Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Woman as Artist
Browning was committed to writing as a woman, so her main character in Aurora Leigh has the same intensity of purpose. Furthermore, the emphasis is on the right of a woman to work as an artist. Aurora rejects Romney's proposal because he sees her role in marriage as a partner in his work, with no room for a career of her own. Romney also belittles Aurora's work as unimportant compared with his endeavors, so Browning makes sure that Romney fails in his socialist endeavors while Aurora succeeds as a writer and communicator. Thus, the reader is left with the impression that perhaps a poet can indeed have more influence than philanthropist reformers on changes in society.
It is important to the message of the story that Aurora is successful as a poet. In Victorian times, Browning and other female writers complained about the gender prejudice evidenced by critics. They wanted to be judged as authors, not as women. They did not want their works to be dismissed out of hand just for being written by a woman. To avoid the problem, a number of female authors used male pseudonyms, for example, Mary Ann Evans writing under the name of George Eliot. Browning refused to resort to this tactic to get an impartial reading. Instead, she insisted, through her own perseverance as a writer and through the character of Aurora Leigh, that women could and should be accepted, even successful, as poets.
The Proper Subject Matter of Poetry
In the mid-eighteenth century, literary debate often focused on the proper subject matter for poetry. Intrinsic to this debate was the relationship of poetry to current affairs. While some writers called for a poetic representation of the times, others, such as the noted critic and poet Matthew Arnold, declared that contemporary concerns were unsuitable for poetry. It was thought that poetry should concern itself only with lofty ideals and representations of pastoral beauty and love. Browning came down decidedly on the side of those who believed that current affairs were appropriate to poetry. Aurora Leigh is her most notable effort that takes this position, since it discusses issues of importance to Victorian society, such as the "woman question," the problems of prostitution and poverty, and the value of socialist reform.
Love or Art
The moral to the story of Aurora Leigh is that without love the rewards of fame and success are insufficient. The entire story line is a journey for Aurora and Romney to this conclusion. Romney learns that he cannot save the world by himself; further, he will do better in his work if he first gets his own life right and has love to support him. Aurora realizes that she, too, should have based her life on love and that she would have been an even better poet because of it. As partners, fortified by the strength and confidence that comes with love, Aurora and Romney have a fulfilling and fruitful future ahead of them.
The Fallen Woman
Victorians placed so much value on purity and virtue for women that a failure to adhere to these ideals received severe disapproval. Scandal could result from just a hint of impropriety. Hypocritically, at the same time that Victorians preached about the sanctity of marriage and the home, prostitution became a major social problem. Part of the cause for this situation was the lack of good employment opportunities. There was a surplus of women in the population, leaving many women unmarried but without jobs to occupy and support them. What jobs were available involved such poor working conditions that some women preferred prostitution to the harsh life in the mines and factories. Browning addresses this situation in Aurora Leigh, not only through what Aurora says but also through the characters of Rose Bell and Marian Erle. Rose's story was a brief one told by Marian about a delightful, motherless little girl she knew who could not escape her poverty and grew up to be a prostitute. This sad story set up the later events that happened to Marian. Even though Marian was virtuous, she became the victim of circumstances. Although she did not become a prostitute, she did become an unwed mother. Such a woman would have been ostracized by Victorian society, and Browning wanted to show how unjust that judgment could be. Consequently, Browning makes Marian as good and noble as she could be, to evoke sympathy from the readers and persuade them to consider a kinder, more understanding approach to women placed in compromised positions.