Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh presents a viable feminist ideal. Its heroine, Aurora Leigh, ultimately resolves the dilemma of having to deny love for the sake of her work or vice versa by developing a new concept of the female artist. Although Aurora Leigh offers material for a much broader analysis of feminism, this paper will focus on the main character and narrator, Aurora Leigh herself. Although characters such as Marian Erle and Lady Waldemar also present interesting figures for further study, extending the analysis to them would be beyond the scope of this paper. As this paper concentrates on the feminist ideal in relation to a woman’s vocation as an artist, Aurora Leigh best exemplifies this dynamic.
Beginning by addressing Aurora’s education and early career in order to demonstrate her progression from a traditional concept of love and work, this paper will follow her development as she rejects conventional opposition to arrive at a fuller understanding of life as a female artist. Possible alternative readings, such as the argument that Aurora ultimately sacrifices her artistic strivings for a conventional marriage, will also be discussed in order to support the thesis.
As a Victorian woman, Aurora is pressured to fulfil a traditional role as wife and mother. Brought up by her aunt after the death of her father and mother, she receives a traditional education, which she describes in the first book:
I learnt the collects and the catechism,/ The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice,/ The Articles.. the Tracts against the times,/ (By no means Buonaventure’s ‘Prick of Love’,)/ And various popular synopses of / Inhuman doctrines never taught by John,/ Because she liked instructed piety (I.392ff.).
This short example illustrates both the intended objective of Aurora’s education and her resistance to it. The expressions “she liked” or “she misliked”, which Aurora uses throughout the passage to state her aunt’s intentions behind her education, clearly indicate that she herself does not endorse these objectives. To emphasize her opposition, Aurora asserts that which, apparently considered improper by her aunt, was not part of her education: “(By no means Buonaventure’s pricks of love)” or “French/ (Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)” (I. 395, 400).
Resisting the traditional role patterns from the beginning, Aurora strictly separates her “quickening inner life” (I. 1027) from the influences of the outside world. This enables her to remain immune to attempts at forcing her to conform to traditional ideals; she keeps “the life, thrust on me, on the outside/ Of the inner life […],/ Inviolable by conventions […]” (I. 477-480). However, this is not simply a matter of choice but of survival to Aurora, as the suppression of her creative powers appears to threaten her mental as well as her physical health (cf. I. 482-498). In order to protect her identity, she keeps the artist’s side of her nature hidden, “singing at a work apart/ Behind the wall of sense, […]” (I. 1053f.).1
The need to assert her own identity as an artist leads Aurora to reject love in order to stay true to her calling as a poet. The only form of love that is available to her as a woman is one that denies an essential part of her nature. This traditonal concept is represented in Aurora Leigh by Aurora’s cousin Romney, who denigrates women’s capacity for serious work in general and her vocation as a poet in particular, saying that “‘[women] as you are,/ Mere women, personal and passionate,/ You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives,/ Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!/ We get no Christ from you, - and verily/ we shall not get a poet in my mind’” (II. 220-225). While admitting women’s importance in the realm of love, Romney assigns to them an inferior role in the realm of work. Aurora points out Romney’s fundamental misunderstanding of a woman’s nature, accusing him of
[misconceiving] the question like a man,/ Who sees a woman as the complement/ Of his sex merely. You forget too much/ That every creature, female as the male,/ Stands single in responsible act and thought,/ As also in birth and death. Whoever says/ To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’/ Will get fair answers, if the work and love,/ Being good themselves, are good for her - the best/ She was born for […](II. 433-442).
1 It is interesting to note that Aurora’s mental state throughout the poem seems to be mirrored by her physical condition (cf I.466-472). This is true not only for Aurora, but also for Romney, whose eventual acquisition of humility is emphasized by his physical dependence due to his blindness.
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- aurora leigh elizabeth barrett browning woman artist epic poetry victorian feminism