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Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, she examines the influences that affected Browning's themes about women in Aurora Leigh and the allusions in the poem that indicate these influences.

In 1822, when Elizabeth Barrett was only sixteen, she started an essay, under the original title of "An Essay on Women," that she never finished but whose subject matter found its way into many of her other works. Thus, it is apparent that women's issues were a lifelong cause for Browning that culminated in the publication of Aurora Leigh, a story about the woman as an artist. In the unfinished teenage essay, Browning argues that women's poetry was being suppressed by the dominance of poetic forms and subject matter that were male oriented. Consequently, Aurora Leigh is an experiment in a new poetic form, the verse novel, and has as its subject matter those things that were issues of the day for Victorian women.

One of Browning's closest friends was the poet Alfred Tennyson. His 1846 long, blank-verse poem The Princess addressed the role of women, but his story was a fantasy. While Browning was disappointed by the manner of presentation of the ideas, Kerry McSweeney points out, in her introduction to a 1993 edition of Aurora Leigh, that Browning "could hardly have failed to notice that The Princess explores the relation of sexual love, marriage, and the nurturing of children to the intellectual and vocational aspirations of nineteenth-century women." Perhaps his example helped inspire Browning to explore these same topics in a work of her own.

Role models were scarce for Browning, who once complained in a letter, "I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none." However, there were a few women writers to whom she could look for example. She highly regarded the poetry of Joanna Baillie (1762–1851) and gleaned ideas about the special gifts and problems of female poets from two significant poets of the next generation, Felicia Hemans (1793–1835) and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–1838). In terms of writing a novel, Browning found help in many contemporary works, such as Madame de Stael's Corinne (1807), which portrays a modern woman. Aurora borrows much from the story of Corinne, who had an Italian mother and an English father, lives in Italy as a child, is taken to England when orphaned, is raised to follow social conventions but decides to be an artist, and returns to Italy to pine for a man who has married someone else. George Sand's novels were favorites of Browning's. Sand's Consuelo was a female odyssey in which the main character insists on liberty as an artist. Browning did not like the novels of Jane Austen, but she did admire Charlotte Brontë and possibly patterned Romney after the hero in Villette and after Rochester in Jane Eyre, who is blind at the end of the novel.

Besides these literary influences, Browning was, of course, aware of the attitudes about women in her day, and she was involved in discussions about changes in the social, political, and economic positions of women. Consequently, Aurora Leigh is filled with allusions to the attitudes about and the problems for women of her culture. For example, Aurora says that her father, she knows, loved her, "but still with heavier brains, / And wills more consciously responsible, / And not as wisely, since less foolishly." The "heavier brains" phrase alludes to anatomy studies that noticed that men tend to have brains that weigh more than women's. This fact is not surprising, given the relative difference in average body weight. The difference was taken...

(This entire section contains 1651 words.)

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to mean, however, that the male possessed a higher intellect than the female.

Aurora describes her Aunt Marjory, saying, "She had 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." The reference is to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in which she describes women as a feathered race confined in cages with nothing to do but to plume themselves. The image of the caged bird is a distinctly female metaphor in literature of the nineteenth century. In describing the type of instruction that her aunt provided, Aurora says that she read books on womanhood that portrayed English women to be "models to the universe," "comprehending husband's talk / When not too deep," but who otherwise "keep quiet by the fire," "their angelic reach / Of virtue chiefly used to sit and darn." Numerous books on moral and practical advice for women were published in the 1830s and 1840s, particularly those of Sarah Stickney Ellis, whose twelve editions of didactic instructions created, Browning says, "model-women of the most abominable virtue."

In the Second Book, when Romney says, "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," he is being used to parody the condescending reviews that Browning's poetry sometimes received from male critics. Later, Romney says that he "took / The woman to be nobler than the man," expressing a common Victorian supposition that in a woman was placed an elevated sense of moral and spiritual values. Conveniently, this belief fed into the double standard that men could misbehave and be excused because they were men but that misbehavior in a woman was reprehensible.

Aurora herself repeats one of the platitudes of sexual difference that was commonly accepted as truth in her times. In the Fifth Book she says, "We women are too apt to look to one," that is, the notion that a woman could be inspired only by the personal and the sentimental. This concept appears also in Aurora's argument with Romney in the Second Book, reappears in the Sixth Book, and is discussed again in her revised debate with Romney in the Eighth and Ninth Books. In addition, love was assumed to be a woman's whole concern, but just a part of a man's life. Browning refers to this belief in Vince Carrington's letter to Aurora, announcing his intent to marry Kate Ward, when he says, "Most women . . . counting love Life's only serious business." These notions added fuel to the opinion that female poets could write only about sentimental and domestic matters, whereas men wrote about loftier aims. Browning has Lady Waldemar express this criticism in her letter in the Ninth Book when she says, "A woman who does better than to love, / I hate; she will do nothing very well: / Male poets are preferable, straining less / And teaching more."

While the whole verse novel is concerned with the position of a woman as a professional, it is not until the Fifth Book that Browning actually uses the phrase "the Woman's question." This public debate involved the issues of employment, education, property rights, voting, and equality in marriage, all of which were supported by Browning. A specific instance is alluded to in the Third Book with the lines "As ready for outrageous ends and acts / As any distressed sempstress." One of the few occupations open to Victorian women was that of a seamstress, yet they were so poorly paid and work was so scarce because of the overabundance of women in the trade that many seamstresses turned to prostitution as an income supplement. The situation was so common that just being a seamstress called one's virtue into question. An example of the desperation of women is given in the character of Rose Bell, Marian's sweet childhood friend who becomes a prostitute. In another reference to the problem of prostitution, in the Eighth Book, Browning mentions the huge numbers of women engaged in the illicit profession in London: "With eighty thousand women in one smile, / Who only smile at night beneath the gas."

Prostitutes often committed suicide because of their situation, however. Since they worked the docks, it was convenient for them to jump to their deaths in the river, be it the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. Browning refers to this practice in the Seventh Book when Marian says, "I might sleep well beneath the heavy Seine, / Like others of my sort." Since decent people were not supposed to talk about prostitutes, Browning was highly criticized for making this occupation such a prominent topic in Aurora Leigh. Browning even dared to include in Marian's story references to "the stews," which were brothels, and to "the poor street-walker."

Another common expression referred to the "charming woman," as referenced in the Fifth Book. This type of woman was the kind that men did not want to marry because she had too strong a personality, was political, and was perhaps even forward in her speech and actions. Victorian sensibilities were such that the line in the Fifth Book "catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age" was shocking. This juxtaposition of images of lava and a woman's breast in the same simile was too radical for the critics, but it was just the type of writing that Browning wanted to introduce into literature.

Browning intended for Aurora Leigh to be bold and shocking. As Margaret Reynolds notes in her preface to the 1996 Norton edition of Aurora Leigh, what appeals to the modern reader is that Aurora "is bold, she is brave, she is independent and liberated and, above all, she gets everything she wants in the end." Reynolds added that Aurora Leigh spoke to the anxieties of the nineteenth-century woman concerning the "exclusions and prohibitions that hedged about their aspirations" and "said things would be all right." Venturing into the forbidden territory of those subjects debated in the "Woman's question" was a way for Browning to challenge society through poetry and, in the process, to defend the claims for women's poetry. The book had a big impact when it was published, and it is worthy of study yet today.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Aurora Leigh, in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.


Critical Overview