Perhaps it was because she was of an era struggling to form an identity that Elizabeth Barrett Browning enjoyed great success without being viewed as very controversial, despite some criticism of her work. The political and social themes of much of her work seems to have been right on time, in fact, and because of her skillful and tactful ways of weaving these issues into her poetry she was regarded as not just the most important female poet of her day, but considered as well for the rank of poet laureate. The work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was paramount in its time and in many years to follow, and she could easily be considered the most influential poet of her time, and to her one could attribute public awareness of social wrongs. Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning’s magnum opus, was laced with commentary on such political and social topics as socialism and feminism, or, rather, the oppression of women.
Aurora Leigh was published in 1857. It was a combination poem/novella in which Browning spoke out against both Socialism and the unfair oppression of women. Her heroine, Aurora, is an unwed woman who comes from a relatively disadvantaged background and educates herself, much in the subjects forbidden to women such as Greek and Latin. She makes her way independently in London as a writer and rejects marriage to Romney Leigh, the man who fantasizes about a utopia built upon Socialist values, that which later backfires and leaves him blind and destitute, and denouncing his former ideals. Only then does Aurora form a partnership with him. Browning also believed that women truly were most happy in marital relationships. (53-68)
Critics felt that Barrett Browning blurred the lines and tested the rules in writing Aurora Leigh; lines between the genre of fiction and poetry, as Aurora Leigh was not easily distinguishable as either a poem or a novel. It was compared to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but surpassed its length by far. The work also tested ideas of gender; some felt she tested the separation of roles between the masculine and the feminine. George Eliot commented in a review she wrote of Aurora Leigh, that Browning “is, perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex; which superadds to masculine vigour, breadth, and culture, feminine subtlety of perception, feminine quickness of sensibility, and feminine tenderness.” (306) Some critics felt Aurora Leigh was a work unfit for female readership, though written by a woman. Browning wanted to write a poem with a female heroine; the character of Aurora Leigh felt women in ballads were “half chattel and half queen (as they are in her author’s ballads and also, we might add, in the poems by Tennyson and Browning that are set in a similar world: despite Browning’s poetical woman-worship and exemplary behavior to his wife, or Tennyson’s somewhat feminized heroes, their poems even The Princess, in the end rigidly adhere to conventional gender roles for women; imagine a female knight in Tennyson’s Camelot, where work is represented only as fighting battles, or a Pompilia who can write). (7-11)
In contrast to its widespread popularity, one of the earliest reviews thought it ridiculous, the lives and positions of its female heroine and secondary character:
Aurora Leigh is wholly and obviously a fiction. The characters are few and unreal the incidents, though scanty, are almost inconceivable and the heroine and autobiographer, as a professed poetess, has tastes and occupations which are, beyond all others, incapable of poetical treatment. With all nature and life at its command. Art is only precluded from selecting its own mechanism as its subject. But, of late, the poet’s eye, instead of glancing from earth to heaven, seems, by some strange inversion, to be exclusively fixed on the process of writing verses. The details of authorship probably possess a professional interest for those whom they concern: but life at a college, in a hospital, or in a special pleader’s chambers, would furnish more interesting pictures to the world at large…. (776-78)
Aurora struggles to find her place as a woman, and, as demonstrated in a review written of Aurora Leigh by Dorothy Mermin, she has to be either a speaking woman or the mysterious “Other;” she would have to be either a quiet object of male desire (which is the wish of Romney in the beginning of the work) or she is a woman of intelligence and speech, the latter being the love of Aurora, intelligence and speech. (7-11) Perhaps this very idea is what Virginia Woolf had of the author, Browning, when she commented on the work: “that her life impinges too much on her art.” (222) Aurora is trying to define herself in part to the loss of her mother at a very young age, knowing so little about her and having such vague memories of her. She had no guidance in defining her feminine role.
And equally important in the view of woman and their social roles and image is the character of Marian Erle, the woman befriended by Aurora, who had had a child out of wedlock through prostitution and rape. At first she is seen as a victim, but later she is viewed as something different, as she refuses the proposal of marriage from Romney (who tries to make her “respectable”) and expressing no shame or guilt for bearing her son. She says, “We …”never call him fatherless/Who has God and his mother”;” …”I’m clean. Ay, clean as Marian Erle!” In the creation of the character of Marian, Browning is forcing a good look at female roles as well as opinions of the varying classes. Marian does, in fact, serve Aurora as muse in her own poems. Says Cora Kaplan, “Nowhere in the literature of the mid-century is the bourgeois rejection of working-class consciousness more glaring than in Aurora Leigh” (Burlinson)
Browning’s success can be credited to her insistence upon using the great poets and writers of both her own era and of the past as a benchmark for her work. She did not wish to solely be among the great women writers, but among the greatest of them all. She certainly accomplished her quest, and greater than she had ever imagined, as she gained international acclaim. Aurora Leigh challenged form in traditional ways of writing, tradition roles of women, and of traditional and Victorian viewpoint.
Taplin, Gardner B. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 32: Victorian Poets Before 1850. Ed. William E. Fredeman, University of British Columbia and Ira B. Nadel, University of British Columbia. The Gale Group, 1984. pp. 53-68.
[Eliot, George.] Rev. of Aurora Leigh. Westminster Review 67, n.s. 1 1 (1857): 306-310.
Mermin, Dorothy. “Gender and Genre in Aurora Leigh.” The Victorian Newsletter, No. 69, Spring, 1986, pp. 7-11. Reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol 66
Burlinson, Kathryn. “Aurora Leigh: Overview” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., E. D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 2, No. 61, December 27, 1856, pp. 776-78. Reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 1