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.
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.
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.