In an age where, as Caroline Norton put it, “the husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that one person,” Barrett Browning boldly creates an independent, intelligent young woman: Aurora Leigh. However, in doing this she also weaves together for us not only an entertaining story, but also effectively lays bare to the reader what the expected nature and sphere of a Victorian age woman should be: a decoration fit only for the trifles of a home. The first glimpse of this we get in Book 1 lines 47-64:
… Women know
The way to rear up children, (to be just)
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
And kissing full sense into empty words,
Which things are corals to cut life upon,
Although such trifles . . .
Here Barrett Browning places in our minds a strikingly vivid image of a woman doing, as she herself said, “…such trifles…” Isabella Beeton adds to this image in The Book of Household Management: “a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home.” This image-the woman engaged in the trifles of the home-is exactly what the proper sphere of the Victorian woman was. Women were expected to run the home, tend to all the trivial matters, and make sure their husbands lives where comfortable.
Barrett Browning, while satirizing this role that woman hold, again puts a very clear image in our minds eye of what the Victorian woman was expected to do:
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you’re weary – or a stool
To tumble over and vex you… ‘curse that stool!’
Or else at best, a cushion where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake (Book I. 456-463).
This passage not only illustrates what some of the tasks a woman was suppose to perform for her husband, but also furthermore shows how the Victorian man viewed his spouse. Drawing attention to the phrase ‘curse that stool!” coupled with “And sleep, and dream of something we are not,” one certainly sees that the husband cares little, and thinks little, of what the woman does, cursing the stool made for him with love, and dreaming of something/someone better. This, however, was in fact the established view of women in Victorian England. Supported by not only men but women as well. Sarah Stickney Ellis once advised women: “to accept their inferiority to men and devote themselves to the happiness and moral elevation of their brothers, husbands, and sons.”
The Victorian woman was expected to train all her thoughts upon, as Ellis stated, “the happiness and moral elevation of their brothers, husbands, and sons.” Barrett Browning paints again in our mind, with such defining strokes, exactly what this woman should look like in her observation of her aunt: “Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight/ As if for taming accidental thoughts/ From possible pulses… (Book 1. 273-275). The aunt pulls her hair tight and close to her head to prevent what Aurora Leigh thinks are bad thoughts from happening. An amusing, yet very telling, observation, which seems to suggest that her aunt is not only satisfied with her role but tries to train herself to better follow it. Barrett Browning’s observation continues:
…She had lived
A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird (Book 1. 304-307).
Although Barrett Browning is portraying to us the idea that women are trapped in their role, she also suggests to us that much like the bird in a cage that has never known freedom, the woman is content to live in her restricted role, not ever knowing the world outside. The young Victorian woman was duly educated, exposing her only to material that would not ‘over-broaden’ her view, and let her see outside of her cage. Barrett Browning describes the education of Aurora Leigh under the tutorage of her aunt as thus:
I learnt my complement of classic French
(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)
And German also, since she liked a range
Of liberal education-tongues, not books.
I learnt a little algebra, a little
Of the mathematics, – brushed with extreme flounce (Book1. 399-404)
Her aunt thought the learning of mathematics a waste of time because a woman wouldn’t need, nor even have the chance, to use them. She withheld all readings that were considered improper for a young lady. Truly Aurora Leigh was taught “A general insight into useful facts” (Book 1. 413). In short a woman was taught just enough facts that she could carry a fluffy, not a heavy mind you, but a fluffy conversation.
The Victorian woman was bred, in much the same manner as a fine breed of animal: sheltered, protected, manicured, and fed. Kept away from all that might harm, endanger, or soil the delicate beauty. Brushed and groomed regularly to avoid messiness. Pampered and crooned. Trained not to get in the masters way, to be an adornment to the home. Expected to perform only one true function: sit on display to be judged of men.