[This essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is a multi-part series which includes Jessica Schneider’s essay on the same topic, as well as a three-hour video conversation with the authors, which can be found here.]
‘What is art,
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life,—and where we live, we suffer and toil.’
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book IV
Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.
So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration?
I’d say NO: not, at least, for anyone undertaking a good-faith exploration of the book, unhindered by scholarly biases that force a reader’s estimation toward certain prefigured conclusions. Aurora Leigh is an excellent, arguably great, book; and while on the surface it might come across as dated, so much of its inner technique is perfectly modern and acquits itself quite well when held alongside the other majors works of the period, in any genre.
Plus, it’s just a flat-out entertaining story, for the most part. While its general plot contour resembles other lesser entries in the medium and milieu – leading some scholars to dismiss the book as mere “melodrama” – it escapes such derogatory attacks through sheer sophistication, on both the level of verse and character. I mean, can you tell me with a straight face if Jane Austen or the Brontës were capable of an opening like this:
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I, who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ use, 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.
Granted, none of the aforementioned writers were poets. So (lest I am accused of pitting female artists against each other) let’s examine another novel-in-verse of the period, Lucile by Owen Meredith (Robert Bulwer-Lytton), to see Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work in action against its nearest rivals:
Now in May fair, of course – in the fair month of May –
When life is abundant, and busy, and gay;
When the markets of London are noisy about
Young ladies, and strawberries, – “only just out;”
Fresh strawberries sold under all the house-eaves,
And young Ladies on sale for the strawberry-leaves:
When cards, invitations, and three-cornered-notes
Fly about like white butterflies – gay little motes
In the sunbeam of Fashion; and even Blue Books
Take a heavy-wing’d flight, and grow busy as rooks…
Compared to the skillful compression of Browning’s opening, this sounds more like a nursery-rhyme than anything else.
Even Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (published a decade or so later) comes across as bloated (if not childish, as in Meredith’s case), clogged with over-description, whereas Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems to condense so much of the book’s pathos, its themes of writing, loss, love, possession and memory-pang, in a mere eight lines.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. On to the book, its structure, and how it succeeds as both novel and verse.
The work is divided into Nine Books. They chart the progression of one Aurora Leigh, the daughter of a disgraced English landholder and a Florentine mother, as she struggles to reconcile her own views/work as an aspiring poet with the world and all its perceived foibles, as well as reconcile feelings for her cousin Romney Leigh, an impassioned social reformer whose love she spurns in their youth.
Book I details her early childhood in Italy, and how her father cultivated a deep love for love – prizing that emotion above all else – as well as an intense individualism, an outlook that figures heavily into her later disagreements with Romney:
And, seeing we had books among the hills,
Strong words of counselling souls, confederate
With vocal pines and waters,— out of books
He taught me all the ignorance of men,
And how God laughs in heaven when any man
Says, ‘Here, I’m learned; this, I understand;
In that, I am never caught at fault of doubt.’
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.
At thirteen, her father dies, and Aurora is shipped off to England to live in his ancestral home, now stewarded by his sister, a steely matron whom Aurora fears. It’s there that she is schooled traditionally, and she begins to foster a love for books, and poetry in particular. Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes her as a precocious child, and in Aurora’s musings about England (its terrains and character), life in Leigh House and in general, her idealism takes shape, a preoccupation with the nature of things beyond the strictly material, something that will both inspire and dog her in the later sections.
Here is Aurora Leigh describing the role of artists on earth:
I write so
Of the only truth-tellers, now left to God,—
The only speakers of essential truth,
Opposed to relative, comparative,
And temporal truths; the only holders by
His sun-skirts, through conventional grey glooms;
The only teachers who instruct mankind,
From just a shadow on a charnel-wall,
To find man’s veritable stature out,
Erect, sublime,— the measure of a man,
And that’s the measure of an angel, says
The apostle. Ay, and while your common men
Build pyramids, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine,
And dust the flaunty carpets of the world
For kings to walk on, or our senators,
The poet suddenly will catch them up
With his voice like a thunder… ‘This is soul,
This is life, this word is being said in heaven,
Here’s God down on us! what are you about?’
How all those workers start amid their work,
Look round, look up, and feel, a moment’s space,
That carpet-dusting, though a pretty trade,
Is not the imperative labour after all.
Although I would not say that it is the artist’s role to “truth-tell” nor would I totally endorse her prizing of artistic labor (how far off is her phrase of “imperative labour” from contemporary COVID parlance about “essential labor?”) over others, it is apparent how passionate Aurora is about poetry’s power in the world – which brings her into conflict with her cousin, Romney.
Romney is introduced as an intellectual, more passionate about the socioeconomic aspects of life. They engage in long talks/debates around the estate, and while they are both interested in great matters, he condescends to Aurora’s idealistic views (not atypical for a man, in this era) and focuses on the present, and is directly materialistic.
Book II hinges on Romney’s marriage proposal to Aurora. This is sprung upon Aurora suddenly, and she rejects him over what she sees as a future tied down by his. She would much rather have an independent life in pursuit of her artistic ambitions.
So much of the book, in fact, ties into the dichotomy Aurora and Romney represent. In life, does one run after “the higher things” or keep one’s feet on the ground? Is there a world beyond nature worth vying for – indeed, recreating – in one’s poems? Or is poetry mere dalliance, a fretting over daisies and dryads while serious folk concern themselves with policies and almshouses? Romney, here, does not come across very well, although his desire to right the wrong of the world is not without justification. Still, his pessimism overwhelms:
‘The world, we’re come to late, is swollen hard
With perished generations and their sins:
The civilizer’s spade grinds horribly
On dead men’s bones, and cannot turn up soil
That’s otherwise than fetid. All success
Proves partial failure; all advance implies
What’s left behind; all triumph, something crushed
At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong;
And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich,
Who agonise together, rich and poor,
Under and over, in the social spasm
And crisis of the ages…’
Is there any room for poems in this dour perception of reality? Only as distractions, perhaps. As for Aurora Leigh, her idealism cannot be stymied by such grim proceedings:
‘… —And even so,
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.’
From such opposite extremes, is it any wonder that they cannot see eye-to-eye? Well, such is fiery youth, and Aurora commits to nurturing her own brightness rather than be anchored to Romney’s designs.
Later on, her aunt – who is disappointed in Aurora for not accepting her cousin’s proposal, as she will end up inheriting nothing if not wedded to Romney – passes away. After a period of mourning, Romney attempts to win back Aurora’s affections as well as lend her money. Aurora, insulted, refuses both and makes for London to make a living as a poet. Given the nature of popular poetry, this is difficult for a “misfit” like her, thus reiterating some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s views on the arts.
Book III fast-forwards to her already situated in the city, having established somewhat of a reputation for herself. Yet as a woman, she’ll have to work even harder to win acclaim than her male counterparts. But she’s more than game for the challenge, with a healthy verve for description, to boot:
So, happy and unafraid of solitude,
I worked the short days out, —and watched the sun
On lurid morns or monstrous afternoons
Like some Druidic idol’s fiery brass,
With fixed unflickering outline of dead heat,
In which the blood of wretches pent inside
Seemed oozing forth to incarnadine the air, —
Push out through fog with his dilated disk,
And startle the slant roofs and chimney-pots
With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog,
Involve the passive city, strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a spunge
Had wiped out London…
Later, Aurora Leigh admits to artistic compromise, skewers clueless criticism, and grieves that her talents don’t quite match to her ambitions:
I worked with patience, which means almost power.
I did some excellent things indifferently,
Some bad things excellently. Both were praised,
The latter loudest.
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, inorganized to any tune.
What stands out from these lines is Aurora’s utter and unabashed commitment to work that touches and enriches the “soul.” Nowadays (and perhaps even then, if Romney’s chiding counts for anything), such an aim would no doubt be seen as old-fashioned at best, and naïve at worst. But Aurora plows on, unmindful of these concerns, as her father’s instruction, and love for poetry, overrides the meanness of material life.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning hinges much of the book’s plot on the characters Lady Waldemar and Marian Earle. Lady Waldemar is a calculating, condescending and entitled highborn lady who visits Aurora to request her assistance in convincing Romney (whom Aurora has not heard from in years) to call off his upcoming marriage to a lowborn, working-class girl named Marian Earle. Lady Waldemar is infatuated with him and thinks his decision is unbecoming of his stature. It is clear that Lady Waldemar and Aurora Leigh dislike one another, and their butting-heads talk is high-brow cattiness to the max. At this point, she is the sort of stereotypically haughty noblewoman Oscar Wilde would parody later in the century. Physically beautiful and well-spoken, but with a caustic personality. Her almost pathological view of love rubs Aurora the wrong way, and she rebuffs Lady Waldemar’s request to drive Marian away from Romney, only to visit Marian a couple hours later, and the relating of her tale segues neatly into Book IV.
If Aurora is the soul of her eponymous verse-novel, then Marian is its body – tormented, belaboured and incapable (at first) of transcendence. Marian Earle (her name is a play on words, “marry an earl,” relating to the class divide between her and Romney), unlike Aurora and Lady Waldemar, is almost totally devoid of prospects, having come from a broken family in which her mother, physically abused by her husband, abused Marian in turn, and would have sold her into sex slavery if she had not escaped and found refuge in a hospital, where she met Romney – who seems to obsess over those lower than him.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning ensures that Marian’s tale is depressing, and exacerbated by the child-like simplicity of her nature. She possesses some instinct for a world beyond the greyness of her surroundings, but unarmed with the same education and privilege as Aurora, can only grasp at its articulation. Indeed, her own story is ventriloquized through Aurora, who almost certainly grants it a verbal sophistication Marian lacks. The roughness of her upbringing clues the reader into how her resultant self-conception became what it is:
…Father, mother, home,
Were God and heaven reversed to her: the more
She knew of Right, the more she guessed their wrong;
Her price paid down for knowledge, was to know
The vileness of her kindred: through her heart,
Her filial and tormented heart, henceforth,
They struck their blows at virtue. Oh, ‘tis hard
To learn you have a father up in heaven
By a gathering certain sense of being, on earth,
Still worse than orphaned: ‘tis too heavy a grief
The having to thank God for such a joy!
With a childhood like that, it comes as no shock that she later says, about her relationship with Romney:
‘I know I am not worthy—nay, in truth,
I’m glad on’t, since, for that, he chooses me.
He likes the poor things of the world the best;
I would not therefore, if I could, be rich.
It pleasures him to stoop for buttercups;
I would not be a rose upon the wall
A queen might stop at, near the palace-door,
To say to a courtier ‘Pluck that rose up for me,
‘It’s prettier than the rest.’ O Romney Leigh!
I’d rather far be trodden by his foot,
Than lie in a great queen’s bosom.’
Marian seems less to love Aurora’s cousin than to worship him. Indeed, examine Romney’s wording of his proposal to Marian, and try to convince yourself that this is not some god laying down a covenant with his loyal acolyte:
‘Marian, I being born
What men call noble, and you, issued from
The noble people,—though the tyrannous sword,
Which pierced Christ’s heart, has cleft the world in twain
‘Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor,—
Shall we keep parted? Not so. Let us lean
And strain together rather, each to each,
Compress the red lips of this gaping wound,
As far as two souls can,—ay, lean and league,
I, from my superabundance,—from your want,
You,—joining in a protest ‘gainst the wrong
On both sides!’
Not exactly Romeo soliloquizing, is it? Then Romney himself arrives, and the two resume their bickering, as the years apart, and differing experiences, have only exacerbated their disparate views. However, they remain civil, and in their conversations Aurora Leigh senses a strong connection between them, still, which disallows any deeper enmity from rooting. The book ends with the appointed marriage hour arriving, but, to everyone’s shock, Marian never shows up at the altar, crushing Romney and enraging the general public to a frenzy. Her shame over her social standing and unfitness for one such as him is the excuse, in a letter handed to Romney at the altar. Afterwards, the cousins reconcile, somewhat, in his grief – with Marian’s whereabouts unknown.
Book V is, in many ways, the heart of the book, located in its exact center, and contains much of Aurora Leigh’s best, most impactful writing. Elizabeth Barrett Browning lets Aurora philosophize over art, womanhood, women in art, and the need for the poet to write of her current age – to glorify the present with her skill rather than hearken back to bygone eras in a vain effort to recapture bygone gold:
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
Oh not to sing of lizards or of toads
Alive i’ the ditch there,—‘twere excusable;
But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
As dead must be, for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones;
And that’s no wonder: death inherits death.
This reminds me of James Emanuel’s great “Sonnet for a Writer” where he declaims the power of the poet who harvests quality out of himself rather than merely repeating the achievements of prior poets. But Aurora’s (and Browning’s) argument, here, differs slightly in that she declaims the potential (however doubtful) in great writing about contemporary matters – or, specifically, the possibility of the epic in the ordinary. One need not mimic Homer, after all, by blinding oneself to one’s surrounds, or don a toga and laurels to match Virgil line-by-line. It was fashionable in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s day to dismiss such attempts as coarse, or low-brow, and surely many were half-baked – but she’s exactly right in that poetic quality is not determined (solely) by past prestige. The artist’s role is to create, not to echo!
And Aurora’s claim that the artist’s “sole work is to represent the age” isn’t without truth, even if the claim itself comes with baggage. Don’t some of the best writers seem to envelop their milieu – indeed, seem to represent it entirely, in posterity’s view? Aeschylus for the Greeks; Shakespeare for Elizabethan England; Whitman, Twain and Melville for 19th century America, etc.? Now, great poetry is great poetry, regardless of “setting,” and it is still entirely possible to create a worthy work with a bygone era as reference. But Elizabeth Barrett Browning debunks the idea that such is the only way to transcend.
Aurora Leigh even subordinates the concern for form, in poetry, to “spirit,” which I read as one’s creative impulse unweighted by fretting over meter and the like:
What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
As sovran nature does, to make the form;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit,
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward,—so in life, and so in art,
Which still is life.
How’s that for progressive? This justifies the power of free-verse, even as Whitman had yawped it into being a year before.
Plot-wise, Aurora Leigh is still plowing away at her great work, and has not seen Romney for years. She hears he has turned Leigh Hall into an almshouse, and, at a snooty dinner party full of dilettantes, intellectuals, and socialites, also learns that he is to marry Lady Waldemar. Upset by this news, and already short on finances, she sells some of her father’s old books and leaves London, setting out for Italy to recuperate and reminisce.
Book VI is short, and perhaps the saddest, as it recounts what actually happened to Marian when, in a chance encounter in France (on her way to Italy), Aurora sees Marian – with a child in her arms, to boot. Aurora at first suspects the worst of Marian – a child out of wedlock, or by theft – and tells her as much, but Marian quickly corrects this suspicion. She reveals that Lady Waldemar clandestinely convinced her that Romney did not truly love her, and in secret ferried her off to France accompanied by her personal maid, where she was then abandoned, taken to a brothel, and raped. This experience completely traumatizes Marian, and only by managing to escape and find refuge elsewhere – and, finally, scrape a living out to support her and her child – does she retain her sanity.
Apart from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s wonderful opening where Aurora waxes philosophical about France, this narrative takes up the majority of Books VI, and part of Book VII. Aurora, ashamed by her previous suspicions, vows to take care of Marian and her cherubic son, in Italy. Although she ultimately decides not to inform Romney of his old bride-to-be’s whereabouts, she does write a scathing letter to Lady Waldemar. On their journey to Italy, some of the most beautiful writing in the book resides in Aurora’s descriptions of the changing (dramatically so) landscapes:
I just knew it when we swept
Above the old roofs of Dijon. Lyons dropped
A spark into the night, half trodden out
Unseen. But presently the winding Rhone
Washed out the moonlight large along his banks,
Which strained their yielding curves out clear and clean
To hold it,—shadow of town and castle just blurred
Upon the hurrying river. Such an air
Blew thence upon the forehead,—half an air
And half a water,—that I leaned and looked;
Then, turning back on Marian, smiled to mark
That she looked only on her child, who slept,
His face toward the moon too.
So we passed
The liberal open country and the close,
And shot through tunnels, like a lightning-wedge
By great Thor-hammers driven through the rock,
Which, quivering through the intestine blackness, splits,
And lets it in at once: the train swept in
Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve,
The fierce denouncing whistle wailing on
And dying off smothered in the shuddering dark,
While we, self-awed, drew troubled breath, oppressed
As other Titans, underneath the pile
And nightmare of the mountains…
Aurora, eager to breath Italian air once more, finds that the magic invested in those hills as a child no longer enraptures her as an adult, and is left disappointed, albeit somewhat encouraged by word from a critic-friend of hers, Vincent Carrington, that her manuscript is well-received in England. She thinks of Romney, wanders the Tuscan cityscape, and does not write.
Books VIII and IX are the denouement, and slide rapidly to the work’s conclusion. Years have passed, and Aurora is still the caretaker of Marian and her child, when Romney suddenly appears. At first, Aurora Leigh treats him coldly, but when he reveals that his great social projects have failed (a mob descended upon Leigh Hall and burned it to the ground) and that he has recanted for his previously low judgment of her and her work, now confessing a newfound appreciation for Art and, specifically, her skill in it, she is softened. This is a significant turnaround for Romney, as he has been a stolid social reformer for most of the novel, but his new views are surprising in the light of his old passions:
‘There’s too much abstract willing, purposing,
In this poor world. We talk by aggregates,
And think by systems; and, being used to face
Our evils in statistics, are inclined
To cap them with unreal remedies
Drawn out in haste on the other side the slate.’
This is an echo of Aurora’s father’s perspective in Book I, and neatly rounds out Romney’s evolution to a man more like the figure dearest to Aurora. She dispels with the cold-shoulder-treatment when Romney gives her a letter from Lady Waldemar, transitioning to the final book. It is revealed that Lady Waldemar only meant to remove Marian from the board, so that she could have Romney to herself, not to doom her to rape and isolation. In fact, Aurora’s accusations insult her so much so that the scorn in her letter bewilders Aurora, on top of how the lady seems to blame her for her loveless life with Romney, since he still nurtures a love for the poet. Romney decides to marry Marian, and care for the child as if it were his own, but Marian rejects him – stating, with great self-awareness, that she did not love him truly, but worshipped him, and would only end up as a possession if they were to marry.
There is more bewildered conversation, as Romney and Aurora’s words whirl around each other in anticipation of their fated union. Things intensify when Romney (in another late-tale-revelation) informs Aurora that he is now blind, his eyesight permanently damaged when a beam from the burning Leigh Hall crashed upon his head. Comprehension dawns. Now, each are committed to be the full complement of the other’s worldview, rather than embodiments of incompatible perspectives. The physical cannot move without the animating spirit, and the spirit? In order to move at all, it must have its feet on the ground, so to speak. Thus, Aurora’s idealism and Romney’s materialism harmonize, capturing some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own views on art and life. Having accepted Romney’s love, and her own love for him, Aurora Leigh can write once more, and the story ends with the sparkle of Biblical gems.
“I send you a book and a letter. . . . It is Aurora Leigh, which I think you said you had not read. It is one of those books that, written straight from the heart — and from such a large heart, too — never weary one: because they are sincere. We tire of art but not of nature after all our aesthetic training. I look upon it as much the greatest work in our literature.”
– Oscar Wilde
Unlike Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Browning’s Aurora Leigh was not scorned upon publication. There was praise (Ruskin even called it “the greatest poem of the century”) but as was typical of the period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was pigeonholed due to her gender, and even attacked for supposedly leeching off the works of other female writers like Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell.
A forgotten blowhard writing for The Saturday Review, following the work’s publication, brazenly declared: “The negative experience of centuries seems to prove that a woman cannot be a great poet…Mrs. Browning’s poem is open to criticism in all its three component parts, of fable, manners, and diction.” He goes on to skewer her poetic skills, whining that “an unbroken series of far-fetched metaphors indicates a deliberate exercise of ingenuity which is in itself essentially prosaic.”
But read the material I quoted in the plot overview. Only a fool would miss the eloquence, the utter dynamism, of her writing. Her metaphors might strain, occasionally, and (like most writing of the period) things could get a little flowery, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning ensures that they are never turgid or inert.
In the journey to Italy stanza(s), witness how the landscape itself is animated by her verse. In descriptive writing, there is a tendency to sit and…well, describe, in a passive, inventorial way. If you’re attempting to describe a country landscape, say, then you might simply list the variety of terrains, perhaps their color and contour, events happening upon them, etc. Not that this is always an unwise choice, but it tends to invite staleness and prosaicism. The latter would be fine enough, I suppose, in a work of prose – but Aurora Leigh is a novel-in-verse, and requires poetic alacrity to lift the words out from the sequential rhythm of the novel. In Aurora Leigh, metaphors are always in motion, the descriptions inherently dramatic, and remain fresh to this day.
The major characters are all fleshed-out, even someone as directly antagonistic as Lady Waldemar is given more shades to complicate a straight Antagonist reading. She is snooty and arrogant, and her plan to break Romney and Marian’s marriage quite malicious, but the reveal of her ignorance of Marian’s plight in France saves her from the kind of mustache-twirling villainy a lesser writer would burden her with. Is she an evil person? Likely not, just typical of her class, frivolously indifferent to all things outside of her own desires, and driven to misdeeds by jealousy and the belief that like ought to stick with like.
As for Marian, she is lowly and tormented, spending much of the story as an individual sans agency – indeed, more like a house pet than a person (“I sighed, and touched / Poor Marian’s happy head, as, doglike, / Most passionately patient, waited on, / A-tremble for her turn of greeting words”) until the end, when she rejects Romney in a moment of great self-awareness of how she perceived him in the past. Certainly, her travails have made her stronger. Her tale is the shade that haunts the story, many of the descriptions rendering her almost spirit-like, insubstantial, until the end, when she vanishes into the ether before Romney and Aurora unite.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives Romney some serious growth, as well. Struck down from his proud heights through ruin and blindness, he realizes that he cannot fix the world, and finally becomes open to Aurora’s art – thus opening a way into her heart. Their love story is important to Aurora’s own character growth (as opposed to the end-all-be-all, as it tends to be in lighter, romantic fare), for it is through partnership that she learns to fulfill her own artistic destiny, something she has denied over the course of the narrative for the sake of her independence. Now, I’m sure scholars have pointed this out in an attempt to complicate a straight feminist read of the work. But so what if Aurora Leigh is not an ideal Feminist heroine, who does not need a man to achieve her ambitions? This has no bearing on her strength as a character. What’s more important is that she is revealed as a person with a rich inner life, changing aims and philosophies, and capable of wonderful insights about art and her surrounding realities. She is also not without her blind spots, too, as with her erroneous conjectures regarding Marian’s child. Not to mention a dash of class-elitism – read her descriptions of the swarming masses at Romney and Marian’s botched wedding, and see how a bias towards the ideal comes at a cost.
The modern verse-novel was a rather new innovation by the time Elizabeth Barrett Browning created hers, and Aurora Leigh itself came to typify the genre, as the other major examples have fallen away into relative obscurity. As an example of poetic daring, then, Aurora Leigh stands confidently alongside Leaves of Grass, if not as openly radical. But at this level of quality, such a distinction is nitpicky, and would distract the reader from (the better) Browning’s achievement.
As a college student with a major in literature, it was, in hindsight, a pity that I rarely came across Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s name in the midst of all those textbooks my professors lobbed at my head. I’d known her as the woman who wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” and that was it, for the most part. It is a shame that her magnum opus does not carry the same cultural or academic stamp of approval as, say, Pride and Prejudice. But that’s not to say it will never attain this status. Lately, it has become in vogue to rediscover works of art by female writers that were neglected due to past sexism – and to vindicate these works as great, to claim they would have supplanted many a Dead White Male in the canon if it were not for the patriarchy, and so on. While I doubt the quality of some of these works (despite the good intentions of these excavators), I do hope Aurora Leigh gets its turn in the spotlight, its excellence recognized wholesale. And hey, if it takes some vindictive vigor to accomplish this, so be it.
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If you enjoyed this dissection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.
More from Ezekiel Yu: Home Again: On Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left” (2016), Rapacious Arrangements: On Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), Analysis: “Fern Hill”, “Dawn Raid” by Dylan Thomas