Historical Context

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Victorian Poetry

The Romantic movement was dominated by poets, but the Victorian age is better known for its novels. Still, poetry was an important and popular form of literature for the educated public, and some of England's best-known poets come from this time period. Browning's reputation was growing as a poet in the 1830s, while that of her friend Alfred Tennyson was being established as that of the greatest poet of the era. A successor to Keats and Shelley, Tennyson at first lent his remarkable lyric talent to highly subjective verse. Then he turned to the public issues of the day and introduced two new poetic techniques. One is that of the dramatic monologue, also developed by Robert Browning, and the other is the English idyll, which combines glimpses of the contemporary scene with a casual debate. Later in his career, Tennyson built long poems out of short ones, such as In Memoriam, an elegy that is shaped by 133 individual lyrics. Tennyson was named poet laureate of England in 1850. Robert Browning contrasted Tennyson's style with more stark and colloquial poetry. Browning's dramatic monologues engage the reader in the thought process of an unconventional character and require active participation in the sense of personal discovery and morality. Another notable Victorian poet is Matthew Arnold, whose lyric talent blended with the dark philosophical attitude of the times. Arnold, too, experimented with a process he called "the dialogue of the mind with itself." Later in his career, however, he became better known for his literary criticism.

Nineteenth-Century Feminism

The "woman question" was an important topic of debate in Victorian England. Gender inequality in politics meant that women could not vote or hold office. Women's suffrage was advocated already in the 1840s but did not become law until 1918. Economically, married women had to give control of their property to their husbands until the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870—1908. The first college for women was not established until 1848, but by the end of the Victorian era, women could get degrees at twelve colleges, though not at Oxford or Cambridge. The Industrial Revolution brought thousands of lower-class women to the cities for factory jobs and showed the need for a changed attitude about women's work. Unfortunately, when reform of working conditions for poor women finally came, the argument was not for equality but that women were too frail to withstand the sixteen-hour day and other hardships. In the meantime, the reaction of Victorian society was to put further emphasis on the importance of the woman's role in the home.

An immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House, published in 1856, stressed the value of a woman's purity and selflessness. Women's enshrinement in the home became an entombment for many. Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, and others complained that middle-class and upper-class women were taught such trivial skills that they had almost nothing important to do. Aurora Leigh pointed out the constriction placed on the female mind by the traditional education in homemaking. The only respectable employment was that of a governess, until utter boredom and the example of successful novelists like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and George Sand provoked women to rebel in the late Victorian period and demand a wider variety of opportunities.

Literary Style

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Kunstlerroman

This specialized form of the bildungsroman, a novel form that addresses psychological and moral growth, concerns itself with the development of a writer or other artist. In this case, the protagonist reaches maturity upon achieving mastery of his or her craft. Thus, graduating from apprenticeship not only ends the formative stage of life but also establishes the...

(This entire section contains 740 words.)

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destiny that the hero has sought. Marcel Proust'sRemembrance of Things Past, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus are examples of this subtype. The most likely influence on Browning's choice to write a kunstlerroman was the poet William Wordsworth's lengthy autobiographical poem The Prelude, published in 1850. The story lines and themes are very similar, including criticism of radical social reform and the conclusion that poetry can be a force for goodness in the lives of individuals. However, Wordsworth's hero worries that he feels too much, whereas Aurora recognizes a need for human love.

The Female Bildungsroman

When the protagonist of a bildungsroman is a female, the genre takes on an extra dimension. The protagonist encounters not only the usual problems of growing up but also the unique problems of growing up female in a male-dominated world. As a woman trying to make it as a professional, Aurora encounters these problems head on. Early examples of the female bildungsroman followed the traditional expectation that a woman would see marriage as her fulfillment upon reaching maturity. In a sense, that is true of Aurora, but Brown-ing's conclusion is more like later novels that portrayed women as accepting marriage not just for social advancement or exposure to the world but also as the culmination of the mutual growth that occurs in a loving relationship. While a male protagonist in a bildungsroman might meet his pivotal crisis in the course of his professional career, the female protagonist's turning point traditionally results from a romantic entanglement. Her voyage of discovery is much more internal, or psychological, than that of her male counterpart, who has more opportunities for interaction with the public world. Although Aurora does not lack for involvement in the public world, it is true that her conflict is more psychological and internal than just professional.

Blank Verse

Blank verse is poetry written in an unrhymed meter, particularly iambic pentameter, which is a line of poetry containing five accented syllables and ten syllables in all; the result is poetry that has the sound of the natural rhythms of English speech. Blank verse should be read in sentences; line breaks are determined by the meter, so the narrative has a strong pull from line to line. Blank verse originated in Italy in the sixteenth century and became very popular in Renaissance literature, because it sounded like classical poetry. It became the standard in poetic drama for such writers as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. John Milton used blank verse for Paradise Lost in 1667. In the next century, blank verse was used for a number of important works by Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. It was a natural choice, then, for Browning to write Aurora Leigh in blank verse, since it was the medium for many admired long works and the best fit for the innovation of the verse novel. In the twentieth century, the use of blank verse was continued by poets of the caliber of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens.

Allusions

One of the most frequently used literary devices in Aurora Leigh is the allusion. As a reference to a person or event outside the story, the allusion serves as a shortcut to a connection with the reader's knowledge base. The point is to avoid lengthy explanations of an idea. However, for the modern reader, the abundance of allusions to classical literature and the Bible in Aurora Leigh are more of a hindrance than a help. Browning was an expert in mythology and a devout reader of the Bible; therefore, it was natural for her to include this knowledge in her writings. However, her familiarity with ancient Greek and Roman literature is so much more extensive than the average reader's that her allusions become obscure and make the reading more difficult. Footnoted editions of Aurora Leigh often devote half of a page just to explaining the multitude of allusions in the text. Nonetheless, the allusions in Aurora Leigh bring a richness to the work that is an education in itself.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1856: For the first time, during the Crimean War, the government allows women to provide nursing services in combat. Florence Nightingale and thirty-eight other women care for sick and wounded soldiers and promote sanitary practices and record keeping in hospitals and in the field. Nightingale made nursing a respectable profession and opened up a new employment avenue for women.

    Today: Almost all modern nursing systems and techniques can be traced back to Florence Nightingale. Her promotion of data and statistical evidence has led to the use of patient medical histories, calculation of mortality rates, and an organized method of medical and surgical education. While nursing is no longer a job solely for women, the role of women in medicine has expanded enormously because of their entry into nursing.

  • 1856: The synthetic dye industry begins when an eighteen-year-old chemistry student, William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovers purplish mauveine while working with aniline and quinine. The next year, he and his father open the first synthetic dye factory.

    Today: Natural dyes have been almost completely phased out, as more than seven thousand different color-providing substances have been found for commercial use. Synthetic dyes are no longer used just for textiles but also in paints, inks, plastics, rubber, and cosmetics.

  • 1856: The Steinway Piano Company, founded in 1853 in New York City, builds its first grand piano and will obtain the first patent for a concert grand in 1875.

    Today: Making more than five thousand pianos each year, Steinway is a highly prestigious brand name and the instrument of choice for most of the world's concert pianists.

  • 1856: During the Crimean War, Henry Bessemer invents a more powerful artillery shell, but the cast-iron cannons are not strong enough to deal with it, so Bessemer then develops an improved iron-smelting process capable of producing large quantities of ingots of superior quality that can be used for making cannons.

    Today: The Bessemer steelmaking process that is still used is an extension and refinement of the one developed in 1856 and is the dominant steel-manufacturing technology for mass-producing steel inexpensively.

Media Adaptations

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  • Aurora Leigh: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism (1994) is available on audiocassette, edited by Margaret Reynolds and produced by HarperCollins Publishers.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Arnold, Matthew, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867, Oxford University Press, 1913, p. 1.

Aytoun, William Edmondstoune, "Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 81, No. 495, January 1857, pp. 23–41.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, Aurora Leigh, edited by Margaret Reynolds, W. W. Norton, 1996, pp. 7, 10, 14, 18–19, 46, 51, 86, 143, 150, 162, 174, 218, 232, 265, 289.

Chorley, Henry Fothergill, Review of Aurora Leigh, in Athenaeum, No. 1517, November 22, 1856, pp. 1425–27.

Hickok, Kathleen K., "New, Yet Orthodox: Female Characters in Aurora Leigh," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 5, September/October 1980, pp. 479–89.

Maxwell, Catherine, "Aurora Leigh," in Review of English Studies, Vol. 45, No. 180, November 1994, pp. 586–87.

McSweeney, Kerry, ed., "Introduction," in Aurora Leigh, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. xvi.

Mermin, Dorothy, "Genre and Gender in Aurora Leigh," in Victorian Newsletter, No. 69, Spring 1986, pp. 7–11.

Oliphant, Mrs., "Of the Greater Victorian Poets," in The Victorian Age of English Literature, Vol. 1, Lovell, Coryell, 1982, pp. 203–46.

Roscoe, W. C., "Aurora Leigh," in National Review, Vol. 4, No. 8, April 1857, pp. 239–67.

Further Reading

Bristow, Joseph, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Containing a detailed chronology of the period, this book provides a good overview of the poets of the period, their culture and interests, and the critical interpretations they have received over the years.

Bloom, Harold, ed., Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002.

Bloom's book is a collection of expert modern criticism concerning the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with a helpful introduction and bibliography.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 2000.

This groundbreaking book of feminist criticism is an important study of women writers in the Victorian era that provides a different perspective for critiquing these authors and their messages and motivations.

Leighton, Angela, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Indiana University Press, 1986.

This book assesses all the recurring themes of Brown-ing's life and works in light of feminist theory, particularly the poet's relationship with her father and family and the difficulty a woman poet has in dispossessing herself from her masters and her own past.

Radley, Virginia, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Twayne Publishers, 1972.

One of the best known of Browning's biographies, this book actually presents only a short life history, followed by a series of analyses of her works in chronological order. Radley provides extensive notes and a bibliography.

Stone, Marjorie, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

An authority on Victorian and gender studies, Stone applies gender and genre ideologies to the works of Browning and reestablishes their value and impact for the modern reader.

Stott, Rebecca, and Simon Avery, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Longman, 2003.

Not just a biographical survey, this book also contains criticism of the poet's works and comments on her influence in literature. Myths are dispelled about her reclusiveness, and her intellect and innovations are emphasized.

Bibliography

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Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Feminist reading with emphasis on discussing Barrett Browning’s solution to the contemporary conflict between “woman” and “poet.” Clarifies maternal imagery in the poem.

Kaplan, Cora. Introduction to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. London: Women’s Press, 1978. Provides an excellent starting point for comprehending the scope of the poem. The editor’s comments are often cited to support other readings of the poem. Good notes and a bibliography of critical material available at the time.

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A useful reading of Aurora Leigh as feminist poem, especially in its defiance of patriarchal dominance of women and poetry.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A biographical study emphasizing the female in Aurora Leigh, its position as a novel, maternal images, and its heroine’s defiance of traditional attitudes toward women. Includes an excellent, comprehensive bibliography.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Focuses on the influence of Mme de Stael, George Sand, and Elizabeth Gaskell on Barrett Browning and her influence on later writers, especially Emily Dickinson. Moers suggests that Dickinson’s poems be read in concert with Aurora Leigh. Cites epic features and establishes it as “the feminist poem.”

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