poetry and the sphere of “feminine desire” from Romantic male poetry and “the masculine terrains of power.”66 In Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning puts the politics back into women's verse, returning to Staël's seminal model and repoliticizing Landon's derivative histories. In the debates between Aurora and Romney in book II over how best to ameliorate social ills; in the class satires of book IV, where “Saint Giles” meets “Saint James” at Romney and Marian's wedding; in the drawing-room gossip of book V, where Sir Blaise's Anglo-Catholicism meets Mister Smith's German Rationalism; in the political commentary of book IX, where Aurora and Romney discuss (and sometimes dismiss) feminism, socialism, communism, Comteanism, and other political isms—in these and other passages, Aurora Leigh resists the gendering of poetry that her female predecessors had so readily accepted, indeed encouraged, as they carved out a niche for women's verse.

Barrett Browning's relation to Wordsworthian politics is less straightforward. In general terms, Aurora Leigh, like The Prelude, responds to the nineteenth-century debate over poetry's worth: Is it important and influential work, or is it, as Utilitarians thought, a pleasant but trivial activity? Aurora calls it, in what may be a response to Ford Madox Brown's famous mid-Victorian painting Work, “imperative labour” (1:880), superior to the work of “common men” who “Lay telegraphs, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine / And dust the flaunty carpets of the world / For kings to walk on” (1:870-72). The poem engages, to borrow Ross's terms, the “conflict between the romantic desire to view poetry as an influential kind of work that shapes material life through its immaterial power and the utilitarian desire to view poetry as a pleasing, but essentially superfluous activity that distracts men from the real work of technological advancement, economic growth, and sociopolitical progress.”67 In this cultural debate Barrett Browning asserts, with Wordsworth, the power of poetry to shape human lives. This is the lesson Romney learns through the destruction of Leigh Hall and his socialist schemes, then through his reading of Aurora's poetry. In asserting poetry's power, Barrett Browning assigns it to a source even more “immaterial” than Wordsworth's: “God's love” rather than nature. (It is as if nature itself were too dangerously material in an overly material age.)

More specifically in terms of contemporary politics and political movements, Aurora Leigh reproduces the pattern of The Prelude in its movement from an enthusiastic but wrongheaded politics to a more mature understanding of how social and moral progress might occur. At the end of his “Residence in France,” books X-XII, Wordsworth describes a civic despair induced by the Terror of the French Revolution:

                                                            I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contraries,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.


Although he recovers his moral equilibrium, and even at the end of The Prelude reasserts his “hopes of good to come” (13:63), he still rails against political rulers and social theorists, including Adam Smith, who “Plan without thought, or buil[d] on theories / Vague and unsound” (13:70-71). In Aurora Leigh Romney replaces Wordsworth, and socialist schemes become the narrative equivalent of the French Revolution. Romney suffers from Wordsworth's naive political enthusiasm and then from his political despair. At the end of the poem it is Romney, like Wordsworth but unlike Aurora, who rails against political and social theorists:

“Fewer programmes, we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems, we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier's void,
And Comte absurd—and Cabot puerile.”


Apparently Aurora the poet has already absorbed the lesson of The Prelude, thus avoiding the false steps that Romney, a nonreader of poetry, inevitably takes. Or perhaps, as a woman unobligated to enter the political arena, she never fully faces the temptation of politics to which such men as Wordsworth (or such characters as Romney) succumb.

How one chooses between these two possibilities depends, I think, on which genre of Aurora Leigh one chooses to emphasize and how Barrett Browning's politics appear from that generic perspective. Critics who read the poem primarily as domestic fiction tend to see in the differences between Aurora and Romney, as in their marriage, a reinscription of traditional gender roles, a capitulation to patriarchy, a conservative ending to Aurora's life story. Ellen Moers's disappointment in Aurora Leigh as “a good second-rate novel” stems, for all her celebration of Barrett Browning and her reintroduction of the work to the feminist canon, from this generic emphasis; in the novelistic tradition, the poem's closure seems conventional, even conservative, scarcely political.68 Herbert Tucker's more generous reading depends on its attention to epic dimensions. In the “consecrated elements” of Aurora's final epic vision—“the ‘jasper-stone as clear as glass’ and the jeweled heavens of the last lines”—Tucker finds a “crystalline Bildung … precipitated out of the poetic solution in which Aurora's selfhood has been dissolved, diffused, and suspended for a kind of re-creation to which the traditional bildungsroman gave little play.” Emphasizing the Bildungsroman form rather than Victorian domestic fiction, Tucker sees epic as renovating the novel by “expanding the horizons of domestic fiction beyond merely human engagements, through the edification of the bridal New Jerusalem, to espouse a sacred civic trust.”69 Thus Aurora, we might say in response to my initial formulation, has not only absorbed the political lessons of The Prelude but also reconceived the tactics of epic as a public, civic-minded genre.

Reading Aurora Leigh as autobiography may produce yet the most encouraging view of Aurora and her creator as poetically and politically engaged. By choosing to include politics in the narrative of Aurora's development, Barrett Browning breaches the boundary between the realms of masculine and feminine writing and, unlike the poetesses before her, moves into the masculine terrain of politics and publicity. That Barrett Browning should introduce politics not only into women's poetry but also into a woman writer's autobiography is especially significant, given the deep resistance to self-display that More and Barbauld, Joanna Baillie and Hemans reveal. (Hemans, for example, was so excessively concerned with violating codes of proper femininity that when her sister, Harriet Owen, composed a memoir to preface Hemans's posthumous poems, “Owen initiate[d] her memoir by protesting the indecorousness of writing a memoir of a woman who wished her life to remain private.” By comparison, Landon was comfortable with self-display—and hence an easier poetess for Barrett Browning to adapt.)70

When Aurora determines to write of herself “for my better self” (1:4), she knows that she violates a feminine code of early nineteenth-century women writers against autobiography, yet she characterizes her act not as self-violation but as self-improvement. That her improvement extends beyond the self and encompasses the civic body we can determine from the final vision of the poem—a vision of the New Jerusalem that represents not a domestic Eden, the traditional feminine realm, but rather a new world “whence shall grow spontaneously / New churches, new economies, new laws / Admitting freedom, new societies / Excluding falsehood” (9:946-49). Except perhaps for the final section of Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, with its prophetic “Last View of the World,” there is no autobiographical conclusion quite so engaged with the public good or quite so insistent about the need for the woman writer to move out of the private and into the civic realm.


  1. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, 3:158, 303. Further citations are given parenthetically by book and line numbers in McSweeney's edition.

  2. Herbert Tucker, “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends,” 62.

  3. Ibid., 67.

  4. Letter 139, 4 February 1842, in Raymond and Sullivan, Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 1:345. The letter is also included in Miller, Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford, 106. As a subsequent letter written on 18 November 1842 attests (letter 200, 2:81), Barrett disputed with friends about the value of Wordsworth's poetry, in this case with Hugh Boyd, who considered the poet laureate third-rate. Boyd, she reports, “was very angry … IS … will be perhaps in spite of all—and why?—why because I wont agree with him that Wordsworth is at best, a third rate poet.”

  5. The exception may be Caroline Bowles's Birthday (1836), which was considered autobiographical in the tradition of Cowper's Task. Barrett Browning knew and admired Bowles (later the wife of Robert Southey), as her letter in response to Richard Hengist Horne's New Spirit of the Age attests: “Caroline Southey should have been mentioned with some distinction. She is a womanly Cowper, with much of his sweetness, and some of his strength, and there is much in her poems to which the heart of the reader leans back in remembrance” (Stoddard, Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne, 200). I have found no evidence, however, that Barrett Browning viewed The Birthday as a poem about artistic development.

  6. Ross, Contours of Masculine Desire, 229.

  7. Landon, Poetical Works, 223. Unless I indicate otherwise, all citations of Landon's work are to F. Sypher's edition, which is a reprint of the volume edited and illustrated by William Bell Scott and published by George Routledge in 1873.

  8. It is possible to read the opening lines of Aurora Leigh as autobiographically relevant to Barrett Browning's career. If, as Tricia Lootens suggests in Lost Saints, 122, Barrett Browning's “Vision of Poets” “celebrates Romantic genius, Pythian inspiration, and the agonies of Christian sanctity,” and if the only woman poet included in this poem is Sappho, “Who died for Beauty as martyrs do” (l. 289), then we may read Aurora Leigh as a (partial) renunciation of that earlier vision. L. E. L.'s Eulalie is based on Sappho and on Madame de Staël's Sapphic writer Corinne—figures Barrett had admired greatly in her youth.

  9. Glennis Stephenson, “Poet Construction: Mrs Hemans, L. E. L., and the Image of the Nineteenth-Century Woman Poet,” in Neuman and Stephenson, ReImagining Women, 66. See also London's Erinna: “It was my other self that had a power; / Mine, but o'er which I had not a control. … / A song came gushing, like the natural tears, / To check whose current does not rest with us” (Landon, Poetical Works, 216).

  10. Leighton, Victorian Women Poets, 61.

  11. Robinson, Memoirs (1826), 132.

  12. Landon left biographical materials with Laman Blanchard, her literary executor, who wrote a “sketch of the literary and personal life of L. E. L.,” as he put it, “in fulfilment of a pledge given to her long before she meditated leaving England” (Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., v).

  13. The phrases come from Ross's chapter on More and Barbauld, “The Birth of a Tradition: Making Cultural Space for Feminine Poetry,” in Contours of Masculine Desire, 192, 202. As his chapter title implies, Ross views More and Barbauld as key figures in a single “feminine” tradition, as differentiated from a “masculine” Romantic tradition; yet the transmission from Robinson to Landon suggests that there were two feminine traditions, one less invested in woman's role as “sociomoral handmaiden.”

  14. E[mma] R[oberts], “Memoir of L. E. L.,” in Landon, “Zenana” and Minor Poems, 9; Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 1:17, 40. Roberts also refers to Landon's poetry as “her effusions” (10).

  15. William Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, 2:134.

  16. Norma Clarke, “The Cause of Infant Genius,” paper given at the International Conference on Women's Poetry, Birkbeck College, London University, 21 July 1995.

  17. Roberts, “Memoir of L. E. L.,” 16, 11.

  18. Speaking specifically of Landon's Improvisatrice, Blanchard notes, “Thus, though it was but Sappho who sang, Sappho and L. E. L. were voted to be one, and the minstrel was identified as a martyr to ill-starred passion and blighted hope”: Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 2:41. See also Howitt's anecdote in Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, 2:132-33, about Landon's deflating of “a young sentimental man” by explaining, “with an air of merry scorn,” that her poetry was “all professional, you know!”

  19. Landon, preface to “Venetian Bracelet,” vii-viii.

  20. Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, 2:137. Howitt follows this passage with an anecdote he heard from Emma Roberts, which she apparently suppressed: that Landon, “when calumny was dealing very freely with her name,” told Roberts that she had a “remedy” for her “suffering” and showed her friend “a vial of prussic acid.” Howitt treats this anecdote as a real-life version of a fictional incident in Landon's novel Ethel Churchill, thus suggesting another link between the poetess's life and her work.

  21. Letter dated 16 July 1841, in Miller, Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford, 77-78.

  22. There is also Elizabeth Barrett's commentary in her poem “L. E. L's Last Question,” which suggests that, had L. E. L. thought more of Him “who drew / All life from dust, and for all tasted death,” her poetry might have achieved a greater, more long-lasting significance. This sense of the poetess's focus on things domestic and mundane to the omission of higher, spiritual matters continues in Aurora Leigh.

  23. Kathleen Blake traces the parallels to Wordsworth's Prelude in “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth,” 387-98, and argues that the primary difference lies in Barrett Browning's emphasis on love. My point, a slightly different one, is that Barrett Browning uses parallels with Wordsworth to distinguish Aurora from the Romantic female poetess.

  24. Aurora takes the lark as her counterpart in bk. II:744-45, “The little lark reached higher with his song / Than I with crying,” and in bk. III:151-52: “The music soars within the little lark, / And the lark soars.” These passages recall most notably bk. VII:18-31 of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth allies himself with a “choir of red-breasts” at winter's end, and bk. XIV:381-89, in which he figures his autobiographical poem as “this Song, which like a lark / I have protracted, in the unwearied heavens / Singing.”

  25. Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 1:13. Biographers also noted that her reviewing for the Literary Gazette required wide and thoughtful reading.

  26. “Prefatory Notice,” in Hemans, Poetical Works, 22.

  27. Rundle, “‘Inscription of these volumes,’” 247.

  28. Leighton, Victorian Women Poets, 51, suggests that in this detail Barrett Browning “may well be remembering the life of L. E. L.” I would add that the geographical shift from the parish of Brompton to the adjacent Kensington follows a historical shift of respectable Victorian authors and artists in a westward direction. Bohemians moved southward to Chelsea.

  29. Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 1:79. This description also appears in Elwood, Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England, 2:319, and Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, 2:130. It continues: “—with a simple white bed, at the foot of which was a small, old, oblong-shaped sort of dressing-table, quite covered with a common worn writing-desk heaped with papers, while some strewed the ground, the table being too small for aught besides the desk; a little high-backed cane-chair which gave you any idea rather than that of comfort—a few books scattered about completed the author's paraphernalia.”

  30. See, for example, Emma Roberts's comment that “the history and literature of all ages and all countries were familiar to her, … the extent of her learning, and the depth of her research, manifesting themselves in publications which do not bear her name” (“Memoir of L. E. L.,” 17).

  31. Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 1:32-33.

  32. Barrett Browning may also be defending the “Cockney School,” a derogatory label she thought ill chosen. To Mary Russell Mitford she complained, “And, what is the cockney school? … Is it not their locality which gave the name—& still less resonably [sic] than the Lakes gave another? And are any of us the worse for living in London, if we dont roll in the dust of the streets?” (letter 737, 6 March 1840, in Kelley and Hudson, Brownings' Correspondence, vol. 4).

  33. Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets, 2:137; Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L., 1:52.

  34. Landon, Poetical Works, 226. Cf. Hannah More's use of the myth of Atalanta in Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (in Works, 1:367) to argue that women writers cannot sustain their careers as men can.

  35. On this score, Angela Leighton incorrectly suggests that Aurora's father is more important than Romney to her poetic development: “It is not the realisation that she has loved and lost Romney, but that she has lost her father, which tests and educates her imagination,” Leighton argues in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 136. Romney is important because he becomes the patriarchal mouthpiece, arguing the traditional challenges to women's abilities and for Aurora's “proper” place in the domestic sphere. Her father is not put in this position because Barrett Browning wants Aurora to claim her paternal inheritance—the learning, the intellectual contribution—without undue complication.

  36. Landon, Poetical Works, 229. The Englishman listens to a long monologue in which Eulalie laments the ill effects of fame and praises the virtues of “the loveliness of home” and “support and shelter from man's heart” (226). When the monologue ends, he abruptly states, “I soon left Italy; it is well worth / A year of wandering, were it but to feel / How much our England does outweigh the world” (230). One could read this hiatus simply as an acknowledgment that poetic genius is unsuited to domestic life. Landon seems to have intended, however, a stronger link between the continuing work of the poetess and the approval—including love—of her male audience.

  37. Cora Kaplan, in her ground-breaking study of the sources of Aurora Leigh, calls it the “most vulgar” alteration of the Corinne myth (“Introduction” to “Aurora Leigh” and Other Poems, 17). Dorothy Mermin writes more ambivalently: “Perhaps the oddest thing about Aurora Leigh, after all, is the triumphantly happy ending—happy for the heroine at any rate, if not for her disempowered and humiliated lover” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 217). In “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends,” Herbert F. Tucker explains, to my mind convincingly, the ending as the combination of novelistic convention and epic apocalypse.

  38. Browning, Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1:232.

  39. Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1. Later Mermin suggests that Barrett Browning's “real rival was L. E. L., not Homer or Byron or even Mrs. Hemans, whom she considered too ladylike and deficient in passion to be seriously reckoned with” (32). If Mermin is correct, as I think she may be, then the density of allusions to Landon's work in Aurora Leigh points to that rivalry.

  40. The term “Self-biography” comes from Coleridge's notebooks, 4 January 1804, cited in the apparatus of Wordsworth, Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, 529. The 1850 title page of the poem reads: The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind, An Autobiographical Poem. Throughout this chapter I cite the 1850 edition.

  41. “On a Portrait of Wordsworth by B. R. Haydon,” in Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 98.

  42. Blake, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth,” 390.

  43. On the problematic substitution of maternal nature for real mothers, see Steinmetz, “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh,” 351-67.

  44. On the importance of Corinne for Barrett Browning and other nineteenth-century women writers, see Moers, Literary Women, 173-310, and Cora Kaplan, “Introduction” to “Aurora Leigh” and Other Poems, 16-23. To Hugh Stuart Boyd, Elizabeth Barrett wrote on 9 June 1832 that she had been reading Corinne “for the third time, & admired it more than ever” (letter 453 in Kelley and Hudson, Brownings' Correspondence, 3:25, which includes the phrase “immortal book”).

  45. Staël-Holstein, Germany, 1:224-25. The chapter in which this quotation occurs is titled “Of the Judgment formed by the English on the subject of German Literature.”

  46. Letter of 8 November 1842, in Miller, Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford, 141.

  47. Miller, Fiction and Repetition, 9.

  48. Friedrich Schiller, “On Simple and Sentimental Poetry,” in Bate, Criticism, 408-9.

  49. That this advance is conceived in terms of social class rather than progressive civilizations reminds us of the recurring problem Barrett Browning faces in treating working-class characters and issues, a problem discussed by Kaplan, “Introduction” to “Aurora Leigh” and Other Poems, 35-36.

  50. These lines and phrases come from the fuller account of the Maid of Buttermere in the 1805 Prelude, ed. Wordsworth, Abrams, and Gill, 7:342-46, 325, 323. Like Barrett Browning's account of Marian Erle, Wordsworth's of Mary Robinson wavers between the language of melodrama, traditionally associated with lower-class characters, and the more “universal” language of The Prelude, with which Wordsworth narrates his own life. This failure to convert Mary Robinson's story from stage drama to auto/biography reveals his difficulty with both class and gender differences.

  51. Kramer, “Gender and Sexuality in The Prelude,” 626.

  52. See ibid., 625-30, as well as Onorato, Character of the Poet.

  53. Barrett Browning follows Wordsworth in imagining the fallen but pure mother as “dead” to the world. At the end of Aurora Leigh, when Romney proposes to marry Marian and adopt her child, Marian insists that “since we've parted I have passed the grave” (9:282) and that she will not “get up from my grave, / And wear my chin-cloth for a wedding-veil” (9:392-93). Barrett Browning emphasizes the life of the child, who, fathered by God, not man, represents the future redemption of humankind.

  54. The melodrama was performed at Sadler's Wells in April-June 1803, and Mary Lamb wrote Coleridge and Wordsworth about it in July 1803. It is unclear whether Wordsworth actually saw the play.

  55. In “Lamb, Lloyd, London,” 169-87, Newlyn argues that the 1805 version of The Prelude includes not just traditional negative judgments of the city but almost Lamb-like moments of recognizing its vitality and imaginative potential. Her argument relies, however, on passages in the 1805 version that were expurgated from the 1850 published edition, which was the text Barrett Browning read. Less optimistically, in “Gender and Sexuality in The Prelude,” 622, Kramer suggests that Wordsworth relegates London to the “realm of fancy, the imagination's poor relation, the mundane, indiscriminate, and capricious manipulation of images.”

  56. This is Marcus's formulation in Auto/biographical Discourses, 37. She amplifies Jacobus's reading in Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference, 230-36.

  57. See letter 200, 18 November 1842, in Raymond and Sullivan, Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 2:81.

  58. In an essay on Mary and William Howitt in Horne's New Spirit of the Age, 177-98, Mary is credited with having “the true ballad spirit” and the couple (who published jointly) with “the irresistible tendency of one to describe natural scenery, and the legendary propensities of the other” (185). As we know from comments to Mitford, however, Barrett believed that Mary Howitt's represented a literary career gone bad, that Howitt had failed to consolidate her powers and, with The Seven Temptations, declined as a poet. To Robert Browning she suggests that the Howitts' journalism, including their editorship of the People's Journal, led Mary to publish “pure nonsense,” “pretty, washy, very meritorious” stuff (Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, 2:124).

  59. The fullest discussion of bk. V as ars poetica appears in Holly A. Laird's “Aurora Leigh: An Epical Ars Poetica,” in Jones, Writing the Woman Artist, 355-70. Laird emphasizes Barrett Browning's “twofold” vision of heroism in life and art, its articulation and embodiment in Aurora Leigh.

  60. Landon's Improvisatrice begins: “I am a daughter of that land, / Where the poet's lip and the painter's hand / Are most divine,—where the earth and sky / Are picture both and poetry— / I am of Florence” (ll. 1-5). Eulalie, the poetess of A History of the Lyre, is, like Staël's Corinne, from Rome. On Italy as a mythic source of women's poetry, see Sweet, “Bowl of Liberty,” one part of which was presented at the Conference on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers, University of South Carolina, March 1996.

  61. The titles of bks. XII and XIII are “Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored.”

  62. Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 190. Mermin does not believe, however, that Aurora and Romney achieve the “complicated reciprocity” depicted in the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this judgment we differ, in that I believe Barrett Browning signals the reciprocity through the dialogic form in which most scenes involving Aurora and Romney occur.

  63. Romney alludes to the traditional interpretation of the Song of Songs as an emblem of Christ and his church when he speaks of “the love of wedded souls” as “that mystery's counterpart, … Of such mystic substance, Sharon gave a name to” (9:882-86). In Protestant hermeneutics, the Song of Songs represents “(1) a vivid unfolding of Solomon's love for a Shulamite girl, (2) a figurative revelation of God's love for His covenant people, Israel, and (3) an allegory of Christ's love for His heavenly bride, the Church” (as explained in The New Scofield Reference Bible [New York: Oxford University Press, 1967], 705). Barrett Browning in effect adds a fourth level of interpretation that includes public forms of human love, including the fraternal, neighborly, and civic.

  64. Deirdre David, for whom this passage signifies “the appropriation of Aurora's art and sexuality by male power,” is partially correct in suggesting that the biblical emblem indicates that “all political and social action will originate in and be sweetened from their marriage,” but as the passage actually states, for Aurora, such action originates in “God's love” (9:880)—perhaps not a satisfying distinction for a modern feminist but crucial to Barrett Browning's insistence that divine, not earthly, models inform her poetry and politics (see her chapter “Woman's Art as Servant of Patriarchy,” in Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 152-53).

  65. Riess, “Laetitia Landon and the Dawn of English Post-Romanticism,” 815. Like Stuart Curran (“Romantic Poetry: The I Altered,” in Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism, 185-207), I would distinguish these early volumes from Landon's later poems of the 1830s, especially The Zenana: An Eastern Tale (1839), which “focus on exile and failure” and which recognize the limited sphere in which the poetess operates.

  66. Ross, Contours of Masculine Desire, 204.

  67. Ibid., 259. In defining the poet's vocation, Barrett Browning participates in a long tradition, from Milton through Cowper to Wordsworth, about the value of poetic labor; on this tradition, see Goodman, “‘Wasted Labor’?” 415-46, as well as Liu, “The Economy of Lyric,” in Wordsworth, 311-58, and Clifford Siskin, “Wordsworth's Prescriptions: Romanticism and Professional Power,” in Ruoff, Romantics and Us, 303-21.

  68. Moers, Literary Women, 59. David's harsher view of Aurora's politics—“In this poem we hear a woman's voice speaking patriarchal discourse—boldly, passionately, and without rancour”—stems from a reaction against celebratory feminist readings that hear in the poem “women's language” but also, I think, from a neglect of the politics of genre. When David ironically concludes that Barrett Browning “was a good deal more political and a good deal more intellectual than literary history has imagined” (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 157-58), she implies a political innocence about the poet's work that the self-conscious manipulation of genres belies.

  69. Tucker, “Aurora Leigh,” 80.

  70. On Hemans, see Ross, Contours of Masculine Desire, 251. Even Landon chose to observe the convention of letting a friend write a biography rather than compose an autobiography herself. Blanchard begins his introduction to the Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L. with an explanation that “long before she meditated leaving England,” she left him “with some materials for a slight sketch of her life,” and that the rest of the information “has been supplied by the anxious care of her family” (v-vi).

Selected Bibliography

Bate, Walter Jackson, ed. Criticism: The Major Texts. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Blake, Kathleen. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman.” Victorian Poetry 24 (1986): 387-98.

Blanchard, Laman. Life and Literary Remains of L. E. L. London: Henry Colburn, 1841.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Kerry McSweeney. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

———. The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Cambridge ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

B[rowning], R[obert] B[arrett], ed. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1899.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Elwood, Mrs. [Anne Katharine]. Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England, from the Commencement of the Last Century. 2 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1843.

Goodman, Kevis. “‘Wasted Labor’? Milton's Eve, the Poet's Work, and the Challenge of Sympathy.” ELH 64 (1997): 415-46.

Hemans, Felicia. The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans. Ed. W. M. Rossetti. London: E. Moxon, [1873].

Horne, R. H., ed. A New Spirit of the Age. 2d ed. London: Smith, Elder, 1844.

Howitt, William. Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1847.

Jacobus, Mary. Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference: Essays on “The Prelude.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Jones, Suzanne W., ed. Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Kaplan, Cora, ed. “Aurora Leigh” and Other Poems. London: Women's Press, 1978.

Kelley, Philip, and Ronald Hudson, eds. The Brownings' Correspondence. 14 vols. Winfield, Kans.: Wedgestone Press, 1984-98.

Kowalski, Elizabeth. “‘The Heroine of Some Strange Romance’: The Personal Recollections of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 1 (1982): 141-53.

Kramer, Lawrence. “Gender and Sexuality in The Prelude: The Question of Book VII.” ELH 54 (1987): 619-37.

Landon, Letitia. Poetical Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “L. E. L.” Ed. F. J. Sypher. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1990.

———. “The Venetian Bracelet,” “The Lost Pleiad,” “A History of the Lyre,” and Other Poems. Boston: Cottons & Barnard, 1830.

———. “The Zenana” and Minor Poems of L. E. L., with a Memoir by Emma Roberts. London: Fisher, 1839.

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Brighton: Harvester, 1986.

———. Victorian Women Poets: Writing against the Heart. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Liu, Alan. Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Lootens, Tricia. Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Marcus, Laura. Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Martineau, Harriet. Autobiography. Ed. Maria Weston Chapman. London: Smith, Elder, 1877.

Mellor, Anne K., ed. Romanticism and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

———. Godiva's Ride: Women of Letters in England, 1830-1880. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Miller, Betty, ed. Elizabeth Barrett to Miss Mitford. London: John Murray, 1954.

Miller, J. Hillis. Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

More, Hannah. Coelebs in Search of a Wife, Comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals. London: J. Chidley, 1837.

———. The Works of Hannah More. New York: Harper, 1854.

Neuman, Shirley, and Glennis Stephenson, eds. ReImagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Newlyn, Lucy. “Lamb, Lloyd, London: A Perspective on Book Seven of The Prelude.Charles Lamb Bulletin n.s. 47-48 (July-October 1984): 169-87.

Onorato, Richard. The Character of the Poet: Wordsworth in “The Prelude.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Raymond, Meredith B., and Mary Rose Sullivan, eds. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford. Waco, Tex.: Armstrong Browning Library, 1983.

Riess, Daniel. “Laetitia Landon and the Dawn of English Post-Romanticism.” Studies in English Literature 36 (1996): 807-27.

R[oberts], E[mma]. “Memoir of L. E. L.” In “The Zenana” and Minor Poems of L. E. L., with a Memoir by Emma Roberts. 2 vols. London: Fisher, 1839.

Roberts, Emma. Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan. London: Fisher, n.d.

Robinson, Mary. Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself. From the Edition Edited by Her Daughter. London: Hunt & Clarke, 1826.

Ross, Marlon B. The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Rundle, Vivienne. “‘The inscription of these volumes’: The Prefatory Writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Victorian Poetry 34 (1996): 247-78.

Ruoff, Gene, ed. The Romantics and Us: Essays on Literature and Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Staël-Holstein, Baroness. Germany. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1813.

Steinmetz, Virginia V. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 21 (1983): 351-67.

Stoddard, Richard Henry, ed. Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne. New York: James Miller, 1877.

Sweet, Nanora. “The Bowl of Liberty: Felicia Hemans and the Romantic Imagination.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1993.

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

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.

SueAnn Schatz (essay date winter 2000)

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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 27, 1845

If, therefore, I move certain subjects in this work, it is because my conscience was first moved in me not to ignore them.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Julia Martin; February, 1857


Through an analysis of Aurora Leigh as domestic-professional fiction, in this essay I investigate Elizabeth Barrett Browning's evolving feminist and artistic philosophy. I define domestic-professional fiction as possessing several distinctive attributes: a prominent character is a professional woman writer who also occupies the role of caregiver in the home. While fulfilling the role of the ideal Victorian woman, “The Angel in the House,” the domestic-professional author also subverts Victorian expectations of women by asserting her right to confront immediate political and moral issues and offer solutions. Domestic-professional texts offer paradigms of the woman/writer whose chosen vocation is that of social critic, a model intended to replace the Victorian ideal of woman precisely by co-opting it. Finally, domestic-professional fiction ultimately challenges its readers to make the decision to effect social change.

Barrett Browning's philosophy of literature, revealed in the content and form of Aurora Leigh, most definitively envisions a feminine strength and morality that address society's needs, extending the domestic ethics into the public sphere. Barrett Browning also stresses the power of writing as a means of discovering “truth” and as a woman's construction and acceptance of her self. Aurora's growth as a writer and a woman results from her relationships with Romney Leigh and Marian Erle. Thus, since a central thematic principle in domestic-professional fiction is that a woman break free from cultural conventions to cultivate the power that can transform society, Barrett Browning's doctrine of art encompasses the personal and the political, of which Aurora and Romney's marriage is the ultimate symbol; the “New Jerusalem” they anticipate at the end of this epic verse-novel emphasizes the need to work toward a just society. Importantly, while Barrett Browning advocates the construction of a fair society, she does so by critiquing a cherished Victorian ideal, that of the Angel in the House that she believes denigrates both women and society. For Barrett Browning, society will benefit much more from the professional woman than from the woman who has no creative outlet other than her domestic duties.

Aurora Leigh was first published in 1856, two years after another poem whose female figure would increasingly personify the ideal Victorian woman, Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House. Barrett Browning uses a variety of characters familiar to Victorian readers—the lovelorn heroine (Aurora), the “good” woman (Aurora again), the “fallen” woman (Marian), the social idealist (Romney), and the conniving aristocrat (Lady Waldemar), among others, in surprising ways to address her concerns regarding contemporary issues, such as the woman question, individualism and social conditions. One character type that appears only marginally is the Angel in the House, the feminine figure who is becoming increasingly codified into the middle-class norm as the ‘ideal woman.’1 There are several instances in which the Angel does show up briefly in Aurora Leigh, only to be exorcised by Barrett Browning, who realizes how damaging this image is to women. She teasingly introduces such a woman in the form of Aurora's mother on the first page of the book:

But still I catch my mother at her post
Beside the nursery-door, with finger up,
‘Hush, hush—here's too much noise!’ while her sweet eyes
Leap forward, taking part against her word
In the child's riot.(2)

But Barrett Browning immediately destroys such an image by informing the reader that Aurora's mother is already dead. Further, Aurora's study of her mother's portrait conjures up not an idealized version of the woman, but shows the layers of complexity that women truly are (1.149-68). Images range from “abhorrent” to “beautiful,” from Muses and Fates, Psyche and Medusa, to Our Lady of Passion and Lamia: “Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite” (1.154). All of these female images, including Aurora's mother, are women of power, specifically women whose power the patriarchal order wants to limit or destroy. In their place the Angel in the House is instituted in order to control female power and influence. From the outset of her poem, Barrett Browning seems to suggest that the Angel in the House is an ideal and only that. Furthermore, it is not necessarily an ideal that should be pursued. Why, after all, seek an unattainable model of a woman when real women contain within them “the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” (5.215-16)?

Aurora Leigh met with great success, despite some critics' reservations. But even reviewers who found major fault with Barrett Browning's subject matter or style almost unanimously praised some portion of the poem. For example. W. E. Aytoun, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, complained that the story was one “which no admirer of Mrs. Browning's genius ought in prudence to defend. In our opinion it is fantastic, unnatural, exaggerated; and all the worse, because it professes to be a tale of our times.” Yet, he ends his review thusly: “Still, with all its faults, this is a remarkable poem; strong in energy, rich in thought, abundant in beauty; and it more than sustains that high reputation, which by her previous efforts, Mrs. Browning has so honourably won.”3Aurora Leigh continued to be reprinted and influential through the end of the century, as did Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House, however, with one major difference. While Barrett Browning made corrections but no major revisions to her poem before her death in 1861. Patmore continually revised his, finally settling on a last revision in 1886.4 It is this edition that has been reprinted and been the standard for twentieth-century scholars.5

Recently, though, several critics have returned to Patmore's original versions of the two parts of the poem, “The Betrothal” and “The Espousals,” which help highlight Barrett Browning's ideological endeavor in Aurora Leigh. In particular, Linda K. Hughes argues that Patmore's revisions indicate an alarmist reaction to the social upheaval Britain was facing by the end of the century. Hughes notes that in the 1854 version, “the husband and wife are collaborators, she the critic rather than the passive recipient of his verses.”6 But by the time Patmore finished revising his poem for the standard and approved edition,

[w]hat increasingly disappears. … is a sense of women as living presences. … [They become] far more disembodied and reified, far more relegated to the status of symbols manipulated for artistic purposes. Far more in the final than in the first edition, that is, the female becomes entombed, drained of life and vitality and encased in form.7

What Hughes is noting in the revision of The Angel in the House is a tightening of ranks, so to speak, a retrenching from the idea that British society was progressing toward a more liberated and egalitarian one. Certainly much of this change had to do with the burgeoning industrial and colonial empire that Britain had developed, creating what Karl Beckson calls the “characteristically Victorian assumptions that the age required manliness and determination to sustain Britain's industrial progress, its programs of reform, and the expansion of its empire.”8 Since the definition of “manliness” was changing, so too was the definition of “womanliness.” The Angel in the House figure became increasingly codified in a middle-class psyche that was more and more confused about moral integrity. If “being a good man” was about obtaining material goods to offer proof of one's economic status, then “being a good woman” was about offering a certain kind of self-sacrifice to counter such rampant materialism, a balancing of intangible morality with tangible acquisitiveness.

As I will show, Barrett Browning eschews the mere idealization of women in favor of presenting a complex individual who might actually improve society. Through Aurora's maturation process, both as a writer and a woman, Barrett Browning suggests a “real-life” role model, a woman who can successfully combine the professional and domestic spheres. In light of nineteenth-century attitudes towards women, for Barrett Browning to imply that women belonged in the professional as well as the domestic sphere required a layered, sophisticated argument. Accordingly, throughout this article I quote several long passages of Barrett Browning's verse-novel; many of her ideas are complicated and deserve citation in full because, as Margaret Reynolds points out, “[T]here is little chance of economical quotation as clauses accumulate and argument opens into allegory.”9


In the famous garden scene in Book 2 of Aurora Leigh, Aurora's cousin Romney admonishes her,

                                                                                                    ‘There it is!—
You play beside a death-bed like a child,
Yet measure to yourself a prophet's place
To teach the living. None of all these things,
Can women understand. You generalise
Oh, nothing,—not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts.
So sympathetic to the personal pang,
Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
A whole life at each wound, incapable
Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
To hold the world-full woe. The human race
To you means, such a child, or such a man,
You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
A few such cases, and when strong sometimes
Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
Your father were a negro, and your son
A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,
All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise
Just nothing to you.’


There are two delicious ironies in Romney's smug accusation. One is that Romney just previously said that he had not read Aurora's poems, but insinuates he knows what she writes about anyway. Since the apostrophe “you” in this speech changes from the singular “Aurora” to the plural “women,” one presumes that Romney has read the work of other poetesses and surmises that they all write about the same things. He faults them for not generalizing, for only caring about an individual's problems. Romney here is guilty of exactly the opposite: he generalizes too much (about women poets) and, moreso, he is uninformed. Further, he does not explain why it is important to generalize rather than to individualize. The second irony is Romney's contention that women will “teach the living” what they know “of factories and of slaves” (2.182, 194). Romney overlooks the fact that “ladies” were not “educated” to concern themselves with such matters as slavery and child-labor laws, and since Aurora and other women do so indicates these writers educated themselves regarding political matters, regardless of societal opinion.

Furthermore, Romney is missing the point when he complains, “‘The human race / To you means, such a child, or such a man, / You saw one morning waiting in the cold, / Beside that gate, perhaps’” (2.189-92): he does not understand that the personal is political, that an individual's actions towards other individuals are the basis for social change. Yet, Romney is not altogether wrong here. At age twenty, Aurora has not witnessed such things as workhouses and mills personally and so if she has written about them, it is from second-hand experience or from what she has gathered reading about such. The fact is we are never quite sure what Aurora writes about because Aurora Leigh is the only piece of her writing that we actually read. Beverly Taylor notes that we never read the poetry that changes Romney's opinion that art cannot induce social good: “Instead the poetry by Aurora that we do read is Aurora Leigh itself, the poem that relates the social turmoil of the Victorian period to the interior life of individual woman.”10 More importantly, as my discussion will show, what Aurora precisely does need to learn is to care deeply rather than superficially for an individual's problems before she can fulfill her potential of becoming a poet who affects and changes society. That is, Aurora must incorporate the ideology of social change within her own life before she can be a true poet.

Despite her belief in her work, Aurora thinks she needs to make a choice between being a professional writer or a wife, thus prompting her initial rejection of Romney's marriage proposal. She vehemently opposes Romney's conventional argument that women cannot produce great art, but totally accepts the societal convention that she must choose between work and love. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi asserts that Aurora consistently denies her femininity precisely because it interferes with her chosen vocation as poet, traditionally a male domain.11 It is only through her interaction with Marian that Aurora comes to realize her true self is a combination of the writer and the wife: she is the poet who will enact social change by calling attention to the wrongs of society, and she is the woman who will influence social change through the model of her personal life, as a partner in an egalitarian marriage. As befitting mirror images, Aurora only achieves her true sense of self when her reflector Marian does.

Thus, one reason why Barrett Browning chooses not to give us examples of Aurora's poetry may be the verse-novel's objective in describing the growth of a poet's mind, specifically a woman poet's mind. Despite the modest fame and critical acclaim she receives for her poetry. Aurora consistently doubts her talent as a force for social change. It is only after she shares in her “sister-mirror” Marian Erle's traumatic experiences that she is truly able to write a poem that she believes is worthy of her genius (and that is Aurora Leigh itself) and so is also worthy to share with readers. She claims in Book I that she “Will write my story for my better self” (1.4), but in actuality she also writes Marian's story. As final proof to Romney that political acts spring from personal experience, Aurora's story tells a writer's story and a woman's story, two narratives that are enmeshed and cannot be divided in Barrett Browning's aesthetic credo of domestic-professional fiction.

In some respects, Aurora Leigh is the conventional heroine of mid-Victorian novels who seeks her hero, for despite her own unwillingness to admit her love for Romney, it is consistently brought to the reader's attention. She regularly listens for and encourages his name to be brought up in conversations, and several times she purposely finds reasons to write to him. After fleetingly seeing a woman in Paris she believes to be the lost Marian, her first inclination is not to follow, but “to write to Romney” (6.333). Even in her disquisitions on art, the focal point is her cousin; for example, Aurora questions her ability to write poetry that will affect people since Romney was not touched. She nearly convinces herself of her inadequacy: “I must fail, / Who fail at the beginning to hold and move / One man,—and he my cousin, and he my friend” (5.30-2).

But what sets her apart from the traditional lovelorn heroine is that she is a writer and that does make all the difference. Aurora thinks about things Victorian women are not necessarily supposed to think or write about and she does things women are not necessarily supposed to do. She defies convention by siding with a “fallen woman” and questioning social injustice towards women. More important, Aurora does so by writing and creating a philosophy of art. As Kathleen K. Hickok notes, Barrett Browning's use of familiar characters makes the poem all the more bold because she uses them unconventionally to address controversial social issues: “The audacity and the achievement of Aurora Leigh resided in its confrontation all at once of so many social and personal facts of nineteenth-century English life and in its challenges to the validity of the conventions which customarily concealed those facts.”12 Despite the conventional ending of Aurora Leigh with the impending marriage of Aurora and Romney, the conclusion is achieved through unorthodox means and so holds the promise that the future will challenge or change conventions. More specifically it will be the woman writer who envisions such a society, the “New Jerusalem” that Aurora and Romney anticipate at the end of Aurora Leigh. Though Aurora concedes that “Art is much, but love is more” (9.656), it is precisely her experiences as a writer that allow her to come to this conclusion because Aurora realizes that “Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God / And makes heaven” (9.658-9). Love is the ultimate artist/creator of a just society and all other art must be created in duty to Love.

Not content with solely utilizing familiar characters in stereotypical ways, Barrett Browning opposes and aligns these characters, specifically the “good” woman and the “fallen” woman. Several critics, including Gail Turley Houston and Ellen Chafee, have noted the connotation of a woman's writing in the nineteenth century as a form of prostitution.13 Aurora's moral integrity, however, is never questioned either by herself or readers of Aurora Leigh, and so in this way the woman writer is set against the prostitute or fallen woman. Even though Aurora transgresses boundaries by writing professionally and rejecting marriage, she is still seen as morally good; it is her unconventionality that paradoxically emphasizes her integrity. At the same time, Barrett Browning aligns the woman writer with the fallen woman by having Aurora tell Marian's story, thereby vicariously participating in the young woman's disgrace. By giving voice to Marian's story, Aurora allows the reader to see that, despite her circumstances, Marian is also good and should be accorded the same respect as honorable women. However, Barrett Browning makes it clear that Marian is fallen through circumstances not of her own doing and not through caprice. Thus while challenging Victorian standards, Aurora's defense of Marian is acceptable to middle-class readers because of the younger woman's noncomplicity in the situation.

Aurora and Marian are explicitly linked by several comparisons, revealing to the reader that their relationship will address problems that women of both the higher and lower classes faced, and that Marian is necessary to and indivisible from Aurora's self-construction: both were sickly children and both were “parentless,” Aurora literally orphaned by her parents' deaths and Marian figuratively by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother willing to prostitute her daughter. Living in the fashionable district of Kensington in London, the adult Aurora occupies an apartment “up three flights of stairs / Not far from being as steep as some larks climb” (3.158-59), prompting Lady Waldemar to remark on “‘the trouble of ascent / To this Olympus’” (3.372-73). Going to visit Marian, now engaged to her cousin, Aurora notes her ascent in a tenement slum of St. Margaret's Court: “Still, up, up! / So high lived Romney's bride!” (3.793-94). Although Aurora's rationale for her top-floor rooms is to conserve money, Marian's similar living situation indicates that Aurora is dangerously close to crossing the boundaries of middle-class respectability. Most important, both women share a misguided (Aurora) or an absent (Marian) sense of self. Aurora must correct this condition by realizing that she must construct a new sense of herself as a writer and a woman before she can accept the laurels of the true poet.

Part of this task is Aurora's learning from and recording Marian's construction of herself. They first meet through Romney's act of putting his social theory of abolishing the class system into action; he has asked Marian to marry him: “‘Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor, / Shall we keep parted? Not so. … / … joining in a protest 'gainst the wrong / On both sides. / … fellow-worker, be my wife?’” (4.124-25, 130-31, 150). He thus performs the same action of which he earlier accused Aurora: using the individual to represent the universal. Marian agrees to marry, but not because she loves him. Her past has destroyed any positive sense of herself and she docilely accepts Romney's proposal on the grounds that she will be his “fellow-worker” (ironically the same grounds on which Aurora refused him). When Aurora asks her, “‘So indeed / He loves you, Marian?’” (4.167-68), she replies that he does only in the sense that as one of the masses, she is part of his social idealism, and so he loves her as he loves the cause:

‘Loves me!’ She looked up
With a child's wonder when you ask him first
Who made the sun—a puzzled blush, that grew,
Then broke off in a rapid radiant smile
Of sure solution. ‘Loves me! he loves all,—
To work with him for ever and be his wife.’


Marian cannot, as Aurora at this point in time cannot, conceive of herself as a sexual woman, for similar and differing reasons. Both women are trapped by societal constructions of womanliness from which they cannot presently free themselves. Trained to become only good wives and mothers, Victorian women were consistently reminded of their perceived lack of intellect. Thus, Victorian conventions envisioned women as sexless, spiritual creatures, yet women were constantly made aware that theirs was the inferior sex.

Aurora's inability to form an authentic sense of herself as a woman comes from her belief that she cannot have both a professional and personal life: Victorian culture separated the spheres of domestic and public, and she must live in one or the other. Her identification with the male-dominated arena of poetry writing further denies Aurora the faculty to acknowledge her womanliness, and hence her sexuality.14 Marian's absence of a strong sense of self develops from a past that denied her dignity. Her mother's intention to sell her to the landlord has so scarred Marian that she rejects her right to pure Victorian womanhood. She defines being Romney's wife as being his co-worker, thus rejecting her sexuality. Marian is also constrained by middle-class definitions of her as a working-class woman: for her to believe herself worthy of Romney would be considered presumptuous and arrogant.

Since both Aurora and Marian see themselves as transgressing the boundaries of nineteenth-century womanhood, they surrender their sexuality so that they cannot be accused of unwomanliness. Barrett Browning, however, utilizes this conventional attitude to expose the unconventional reality of women's sexuality, of which she consistently reminds her readers through her sensual language, Marian's rape and pregnancy, and Aurora and Romney's sensuous kiss in Book 9. Moreso, according to Barrett Browning, women must not only accept but celebrate their sexuality as part of their identity and as part of their poetry. Aurora and Marian will learn to break free of the restraints imposed upon them by society, each defining for herself what role she will play. Aurora's writing of these self-reconstructions is vitally important to Barrett Browning's philosophy of art, which I will discuss presently: through the creation of art itself comes the creation of the individual, which in turn empowers and changes society.

However, Aurora's transformation is often a slow and painful one, revealing the phases Aurora must maneuver through to achieve an authentic sense of self. For example, Aurora's account of a discussion between herself and Romney reveals a condescending attitude toward Marian, troubling to the reader because it is written several years later, after Aurora knows Marian's whole story and has come to realize how worthy she is. Yet, Aurora must offer this scene because it emphasizes Marian's lowly sense of self. Aurora and Romney objectify her as a “thing” and a “gift,” speaking as if Marian were not present:

‘Here's one, at least, who is good,’ I sighed, and touched
Poor Marian's happy head, as doglike she
Most passionately patient, waited on,
A-tremble for her turn of greeting words;
‘I've sate a full hour with your Marian Erle,
And learnt the thing by heart,—and from my heart
Am therefore competent to give you thanks
For such a cousin.’
‘You accept at last
A gift from me, Aurora, without scorn?
At last I please you?’


But, despite Aurora's condescension, we must also take this telling as an essentially truthful chronicle of the meeting. Aurora describes Marian as “doglike” precisely because Marian's estimation of herself at that time demands that Aurora do so.

However, when she begins to relate Marian's narrative in Book 3, Aurora reveals, “I tell her story and grow passionate. / She, Marian, / did not tell it so, but used / Meek words that made no wonder of herself / For being so sad a creature” (3.847-50). Aurora realizes the power of her writing, that it can bring about change, but only if it is “truthful.” She is willing to make herself look patronizing in order for Marian's tale to fully affect the reader. Her recounting of Marian's story is “truthful” then to its essence, rather than to the actual words used, an important point of Aurora's philosophy that art can enact social change:

‘The speakable, imaginable best
God bids [the poet] speak, to prove what lies beyond
Both speech and imagination? …
I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet's individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul,
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair's-breadth off
The dust of the actual.—Ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within. …’

(2.471-3, 476-85)

Aurora's command that “It takes a soul, / To move a body” intimates that poets must first know themselves before being able to affect the lives of others. Even though she understands completely “That life develops from within,” Aurora does not know her own soul well enough to trust her instincts regarding her feelings toward Romney. She begins to develop her first steps toward wholeness through relating to Marian's degradation.

Marian's dishonor comes at the expense of her chastity and her naive trusting of others. In an attempt to sabotage their wedding, Lady Waldemar convinces Marian that Romney needs a wife of his own class, and implores her to leave for Australia where she can begin a new life. Lady Waldemar's “maid,” who is supposed to make the arrangements, instead orchestrates Marian's kidnapping; she is drugged and sent to France, where raped and impregnated, she later gives birth to a son. Finding her in Paris, Aurora persuades Marian to continue on with her to Florence, where she can care for the young mother and child. Here Aurora's growth is again mirrored by Marian's; Aurora's first impression is that Marian is at fault, accusing her of “‘tak[ing] / The hand of a seducer’” (6.746-47), until Marian explains what actually happened. As Marian loses her naiveté, Aurora loses her judgmental superiority and learns to be in sympathetic identification—what Keats termed essential for a poet—with the young woman.

Marian's self-identity is conditioned by her role now as “‘nothing more / But just a mother’” (6.823-24). Additionally, as she speaks of Romney, “She felt his / For just his uses, not her own at all” (6.906-7). But Marian is realizing who she is and how she became such: “‘man's violence, / Not man's seduction, made me what I am’” (6.1226-27). Because of the brutality of her rape, Marian must learn to stand for herself and her child since she knows no one else will do so. She has made sacrifices for her son, but more important, Marian has gained a self-confidence that is essential to her and her child's survival. This insight allows her to reject Romney's second offer of marriage in Florence, despite knowing that marrying him will give her son a name and a place in society: “‘a woman, poor or rich, / Despised or honoured, is a human soul, / And what her soul is, that, she is herself’” (9.328-30).

When Marian finally recognizes that her acceptance of Romney's first proposal was wrong precisely because she did not love him as a woman should love a man (“‘What was in my thought? / To be your slave, your help, your toy, your tool. / To be your love … / Did I love, / Or did I worship?’” [9.369-71, 378-79]), Aurora admits that she does indeed love Romney. Both women fully embrace a definition of womanliness they have constructed, rejecting the Victorian ideology of womanhood. Marian refuses Romney in order to take full responsibility for herself and her son. Even though her pregnancy was not of her own proclivity. Marian realizes that she must be proud of her maternity, confronting society about its prejudicial attitudes towards unmarried mothers. Her rejection of Romney enables Aurora to spiritually, intellectually, and physically accept him. Flaunting Victorian conventions as a writer and a woman, through her poetry, she will address prejudice and injustice. And as she embraces Romney, she will embrace her sexuality. However, these victories have been hard-fought battles.


As I will show, Barrett Browning's delineation of Aurora's philosophy of art discloses her philosophy of womanhood, one that integrates the writer's concerns with the woman's. Despite her protestations to Romney that women can write great art. Aurora's philosophy is a complex weaving of newly-emerging feminist and long-embedded patriarchal ideas. As critics have noted. Aurora has inculcated male hereditary conceptions of poetry because she has been educated only by men's ideas.15 Her father taught her Greek and Latin, thus “wrap[ping] his little daughter in his large / Man's doublet, careless did it fit or not” (1.727-28); and her aunt yields to conventional wisdom concerning a girl's education: to train her to be the Angel in the House. Accordingly, her aunt has Aurora learn French and German “since she liked a range / Of liberal education” (1.401-2); some algebra and science “because / She misliked women who are frivolous” (1.405-6); and makes her read “a score of books on womanhood”

To prove, if women do not think at all,
They may teach thinking, (to a maiden-aunt
Or else the author)—books that boldly assert
Their right of comprehending husband's talk
When not too deep, and even of answering
With pretty ‘may it please you,’ or ‘so it is,’—
Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
Particular worth and general missionariness,
As long as they keep quiet by the fire
And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’
For that is fatal,—their angelic reach
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners,—their, in brief,
Potential faculty in everything
Of abdicating power in it: she owned
She liked a woman to be womanly,
And English women, she thanked God and sighed,
(Some people always sigh in thanking God)
Were models to the universe.


Reynolds believes that the section dealing with “books on womanhood” refers to conduct books by Sarah Stickney Ellis, while lines 438 and 440, which contain the words angelic and household, prompt Paul Turner to argue that Aurora Leigh was a direct reference and refutation to Patmore's poem.16 In either case, despite her insistence that Aurora become a “womanly woman” and her perpetuation of the patriarchal system of education, Aunt Leigh herself has rejected this model, and so becomes a different kind of role model for Aurora. Although she seemingly preserves patriarchy through her attitudes, nonetheless, Aunt Leigh remains a single and independent woman.

Amidst the total immersion in patriarchal doctrine but also because of her aunt's example, Aurora finds seeds of feminist thought growing within her. So it is fitting that on the morning of her twentieth birthday, Aurora walks in the garden and crowns herself with a wreath of ivy “In sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it” (2.34), a scene that deftly interweaves these two competing ideologies. She chooses ivy over bay, the traditional crown of the poet, because “The fates deny us if we are overbold” (2.39); but she also refuses bay because it is the crown of the male poet and Aurora, though confident of her writing ability, is less than convinced of her genius. Notwithstanding rebuking Romney for his contention that “‘We shall not get a [woman] poet’” (2.225), Aurora has, because of her education, internalized much the same perspective. But she has also found a strength through and in her writing that allows her to struggle against such indoctrination.

Her blossoming philosophy of art is contained within her description of the ivy. While it invokes a pessimistic vision of woman's writing as dead or forgotten since ivy “grow[s] on graves,” (2.51), the ivy also resonates with images of power and tradition. Aurora describes the ivy as she envisions her poetry to be: “bold” and “strong,” but “pretty too, / (And that's not ill)” (2.50, 51, 52-53). The ivy's ability to grow “as good … on graves / As twist about a thyrsus” (2.51-52) invokes the poetic traditions of elegies and epics. Finally, that “not a leaf will grow / But thinking of a wreath” (2.47-48) represents poetry's utilitarian function, what will eventually become Aurora's chosen, and decidedly feminist, position as a poet of social criticism.

Aurora's growing feminism is evident in the reasons for her rejection of Romney's marriage proposal on the grounds that “‘What [he] love[s], / Is not a woman, … but a cause’” (2.400-1). She will not marry a man who puts social activism before love. Aurora also points out the irony that in order to be good wives, women must embody all the qualities that they have been educated and encouraged not to acquire, specifically strength and individuality of character:

… ‘am I proved too weak
To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear
Such leaners on my shoulder? poor to think,
Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought?
Incompetent to sing, as blackbirds can,
Yet competent to love, like HIM?’(17)


Ironically, Aurora, later living in London pursuing her career, finds similar paradoxes in being a writer:

My critic Belfair wants another book
Entirely different, which will sell, (and live?)
A striking book, yet not a startling book,
The public blames originalities,— …
Good things, not subtle, new yet orthodox,
As easy reading as the dog-eared page
That's fingered by said public fifty years,
Since first taught spelling by its grandmother,
And yet a revelation in some sort:
That's hard, my critic Belfair.

(3.68-71, 74-9)

The reading public wants something new, yet something comfortable while the husband wants a wife who is morally strong but dependently weak. While Victorian culture associated a woman's writing with prostitution, Barrett Browning also clearly makes the correlation between prostitution and marriage. Any relationship that relies on an uneven power base ultimately abuses the less powerful.

Aurora recognizes the prostitution involved with writing: “I wrote for cyclopaedias, magazines, / And weekly papers, holding up my name / To keep it from the mud” (3.310-12);18 but she also realizes that acceptance of Romney's proposal of marriage would be tantamount to “the sanctioned prostitution of marriage”:19 “If I married him, / I should not dare to call my soul my own / Which so he had bought and paid for” (2.785-87). Convinced there is no compromise, the young Aurora chooses the writing because she believes in the God-given right to use her talent for work: “‘… every creature, female as the male, / Stands single in responsible act and thought / As also in birth and death’” (2.437-39).

Throughout Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning reveals Aurora's complex process of finding out who she is as a writer and a woman. As Angela Leighton points out, it is Aurora's (and Barrett Browning's) belief in a poetry that embraces and celebrates everyday life that allows Barrett Browning to “derive a theory of women's writing as contemporary, combative and self-sufficient. However, it is one of the strengths or merits of [Aurora Leigh] that it also traces the hidden personal cost of this achievement.”20 At first Aurora holds onto an unflagging belief in the patriarchal conditions of art. She attempts the traditional forms, with varying degrees of success, but certainly without a sense of accomplishment: ballads and pastorals “the worse done, I think, / For being not ill-done” (5.132-33). Aurora shuns dramatic writing because it mostly “Adopts the standard of the public taste / To chalk its height on” (5.270-71). She concedes that there is great drama, Shakespeare's for example, but the distrust of her own genius convinces her that she would “keep it down / To the level of the footlights” (5.318-19). Romney's words that “[Women] miss the abstract when we comprehend. / We miss it most when we aspire,—and fail” (5.57-58) continue to haunt Aurora's conscience until she decides, “I'll have no traffic with the personal thought / In art's pure temple” (5.61-62). Aurora temporarily thinks that Romney is right, that the personal must be disconnected from the political. However, this notion is short-lived as she realizes her own truth: that to be socially responsible, a poet must deal with important current issues, not with the past.

Thus Aurora makes a startling break with tradition, claiming the right for poetry to be concerned with the contemporary age: “All actual heroes are essential men, / And all men possible heroes” (5.151-52). That epic and, more important, socially-beneficial poetry occupies itself with the past is “wrong thinking, to my mind, / And wrong thoughts make poor poems. … / I do distrust the poet who discerns / No character or glory in his times” (5.165-66, 189-90). Barrett Browning's most unabashed declaration of her theory of art is Aurora's “womanization,” in Gail Turley Houston's term, not only of the age but of its poetry:21

Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’


Here Barrett Browning connects the Victorian age with the power of women, a power that transcends time and will affect future generations. More explicitly, the poetry that she endorses, “Which thus presents and thus records true life,” is the literature that doesn't “flinch” nor shy from controversy. In fact, it will produce contention (as did the above passage that earned Aurora Leigh such epithets as “infelicitous,” “unnatural,” “coarse,” “mean, gross, and puerile” from the critics) in order to coerce the public into confronting injustice, another essential doctrine of domestic-professional fiction. The amazonian image that Barrett Browning presents as indicative of true poetry and the true age is Woman, “full-veined” and “heaving,” establishing a model for future generations. When Aurora finally decides that “The artist's part is both to be and do, / Transfixing with a special, central power / The flat experience of the common man” (5.367-69), her faith in her genius begins to bloom. But she will go even one step further and “be and do” the experience of the common woman in telling Marian's story. Aurora's initial step in the correction of her sense of self is her sharing in Marian's degradation and allowing her a voice to speak to a society that says such women should be silent.

One of Aurora's chief moves that reveals she is coming to terms with the divisions within herself is her decision to confront Lady Waldemar. Agonizing over her rejection of Romney several years earlier and his now impending marriage to Lady Waldemar, for the first time in the poem Aurora upbraids herself for not being the kind of woman that society says a man wants as a wife:

I thought, ‘Now, if I had been a woman, such
As God made women, to save men by love,—
By just my love I might have saved this man,
And made a nobler poem for the world
Than all I have failed in.’ But I failed besides
In this; and now he's lost! through me alone!


Aurora sees herself falling short as a poet and a woman here because she has not yet been able to reconcile a professional life with a personal one; as Susanna Egan points out, “Failing to recognize her own love for Romney, Aurora has separated head from heart and art from life.”22 But Aurora does not dwell on this defeat for long; she has Marian and her son to look after. In learning to care for them, Aurora ironically must learn what Romney accused her of many years previously: the importance of individualizing a problem rather than generalizing it. Through this devotion, Aurora can then acknowledge her love for Romney and extend to him her empathy.

Her dawning realization that she must be responsible for others leads Aurora to protect Romney by writing Lady Waldemar, letting her know that she knows what part Lady Waldemar played in Marian's tragedy. That the writing of this letter comes immediately after Aurora's denouncement of herself as not womanly enough is significant. Aurora finally is able to put behind her Victorian society's ideal woman because she realizes she has no use for her as a model for herself; however, stripped of its idealization, the ideology reveals how the image denigrates and suppresses women and their abilities. In this letter, Aurora demands, when they are married that Lady Waldemar be Romney's “faithful and true wife” (7.344). She then invokes the image of the Angel in the House, but not for the usual idealization:

Keep warm his hearth and clean his board, and, when
He speaks, be quick with your obedience;
Still grind your paltry wants and low desires
To dust beneath his heel; …
… You shall not vex him,—mark,
You shall not vex him, jar him when he's sad,
Or cross him when he's eager. Understand
To trick him with apparent sympathies,
Nor let him see thee in the face too near
And unlearn thy sweet seeming. Pay the price
Of lies, by being constrained to lie on still:
'Tis easy for thy sort: a million more
Will scarcely damn thee deeper.

(7.345-48, 353-61)

Aurora summons up the ideal figure of Victorian womanhood not as a model for Lady Waldemar, but as a punishment. Lady Waldemar's false mask of concern for Romney and the lower classes forces Aurora not only into the role of Romney's protector, but also of blackmailer. Despite its “unladylike” connotations, Aurora's threat reveals that she has learned that caring for and protecting others is more important than social conventions. She may not be able to stop the marriage, but she can see to it that Romney is treated well. Not even bothering to veil her threat, Aurora's words are clear:

                                                                                          … Fail a point,
And show our Romney wounded, ill-content,
Tormented in his home, we open mouth,
And such a noise will follow, the last trump's
Will scarcely seem more dreadful: even to you; …
And so I warn you. I'm … Aurora Leigh.

(7.364-68, 374)

It is interesting that Barrett Browning constitutes the Angel of the House image as punishment here, and I think it can be read in two ways. It must first be understood, as Elizabeth Langland has convincingly established, that the Angel in the House was largely a middle-class ideal.23 So, if seen as representative of the aristocracy's selfishness and indifference to the lower classes, Lady Waldemar can receive no greater chastisement than having to conduct herself as a middle-class woman. But I think Barrett Browning appropriates this image for a much broader purpose. The Angel in the House, as an unattainable ideal for middle-class women, is clearly a punishment, not a goal, for these women also. This image is a lie, forcing women “to lie on still.” Barrett Browning instead offers Aurora Leigh, a not-so-perfect woman who is self-asserting rather than self-effacing. This model of woman, because not ideal nor forced into silence or hypocrisy, is the one who will, with hope and work, change society and create a New Jerusalem.


After Aurora has formulated her ultimate philosophy of art, a change appears in the narrative in Book 6. No longer written in the past tense from a distanced perspective, Aurora's story is now told in journal- or diary-like form, with “entries written down, as it were, soon after the events described have taken place.”24 Barrett Browning, says Alison Case, presents two kinds of narrative plots—“a female Kunstlerroman [Books 1-5] and a feminine love story [Books 6-9]”—and then matches them with appropriate narrative styles.25 But it is more than just the construction of two different types of stories here. Once Aurora has fulfilled her quest as artist—definitively elucidating her philosophy of art—, she can break free of the male rules of writing, returning to the more conventionally-accepted feminine writing of diaries and letters, comfortably accepting it but also using it for socio-political purposes. Barrett Browning also breaks from the traditional masculine dictates of writing: her combination of writing an epic concerned with the contemporary and utilizing the traditionally feminine epistolary and diary novel genres leads Barrett Browning to invent a new genre of her own: the novel-poem, a form that she seems to specifically designate as woman's writing. This new genre, specifically designed to address contemporary social problems and offer a woman's solutions to them, marks Barrett Browning's poem as the most prominent, if not the first, example of nineteenth-century domestic-professional fiction.26

The distinctive form of Aurora Leigh met with mixed critical reception, many reviewers accusing Barrett Browning of experimenting for experimentation's sake. While R. A. Vaughn of the British Quarterly Review enthusiastically applauded the poem's novelty as “original, because natural—for originality is but nature—a genuine spontaneity,”27 other reviewers censured Barrett Browning's boldness in breaking the rules. W. E. Aytoun, of Blackwood's, questioned her presumption in mixing the high aesthetics associated with epic poetry with the low social concerns of reality associated with the novel:

We may consider it almost as a certainty that every leading principle of art has been weighed and sifted by our predecessors; and that most of the theories, which are paraded as discoveries, were deliberately examined by them, and rejected because they were false or impracticable. … All poetical characters, all poetical situations, must be idealised. The language is not that of common life, which belongs essentially to the domain of prose. There lies the distinction between a novel and a poem. … We cannot allow fancy to be trammelled in its work by perpetual reference to realities.28

And H. F. Chorley of The Athenæum concurred:

This looks not like a poem, but a novel. … But what are we to say if we waive purpose—if we do not discuss the wisdom of the form selected … if we treat Aurora Leigh as a poetical romance? Simply, that we have no experience of such a mingling of what is precious with what is mean … as we find in these nine books of blank verse.29

Aytoun and Chorley articulate a familiar theme of nineteenth-century criticism: the hallowing of tradition and maintaining of the status quo. Both reviewers see poetry strictly in aesthetic terms; it is not an arena in which to promote change—either in society or in literature. Barrett Browning, however, postulated that poetry should and must confront immediate social issues and knew that she was threatening long-held, sanctioned views. She anticipated reactions such as Aytoun's and Chorley's.

In a letter to art critic Anna Jameson, Barrett Browning conceded that Aurora Leigh was an assay into uncharted territory, but it was one that was borne of lengthy contemplation, not of, in Aytoun's words, “a token of morbid craving for originality”30: “But ‘the form,’ in this sense is my experiment, & I dont [sic] ‘give it up’ yet, having considered the subject much & long.”31 Barrett Browning not only expected unfavorable reviews, she also seemed to revel in them; in fact, what appears to have surprised her most of all was the immense amount of commendatory reaction, not only from critics but the reading public. In another letter to Jameson, Barrett Browning laughs at the image of herself as a revolutionary:

And as for the critics—yes, indeed, I agree with you that I have no reason to complain. More than that, I confess to you that I am entirely astonished at the amount of reception I have met with—I who expected to be put in the stocks and pelted with the eggs of the last twenty years' ‘singing birds’ as a disorderly woman and freethinking poet!32

One senses from reading Barrett Browning's letters that she was somewhat disappointed that Aurora Leigh did not draw as much fire as she had thought it would. No cowering wallflower, Barrett Browning wanted the format of her verse-novel to draw attention to the concerns within it, specifically “the condition of women in our cities”: “If a woman ignores these wrongs, then may women as a sex continue to suffer them: there is no help for any of us—let us be dumb and die.”33

Barrett Browning's anticipation of the predicted reaction from conservative reviewers is reflected in Aurora and Romney's early discordant relationship: Romney is the critic of the woman poet's attempt to transform literature and society. But Barrett Browning makes it clear through their evolving association that it is not so much a confrontational situation as it is a sustaining, nurturing one. From the start, Romney is influential in bringing out the “fight” in Aurora. While all others around her whisper among themselves that she “‘Thrives ill in England’” (1.497), but do nothing about it, Romney confronts her “With sudden anger”: “‘You wish to die and leave the world a-dusk / For others, with your naughty light blown out?’” (1.500, 502-3). Aurora responds by looking “into his face defyingly” (1.504). Men and women, Barrett Browning believes, should not be combative for confrontation's sake, but engage in a communication that debates, challenges, and encourages each other.

Throughout the course of their relationship, each will repeatedly dare the other to achieve his or her highest potential. Romney's assertions that she (nor other women) can write great poetry may be contemptible, but they also challenge Aurora to achieve such greatness. In return, Aurora's contention that Romney's social idealism will not attain its intended ends because it fails to consider the individual will eventually make Romney reconsider his work. After reading one of Aurora's later books of poetry (one that his words dared her to write), Romney concedes that art can affect the political precisely because of its effect on the individual:

… ‘We want more quiet in our works,
More knowledge of the bounds in which we work;
More knowledge that each individual man
Remains an Adam to the general race,
Constrained to see, like Adam, that he keep
His personal state's condition honestly,
Or vain all thoughts of his to help the world,
Which still must be developed from its one
If bettered in its many.’


Romney and Aurora's courtship/friendship survives its on-again/off-again condition because each understands, if somewhat unconsciously, that they are encouraging each other to their fullest capability. Aurora realizes the necessity for both men and women to fulfill their potential for the embetterment of society. However, she also recognizes that women, more often than not, are dissuaded or refused from fulfilling that potential. Therefore, a central thematic principle in domestic-professional fiction is that a woman break free from cultural conventions to cultivate the power that can transform society. That power is embodied in Aurora and Romney's vow of love for each other; their passion for their work is matched by their passion for each other:

                                                                                                              There were words
That broke in utterance … melted, in the fire,—
Embrace, that was convulsion, … then a kiss
As long and silent as the ecstatic night,
And deep, deep, shuddering breaths, which meant beyond
Whatever could be told by word or kiss.


Aurora now can fully engage herself with her work as a social poet, to which the writing of Aurora Leigh will attest, while Romney, blinded in a fire attempting to achieve social idealism by force, understands that his life must actively involve the loving of another, not the cold embracing of a social ideal: “‘Shine out for two, Aurora, and fulfil / My falling-short that must be! work for two, / As I, though thus restrained, for two, shall love!’” (9.910-12). His previous figurative blindness now replaced by literal blindness, Romney now “sees” clearly, as does Aurora, that life must be a balance of individualizing and generalizing.


At the beginning of Book 2, Aurora labels herself “Woman and artist,—either incomplete, / Both Credulous of completion” (2.4-5). It is through the writing of her story, within which Marian's story is so crucial a part, that the writer is now completed. Her forthcoming marriage to Romney completes the woman. Deirdre David argues that their union signifies that “woman's poetry is created from her sexuality,” and that by uniting Aurora and Romney, Barrett Browning's verse-novel is not feminist, but one that ultimately reifies the concept that “woman's art is made the servitor of the male ideal.”34 However, David ignores the revolutionary concept of Barrett Browning's giving Aurora (and Aurora Leigh) a definite sexuality in the first place.35 Life without love is unbalanced; until she can put her life in balance (and the same can be said of Romney), Aurora cannot fulfill her potential as a poet. Once she does so, the result is Aurora Leigh and a part in a promising union. As Beverly Taylor notes, “The existence of the poem, Aurora Leigh, written after the events it records, demonstrates that her projected marriage to Romney does not silence her as a poet or reduce her to the status of dependent and helpmate she had so much feared initially; instead, their union engenders richer, more complex and more satisfying verse.”36 Aurora is now mature enough to realize not only that art and love are compatible, but also mature enough to take on the creation of two “New Jerusalems”: the writing of socially-beneficial poetry and partnership in an egalitarian marriage, both embodied within her text.

A new society, based upon “new laws / Admitting freedom” (9.947-8), holds the hope for an equitable community, much as Aurora and Romney's relationship holds the promise of an egalitarian union. Indeed, the entire verse-novel has seemed to be headed in this direction. However, I say “holds the promise” because Aurora writes this ending immediately after the scene where the lovers stand facing the east, toward the rising sun, envisioning a new society that will fuse art and social activism. We are left exactly where Aurora and Romney leave off—looking toward a new dawn, but never entirely confident that this new dawn will be unlike the previous ones. It is an ending of guarded optimism. Barrett Browning would like to believe that a just society is only a sunrise away, yet having Aurora write her story and end it at this moment signifies that she is not certain it will ever be achieved. It is the end of the verse-novel, but only the beginning of social transformation should the readers of Aurora Leigh take up Barrett Browning's challenge as she intends.


  1. The “Angel in the House” was certainly the ideal long before Patmore's time, but his poem sanctified the image and gave it its celestial epithet.

  2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 1.15-19. Citations of the text are to this edition.

  3. W. E. Aytoun, “Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 81 (January 1857): 32, 41.

  4. In a letter to Isa Blagden on January 7, 1859, Barrett Browning noted the somewhat tediousness of revising proofs for the third edition of Aurora Leigh, claiming she “dizzied myself with the ‘ifs’ and ‘ands,’ and done some little good I hope at much cost. …” The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic Kenyon (London: Smith, Elder, 1897), 2.302.

  5. The most widely-used collection of Patmore's poetry is Frederick Page's 1949 edition, The Poems of Coventry Patmore, “complete so far as [Patmore] wished them to be republished and in the text as he finally revised it.” (Oxford U. Press), v.

  6. Linda K. Hughes, “Entombing the Angel: Patmore's Revision of Angel in the House,” in Victorian Authors and Their Works: Revision Motivations and Modes, ed. Judith Kennedy (Ohio U. Press, 1991), 143.

  7. Hughes, 140-41.

  8. Karl Beckson, London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 62.

  9. Margaret Reynolds, “Aurora Leigh: ‘Writing her story for her better self,’” Browning Society Notes 17.1-3 (1987-88): 5.

  10. Beverly Taylor, “‘School-Miss Alfred’ and ‘Materfamilias’: Female Sexuality and Poetic Voice in The Princess and Aurora Leigh,” in Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor (Northern Illinois U. Press, 1992), 23-24.

  11. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, “Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet,” Victorian Poetry, 19 (1981), 41.

  12. Kathleen K. Hickok, “‘New Yet Orthodox’: The Female Characters in Aurora Leigh,International Journal of Women's Studies 3 (1980): 480.

  13. Gail Turley Houston, “Gender Construction and the Kunstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh,PQ [Philological Quarterly] 72 (1993): 213-36 and Ellen Chafee, “Conceiving Literary Femininity: Figures of the Woman Writer 1857-1900” (Diss., Rutgers University, 1996), 16.

  14. See Gelpi.

  15. In addition to Gelpi, see Kathleen Blake, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman,” Victorian Poetry, 24 (1986): 387-98 and Patricia Thomas Srebrnik, “‘The Central Truth’: Phallogocentrism in Aurora Leigh,Victorian Newsletter, 84 (1993): 9-11.

  16. Reynolds, Aurora Leigh: 18, note I and Paul Turner, “Aurora Versus the Angel,” RES [Review of English Studies] 24 (1948): 227-35.

  17. Reynolds glosses this word as “Christ, presumably,” Aurora Leigh, 49, note 2.

  18. Aurora's feelings that she “dirties” herself by writing for periodicals echo the sentiments of Mary Shelley who, after Percy Shelley's death, needed to write on an almost constant basis for various magazines in order to support herself and her young son: “I write bad articles which help to make me miserable—But I am going to plunge into a novel, and hope that its clear water will wash off the mud of the magazines—.” From a letter to Leigh Hunt, February 9, 1824, in The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980), 1.412. Shelley had originally written the word “dirt,” but crossed it out in favor of the harsher “mud,” indicating how much she detested writing such.

  19. Susanna Egan, “Glad Rags for Lady Godiva: Woman's Story as Womanstance in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh,English Studies in Canada 20 (1994): 290.

  20. Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sussex: Harvester Press, Ltd., 1986), 115-16.

  21. Gail Turley Houston, Royalties: The Queen and Victorian Writers (U. Press of Virginia, 1999).

  22. Egan, 295.

  23. Elizabeth Langland, Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture (Cornell U. Press, 1995), 79.

  24. Reynolds, Aurora Leigh, 194, note 2.

  25. Alison Case, “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh,Victorian Poetry 29 (1991): 17.

  26. This essay is part of a larger project that examines the influence of Aurora Leigh on British women's domestic-professional fiction of the 1890s. The major texts of my discussion are Rhoda Broughton's A Beginner (1894), Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage (1899), Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan (1895), Ella Hepworth Dixon's The Story of a Modern Woman (1894), Sarah Grand's The Beth Book (1897), and Annie E. Holdsworth's The Years That the Locust Hath Eaten (1895).

  27. R. A. Vaughn, “Aurora Leigh. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” British Quarterly Review 25 (January 1857): 263.

  28. Aytoun, 34, 34-5, 41.

  29. H. F. Chorley, “Aurora Leigh. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” The Athenæum no. 1517 (November 22, 1856): 1425.

  30. Aytoun, 39.

  31. Quoted in Reynolds, Aurora Leigh, 341.

  32. Letters [The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning], 2:252.

  33. Letters, 2:254.

  34. Deirdre David, “‘Art's A Service’: Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and Aurora Leigh,Browning Institute Studies 13 (1985): 130, 113.

  35. See, for example, Christine Sutphin, “Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh,Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54.

  36. Taylor, 23.

Kathleen Renk (essay date May 2000)

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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 state it was which I look back now to with a sort of horror with which one would look back to one's graveclothes if one had been clothed in them by mistake during a trance.1

Barrett Browning candidly and succinctly refers to her life before her marriage as a trance-like living death, one inclusive of illness, invalidism, and self-imposed isolation. Notwithstanding her adolescent respiratory illnesses and the putative riding accident that brought about her confinement to a “spinal crib” as a young adolescent, Barrett Browning's early life was constructed around an aura of “illness,” feebleness, and an “obsession with death.”2 After her mother's death when Elizabeth was twenty-two, the Barrett family was so accustomed to Elizabeth's confinement in her room that no one expected her to assume her mother's duties even though Elizabeth was the eldest. Elizabeth surmised that her illness was so severe and longterm that “according to Plato” she “should have been put to death long ago as a chronic patient,” she “had been so long ill without dying.”3

Like the writing of many Victorians who seem mesmerized by death, illness, and “punishment,”4 death figures as a dominant trope of Barrett Browning's early writing. While critics note this obsession in her juvenilia, critical attention has not been paid to the way death and transformation work in relationship to art in Aurora Leigh. Since its resurrection by second-wave feminists in the latter part of this century, critics have scrutinized the epic poem largely in terms of its gender politics while ignoring the overt and multitudinous references to death. Tess Cosslett alone notes Aurora's “death-like withdrawal”5 in the early portion of the narrative. However, I find that Aurora Leigh6 is replete with death and disfigurement images that go far beyond the conventional Victorian fascination with death, grief, and eulogy. These images are intimately tied with Barrett Browning's attitude toward the role of the poet, in particular the woman poet. Aurora Leigh claims that women are “buried alive” by society and that the way women are resurrected and society is transformed is through the attainment of a poetic vision akin to the spiritual vision of the seer.

The image of female death—the death portrait of the mother—serves as the centerpiece of Book I. While Aurora demonstrates a Romantic, Transcendental disposition in claiming “relations with the Unseen,” she also reveals an obsession with her dead mother's portrait. She sits for “hours upon the floor” and gazes “half in terror, half in adoration” at a portrait that she intermingles with myth, dream, and literature, a portrait that reveals how women have been entombed by myth. Her dead mother's portrait conflates and encapsulates all the stereotypical images of women as presented in literature, culture, and art. Aurora interprets her mother as a “Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite” (I. 154) and a “dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate” (I. 155). These stereotypes of women and the description of a fixed female gaze that seems only to view horror and destruction contrast markedly with Aurora's burgeoning spiritual vision and her attempt to shatter iconic female images by becoming a thinking, contemplative young woman.

Both Aurora's aunt and Romney attempt to stifle, silence, and slay Aurora's developing insight, her “privilege of seeing” (I.578). Both would rather bind Aurora in myth. When her aunt sees Aurora's “soul agaze” in her eyes (I. 1031), she “stabs” Aurora “through and through” (I. 328) as a way to attempt to kill the awakening spirit and intellect within and as a method of confining Aurora to the circumscribed life expected of her, a life like the aunt's which according to Aurora was “not life at all … She had lived a sort of cage-bird life” (I. 304-05). The aunt even goes so far as to suggest that she would “make room” for Aurora in her “grave” (II. 594), again attempting to bury Aurora, to make her like other silenced women who are the living dead. During this time, Aurora attempts to “dodge the sharp sword against” her “life” (I. 691).

Aurora's aunt attempts to kill her spirit, yet Aurora finds a way to continue to develop her insight and intellect. Aurora covertly reads the classics while she gazes out of her window, viewing nature's limes and laurels. In this verdant nest, Aurora continues the education initiated by her father, an education that “wrapt his little daughter in his large doublet,” allowing her access to the great works of literature. Her encounter with poetry strengthens her spirit:

                              Thus, my soul,
At poetry's divine first finger-touch,
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
Convicted of the great eternities
Before two worlds.

(I. 850-54)

In addition, Aurora develops her spiritual sight through her early excursions into writing—an act that regenerates her.

Like his aunt, Romney, the social activist, has no spiritual insight, no poetic vision. He sees “death as death” and has no ability to see beyond the tangible. In addition, he labels Aurora as a “witch, scholar, poet, dreamer” (II. 86) and never takes seriously her claim that a woman can comprehend the mysterious and sublime transcendental realm. Romney finds no useful purpose in poetry, and he proclaims it ludicrous to assume that women are capable of seeing the intangible, because “we get no Christ from you,—and verily we shall not get a poet, in my mind” (II. 224-25). Romney denounces women's ability to see the grand scope of human suffering, stating that to Aurora “the human race means such a child or such a man, you saw one morning waiting in the cold” (II. 188-91). Romney feels that women cannot make cosmological generalizations about the public sphere as true poets should. As mindless “sublime” madonnas, women, according to Romney, look vacantly at the world unable to grasp or comprehend its complexities. In response to such a pervasive lack of spiritual insight among people, Aurora exclaims “We are sepulchered alive in this close world / And want more room” (V. 1039-40).

Aurora is not the only female character “buried alive” in this narrative. Marian, too, experiences a type of death after she is raped. After Aurora finds and attempts to assist her, Marian claims “I was … simply murdered” (VI. 769-70) and “I waked up in the grave” (VI. 1217). Aurora notes that Marian lives in a hovel “no bigger than a grave” and Marian concludes that she is “dead” (VI. 818). While Marian possesses insight that others seem to lack and an attraction to nature that offers a way to connect to the spiritual world, Marian is not “murdered” for her insight. Rather she is “murdered” and confined by a man merely because she is a woman. This attempt to circumscribe her life reduces her to an essential body that can be taken by men at will.

Aurora Leigh focuses on and critiques the social, psychological and spiritual death of women brought about by rigid moral and societal expectations, but it is also profoundly concerned with the ways women's lives and society may be transfigured. In “Juno's Cream: Aurora Leigh and Victorian Sage discourse,” Majorie Stone argues that Aurora Leigh is part of the “tradition of Victorian sage writing” through its reliance on the “prophetic speaker,” its “polemical sermonizing on the times,” its “quest for a sustaining ‘Life Philosophy,’ and its vision of a new social and spiritual order.”7 Stone is correct to link Aurora Leigh to a prophetic tradition, but I would argue that the position Aurora Leigh takes on prophecy's relationship to poetry and the spiritual vision represented places this poem closer to the Romantic tradition, particularly to the poetic cosmology of Blake, since both prophetic/poetic traditions draw on the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and seer.

Some critics have noted Barrett Browning's interest in Swedenborg, but most have concentrated on her spiritualist excursions into automatic writing, mesmerism, and seances.8 Because of possible social criticism and its effect on how Barrett Browning's work would be perceived, Barrett Browning's son Pen endeavored to “conceal” his mother's interest in spiritualism and he sought to “delete” from her letters “passages which reveal too much spiritualism,” in particular during the period between 1854-1856, the time during which her intense reading of Swedenborg coincided with her writing of Aurora Leigh.9 This has tended to obscure her more serious study of Swedenborg.

I would argue that Aurora Leigh demonstrates Barrett Browning's profound embracement of Swedenborg's philosophy which rejects Protestant notions of human sinfulness and promotes notions of the immanence of God, the reawakening of the human spirit, and the transformation of society. For Barrett Browning, Swedenborg's philosophy serves as an impetus for social change. In linking the spiritual vision of the prophet/seer to women's poetic vision, in advocating that women can glimpse heaven, and “travel” between the earthly and spiritual worlds, Barrett Browning foregrounds women's instrumental role in transforming society.

According to Signe Toksvig, much of Swedenborg's thought is based on Neoplatonism10 but his theology goes beyond abstract philosophy in that Swedenborg believed himself to be a traveler between the earthly world and the spirit world.11 Comparable to what we would now consider a clairvoyant, shaman, or “visionary leader,” Swedenborg based his theology and later his vision of a New Jerusalem on his visionary experiences. According to Swedenborg, in the words of Bernhard Lang, “only a thin veil divides heaven from earth”12 and heaven is the “distilled essence of the true and beautiful found in earthly existence.”13 Swedenborg considered the material world a “gift” from God, an aide in transforming humanity14 and he conceived of heaven and hell as “states of the soul,” not physical locations.15

Many of these beliefs are expressed by the narrator in Aurora Leigh. As already mentioned, from childhood on Aurora reveals that she had “relations with the Unseen” and despite attempts to thwart her spirit and intellect, she develops her “sight,” a visionary insight that in most people, including Romney, is “dulled” (I. 818).

According to Aurora, the role of the poet is to “keep open roads between the seen and unseen. … God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond / Both speech and imagination” (II. 467-68, 471-72).

Later in the poem, Aurora speaks of the requisite vision of the poet:

                              But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things, as intimately deep,
As if they touched them.

(V. 183-88)

If the role of the poet is to break through the thin veil that separates earth from heaven, the poet must also then see as a god, seeing distant objects as if they were close and proximal objects from a distance. The poet develops a god-like comprehensive and intimate vision of the levels of life, of the natural material world that merely reflects the goodness of the spiritual and of the spiritual that is the essence of the earth. This “double vision” then sees both worlds at once and hardly differentiates between them since they are so close in nature.

When Aurora joins with Marian and takes her to Italy to build a home for them, she locates a house on a hill in Florence and the house is a “tower which keeps a post of double-observation” (VII. 516-17). Since Marian is the only other character who seems to possess some of the insight accorded to Aurora in that she too is linked to the natural world and she reads when books are made available to her, she is the perfect companion for Aurora in this “post of double-observation,” a place where they can attempt to see the natural and spiritual worlds and enhance their ability to see as gods.

Much in the way that Swedenborg regarded heaven as the “distilled essence of earth,” an archetype from which beauty emanates, so too does Aurora find that heaven is an undeniable aspect of earth. Earth and heaven are joined in that “Earth's crammed with heaven / And every common bush afire with God” (VII. 821-22). One does not have to transcend the earthly realm to locate God and heaven, nor is heaven a distant physical location. According to Aurora, when the poet recognizes the immanence of God in the common bush, she experiences the divine state of the soul.

Likewise, Aurora further advocates a Swedenborgian theological view when she states:

If genuine artists, witnessing for God's
Complete, consummate, undivided work:
—That not a natural flower can grow on earth,
Without a flower upon the spiritual side. …

(VII. 838-41)

Again, according to Aurora's insight, the earth and heaven are so closely intermingled that a natural phenomenon on earth has its spiritual component in the heavenly state.

Aurora also comments on the spiritual insight lacking in those who polarize the natural and spiritual realms. In particular, she appears to address this criticism to Romney who only recognizes the natural world and who attempts to rectify social ills without addressing the spiritual component of humanity. Creating such dichtomies brings about a type of death:

                              Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift,
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death. …

(VII. 763-66)

Seen from this point of view, many persons lack spiritual insight and are spiritually dead: Romney and his aunt, and the whole cast of characters both wealthy and poor. Characters, such as Lady Waldemar, act out of selfish desire and they do not attempt to recognize the spiritual world and therefore bring about lasting social change. The poor also are described as “blind”; they look as though they have been “stirred up” from “hell” (IV. 587-88), and it appears that “not a finger-touch of God” is “left whole on them” (IV. 581-82), indicating that they lack spiritual vision. While Barrett Browning is criticized by Cora Kaplan for her treatment of the poor, their “blindness” is no different from the blindness of the upper classes or from the way Romney is characterized. Because he lacks spiritual insight, he lives in a type of hell. And, according to Swedenborg's viewpoint, hell is “constituted by a confirmed love of self,”16 a type of blindness that cannot see beyond the self and its ambitions. In Aurora's view, if people possess on a daily basis the spiritual vision of the poet, their entire world view will be altered:

                              If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man. …

(VII. 857-64)

Attainment of heaven and spiritual vision requires a “regeneration of the spirit” in Swedenborgian theology.17 This is precisely what occurs at the end of the poem, when Romney's blindness is superseded by Aurora's vision.

In “‘Art's a Service’: Social Wound, Sexual Politics and Aurora Leigh,” Deirdre David claims that Aurora Leigh is not “revolutionary” because the “art of the woman performs a ‘service’ for a patriarchal vision of the apocalypse.”18 However, I would argue that the poem is indeed revolutionary because the woman poet's insight leads the male to a new and more comprehensive understanding of women and their role in the cosmos.

After acknowledging that Aurora's book has “shown” him the “truth” (VIII. 263) and that the book is now in his heart, Romney also confesses that “We surely made too small a part for God in these things” (VIII. 555-56), referring to his earlier attempts to correct social ills without recognizing a spiritual component. He also criticizes himself and others, especially Christians, who cannot see with a spiritual vision:

Ay, many Christian teachers, half in heaven,
Are wrong in just my sense, who understood
Our natural world too insularly, as if
No spiritual counterpart completed it. …

(VIII. 615-18)

Giving up his own vision, blind Romney embraces Aurora's. He even acknowledges that her vision is now his own, when he states: “Come thou … my dear sight” (IX. 907). And he advocates along with Aurora not an apocalyptic destruction and condemnation of humanity but a rebuilding of the earth based on a spiritual vision. Aurora desires a “new world all alive with creatures, new sun, new moon, new flowers, new people” (VII. 1199-1200) and Romney agrees that seeing with the poet's vision will engender “new churches, new economics, new laws, admitting freedom, new societies” (IX. 947-48). This vision of the New Jerusalem is much like Swedenborg's in that the second coming will not be a physical return of Christ but a spiritual regeneration of humanity, a time when humanity will attain spiritual sight and there will be a “true church” of those who love goodness.19 Romney's transformation and his acquisition of the poet's vision represents this societal transformation catalyzed by Aurora's unflinching spiritual insight.

It is ironic that Barrett Browning's obsession with death, illness, and spirituality gave us one of the first testaments to women's ability to see the grand scope of all things. In writing the female epic, Barrett Browning resurrects both women and the poetic vision. In shattering female stereotypes and in loosening the tongue of the woman poet, Barrett Browning unwraps the binding cloth of the sepulcher and gives all of us “more room” in this close world.


  1. George Pickering, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” Creative Malady: Illness in the Lives and Minds of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: Oxford UP, 1974) 257.

  2. Margaret Forster, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 1988) 28. Some scholars suggest her illness was psychosomatic and linked to her brother Edward's education at Charterhouse. Elizabeth became ill around the time she was required to remain at home while “Bro” was sent off to school. She developed severe headaches, twitching and convulsions, and her physician prescribed bed rest and no intellectual stimulation. Dorothy Mermin claims there was evidence of “hysterical neuroses” (Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989] 28) and Peter Dally (Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Psychological Portrait [London: Macmillan, 1989]) notes evidence that Barrett Browning suffered from agoraphobia and anorexia nervosa. According to George Pickering, Barrett Browning was a complete invalid from the ages of 32-40.

  3. Katherine H. Porter, “The Voyaging Mind,” Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism in the Browning Circle (Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1958) 32. It seems ironic that this isolation, dictated by nineteenth-century medicine, helped Barrett Browning develop her poetic talent. This isolation gave her the opportunity to avoid female social obligations, to concentrate on her work, and to develop a life of the mind. This type of invalidism is much like the invalidism that Florence Nightingale experienced when her family forbade her involvement in the nursing profession.

  4. Regina Barreca, “Introduction: Coming and Going in Victorian Literature,” Sex and Death in Victorian Literature, ed. Regina Barreca (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1990) 4.

  5. Tess Cosslett, “Madonnas and Magdalens,” Woman to Woman: Female Friendship in Victorian Fiction (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities International P, 1988) 49-75.

  6. References in the text are to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (London: Chapman and Hall, 1857).

  7. Marjorie Stone, “Juno's Cream: Aurora Leigh and Victorian Sage Discourse,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: St. Martin's P, 1995) 138.

  8. Katherine Porter notes that the Brownings took part in seances and that Elizabeth was intrigued by Harriet Martineau's “magnetic trance” experience (34-35). Elizabeth was also friends with Mrs. Sophia Eckley, an American spiritualist, whom Elizabeth at first thought to be “standing on the brink of that vast spiritual sea—to hear the waves of it murmuring, murmuring” (59). According to Porter, Barrett Browning “sought confirmation of the things she already believed: that there is a spiritual world and that communication with it is a possibility” (30).

  9. Porter 56. In 1857, Barrett Browning called herself a Swedenborgian.

  10. Signe Toksvig, Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (New Haven: Yale UP, 1948) 112.

  11. There is considerable disagreement among scholars regarding Swedenborg's rationality. Kant thought him “mad” and academics of his time considered him heretical because his interpretations of scripture went beyond the literal. However, according to Ernest Benz, this is probably what led to Swedenborg's influence over the Romantic poets. Since Swedenborg was rejected by his academy, his ideas went “underground” and later influenced the Romantic movement, particularly Blake (Stephen Larsen, “Introduction,” Emanuel Swedenborg: The Universal Human and Soul-Body Interaction, ed. and trans. George F. Dale [New York: Paulist P, 1984] 19). He also influenced Transcendentalists such as Emerson.

  12. Bernhard Lang, “Glimpses of Heaven in the Age of Swedenborg,” in Swedenborg and His Influence, ed. Erland Brock (Bryn Athyn: The Academy of the New Church, 1988) 309.

  13. Lang 315.

  14. Lang 314.

  15. Larsen 24.

  16. Cora Kaplan, “Aurora Leigh,Feminist Criticism and Social Change: Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture, eds. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfeldt (New York: Methuen, 1985) 134-64.

  17. John Howard Spalding, An Introduction to Swedenborg's Religious Thought (New York: Swedenborg Publishing Association, 1966) 30.

  18. Deirdre David, “‘Art's a Service’: Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and Aurora Leigh,Victorian Women Poets: Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, ed. Joseph Bristow (New York: St. Martin's P, 1995) 108-31.

  19. Spalding 223.

Janet Montefiore (essay date 2002)

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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 that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating: this is living art
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning1

This much-quoted passage exhorting poets to write of the present works by a splendid concatenation of mixed metaphors: an overflowing milky breast that is simultaneously an erupting volcano, a stream of molten metal, an antique statue and a sacred text. Poetry thus becomes both representation (the immortal statue) and the thing represented (the living maternal body from which the essence of life streams warmly into readers' minds). Elizabeth Barrett Browning's—or her heroine Aurora's—richly tangled imagery brings together the Romantic concept of poetry as spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings with her own symbolism of divine volcanic energies, adumbrated in an earlier allusion to the ‘lava-lymph / That trickles from successive galaxies / Still drop by drop adown the finger of God’.2 The notion of poetry taking the ‘impress’ of its age like hot metal running into a mould, thus creating an artifact admired by men of distant generations, evidently alludes to the classic Horatian boast ‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius’ (‘More durable than bronze … is the monument I have made’) and to Shakespeare's ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme’.3 But there is more: by ‘present[ing] and record[in]g true life’ the poet also transmits that life, in that her (or his) ‘living art’ sets future bosoms beating as readers imbibe poetry's divine nourishment—or in less figurative terms, as the poet's vision communicates itself to future readers.

Aurora's aesthetic, sketched here and elaborated elsewhere in the poem, is founded on a Shelleyan notion of poetic imagination as transcendent universal vision. But with a feminist twist; for as Marjorie Stone has well said, ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning not only steals fragments from the classical and Christian [and, I would add, Romantic] fathers who establish her authority. She also submits them to a gynocentric metamorphosis, anticipating the textual practice of modern women poets.’4 If that lyrical manifesto for poetry as the essence of ‘true life’ invokes P. B. Shelley's statement in A Defence of Poetry (1821) that ‘Poetry is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth’,5 its central metaphor of breast-feeding enacts, whether consciously or not, a boldly feminist pun on Shelley's word ‘express’ whose Latin root means ‘to press out’ and whose usages include the medical meaning ‘to squeeze out excess milk from a breast’.

Gynocentric metaphors are familiar enough terrain for modern readers of Victorian women poets, but Aurora's feminist claim for her art boldly goes where few or no women have gone before: by equating the divine energy of the poet's word with ‘the paps we all have sucked’ she rewrites the New Testament. For the phrase alludes to an exchange between Christ and one of his female listeners:

And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him: Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked.

But he said, Yea rather, blessed are those that hear the word of God and keep it.6

The woman who ‘lifted up her voice’ out of turn to praise the mother who bore and nurtured Jesus got told that her business was to listen to the word of God and keep it—in other words, to keep her mouth shut. Aurora's metaphors ingeniously transform Jesus' snub to the female speaker and the maternal body: as Christ was the word made flesh, poetry is woman's flesh made word. She thus invests the epic which is viewed with awe and touched with reverent hand by posterity, at once with Christ's divinity and with a universal maternal body whose ‘paps we all have sucked’. At the same time, Christ's repudiation of his family—‘My mother and my brethren are they who hear the word of God’7 matches Aurora's present alienation from her only surviving family, consisting of her cousin Romney Leigh whose offer of woman's traditional destiny of marriage she has rejected in order to follow her own vocation to the word. She also, aptly enough, inverts the traditional gendering of divinity and its humble audience. The listener snubbed for loudly and embarrassingly praising the maternal body is transformed by virtue of the (then unquestioned) grammatical convention that ‘men’ = ‘humanity’, into the spectacle of the males of the next Age humbly reverencing the image of a divine mother—just as Romney will come by the end of the poem to reverence Aurora's own art.

A similar re-gendering of a sacred patriarchal text into a metaphoric female body occurs in a later passage—by contrast, little commented on except by Marjorie Stone—about the Homeric epics, those founding texts of Western poetry. In order to finance her journey to her motherland Italy, the hard-up Aurora decides to sell off all—or nearly all—of the classical library she has inherited from her father, including F. A. Wolf's edition of Homer. Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself possessed a copy of this luxury edition, presented by her mentor Hugh Boyd (‘Twelve books—and the most splendid paper & type … the most magnificent Greek book I have ever looked upon’).8 But Aurora parts from its beauties without regret, wishing to keep another book whose sentimental value is greater.

The kissing Judas, Wolf, shall go instead
Who builds us such a royal book as this
To honour a chief poet, folio-built,
And writes above, ‘The house of Nobody!’
Who floats in cream, as rich as any sucked
From Juno's breasts, the broad Homeric lines
And while with their spondaic prodigious mouths
They lap the lucent margins as babe-gods
Proclaims them bastards. Wolf's an atheist,
And if the Iliad fell out, as he says,
By mere fortuitous concourse of old songs,
Conclude as much too for the universe.(9)

Marjorie Stone rightly points out this triumphant celebration of the female creative principle which ‘embodies Homer's creativity as the cream from Juno's breasts and the fruit of her womb … with emancipatory, emphatically female energy’.10 As in the manifesto for the ‘unscrupulous epic’ quoted earlier, this feminist energy manifests itself in a wonderfully inventive mixed metaphor. The image of the ‘spondaic mouths’ of line-endings lapping the white margins around them turns both on the familiar synecdoche whereby ‘mouth’ equals ‘the poet's words’ (as in the familiar phrase ‘the poet's tongue’),11 and on a technical pun: in dactylic hexameters, the metre of the Homeric epics, the last foot of the line is always a spondee. The Iliad's lines thus ‘lap’ their margins in a double sense: they are Homer's divine children, his ‘babe-gods’ lapping the luxurious white space at their edges like milk, yet they themselves are that milk, ‘Juno's cream’ (to which, according to the notes, Greek mythology attributed the origin of the Milky Way12) whose polysemic fluencies ripple at the margins enclosing them. These rich ambiguities bring to mind Freud's observation in the lecture ‘On Femininity’ that it is impossible to define suckling as either active or passive for ‘the act of lactation may equally be described as the mother suckling the baby and being sucked by it’13—an apt enough image of reading as Elizabeth Barrett Browning conceives it. The poet's words exist to be read, and are in that sense passive, yet their energy and pleasure actively inspire the readers' nourished and delighted response.

So far, splendid. But before feminists get too excited by these Victorian anticipations of Helene Cixous invoking the mother's milk flowing through the female text and women writing themselves in white ink,14 we should also notice how firmly both Aurora and her creator are committed to precisely that notion of the poet as sole originating authority which Cixous and other deconstructionists have attacked as bourgeois-patriarchal. Marjorie Stone argues that Aurora ‘defends his [Homer's] works against the same charge of illegitimacy that subsequently afflicts Marian’,15 but this is not convincing since the abusive term ‘bastards’ is not Wolf's but Aurora's own. What Friedrich Augustus Wolf's Prolegomena to Homer (1795) argued was the multiple authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the ground that these poems must be older than the invention of writing, which he thought was unknown in Greece before the sixth century b.c. Both the archaic language of these epics and the fact that the world which they describe is pre-literate suggested an oral origin, yet the poems themselves were far too long to have been composed orally. (The feats of memory and composition of which the bards of oral poetic cultures are capable were then unknown to European scholars.) Both epics therefore must, he argued, have originated as a congeries of ancient lays about the heroes of the Trojan War and have been edited into their final narrative shapes by the committee which wrote them down at the command of the Athenian dictator Peisistratos around 500 b.c.16 Aurora the Romantic will have none of this. Invoking the theological argument from design, she argues that Homer's authority is analogous to that of God, First Cause of the universe. Since Wolf's denial of a single origin to that greatest of poems the Iliad necessarily implies denying authorial purpose, he also in effect denies the existence of a purpose or design to the universe; and even by implication throws a similar doubt on God's word in the Gospels whose varying sources had been revealed in the nineteenth century by the commentators of ‘higher criticism’. This assumption that if the Homeric epics don't have a single father they must be ‘bastards’ implies in very traditionally patriarchal terms that true poetry is begotten by the autonomous mind upon the maternal body of language. Those splendidly female energies of Aurora's maternal metaphors are thus paradoxically inspired by her anxiety to defend Homer against charges of multiple anonymity that would make his children illegitimate. The notion underpinning her ‘female’ defence of Homer turns out to be what Toril Moi calls ‘the seamlessly unified self … which is commonly called “Man”’. Moi's Cixousian critique of the concept of the author-father exactly fits Aurora's ideal of singular paternal authority:

Gloriously autonomous, it banishes from itself all conflict, contradiction and ambiguity … the self is the sole author of history and of the literary text: the humanist creator is potent, phallic and male—God in relation to the world, the author in relation to the text. History or the text become nothing but the ‘expression’ of this unique individual … the text is reduced to a passive, ‘feminine’ reflection of an unproblematically ‘given’ ‘masculine’ world or self.17

Does this mean that the feminist textual energies of ‘Juno's cream’ boil down, so to speak, to an essence of masculinity or fluid ejaculation of phallic authority? Not quite. The point is not that the ‘real’ truth of Aurora Leigh is the patriarchal aesthetic underlying its feminist politics but, precisely, the contradiction of the textual and sexual energies that it puts into play.


Despite Aurora's celebrations of the nurturing maternal breast, it should not be assumed that metaphors of the female body in Aurora Leigh are invariably positive. In a powerful early passage that anticipates Sylvia Plath's wry self-mocking poem ‘Stillborn’,18 Aurora dismisses her early work, well received though it is, as an intellectual failure. For this she blames her own femininity:

I ripped my verses up
And found no blood upon the rapier's point.
The heart within was just an embryo's heart
That never yet had beat, that it should die,
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life,
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.(19)

‘I ripped my verses up’ appears to carry the double meanings ‘I destroyed my verses’ and ‘I read my verses with cold self-awareness’: the body of her poetry is thus disembowelled by a piercing stroke from a phallic sword whose penetration represents her own bitter knowledge of their worthlessness. But this is not really murder or suicide, because her slaughtered embryos, unlike Homer's babe-gods, were never alive. As Plath was later to put it, ‘these poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis … they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction / And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her.’20 The artificial electric charge jerking the abortive corpses is a poor imitation of the real poetic fire that, as Aurora wrote earlier of the poetry that fired her adolescent self, ‘says the word so that it burns you through / With a special revelation, shakes the heart / Of all the men and women in the world / As if one came back from the dead and spoke.’21 Because Aurora cannot ‘say the word’, the suppressed fire of inspiration can only torture her:

And yet I felt it in me where it burnt,
Like those hot fire-seeds of creation held
In Jove's clenched palm before the worlds were sown,—
But I, I was not Juno even! my hand
Was shut in weak convulsion, woman's ill,
And when I yearned to loose a finger—lo,
The nerve revolted. 'Tis the same even now:
This hand may never, haply, open large
Before the spark is quenched, or the palm charred
To prove the power not else but by the pain.(22)

At play in this remarkably powerful passage of feminine masochism are echoes of many other texts both ancient and modern. Aurora's image of God as a sower goes back to Plato's Timaeus in which God the Demiurge plants souls on the planets. It is also a creative re-reading of Robert Browning's strongly Platonic ‘Essay on Shelley’ (1852), which defines the ‘subjective’ poet as one who invokes

the supreme Intelligence which beholds all things in their absolute truth,—an ultimate view ever aspired to, if but partially attained, by the poet's own soul. Not what man sees, but what God sees—the Ideas of Plato, seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand—it is towards these that he struggles.23

Browning's image itself rewrites Shelley's Defence of Poetry in which poetic inspiration is imagined as a fading coal flaming up when the wind of inspiration passes through the mind of the poet who ‘not only beholds the present as it is’ but ‘beholds the future in the present’, and whose ‘thoughts are the germs of the flowers and fruit of latest time.’24 Aurora, who envisages poetry as a Shelleyan-Platonic transcendent vision of reality, aspires with ultimate success to be such a prophet-poet, her voice proclaiming the New Jerusalem envisaged by Romney at the end of the poem. For Shelley, poetry was ‘the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth’;25 for Aurora, poets are ‘the only truth-tellers now left to God, / The only speakers of essential truth … the only teachers who instruct mankind / From just a shadow on a charnel-wall / To find man's veritable stature out.’26 Recent editors of Aurora Leigh refer that shadow on the wall to Ruskin and to the American artist William Page,27 but given its contiguity with God's ‘essential truth’, it also surely echoes Plato's image of the material world as shadows thrown on the wall of a cave. Aurora's own defence of her poetic vocation against Romney's pressure to drop such aesthetic self-indulgence and become his helpmeet invokes Shelley's argument that the poet's capacity for imaginative insight makes him essential as a humaniser of a the modern industrial world—but with a twist. Sharing Shelley's idealism but not his radical politics, she concedes the need to redress social evils but insists that without the poet's vision to ‘keep up open roads / Betwixt the seen and unseen’,28 reformers will never lead the swinish multitude: ‘It takes a soul / To move a body: it takes a high-souled man / To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye’. (A chastened Romney will later repeat these repulsive lines to Aurora, admitting that she was right and he wrong.29) An older, wiser Aurora meditates, in precisely those generalising, abstract terms which the young Romney had considered impossible for ‘mere women, personal and passionate’,30 that the poet's gift is to fix ‘The type with mortal vision, to pierce through / With eyes immortal, to the antetype / Some call the ideal—better called the real’, thus inspiring men to treat the particular body and the material world with proper reverence. Following Shelley's subtle and lovely saying that ‘poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar’,31 Aurora argues that only the poet perceiving ‘the spiritual significance burn through / The hieroglyphic of material shows’32 understands the sacredness of everyday particulars. Alluding to Moses' vision of God in the burning bush, she tells us that ‘Earth's crammed with heaven / And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, / The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.’33

When Elizabeth Barrett Browning makes Aurora represent her frustrated genius as fiery seeds burning the hand that encloses them, she is therefore echoing not just her husband and fellow-poet Robert but their poetic forefathers Shelley, Plato and Christ, for the image also subliminally invokes the Parable of the Sower in which ‘the seed is the word of God’ scattered among mankind.34 Since all these images are implicitly patriarchal in that they represent a masculine spirit-seed impregnating or wounding a feminine material body, it is not surprising that a woman poet should use them to represent feminine impotence, ‘woman's ill’, that prevents her from emulating the Creator. Yet Aurora's admission of failure is paradoxically more powerful, at least to me, than any of her triumphant invocations of poetry as visionary transcendence—not least because unlike her patriarchal sources she here invokes a suffering human body. The phrase ‘woman's ill’ certainly suggests a subtle variation on the curse of Eve, ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children’,35 in that the ‘weak convulsion’ of her mental labour brings forth only dead embryos. But it alludes also, and far more strongly, to the writer's self-torturing inability to release her own potential. Both image and argument refer to and rewrite the words of her female contemporary Charlotte Brontë, whose novel Shirley (1849) memorably invokes the metaphor of a hand clenched over its own hurt to represent the frustration women experience because they are unable to speak their feelings. Brontë invokes this image during a bitter meditation prompted by the heroine's misery when her potential lover withdraws without warning from what had seemed like an innocently blossoming friendship. Directly addressing a reader assumed to be female, Brontë muses on the double standard whereby a jilted man can ‘speak and urge explanation’ but ‘a lover feminine can say nothing: if she did the result would be shame and anguish’, for her nature would revolt against such open humiliation. She tells her women readers that they must grin and bear it:

Take the matter as you find it: ask no questions: utter no remonstrances: it is your best wisdom. You expected bread, and you have got a stone; break your teeth on it, and don't shriek because the nerves are martyrized: do not doubt that your mental stomach—if you have such a thing—is strong as an ostrich's; the stone will digest. You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers over the gift, let it sting through your palm. Never mind: in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.36

The sermon to female readers parodies the words of Christ in Luke 11, the same chapter as that invoked by Aurora's feminist manifesto quoted at the outset of this essay:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? … Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? … How much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?37

Shirley's advice amounts to a savage mockery of Christ's promises. ‘Ask and it shall be given you’—but if you are a woman you cannot ask and are given nothing. A father will not give his son a stone instead of bread, or a scorpion instead of an egg, but a daughter who gets just that can only accept the disappointment politely, expecting no help from her Heavenly Father. Her best wisdom lies in a proudly pagan stoicism that learns to ‘endure without a sob’.

Of course Brontë is having it both ways here, commanding stoical silence with a cry of rage as loudly impassioned as the heroine of a comic opera warning a lover on a high G note not to make a sound lest papa overhear him. This furious sermon is one of the most living things in Charlotte Brontë's dullest novel. Its effect is as disruptive as that ‘awkward break’ in Jane Eyre where the contrast between ‘Grace Poole's laugh’ and Jane's own frustration at her limited horizons (‘Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot’)38 famously aroused Virginia Woolf to criticise Charlotte Brontë for letting her own anger intrude inappropriately: ‘She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance’.39 But as Mary Jacobus has shown, the ‘awkward break’ says more than Woolf wants to admit: ‘Editing into her writing the outburst edited out of Charlotte Brontë's, Virginia Woolf creates a point of instability which unsettles her own urbane and polished decorum.’40

At the centre of Brontë's and Aurora's self-analysis is the tormenting image of ‘woman's ill’: frustrated speech figured as a hand clenched over its own pain. Aurora Leigh transforms the sarcastic adjuration ‘Close your fingers on the gift, let it sting through your palm’, where ‘gift’ ironically means its exact opposite, into a different story of the creative gift torturing its silent owner whose involuntary ‘weak convulsion’ traps the word that should ‘burn you through / With a special revelation’41 inside her ‘charred palm’, the power persisting only as pain. Like the older writer, Aurora has it both ways, invoking both the transcendent grandeur of her poetic masters and Charlotte Brontë's rebellious female rage. One way and another, the pure milk of Christian orthodoxy has grown memorably curdled.


  1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh [1857], ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York, Norton, 1996), Book V, 213-22, p. 150.

  2. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book V, 3-5, p. 142.

  3. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), Odes III, 30, tr. James Michie, The Odes of Horace (New York, Washington Square Press, 1973); William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55, Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (London, Thomson, The Arden Shakespeare, 1997), p. 221.

  4. Marjorie Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1995), pp. 153-4.

  5. P. B. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry [1821], Duncan Wu (ed.), Romanticism: An Anthology, 2nd edn (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998), p. 947.

  6. Luke 11:27-8.

  7. Luke 8:21.

  8. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's diary, cited by Reynolds, in Aurora Leigh, p. 180n.

  9. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book V, 1246-57, p. 180.

  10. Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 157.

  11. W. H. Auden and John Garrett, The Poet's Tongue: An Anthology (London, G. Bell, 1935).

  12. Reynolds, in Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, p. 180n.

  13. Freud, ‘On Femininity’, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, tr. James Strachey (Harmondsworth, Penguin, [1964] 1973), p. 148.

  14. Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, tr. Carolyn Burke, in E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds), New French Feminisms (London, Harvester, 1982), pp. 245-64.

  15. Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, p. 157.

  16. See D. B. Monro, ‘Homer’, Enyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1911), vol. 12, pp. 633-4.

  17. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London, Methuen, 1985), p. 8.

  18. Sylvia Plath, ‘Stillborn’, in Ted Hughes (ed.) Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (London, Faber, 1981), p. 142.

  19. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book III, 244-9, p. 80.

  20. Plath, ‘Stillborn’, Collected Poems, p. 142.

  21. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book I, 905-8, p. 31.

  22. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book III, 250-60, p. 80.

  23. Robert Browning, ‘Essay on Shelley’ [1852], in James F. Loucks (ed.), Robert Browning's Poetry (New York, Norton, 1979), p. 447.

  24. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, p. 946.

  25. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, p. 947.

  26. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book I, 859-60, 864-7, p. 30.

  27. Margaret Reynolds, in Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, p. 52n; John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway (eds), Aurora Leigh (London, Penguin, 1995), p. 472n.

  28. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book II, 168-9, 173, p. 52.

  29. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book II, 179-81, p. 52; Book VIII, 430-2, p. 266.

  30. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book II, 221, p. 45.

  31. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, p. 949.

  32. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book VII, 780-3, p. 237; 861-2, p. 239.

  33. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book VII, 821-4, p. 238. See Exodus 3: 2-5.

  34. Luke 8:4-15.

  35. Genesis 3:16.

  36. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, ed. H. Rosengarten and M. Smith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, [1849] 1979), p. 103.

  37. Luke 11:10-12.

  38. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London, Penguin Classics, [1848] 1985), p. 71.

  39. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London, Penguin, [1929] 1977), pp. 70, 73.

  40. Mary Jacobus, ‘The Difference of View’, Women Writing and Writing About Women (London, Croom Helm, 1979, p. 17. See also Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Mad Woman in the Attic (New Haven, Yale, 1979).

  41. Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book I, 905-6, p. 31.

Kate Lawson and Lynn Shakinovsky (essay date 2002)

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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,” firmly in the world of realism, far from the realm of occult haunting. While “The Poor Clare” moves beyond the bounds of realism and into the world of demonic possession and exorcism in order to investigate the violence in and misery of the lives of three generations of women, Aurora Leigh concerns itself with the growth and education of the eponymous heroine into artistry, womanhood, and marriage with the man she loves, appearing to follow what Helena Michie calls “the teleology of the conventional integrative plot of the Victorian novel” (“Pain” 200). However, although the text of Aurora Leigh ends with Aurora both artistically successful and happily married, and although most critics read the text as a triumph of psychological fulfillment and integration, representing as it does the coming into being of the female artist who manages both to be a successful writer and to find her heart's desire,1 we read Aurora Leigh as a text that is haunted. And like “The Poor Clare,” it is haunted once again by the body of a woman—that of the violated Marian Erle.

In contrast to most critics who perceive Marian Erle to be an important aspect of Aurora's political and psychological growth,2 Marian's body appears to us as a site of fundamental disruption or crisis in the text; thus, not only is it not an aspect of Aurora's growth, it is a crucial interruption of it. Her body is a site of radical contradiction; appearing, disappearing, and remanifesting itself throughout the text, it disrupts the central autobiographical thrust of Aurora's narrative. She is a central aspect of the narrative yet the imagery with which she is most frequently associated functions to throw her very existence into question. She is described in terms of objects—she is Romney's “stool,” his “cup” (6.908-09)—and in terms of animals—her love for Romney is “dog-like” (4.281) and in the final scene Aurora refers to her “spaniel head” (9.277). Most significantly, she is described in terms of the incorporeal—she is like mist, “not white nor brown, / But could look either, like a mist that changed” (3.810-11) or like water, so that her soul contains “cataracts” (4.184), her hair is a “sudden waterfall” (3.1046), and her heart “overflowed the world” (3.1086). At the end of the text, she appears as a phantom lacking substantiality, looking “[a]s if the floating moonshine interposed / Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up / To float upon it” (9.189-91). The idea of Marian's incorporeality functions in conjunction with her own sense that she is not alive; she frequently, in the second half of the text, declares herself to be dead.

The phantasmagoric presence of Marian Erle is reminiscent of “The Poor Clare” and is, once again, helpfully illuminated by Abraham and Torok's notion of the phantom as a construct that emerges out of an intersubjective and intergenerational process, and which consists of the untold, unacknowledged secrets of families or of cultures. “The phantom is … a metapsychological fact,” says Abraham, and goes on to explicate: “[W]hat haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others” (171). The ghostly body of Marian Erle becomes the unresolved “gap” of Aurora Leigh; it is never entirely recuperated or integrated into the text, it carries unresolved secrets, and it remains as a trace, hovering unremembered and unaccounted for over its ending.3

The paradox of a text both realist and haunted might find its origins in Barrett Browning's statement of intention about Aurora Leigh. In a letter to Robert Browning, she writes:

But my chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem … running into the midst of our conventions, & rushing into drawing-rooms & the like “where angels fear to tread”; & so, meeting face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age, & speaking the truth as I conceive of it, out plainly. That is my intention.


Barrett Browning's aim seems at least ironic, if not contradictory. Her stated determination to meet “without mask the Humanity of the age” is strangely juxtaposed with the idea of “rushing into drawing-rooms,” a notion that conveys vividly the confinements and strictures of middle-class life. Thus, her realist intentions appear inadvertently, from the outset, to be compromised by being severely confined to a privileged, middle-class world of drawing rooms that, by definition, compromises the idea of an investigation into both “Humanity” and “the age.”4 Certainly, in spite of the fact that the text of Aurora Leigh concerns itself with pressing social issues of the time—poverty, rape, prostitution, illegitimacy, the constraints on women—the treatment of the working classes in the text often appears crude and dismissive.5 Descriptions of the villagers entering the church for the ill-fated wedding of Romney and Marian evoke images of revulsion, of waste and debris, of that which ought to be expelled from a society:

They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream, like blood.


Later, when these guests become enraged by the non-appearance of Marian, they are described as vicious devouring animals of prey:

                                                                      the pack
Who, falling on [the ration] headlong, dog on dog
In heaps of fury, rend it, swallow it up
With yelling hound-jaws.


These descriptions, which convey contempt, even repulsion, contradict Barrett Browning's stated concern with social and political issues, with the “Humanity of the age” (emphasis ours). It is therefore perhaps not peculiar that what appears to haunt the text of Aurora Leigh is the body of a working-class woman, a body that does not inhabit drawing rooms, a body the story of which comprises, on the one hand, so large a part of Aurora's autobiography, and which is, on the other, so peculiarly dismissed at the end of the text. The body of Marian Erle thus haunts the text, not only compromising the growing subjectivity and psychological coherence of Aurora, but perhaps as a trace of Barrett Browning's own limitations or secrets, of that which remains personally or culturally unspeakable.


Aurora Leigh is a text imbued with violence and violent imagery: rape, prostitution, class violence, psychological violence. Domestic violence is thus only one aspect of the violence that is dispersed throughout the text of Aurora Leigh, but plays a central role in the narrative as a whole. It is most powerfully concentrated in the body of Marian Erle, which is, at various points of the narrative, hurt, persecuted, despised, beaten, raped, and left for dead. Marian Erle emerges from a situation of utter domestic horror; her body functions as the most specific site of violence in the text that winds itself through the central narrative as Marian Erle, a young working-class woman, comes to play a crucial role in the lives and narratives of the two protagonists, Aurora and Romney.

Beautiful, clever, and talented, Marian has run away from a life of domestic terror. The instability and constant threat of the life to which she is born manifests itself, from the outset, physically and spatially in the very dwelling in which her mother gives birth. This hut, made of mud and turf and hardly distinguishable from the ground out of which it is built, bespeaks the extreme marginality of Marian's existence. Her home barely exists or is only narrowly distinguishable from an animal's burrow. It has been built at night to avoid the knowledge of the landlord, and exists (just as the body of Marian comes to exist) in a state of imminent destruction; it is constantly liable to being “straight levelled, scattered by his foot, / Like any other anthill” (3.835-36). Where middle-class heroines find their homes denied to them by abusive fathers or husbands (expelled like Lucy or Janet, or moved, like Georgiana), Marian's actual house is threatened with literal physical disintegration.

When she is born, her body exists in the same marginal and dangerous space, in constant threat of total annihilation. Just as the physical structure that houses the infant Marian exists under constant threat, so is her mother unable to provide an emotional, containing framework in which the baby might be psychically housed. Her mother is constantly beaten by her father; it then seems inevitable that when the baby is born, there is “No place for her,” her first cry is a “wrong against the social code” (3.841, 845). The beaten mother beats her baby:

                              At which she turned
(The worm), and beat her baby in revenge
For her own broken heart.


Marian's experience literalizes the fantasy of Gaskell's short story where the father's aggression is mediated through the maternal relation. Marian's only tolerable moments of childhood are spent out of her home and alone in the hills. Finally, Marian's mother, in response to a particularly savage beating from her husband, tries to sell Marian, quite deliberately offering up her daughter for rape; Marian escapes this time but her mother's action foreshadows the central act of violence that later is visited upon the body of Marian when she is actually raped. In this sense, her mother's gesture may be said to actually initiate this rape; the actual and later rape of Marian that occurs outside the home (and far away in both time and space) is begun inside Marian's home by her family relationships—that between mother and daughter and between mother and father. The rape is also initiated in the family's relationship with the landlord who might level their home with his foot and who has attempted to buy Marian. Both economically and psychologically, the body of Marian Erle seems born to be destroyed.

After her mother's attempt to sell her, Marian runs away, suffers a severe illness during which she almost dies, and finally finds herself in a hospital, the first safe place in which she has ever slept. It is here that her connection to the lives of Romney and Aurora begins. She meets Romney and he saves her life by providing her with a home and a livelihood when she is forced to leave the hospital. By the time her story is recounted to us by Aurora (who hears it from Marian), Romney has decided to marry Marian. Indeed, it is because of this decision that Aurora, prompted by Lady Waldemar, enters into Marian's life.

Marian's story is first narrated to us by Aurora because Marian has been so psychically destroyed that she has seemingly been rendered voiceless. Thus, while Marian is able to give some account of herself, it is so “meek” that it makes Aurora wonder at her being “so sad a creature.” It is thus Aurora who grows “passionate” on Marian's behalf (3.847-50) and it is this “passionate” account that the reader receives. That Aurora speaks for Marian, the woman who cannot speak, is clearly manifested in the text. The corollary of this, however—that Marian also speaks through Aurora and that her narrative is made part of Aurora's—remains that which the text keeps obscured from itself. This imbricated relationship is not one that Aurora ever comes entirely to comprehend. Marian functions as an attribute of Aurora and by remaining metonymically linked to her throughout the text works as a constant disruption to her psychic integrity, a disruption that Aurora only dimly grasps. Abraham uses the metaphor of “ventriloquism” to describe how the trauma of the other speaks through and possesses the subject, functioning “like a stranger within the subject's own mental topography” (173). Marian is internally a “stranger” to Aurora (and remains so throughout the text); because she is never properly incorporated into Aurora's psychic world, she comes to signify the ways in which Aurora is strange to her very own self.

These problematics of subjectivity find their formal concomitant in the generic transgressions for which Aurora Leigh is well noted.6 The presence of Marian's body and narrative serves not only to undermine the psychic coherence of the subject, but also to disrupt the formal coherence of the text as a whole by undermining the conventional generic expectations surrounding the constitution of the subject. Her body undermines the sense of the progress assumed by the plot of the Victorian Bildungsroman, opposing the teleological movement forward of Aurora's narrative. It disrupts the narrative's drive toward closure and the satisfaction of desire, serving to fragment and undermine this teleology, thereby interrupting the notion of a coherent subject, which the ideas of satiation and closure presuppose. Marian's body fills the text with contradictions, narrative confusions, peculiar psychological splits, fusings, and strange separations and reunions, with what Nicholas Rand calls a “configuration of incoherence, discontinuity, disruption and disintegration” (6). As in a palimpsest, fragments of Aurora's subjectivity are produced throughout the text, embodying themselves momentarily in other objects, then shifting, disappearing, and revealing themselves again. Although images and motifs of Aurora's subjectivity reoccur in unexpected places (in descriptions of Lady Waldemar, Romney, her dead mother and father) the most insistent and repetitive of these psychic appearances is that of Marian Erle. Structurally, then, the presence and significance of Marian's body is crucial. The violence figured most powerfully in her body becomes part of Aurora's story, and since her body is figured as the discarded female body, the other, the repudiated, it embodies the text's investigation into the notions of transgression, legitimacy, and the law.

Aurora's own life is not marked by physical violence, but the trauma of her early life is powerfully conveyed at the beginning of Book One. Because of the early loss of her mother, Aurora comes to consciousness possessed by an unidentifiable yearning:

I felt a mother-want about the world,
And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night in shutting up the fold—.


She is haunted by the sense of the lost object, “As restless as a nest-deserted bird / Grown chill through something being away, though what / It knows not” (1.43-45). The object is both lost and unrecognizable, an unknowable “something.” Abraham, discussing the notion of loss and its subsequent manifestation as a phantom, describes loss as the memory of an “idyll, experienced with a valued object and yet for some reason unspeakable” (141). Such a memory, he says, is buried “without legal burying place”:

Between the idyllic moment and its subsequent forgetting (we have called the latter “preservative repression”), there was the metapsychological traumatism of a loss or, more precisely, the “loss” that resulted from a traumatism.


Aurora's loss (resulting from trauma), symptomized by her indefinable yearning or craving for “something,” manifests itself in her psyche in a repressed and distorted form—as guilt: she portrays herself as being responsible for her mother's death, indeed, as her mother's murderer. “She could not bear the joy of giving life, / The mother's rapture slew her” (1.34-35), she tells us, and a few lines later: “Aurora Leigh was born / To make my father sadder” (1.45-46). When she meets her cruel English aunt (after the death of her father), she describes her aunt searching her face in order to find “A wicked murderer in [her] innocent face” (1.330). Aurora's guilt, loss, and aggression are all figured in the terrifying portrait of her mother that is painted “after she is dead” (1.128) and which Aurora spends hours gazing at:

                              Therefore very strange
The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
For hours upon the floor with knees drawn up,
And gaze across them, half in terror, half
In adoration, at the picture there—
That swan-like supernatural white life
Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
Which seemed to have no part in it nor power
To keep it quite from breaking out of bounds.
For hours I sat and stared. Assunta's awe
And my poor father's melancholy eyes
Still pointed that way. That way went my thoughts
When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew
In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
With still that face … which did not therefore change,
But kept the mystic level of all forms,
Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite.


The portrait is evocative and multivalent; its “strangeness” for the child finds its origins in its peculiar blending of disparities. Crossing the boundary between life and death, the portrait, comprising the grotesque and the beautiful, the sacred and the damned, the clean and the unclean, engenders both hatred and adoration in the child Aurora. It is fascinating and terrifying; this split, fractured, broken image is the only mother that Aurora knows. Everything in her world, she narrates, becomes “confused, unconsciously” with “still that face”; the use of the word still is indicative of the lasting power this image holds over the growing Aurora. This is a central aspect of her inheritance; the dead maternal other, embodied in the portrait of Aurora's mother, is the first other that Aurora must assimilate.

Aurora leaves Italy, grows up, rejects Romney, and becomes a writer, but the dead face of her mother resurfaces in her life again—this time in relation to Marian, who becomes the other to whom Aurora is most crucially bound and from whom she never quite escapes. When Aurora first glimpses Marian in the streets of Paris, she describes the experience as being like that of a “meditative man” who, watching “gnats a-prick upon a pond,” is abruptly horrified by the surfacing of “a dead face, known once alive … / So old, so new” out of the water (6.235-40). That the experience possesses the simultaneous quality of being both remembered and shockingly unexpected is conveyed by the notion that the face is both “old” and “new.” The resurrection of Marian has the same uncanny, ghostly and ghastly effect of the portrait of her mother painted “after she was dead.”

Indeed, Aurora's recognition of Marian in the crowd in Paris is a simultaneous recognition both of a “dead face” (6.239) and of the fact that Marian is a mother. The notions of death and motherhood occur simultaneously again for Aurora, echoing not only the death portrait of her mother but also the scene where Aurora's aunt, seeking “the murderer” in Aurora's face, searches Aurora's face with “two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes / … —ay, stabbed it through and through” (1.327-28). Her aunt's stabbing eyes echo an image from her mother's death portrait—“Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords” (1.160)—and are later fixed in her own death mask (2.942-43).

Aurora does not immediately inform the reader of her perception that Marian has a baby, and this narrative deferral is indicative of the complex, fragmented nature of their meeting. Each sees the other seeing; this recognition occurs not face to face, but as one that is, on both parts, splintered, fractured, evasive, deferred. Indeed, this scene of supposed recognition is most powerfully characterized by its misrecognitions, its confusions, its mistaken judgements, and its erroneous conclusions. Aurora's shocked question and its repetition—“God! what face is that?” she asks and, again, “What face is that?” (6.226, 231)—are indicative of the uncertainty and instability that suffuses this meeting. Aurora's belief that she reads the sign of Marian's damnation in the baby she sees Marian carrying is one of her most confused and alienated moments in a text otherwise characterized by the clarity and acuity of her perceptions. Believing herself to read the signs of Marian's transgressions correctly, her thoughts slip between wild imaginings of Marian as both dead and damned. Marian's supposed damnation is synecdochically signified by Aurora's characterization of Marian's face as a “dead face” (6.239):

                                        That face persists.
It floats up, it turns over in my mind,
As like to Marian, as one dead is like
The same alive.


In her subsequent imagined letter to Romney, Aurora, considering again Marian's illegitimate motherhood, reiterates this shift in Marian's imagined status from “dead” to “damned” with the implication that, at this moment, even Aurora thinks that Marian would be better off dead (6.365-66). These shifts are crucial. Death, damnation, somewhere between the two—Aurora, who loves Marian, can no longer find a place for her.

Both Virginia Steinmetz and Dolores Rosenblum connect Aurora's relationship with Marian to the ambiguities of her relationship with her dead mother. Virginia Steinmetz states that though “each has responded to loss differently, Marian … and Aurora are drawn to each other because they have experienced ‘mother-want’” (352). Aurora manifests a “regressive identification with Marian as both mother and child in order that the poet may not only fulfill her mother-hunger, but also expel from her psyche the split mother image” (360). Rosenblum argues that the meeting with Marian allows her to “enact a symbolic resurrection of both the mother and the mothered child in herself” (333). For both Rosenblum and Steinmetz then, the connection with Marian allows Aurora to resolve her guilt and ambivalence about the maternal relation. But this scene of (mis)recognition arguably remains unresolved; each woman possesses the other in ways neither of them fully understands. The sense of psychic threat is conveyed when Marian, refusing to follow Aurora any farther, insists that Aurora follow her in order that she may return to her baby:

                                                                                Then she led
The way, and I, as by a narrow plank
Across devouring waters, followed her,
Stepping by her footsteps, breathing by her breath.


The precariousness, danger, and fear of Aurora's situation are powerfully conveyed as she follows Marian into a world Aurora is incapable of imagining (a world far removed from “drawing-rooms”); the sense that she may drown in “devouring waters” reminds us of the faces of the “drowned” Marian and her dead mother.7

Throughout the text, Aurora and Marian are the subjects and objects of each other's discourse and of their own. Indeed, the ongoing making and remaking, the dispersal, fragmentation, and fusings of their selves may be said to be the progression of the text. They are crucial aspects of each other; textually speaking, neither they nor their narratives can exist without the other. But as Aurora follows Marian across the streets of Paris, and as she confronts the fact of Marian's motherhood, she relegates Marian to the marginal, to a place that is no place because the subversion that Marian represents becomes too threatening to Aurora's own sense of integrity. In order, therefore, to retain her own subjectivity, Aurora must split off Marian.


The complexities surrounding Aurora's sighting of Marian and Aurora's subsequent bewilderment are caused not so much by her moral or spiritual difficulty in placing Marian (indeed, she believes herself to have a clear grasp of Marian's circumstances), but by the difficulty of describing what she thinks she has seen to Romney. She cannot account for Marian's behavior to Romney and finds herself repeatedly returning to the point where she imagines the letter she would to write to him:

I ought to write to Romney, “Marian's here;
Be comforted for Marian.”
                                                                                                    My pen fell,
My hands struck sharp together, as hands do
Which hold at nothing.


I cannot write to Romney.


I will not write to Romney Leigh.


Aurora has no difficulty in imagining Marian's predicament (however mistaken she might be); her difficulty lies in describing it. Aurora's difficulty in speaking of Marian's plight signifies the unspeakability of what has happened to Marian. Since Marian was raped when she was unconscious, the conception of her child occurs outside of consciousness and therefore outside of narrative:

                              … when waking up at last …
I told you that I waked up in the grave.

(6.1217-18; ellipses in original)

The ellipses signify not only Marian's ignorance about what has befallen her, but also the fact that it cannot be recounted, that the event has no logical or narrative or social connectedness. Aurora's narrative difficulties are echoed by Marian herself who finds it impossible to place her experience within any system of signification to which she has access. On her first attempt to tell Aurora of her child, her lips move in a “spasm without a sound” (6.495). In a similar vein, she describes herself as being speechless after her rape, “[h]alf gibbering and half raving on the floor” (6.1232). She explains to Aurora:

We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong
Without offence to happy decent folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.


Marian's description of her predicament becomes a statement about the cultural prohibitions to which her entire class is subjected. While she is made to suffer, to “feel in full” any indignity or violation, she is denied access to words, to a system of representation in which that violation might be defined, explicated, contained, or judged.

Marian's inability to describe her violation can be illuminated by Jean-François Lyotard's concept of the differend. The differend is precisely that which has been shut out of traditional legal discourse and out of social conventions of meaning. Lyotard explains:

In the differend, something “asks” to be put into phrases, and suffers from the wrong of not being able to be put into phrases right away. This is when the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication learn through the feeling of pain which accompanies silence … that they are summoned by language, not to augment to their profit the quantity of information communicable through existing idioms, but to recognize that what remains to be phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase.


Lyotard theorizes Marian's predicament precisely here. She recognizes that “what remains to be phrased exceeds what [she] can presently phrase”; her suffering either cannot be adequately signified or cannot be signified at all. The attacks on her body function to signify that which has been shut out of discourse.

Marian herself connects her rape back to her own early history, to her mother:

                                                                      —man's violence,
Not man's seduction, made what I am, …
When mothers fail us, can we help ourselves?

(6.1226-27, 1229)

From birth, Marian's body is attacked and despised; her mother beats her as a baby, repeating the violence that she herself has suffered at the hands of her husband:

One day, said Marian,—the sun shone that day—
Her mother had been badly beat, and felt
The bruises sore about her wretched soul.


It is in response to this particularly savage beating that Marian's mother tries to sell her to a man “with beast's eyes / That seemed as they would swallow her alive” (3.1050-51). The rape of Marian that occurs later in the text is, in one sense, an inevitable consequence of the physical violence to which her body has always been subjected. It is a repetition, an inevitable recurrence—the return of the repressed. Although Marian is unconscious when she is raped, she remains haunted by her mother's hatred and unconsciously fulfills her mother's earlier fantasy of selling her. The idea of being exchanged, thrown away, discarded, or violated has hovered around the body of Marian since she was born. From the time of her birth, we are told, she has had to “swindle a place” since “by man's law” there has been “no place for her” (3.840-42). But rape is also a very particular kind of violence. It serves, in this context, to make concrete the taboo or the prohibition that always hovered around the body of Marian.8 It functions to shift her body structurally into the place of the unspeakable, the place that is no place, defined only by the violence, prohibition, and exclusion directed against it.

Many of the significations assigned to Marian are related to the notion of prohibition. Marian is other/outside/excluded/foreign because of her class, her sex, the violence to which she is subjected, and her illegitimate motherhood. Her markings and scarring manifest the coming into being of a female body through pain, violence, and death. Aurora, the narrator, might be said to possess the capacity to transcend many of these exclusions, but even she assigns to Marian's body the notion of the unspeakable and (unconsciously) uses Marian's body to encapsulate unacknowledged and unrecognized aspects of her culture as well as of herself, things she “cannot name” (6.344-46).

This unspeakability becomes powerfully evident in the discussion between Marian and Aurora about Marian's rape; their discussion is figured in the language of the law. In a series of groundless reproaches, Aurora, functioning as judge, speaks of Marian's “vice,” her “sin,” of her having stolen her child (6.612-44), of her killing her child, and of her being “complaisant” to a wrong (6.736, 743). Aurora's moral and legal fluency exists in strong contrast to Marian's inarticulateness. Unable to “phrase” (Lyotard 13) an inexplicable set of relations, she helplessly sums up the horror of all that has happened to her by saying “I found the child” (6.670). The discussion reflects uncannily Lyotard's definition of a differend as a tribunal in which the accused has lost the means of proving that he or she has been wronged: “I would like to call a differend [différend] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim” (9). He continues:

[T]he “perfect crime” does not consist in killing the victim or the witnesses … but rather in obtaining the silence of the witnesses, the deafness of the judges, and the inconsistency (insanity) of the testimony. You neutralize the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony; then everything is as if there were no referent (no damages).


Marian's body is this place of no “referent.” Since “no presentation is possible of the wrong [she] says [she] has suffered” (Lyotard 8) her body is unspeakable, a place of psychic, semiotic, narrative, and cultural evasion. The world of law inside which Aurora safely resides is inaccessible to Marian and she describes her existence outside of the sphere of protection in terms that parody the safe assumptions of Aurora's world. Denying “perjury,” she makes her “mother's oath” and claims her “right” within the “law” (6.661, 666, 754). But, paradoxically, the law on which Marian calls—a law of tradition and cultural assumption—is ironically one by which Marian can only be destroyed, “the law which now is paramount— / The common law, by which the poor and weak / Are trodden underfoot by vicious men, / And loathed for ever after by the good” (6.666-69). Aurora only ever attains a partial understanding of the excluded, prohibiting world that Marian inhabits.

Marian's liminal structural status is also constantly indicated by Marian herself who frequently claims that she is dead. She makes this claim three times; each time is a crucial moment involving the idea of reunion or integration for the three major characters—herself, Aurora, and Romney. In the first instance, she uses the notion of her death in life to undermine Aurora's insistence on a “reunion” between the two of them; since she does not believe she exists, the notion of a reunion, which presupposes two subjectivities or entities, is impossible:

And she, I said, was murdered; Marian's dead.
What can you do with people when they are dead.


Her second claim to being dead is tied up with her refusal of Romney's second marriage proposal, another failed “reunion”:

Yet still it will not make her … if she's dead,
And gone away where none can give or take
In marriage—able to revive, return
And wed you.


And the third and most devastating instance is perhaps Marian's personal attempt at reunion with her own self, or a self she once had, or her past capacities. She says that she is no longer capable of love:

                                                                                But for me,
Once killed, this ghost of Marian loves no more.


All of these claims to being dead throw into question not only the very concept of reunion, but also the mutual subjectivities it presupposes. Marian's claim to be dead foregrounds the notion that the union of a subject with an impossible object (the object that both is and is not) renders the subject also unstable; in this way Marian's “death” becomes, at various points, a crucial aspect of the respective subjectivities of both Aurora and Romney, as well as of herself. Her death in life disturbs not only the psychic coherence of the subject, but, by disrupting the notion of reunion, disturbs the idea of simple closure with which the text supposedly ends. Her transgressive presence is there for most of the final scene between Aurora and Romney.

Marian's peculiar emotional liminality—her status of being both dead and alive—therefore becomes the most powerful place of disturbance in Aurora Leigh. She is constantly being written in and out of the narrative. As a signifier, she remains constantly volatile. Although she introduces, at various points, the role of pain, anger, violence, and victimization into the formation of female subjectivity, and therefore Aurora's subjectivity, her own liminality renders all of these constructs unstable. Lyotard states that “a case of differend between two parties takes place when the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom” (9). Marian's dead and alive status, formed by her incapacity to function in the central idiom, forms a transgressive presence, which creates the space for new forms of subjectivity and legality, forms that appear, shift, change, and disappear through the progression of the text. Divested of the means to argue, her transgressive body suggests the possibility of being allowed, in Lyotard's terms, to “institute idioms which do not yet exist” (13).


The problematics of subjectivity that Marian manifests declare themselves in the various markings and transformations that occur on her body—her beatings, her rape, her pregnancy. Indeed, all of the crucial events in Marian's life occur through her body and, from the outset of her narrative, it is her body that is peculiarly foregrounded both for its extraordinary beauty (commented upon by every character in the text) and for the way in which it is victimized, attacked, or abused by almost everyone she encounters. Her parents, the squire who tries to buy her, the man who rapes her and fathers her child, Lady Waldemar, and Lady Waldemar's servant who sells her are a few examples. Throughout the text, Marian appears to function as a body on which stories are written, rather than as a subject in her own right; her body is the site for the inscriptions of others.

The most crucial event in Marian's troubled life—her rape and subsequent pregnancy—occurs when she is unconscious. In a discussion of Heinrich von Kleist's story “The Marquise of O—,” where the protagonist is also raped and impregnated while unconscious, Mary Jacobus comments that “the rape takes place in the space of a narrative absence, not outside nature, but outside consciousness” (First Things 25). Jacobus continues:

In Kleist's own discourse, it seems that feminine sexuality, however mediated, can never fully submit to textuality. The woman's body … remains the site of something at once undecidable and contradictory, in excess of narrative.


In Kleist's story, the Marquise advertises for the perpetrator, finds him, and marries him, thus turning this tale of violation into one of sexual and emotional fulfilment with a happy ending. Jacobus concludes her discussion of the story by stating that it appears in Kleist's story that “feminine sexuality … can only be recuperated for narrative … by subordinating feminine sexuality to the Law of the Father” (28). The differences in the stories of these two women, Marian and the Marquise of O—, are as compelling as their similarities. The Marquise of O— is an aristocrat with a place, a home, a family, and a title; Marian has nothing. Indeed, Marian's surname—Erle—functions as an ironic commentary on the lack of any kind of place or position in the world which she inhabits. Much of the story of “The Marquise of O—” involves the Marquise's attempt to tell the story, to account for herself. The rape of Marian, on the other hand, and, for that matter, the identity of the father of her child remain a blank. She simply cannot tell her story and when Romney offers her his name for the child, she can only refuse, since this would constitute a false naming. Because her story remains in the realm of the unspeakable, “unrecuperated,” occurring in excess of both narrative and the law, it returns as a symptom; it is written on her body. In this sense, if we return to Jacobus' comments about “The Marquise of O—,” we might say that Marian's body refuses to submit to the Law of the Father and remains the site of contradiction and subversion.

The imagery surrounding the marking of Marian's body is echoed thematically in Aurora's exploration of her own writing. While conjuring Romney's imagined rejection of her work, she describes her writing in terms of a destroyed pregnancy:

                              I ripped my verses up,
And found no blood upon the rapier's point;
The heart in them was just an embryo's heart
Which never yet had beat, that it should die;
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life;
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.


Later, the image is repeated in terms of childlessness: “I called the artist but a greatened man. / He may be childless also, like a man” (5.419-20). The connection between the markings on Marian's body and the markings of the text that constitute Aurora's work and narrative serves to emphasize not only the notions of instability, contradiction, and change that constitute the formation of the subject, but also the complexities that accrue around the writing of Marian into and out of the text and the exclusions that she suffers. The text is filled with metaphors of reading and writing, and also their antitheses—blindness and illiteracy. But where illiteracy in the case of either Romney or Aurora is metaphoric, it is a severe limitation in the case of Marian, who, because of her class exclusions, cannot (or does not) read as they do. Marian's body becomes the literal figuration of these prohibitions.

Throughout the ten long years in which Aurora and Romney are unable to come together, each is filled with the sense of the other's incapacity to read (correctly). After Aurora refuses Romney's proposal, he writes to her, paradoxically, to inform her that she is deliberately rendering herself illiterate:

                                                            you read
My meaning backward like your eastern books,
While I am from the west, dear. Read me now
A little plainer.


Aurora responds by informing Romney that she, knowing more than any reading can inform her, considers herself to be too literate rather than not literate enough:

                                        I know your heart,
And shut it like the holy book it is.


In contrast with Aurora and Romney who are provided with texts they cannot and will not read, Marian's reading can only occur in fragments. Page halves cannot be matched, beginnings and endings of readings are never available to her; her reading is jumbled and jangled in accordance with her class deprivation, her personal fragmentedness, and her social and emotional exclusion. “'Twas somewhat hard to keep the things distinct,” she tells us (3.983). In this sense, Marian's illiteracy is qualitatively different from Aurora's or Romney's. For Romney, textual coherence would be available if Aurora were only willing and able to read; for Aurora, the text is so plain that it is not worth reading. For Marian, however, the text is incomprehensible and unreadable because it is fundamentally unavailable. The belief held by both Aurora and Romney, at various points, that Marian can escape her chaotic, excluded, working-class world by marrying out of it, is undermined by Marian's own comments about her impending marriage to Romney, comments figured in terms of her longing, yet inability to read.

While I shall set myself to read his eyes,
Till such grow plainer to me than the French
To wisest ladies. Do you think I'll miss
A letter, in the spelling of his mind?


Her language betrays not only her sense of foreignness, of talking a different language from Romney, but the hopelessness of ever translating from one world into the other. Romney's eyes, like French, will always remain incomprehensible to Marian.

When Romney and Aurora re-encounter each other at the end of the tale, their meeting is marked by misreadings and unexplained silences. He refers to himself as a “tedious book” (8.76), thereby missing the crucial fact that Aurora is unaware of his blindness, while she, in her blindness (about his blindness), reads a set of secret signs in the stars (“A secret writing from a sombre page” [8.91]) and invites the blind man to read these hieroglyphics. These almost farcical motifs are carried out until the end of the scene. Aurora tells him her heart is “writ in Sanskrit” (8.476-78), while he, insisting on the notion of his “legible life-signature” (8.1234) tells Aurora, who does not understand what he is saying, that his secret (that he loves Aurora best) is “writ / Too plainly in the book of [his] misdeeds” (8.1217-18). The notions of reading and writing here are inextricably mingled with the idea of blindness, a concept that has also threaded its way through the entire text.

Marian's “blinded face” (3.1049) at the moment that her mother is attempting to sell her strangely foreshadows her response to Romney when he asks her to marry him and she “look[s] blindly in his face” (4.118). Aurora says of herself that she “shuts her eyes” (4.465) in order to avoid grasping the complexities of the marriage and compares herself to a “blind man” (5.1028) when Lady Waldemar tells her that she is going to marry Romney, taunting Aurora at the same time with a letter she may not read. Aurora's metaphorical blindness is a crucial aspect of the final encounter with Romney, where she remains bizarrely blind to his blindness. Romney's literal blindness then is passed between all three of the main characters. Since his blindness is a partial figuration for Marian's “blinded face,” it serves to retain the trace of Marian even after she leaves the final scene, insistently reminding us of that which may not be absorbed into a completed and readable world. The violated, raped, unspeakable body of Marian remains an inextricable part of Aurora and Romney's final union. Both dead and alive, inscribed with horror, she reminds us of what cannot be translated, what cannot exist in a legible, comprehensible world.9

Throughout the text, Marian's body continues to know and speak what her society will not; it therefore exists as a space and a trace in the text refusing to be written out. Aurora's final description of Marian's physical appearance evokes that of a ghost. Marian's body is insubstantial, incorporeal, just as it is in Aurora's opening description of her:

As if the floating moonshine interposed
Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up
To float upon it.


Her ghostliness is even more powerfully conveyed in her final conversation with Aurora, which echoes the legal terminology of their earlier discussion of Marian's transgression. Marian places her “case” (9.239) before Aurora and asks her to “judge” her (9.379). The language in which she makes her request, however, reminds us that she cannot be judged because her life is over:

                              Have I not the right
To take so mere an aftermath from life,
Else found so wholly bare?


The juxtaposition of “right” (with all its overtones of fairness, legal or moral claim, entitlement, privilege, and even immunity) with “aftermath” reminds us that Marian is outside of the legal (and emerging domestic) framework that the text presupposes.

Marian is tangential to the tale and part of its subplot yet in disturbing the central notions of psychological growth, of contented domesticity, and of happy unions, she is a crucial figure of transgression. The tale of Aurora Leigh's development remains filled with blanks, illegibilities, and contradictions which are largely figured in the body of Marian. Marian's body, connected to the dead body of Aurora's mother, hovers over the final union of Aurora and Romney as a phantom of whose existence Aurora is only partially aware. As the embodiment of Barrett Browning's interrogations of issues of class and violence when they are visited upon the female body, she remains a phantasmagoric presence which both reveals and conceals the unspeakable aspects of her culture.


  1. Almost all of the critical discussion surrounding Aurora Leigh does presuppose a coherent subject who progresses along a path of reintegration: Margaret Reynolds, discussing the split between Aurora Leigh the poet and Aurora Leigh the woman, states that it is “ironically … the mediation of the conventional (albeit invented) poetic stereotype of the male/female relation between poet and Muse that precipitates the restoration of Aurora's sexual identity” (6); Joyce Zonona claims that at the conclusion of Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning “offers a striking image of a woman artist who is simultaneously poet and muse” (241); Dolores Rosenblum discusses the incorporation of Marian into Aurora's self and states that “looking into the mirror of a mother-sister marks Aurora's discovery of an integrated self and a poetics” (335); Marjorie Stone discusses the ways in which Barrett Browning uses gender reversals to undermine conventional expectations, allowing Aurora ultimately to emerge as both an artist and a woman (103); Gail Turley Houston, discussing the powers of women's bodies and the body of writing they produce, demonstrates how “Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman replaces the phallic gesture of the male-authored Kunstlerroman's assumption of manhood with the abundant, erect, tangible female breast, which, instead of reiterating the old flaccid dead mythologies, engenders a new metaphor for woman as writer” (233); Helen Cooper claims that “through her close contact with the procreative role of woman enacted by Marian Erle in the second half of her story, Aurora finally claims her female identity” (169).

    Alison Case is exceptional in that she does not plot a path of reconciliation and reunion. She discusses the coexistence of two reemerging, incompatible plots: “a female Kunstlerroman and a feminine love story, for both of which Aurora serves as heroine/narrator” (17) while maintaining an “uneasy coexistence” (18) between “dual narrative possibilities” (19) that results in the coexistence of “two kinds of stories” (21).

  2. Cooper perceives her to be the “instrument of [Aurora's] transformation” (172); Rosenblum discusses the incorporation of Marian into Aurora's self and states that “looking into the mirror of a mother-sister marks Aurora's discovery of an integrated self and a poetics” (335). However, Linda Lewis gestures in the direction of Marian's disruptive function when she states that “only the case of Marian Erle troubles our sense of how things ought to be … and Marian's insistence upon her unresurrected state seems to deny closure in a work where all other loose ends are neatly tied” (59-60).

  3. Other critics have commented on Marian's peculiar state of nonexistence. Houston points out that “Aurora, Romney and Lady Waldemar all relate to Marian as though she were an item of exchange between them” (227-28). Patricia Murphy states that she “seemingly takes on the qualities of all women” (23). Our concept of the phantom, however, functions not so much as a signifier of how characters in the text might use or relate to Marian Erle, but as a signifier of the fact that she ultimately cannot be “used,” incorporated, or integrated fully into Barrett Browning's text. She appears to us to remain outside of the realm of integration.

  4. What Barrett Browning intends in her reference to “drawing-rooms” is, to some extent, clarified in Book Five of Aurora Leigh by Aurora's theory of poetry:

    Nay, if there's room for poets in this world
    Their sole work is to represent the age,
    Their age, not Charlemagne's—this live, throbbing age[;]


                                                                                    this is living art,
    Which thus presents and thus records true life.


    The “true life” that is referred to here might be compared with Barrett Browning's stated wish in her letter to Robert Browning to “[speak] the truth as [she] conceive[s] of it, out plainly” (1.10). The “drawing-rooms” into which Barrett Browning wishes to “rush” are therefore signifiers for “this live throbbing age … which … presents … true life” and Aurora's conceptualization of the subject for poetry is intended to signify everyday life (true life in drawing rooms) which is contrasted with a mythologized, idealized, and distanced past (the world of Charlemagne). Our point is that the idea of “true life” that occurs primarily in drawing rooms does seem a contradiction in terms.

  5. Several critics have commented on the limitations and prejudices evident in Barrett Browning's treatment of the working classes in Aurora Leigh and the way in which they appear to contradict the feminist concerns of the text. Cora Kaplan, for example, referring to the “conflict and contradiction in [Barrett Browning's] position on female sexuality and class” (25), states that Aurora Leigh emerges with “a theory of art and politics unconnected with material reality and deeply elitist” (12); she concludes: “nowhere in the literature of the mid-century is the bourgeois rejection of working-class consciousness more glaring than in Aurora Leigh” (35). Cooper states that “Aurora's middle-class fiction allows her, like Romney, to feel charity toward a poor sufferer while scorning her class” (165). Louise Hudd points to the text's “problematic depiction of class politics and social reform” (63) and states that “the poem's critique of social conditions for the urban masses [is] uneasily subordinated to its feminist message” (66). See Hudd (64-66) for a further discussion of the poem's attitude to social reform in relation to the critics of the time. Hudd also discusses the way in which Barrett Browning's class prejudice or social conservatism may interrupt the realism of her text, stating that “the one thing that Aurora Leigh isn't, is realist in the sense in which George Eliot conceives the term” (65-66). Gilbert and Gubar do not read this text as a triumph of feminist assertion at all. In contrast to most readings of Aurora Leigh (see note 1 above), they read the end of the text as a statement of Aurora's compromise with the docility demanded of her by Victorian marriage. Aurora, they claim, will labor for her “glorious blind master … in … [an] ‘unwearied’ trance of self-abnegation”; she will fulfill “the role of dutiful handmaiden to a blind but powerful master” (578).

  6. A number of critics have explored the implications of the generic complexities of Aurora Leigh. Stone discusses the ways in which “women write between existing genres” (101); Susanna Egan analyses how the “genres seem to work against each other” (284) in Aurora Leigh since the success of the woman poet seems to work against the novelist who chooses a socially acceptable climax; Houston, discussing the notion of the Kunstlerroman as a genre that “constructs and is constructed by gender,” explores the problematics for a woman of the construction of the self as artist within the constraints of the “market system” (213); Case comments that Barrett Browning's violations of novelistic genre are a response to “restrictions which generic conventions imposed on the expression of female artistic self-determination. The narrative confusions result from the coexistence of two seemingly incompatible plots” (17); Susan Stanford Friedman remarks that genre anxiety for women poets originates in the “interface between genre norms and gender codes” (203). Aurora, herself, also questions generic conventions (5.230).

  7. Stacey Gottlieb points out that “Barrett Browning's clear intent to deny Marian any personal responsibility for her misfortunes has been taken by critics as evidence for both the poet's political progressiveness and political conservatism” (58); however, what is significant here is precisely the issue of unconsciousness. Marian's “act” only becomes tolerable to Aurora when she discovers that she was “absent” when it occurs and this seems to reveal as much about Aurora's own “absences” as it does about Barrett Browning's political convictions.

  8. In her discussion of rape and resurrection in Aurora Leigh, Lewis points out that all of the major characters in Aurora Leigh “die” but that Marian is the only one who “remains dead” (56) and that this is because Barrett Browning, in her exploration of rape, “illustrates the death from which there is no resurrection” (56).

  9. Zonona reads Marian's disappearance from the narrative as an endorsement of the mutual subjectivities of Marian and Aurora saying that Barrett Browning “refuses to place her in any position in relation to Aurora. Aurora must speak her own truth, affirming—and naming—a muse (the dawn) who is nothing less than her very self” (243).

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicholas, and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernel. Ed. and Trans. Nicholas T. Rand. Vol. 1. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Kerry McSweeney. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

———. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846. Ed. Elvan Kintner. 2 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1969.

Case, Alison. “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 29:1 (1991): 17-32.

Cooper, Helen. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Egan, Susanna. “Glad Rags for Lady Godiva: Woman's Story as Womanstance in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.English Studies in Canada 20:3 (1994): 283-300.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Gender and Genre Anxiety: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D. as Epic Poets.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5:2 (1986): 202-28.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Gottlieb, Stacey. “‘And God Will Teach Her’: Consciousness and Character in Ruth and Aurora Leigh.Victorians-Institute-Journal 24 (1996): 57-85.

Houston, Gail Turley. “Gender Construction and the Kunstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh.Philological Quarterly 72:2 (1993): 213-36.

Hudd, Louise. “The Politics of a Feminist Poetics: ‘Armgart’ and George Eliot's Critical Response to Aurora Leigh.Essays and Studies 49 (1966): 62-83.

Jacobus, Mary. First Things: The Maternal Imaginary in Literature, Art, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Kaplan, Cora, ed. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. London: Women's P, 1978.

Lewis, Linda. “Rape and Resurrection in Aurora Leigh.Studies in Browning and His Circle 19 (1991): 56-65.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Michie, Helena. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

———. “‘Who Is This in Pain?’: Scarring, Disfigurement, and Female Identity in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.Novel 22 (1989): 199-212.

Murphy, Patricia. “Reconceiving the Mother: Deconstructing the Madonna in Aurora Leigh.Victorian Newsletter 91 (1997): 21-27.

Rand, Nicholas. Introduction. The Shell and the Kernel. Vol. 1. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 1-22.

Reynolds, Margaret. “Aurora Leigh: ‘Writing her story for her better self.’” Browning Society Notes 17:1-3 (1987-1988): 5-11.

Rosenblum, Dolores. “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry.” Victorian Studies 26:3 (1983): 321-38.

Steinmetz, Virginia. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 21:4 (1983): 351-67.

Stone, Marjorie. “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh.Victorian Poetry 25:2 (1987): 101-27.

Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8:2 (1989): 241-62.

Meg Tasker (essay date 2002)

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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 patriarchy”, in which “the sexual politics of Aurora Leigh are coherent with all of Barrett Browning's conservative politics in general”?2 According to David, Kaplan's reading endows Barrett Browning with a feminist mission she would not have endorsed herself. Where Kaplan talks of the poet's celebration of women's language and experience, David describes Barrett Browning as a conservative essentialist in sexual politics (145), and she questions the validity of the concepts of “women's language and experience”. David is a historical materialist, regarding Barrett Browning's poem as a reflection of her political and social ideas and attitudes, and finding its value less in a feminist radicalism than in its contribution to “the Victorian intellectual discourse seeking an understanding of a changing world and the place of poetry in that world” (158).

Is openness to such variant readings a quality of the text itself or simply a reflection of different approaches taken by readers and critics? Surely both. While the “meaning” of the poem is inevitably constructed and pulled apart in different ways by different readers, it is also likely that an epic first-person verse-novel should be open to interpretation in ways less trammelled or directed by the conventions of literary interpretation than, say, a lyric or even a dramatic monologue. The generic as well as the thematic novelty of the poem opens the way for multiple readings.

The contradiction in Barrett Browning's work between the passionate confrontation of patriarchal attitudes (to women and art) and the ingrained conservatism of her political views (on women and class) is something that readers and critics need to negotiate. While David's approach is more historically rigorous than Kaplan's, it is too simplistic to say, as she does, that Aurora Leigh perpetuates the role of women's art as servant of patriarchy (144). The end of the book may disappoint some readers in its apparent capitulation to the conventional happy ending of marriage, but to others the process of reaching that conclusion has nonetheless demonstrated the power and creative force of the woman as poet; Aurora “feels” more successful in her quest for independence and individual fulfilment than does Tennyson's Princess Ida, and her quest is not revealed to have been quixotic, like Ida's. Aurora Leigh has a stronger feminist “message” than The Princess, for all its belief in love and marriage. Part of this effect is due to the fact that Aurora Leigh itself is an ambitious work by a woman poet, writing outside the accepted generic, stylistic and thematic conventions for Victorian women poets.3

Since Kaplan's 1978 edition of Aurora Leigh it has acquired a “new canonical” status, allowing David and other critics to pick up the discussion of the text at a point where there is less need to establish its value and significance as a women's text. Among the many readings, however, it seems that the generic innovation of the poem has frequently been overlooked. Alison Case, in her 1991 article, “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh”, does draw attention to a significant shift in Aurora Leigh's narrative technique in Book V, and uses it to explain some of the contradictions left unresolved at the end of the book.4 Kerry McSweeney, in her introduction to the 1993 World's Classics edition, discusses, then dismisses this point. Her account of the issue is useful, as she suggests that the poetics espoused in Aurora Leigh emphasize poetic spirit over formal craft. Aurora herself declares, as part of her poetic manifesto in Book V, “Trust the spirit … to make the form … Inward evermore / to outward” (V, 223-28). McSweeney comments:

Prima facie, this might seem an unsatisfactory rationale for solving the formal and compositional problems presented by a book-length narrative poem. Consider, for example, the insufficient attention given to the difficulties of accommodating two generically different elements: a first-person retrospective account of inner development, and a presentation of modern life held together by a love-plot. The mixture of these elements leads to confusing switches between retrospective and present-tense narration, and to a blurring of the distinction between the narrating self and the experiencing self. … Here [in Book V] the mode of narration changes from authoritative retrospection to an immersion in events that presupposes no distance between character and narrator.

On the other hand, most readers of Aurora Leigh have been unaware of this discontinuity, and only one reviewer and two recent commentators seem to have noticed it.5

McSweeney goes on to dismiss such generic analysis as a “less apposite” formalism. She makes a valuable point, that what strikes most readers about the poem is the intense subjectivity of Aurora's narrative, both before and after the turning point in Book V. It is not as if the poem suddenly shifts narrative point of view in any overt way. But it would be fallacious to suggest that the change in narrative mode is simply a technical discontinuity when it involves such a radical loss of retrospective awareness on the part of the narrator.

If readers are not consciously aware of a shift in narrative point of view around Book V, they may nonetheless sense a change in the poem and in the attitude of the narrator to herself as well as to her own story; readers may not notice that Aurora has given up her omniscient view of the plot, and that the narrative has become more “novelistic” in Bakhtinian terms by being brought more closely into contact with the indeterminate and unpredictable present (Aurora herself no longer knows what is about to happen), but that does not mean that these effects are not present. I would argue in fact that one of the great achievements of Aurora Leigh is its incorporation of multiple perspectives within the character of its protagonist, and that such a combination of poetic passion with other psychological and emotional imperatives, none of which are finally subordinated to the others, is made possible by the generic qualities of the verse-novel form itself.

Rather than attempting to account for all of her poetry, or her full significance in the tradition of women's writing, this essay will explore Barrett Browning's contribution to a significant genre in Victorian poetry, the verse-novel. Aurora Leigh's novelistic qualities lend themselves to a Bakhtinian reading, drawing on the concepts of novelization and dialogism to illuminate its place in an important movement in Victorian poetry and poetics. If Barrett Browning was not the first among Victorian poets to experiment with form and genre in ways that may be described as novelistic, she was certainly in the vanguard. Placing the poem in the context of nineteenth-century literary history by discussing its significance as one of those generically interesting texts that reflects the novelization of Victorian poetry does not entail ignoring its importance in the history of Victorian women's writing, or indeed of women's poetry in English. On the contrary, it could be argued that the novelization of English poetry and the shifting fortunes of literary genres (both within the category of poetry, and between it and the novel, for instance) contributed significantly to the growing public recognition of women writers in Victorian England.

In her chapter on women's poetry called “A Music of Thine Own” Isobel Armstrong remarks:

It is probably no exaggeration to say that an account of women's writing as occupying a particular sphere of influence, and as working inside defined moral and religious conventions, helped to make women's poetry and the “poetess” … respected in the nineteenth century as they never have been since.6

This respect, however, was underpinned by chivalry, and severely curtailed by the doctrine of separate spheres. Margaret Reynolds, discussing the popularity early in the century of publications such as Annuals and Keepsakes which provided a professional sphere of activity for women writers, suggests indirectly that the growth of a leisured middle-class female readership and improvements in women's education throughout the century contributed to the “boom” that led to anthologies of women's poetry appearing from 1848 on.7 Her comments on Barrett Browning's mixed feelings about these annuals and anthologies are telling; they may have provided experience, income and outlets for women poets in a male-dominated literary marketplace, but they also “seemed to promote a small, trivialized style of poetry in which women were presumed to specialize” (xxx). Aurora Leigh, an epic poem in nine books, is boldly antithetical to any concept of the woman's poem as a little lyric of pathos and sentiment, and Aurora shakes herself more than once out of what she feels to be sentimental weakness. By the end of the poem feeling and emotion have been reinstated as valid poetic material, but the struggle against conventional femininity, in both personal and poetic matters, is part of the poet's struggle to find her proper voice.

Even if women poets were not directly empowered by the rise of the novel, a genre in which women had achieved more respect and recognition throughout the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, Barrett Browning's use of the generically hybrid verse-novel may have appealed to a more mixed readership than could be captured by many Victorian women poets. Indeed Dorothy Mermin has argued that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, literally, first among the Victorian poets—that is, the first of the generation of English poets to succeed the Romantic poets and to attempt a post-Romantic reconstruction of poetry. She was also a pioneering woman writer in a century that saw the increasing acceptance of women writers, thanks in part to Barrett Browning herself. Acceptance is no guarantee of equality, however, and the equivocal status granted the woman poet in public life was only part of the problem of being a woman and a poet, as many feminist discussions of Barrett Browning and her work have amply demonstrated.

In a century as self-consciously transitional as the nineteenth, it is appropriate that Barrett Browning's poetry should reflect a desire for reform along poetic lines, as well as a concern with aspects of social and political reform. Although more conservative in her attitudes to women and the poor (as classes rather than individuals) than most feminist and/or left-wing critics would like her to have been, her poetry does reflect a strong desire to embrace contemporary life and engage with it in a way that more conservative, traditional poetic theorists such as Matthew Arnold (in his essays, if not in his own practice) rejected. Part of the contemporaneity of her work, of course, consists in its adaptation of topics and techniques from fiction. Such cross-generic writing shows a sense of evolution, responding to the emergence of the novel as a dominant genre rather than harking back to the classical stasis and decorum of Arnold's strictures on poetics in his 1853 Preface and elsewhere.8

Aurora Leigh is directly indebted to several novels (including Madame de Staël's Corinne and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre), engaging in dialogue with them as well as with long poems, notably Wordsworth's The Prelude, and other verse-novels, notably Clough's Bothie. As a story about a writer who needs both to develop her craft and to learn to live as a mature, emotionally fulfilled human being, Aurora Leigh may remind us of David Copperfield (see Alison Case's comparison). Spoken from a retrospective narrative point of view that shifts about halfway to a more journal-like form in which events are told with an almost present-tense immediacy and the writer becomes manifestly unreliable, it may even remind us of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (with its use of Marian's journal and other narratives set within the framing narration of Walter Hartright). In both central theme and narrative structure, as well as in those incidents of plot, character and setting that invite comparison with many other texts, Aurora Leigh asks to be considered among works of Victorian fiction perhaps more than poetry. Or is this a reflection of the fact that Victorian fiction is now remembered so much better than Victorian poetry that, with the exception of those well versed in Victorian poetry by both men and women, most readers have lost much of the intertextuality of the work?

Reflecting on the “rise of the novel”, Bakhtin wrote in the 1930s:

The novel has become the leading hero in the drama of literary development in our time precisely because it best of all reflects the tendencies of a new world still in the making. … In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness.9

Bakhtin argues for the “novelization” of poetry (and other genres) in those eras when the novel becomes the dominant genre, a tendency which can be identified in the adoption by many poets, both male and female, of the verse-novel and dramatic monologue forms in the Victorian period. Indeed Armstrong has suggested that the dramatic monologue form was developed by women poets such as Felicia Hemans, L. E. L., Augusta Webster and Amy Levy as a form of masking, allowing double readings of poems that appear limpidly lyrical but may be read in different ways.10

Bakhtin's definition of the novel is flexible enough to include verse-novels such as Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, or Byron's Childe Harold. Indeed it is important to recognize that Bakhtin did regard such texts as novelistic, since he would otherwise seem to have regarded poetry as inherently monologic.11 In the spirit rather than the not-always-consistent letter of his theoretical essays, it is apparent that it is in the very nature of novelization that generic boundaries should be unstable, and that poetry, along with any other form of written expression, should be open to change and infiltration. In his analysis of dialogism and novelization, Bakhtin insists upon the evolving nature of the novel itself, which he describes as an “ever-developing genre”. In “Epic and Novel” he says that “the novel is the sole genre that continues to develop, that is as yet uncompleted” (3), adding, “the novel, after all, has no canon of its own. It is, by its very nature, not canonic. It is plasticity itself. It is a genre that is ever questing, ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review” (39).

Actual specimens of what is conventionally referred to as “the novel” may therefore be more or less “novelistic” according to the degree to which they reflect a spirit of defiance of the authority of genre and to generic expectations. Similarly long narrative poems, such as Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, Browning's The Ring and the Book, Clough's Bothie, or even Meredith's Modern Love, may be more or less novelistic according to the same criterion. Put the other way around, part of their flouting of generic conventions in the nineteenth century consists in their extending the scope of poetry to include subject matter and narrative or descriptive techniques usually associated with the novel. In 1833, for instance, J. S. Mill proposed that “all poetry is of the nature of soliloquy”, overheard, rather than addressed to a listener or audience:

The truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly: the truth of fiction is to give a true picture of life. … Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found there one highly delicate, and sensitive, and refined specimen of human nature.12

Such a view of the poet's role and of the value of subjectivity in poetry was shared by many other Victorians. Mill's assertion of the poet's sublime ignorance of life is unnervingly literally applicable to Barrett Browning's early years as a poet, except that she would add that what she knew and wrote about had come from reading, not just from observation of herself: “