Aurora Leigh is an epic poem which Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself styled as a “novel in verse” to which she has poured her profound thoughts on life and art. Being a Victorian woman and a poet, Barrett Browning was keenly aware of the disadvantages faced by a woman who wanted to lead an artistic life as free and as equally respected as her male counterpart. And through Aurora Leigh, she has voiced the need for acceptance, appreciation, and respect for women as individuals as well as artists beyond their accepted Victorian role of wife and mother.
Although this is called an epic poem, it is not the sort of Homer or Milton, rather it’s a bildungsroman of sorts. The story is centered on the principal protagonist and heroine, Aurora Leigh, and runs from her childhood to her adulthood and success as a poet which is principally narrated through her perspective. This had helped Barrett Browning to voice the flaws of accepted Victorian ideals regarding women. She is highly critical of the women’s upbringing, the primary of which was to make them fit only for domestic duties. And she was equally severe on the concept of marriage where the woman was seen as a “helpmate” to make men’s world comfortable and successful. Aurora’s scorn for her aunt’s way of bringing her up and her subsequent refusal of the marriage proposal by her cousin, Romney Leigh, speaks volumes of the difficulties Victorian women faced to set themselves as individual beings who deserve respect for their individuality and creativity. When Romney proposes to Aurora, he has the audacity to say “I ask for love, And that, she can; for life in fellowship Through bitter duties— that, I know she can; For wifehood— will she? If your sex is weak for art (And I who said so, did but honour you By using truth in courtship), it is strong For life and duty.” Aurora promptly replies to this by saying “What you love, Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause: You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir, A wife to help your ends— in her no end! Your cause is noble, your ends excellent, But I, being most unworthy of these and that, Do otherwise conceive of love.” Barrett Browning viewed marriage as not a contract where the wife was just a “helpmate” of her husband to make things smooth for him, but as a bond, born out of mutual understanding and respect for each other and each other’s talents. She is quite strong in this view and shows that if both parties are to be happy and contented in a marriage, this mutual appreciation and respect for each other is a necessary feature.
Barrett Browning’s strong views on women’s position in Aurora Leigh have marked it as a feminist work. But I’d like to differ there. Her equality and individuality are restricted to the institution of marriage and life as an artist. By no means does she speak of women’s right to be equal to men. There the convention comes and she cloaks herself within. She wasn’t strictly a feminist author, but she did stand up to them knowing her life difficulties as a woman and artist. But at the same time, she viewed love and marriage as a necessary part of a woman’s life. Although Aurora refuses Romney for his failure to understand her and appreciate her creativity, she cannot help thinking afterward what would have been if he had not been such an ignorant typical Victorian man. “I, who spoke the truth then, stand upright, Still worthy of having spoken out the truth, By being content I spoke it though it set Him there, me here”. And even after her relative success as a poet, Aurora cannot banish the thoughts of loneliness and her longing for love and companionship. “How dreary ’tis for women to sit still On winter nights by solitary fires, And hear the nations praising them far off, Too far! ay, praising our quick sense of love, Our very heart of passionate womanhood, Which could not beat so in the verse without Being present also in the unkissed lips And eyes undried because there’s none to ask The reason they grew moist. To sit alone And think for comfort how, that very night, Affianced lovers, leaning face to face With sweet half- listenings for each other’s breath, Are reading haply from a page of ours, Appraised by love, associated with love, While we sit loveless!”
In addition to the dominant theme of women’s position, Barrett Browning touches on the social question. There comes Romney Leigh, the misunderstood and misguided philanthropist. Romney’s social reforms guided by his socialistic views don’t ripe into the fruit he anticipates. In fact, he is thwarted in his efforts by the very people whom he wanted to help. Through Romney Leigh’s sincere blunder, Barrett Browning questions the correctness of the social reforms taken into the heart by many young noble enthusiasts. She wants to show that though their hearts are at the right place, their method is not. According to her, no social reform can be achieved without educating and nourishing the soul of the unprivileged; mere catering to the body only makes them more corrupt and indulgent. Her thought-provoking insight truly struck me deep. I couldn’t help pondering over the mistaken charities of modern times.
Class difference is yet another minor theme Barrett Browning touches on through Aurora Leigh. She clearly shows how strongly the upper-class nobility and gentry held their social status. Even those who held socialist views were eager to maintain their status and keep the lower classes at arm’s length. Aurora’s description of a noble socialist sums it all. “Let me draw Lord Howe. A born aristocrat, bred radical, And educated socialist, who still Goes floating, on traditions of his kind”. When Romney Leigh, in his fervent enthusiasm for social reform, attempts to make a marital alliance with a lower-class girl, the views expressed, and the role played underhand to prevent it shows that there is nothing they wouldn’t do to maintain their class and status being “polluted”.
All these themes addressed in Barrett Browning’s rich verse were enchanting. I was utterly drowned in them. Drawing parallels from Greek mythology and Christian religion and comparing and contrasting the English life with those of French and Italian, she creates a beautiful epic that sweeps you off your feet. Without a doubt, Elizabeth Barrett Browning took me on a fascinating journey and into another world through this beautiful creation.