Edition: Aurora Leigh (Oxford World's Classics)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic novel-poem (she herself, when conceiving it called it "a sort of novel poem") was published late in her career, in 1856. It met with significant success. Aurora Leigh was begun soon after Barrett Browning had published Casa Guidi Windows, political reflections on the Italian Risorgimento.
First Book: In first person, Aurora Leigh tells us that she is writing for her own uses, and that she is still young. She begins with her mother: "I write. My mother was a Florentine." Her mother died when she was four, and her father (a scholar, and not as good as her mother at raising and loving a child) took her to live in the mountains, where she remembers worshipping a portrait of her mother. Her father learns to love and his advice to her just before he too dies is to "Love, my child, love, love!" She is bereft of both parents by the time she was just thirteen. She then tells of being sent to England to live with her father's sister, who is strict and constraining: "A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage." She receives an English education for girls, which rather cramps her style (Aurora Leigh critiques the conduct books of the Victorian era). She is furthermore disappointed with the English natural landscape, which is hedged in, trimmed, and less free than the nature that she is used to in Italy: "A nature tamed / And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl." Yet she maintains her resilience, catching moments of "Life" from nature, and from her own thoughts. She tells of how the world of books were rather dangerous for a child -- after all, "The world of books is still the world, I write." She eventually learns to love England as she discovers poetry, idolizing Romantic poets like Keats who were young but old with respect to their soul. Like the first generation Romantics like Wordsworth, she privileges a child's guileless appreciation of nature.
Second Book: As a teen, she plays at being a poet, haughtily trying on a crown of ivy. She is caught by her cousin Romney, who playfully says he has seen her "to be a woman also." He tells her that the profession of poet is not for women, saying at best "You write as well...and ill..upon the whole / As other women. If as well, what then?"He argues that she has not seen enough of the world to know it, and says that in the modern age there is enough ill to contend with in the world to deal with abstractions. Thus begins Romney and Aurora's deep rivalry which will define the rest of the "epic." Aurora argues that it is her truncated English education for girls that makes her know not enough of the world: "A woman's always younger than a man / At equal years, because she is disallowed / Maturing by the outdoor sun and air." When Romney proposes to her that day, Aurora rejects him because it's a proposal that she believes asks her to merely be a complement to man. Her aunt chides her and tells her that she won't get an inheritance unless she marries Romney - Aurora's uncle, Romney's father, apparently made a deal so that she could be included in the Leigh line if she married Romney (out of kindness, since the law customarily disallowed half-foreign inheritors). When her aunt dies, her last wishes are for the cousins to marry so that Aurora might get some of the money. This does not happen, and the cousins go their separate ways; Romney to do practical work against the ills of the world, Aurora to devote herself to art via poetry.
Third Book: Aurora labors at poetry, and gains success insofar as winning some acclaim: she receives many letters from admirers and critics. Vincent Carrington, a friend from the time that she was with Romney, is an artist (painter and sketcher) and sends her a letter detailing to her Romney's latest pursuits: "Strange it is, / Such sudden madness seizing a young man / To make the earth over again, - while I'm content / To make the pictures." Aurora finds that the attention from the public meant that she needed to work harder for something greater than "frivolous fame." She resolves to work for "better ends." She works on in her poetry and since "In England no one lives by verse that lives" she makes her living instead from writing for "cyclopedias, magazines, and weekly papers," learning to use the editorial "we" in review, and wrote tales: these writings were just so she could have "breathing room / for body and verse." She gains one day a visit from Lady Waldemar, an young widow of high connections who loves Romney. Aurora is haughty towards her at first, until she warns her that Romney's exertions are leading him to a fall, unless he makes a marriage which will save him. Lady Waldemar then tells Aurora that Romney wants to make a match with one Marian Erle, "a child of the poor" for political principles and asks if Aurora would meet her and then perhaps influence Romney against it. Aurora meets with Marian, who tells Aurora her story. Marian had been born in a hut. Her father and mother had to move around a lot with odd jobs here and there, but despite such deprivations, she early on felt that there was a "grand, blind Love" coming from heaven. She was able to catch fragments of reading here and there, in her words: "If a flower / Were thrown you out of heaven at intervals, / You'd soon attain to a trick of looking up." One day her mother sold her to a squire and she ran away. She fainted in a ditch, and was rescued and taken to a hospital. The institution cared for her but once she was well they turned her out and she had nowhere to go. Romney found her there though, and sent her to work at a sempstress house.
Fourth Book: Marian's story continues into the fourth book. A sempstress named Lucy was dying and though others are kind of callous about it, Marian leaves her work to be at Lucy's bedside. There she encounters Romney again and he proposes to her so that they may be "fellow-workers." The account is a mix of Marian's words mediated by Aurora; Aurora "cannot render right / Her quick gesticulation, wild yet soft." Marian's voice tells of how she is not afraid to submit to Romney, and this provides a counterpoint to Aurora's independence. Marian recognizes that her submission is because of her class and comparative lack of opportunity. Romney comes in and he and Aurora converse (Marian is not involved in their dialogue). They rehearse the same conflict from before. Romney says of he and Marian: "We two who are not poets, when to wed / Requires less mutual love than common love." The cousins part. On the wedding day, however, Marian leaves Romney at the altar. Aurora's descriptions of the poor people in the church are somewhat dehumanizing, but the portrait she paints of the gossipy gentry is not too flattering either. It seems that the two classes just can't mingle. Marian has written Romney a letter to explain herself: it seems that maybe Lady Waldemar has gotten to her, though it also seems like Aurora's question as to whether Romney loved her also affected her. She describes Aurora's question as one which "a mother asks / her babe, "You'll touch that star, you think?" Romney afterwards begins to concede some things to Aurora, just as she has conceded some things to him: he says that though as a poet removed from the world, she is like a shepherd-maiden "asleep i' the sun, her head upon her knees, / the flocks all scattered, - is more laudable / Than any sheep-dog trained imperfectly, / Who bites the kids through too much zeal." Aurora, however, proudly resents that he thinks her asleep. Romney takes leave telling her that Art has to stand upon the "lower life."
Fifth Book: Romney has clearly had an effect on Aurora, as this book begins: "Aurora Leigh, be humble." In the first part of this book, Aurora remakes her poetic philosophy. She muses on how true poets should not write for fame or even for reaching any one man. Poets should aspire to write to please God. Aurora is nevertheless bothered that she can't reach Romney. Further elucidating her growing philosophy, she says that she doesn't think that epics have died out in their time, but that "every age / Appears to souls who live in't (ask Carlyle) / Most unheroic." Poets should have a "double-vision" which accounts both for seeing things "comprehensively" and also "intimately deep." She sharply critiques (Tennyson's) focus on medieval times or other past ages. The modern poet ought to "Never flinch, / But still, unscrupulously epic, catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age." She asks herself what form may be best, and answers that the spirit of a poem should be left to shape itself. She won't write plays, because they are too dependent on the audience. Finally, though, she admits that she misses human love (which fame is equal to), but asserts that it is better to hunger for "man's love" than to hunger for "God's truth." As far as the plot goes, she tells of going over to one Lord Howe's and hearing people talk about Romney marrying Lady Waldemar, and remarking whether he has lost his ideals. There, she encounters Lady Waldemar. Feeling this whole environment to be hostile to her poetic ideals, she decides to leave England for Italy, selling her father's books in order to raise enough money to do so.
Sixth Book: In Paris (on her way to Italy) Aurora Leigh muses on France, which unlike England, is a "poet of nations, who dreams on / And wails on (while the household goes to wreck) / For ever, after some ideal good." She begins to think about how scientists are better in some ways than poets in that they are not afraid to look at the ugly specimens as equally beautiful and interesting. Her account of what it means to be an artist still grows, to the point where she's making more concessions to Romney's way of life, though she still values the power of the word in addition to that of "phalansteries, material institutes, / The civil conscriptions and lay monasteries / Preferred by modern thinkers." Suddenly she sees Marian's face amidst the crowds, with a child in her arms. She assumes she is "damned" because of the child, but then berates herself for thinking the worst of Marian. She encounters Marian again at a marketplace selling flowers, and talks to her. Marian takes Aurora back to where she is living, and shows her the baby. At first, Aurora assumes Marian's weaknesses have led to her seduction, and she berates Marian for taking joy in her child: "We make henceforth a cushion of our faults / To sit and practise easy virtues on?" Aurora thinks of the child as stolen redemption, in a sense that Marian shouldn't think that she is redeemed because she is a mother. Marian sets Aurora right (saying she was "murdered" and not "seduced") with a story of Lady Waldemar convincing her that she was not good enough for Romney (offering bits of Lady Waldemar's dialogue with her) and that class differences are difficult to uproot. She became convinced that she would have been like a kid (goat) who would trample a garden unknowingly if she had married Romney. She tells of how Lady Waldemar dispatches her to Australia but those that were supposed to take her there took her to Paris instead, where she was drugged and raped. Some peasants took her in later.
Seventh Book: Marian tells of how a miller's wife took her in but then turned on her when she found out that she was with child. Eventually she found a sempstress to take her in. Aurora then asks Marian to go live with her in Tuscany. Marian agrees (though importantly, "She looked me in the face and answered not, / Nor signed she was unworthy, nor gave thanks, / But took the sleeping child and held it out / To meet my kiss, as if requiting me / And trusting me at once.") It is revealed that Aurora does have feelings for Romney though she intends to live with Marian and that the baby should have two mothers. She writes to Lord Howe and tells him that she and Marian are fine, and tells him not to reveal to Romney Marian's strife. To Lady Waldemar, Aurora reveals that she knows her treachery and tells her that she and Marian will leave her alone as long as she is good to Romney, that she will be obedient to him and even pretend sympathy when unsympathetic (basically condemning her to the role that Aurora herself did not want, as a wife). Aurora receives a letter from Carrington praising her latest book and telling her that he has a wife, who also admires her verses, but also telling the news that Romney isn't well. In Tuscany, Aurora reflects on art and experiences a restorative, humbling time. "Thus is Art / Self-magnified in magnifying a truth / Which, fully recognised, would change the world / And shift its morals. If a man could feel, / Not a day, in the artist's ecstasy, / But every day, feast, fast, or working-day, / The spiritual significance burn through / The heiroglyphic of material shows, / Henceforward he would paint the globe with wingsm / And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree, / And even his very body as a man." Truth is God and Art. She visits her old home, but realizes she will not find her parents there (earth is hell, and where they are is heaven).
Eighth Book: Aurora, while dreaming on a terrace of a "sea-king" while before a vision of the Maria Novella Place (church with phallic obelisks in the front), Romney appears. He says something to her about her not receiving a letter from Lord Howe. Instead of revealing the contents now of the letter, they reconcile--Romney making most of the concessions: he has read Aurora's book, and says that it has shown him something beyond herself that he now believes in (this is the task of the poet/art as she outlined in the final part of the Seventh Book). He knows now that toiling in the mud of humanity was not enough because he didn't recognize the universal vision of God and the individual's place in that universal vision that poetry might reveal. "To move a body, - it takes a high-souled man." Aurora owns that she had been too arrogant and also too narrow in her vision to recognize the necessity of such toiling and its heroism (even if Romney failed). Still, she accepts his concession that "poets get directlier at the soul, / Than any of your economists: - for which / You must not overlook the poet's work / When scheming for the world's necessities." The cousins basically confess their love but it seems too late, as it is "night," and all they can say is that at least they may look upon the stars. The end of the book closes with Romney revealing that Lady Waldemar was not actually his wife. He brings out a letter from her that Aurora never received.
Ninth Book: In her letter, Lady Waldemar proves that she is not as bad as Aurora has made her out to be. She handed over Marian to an old maid of hers which she trusted, and did not know that she would fall into bad hands. Moreover, she genuinely did not think that Marian and Romney loved as she could have loved him. Waldemar says that she hates Aurora, and says that her letter is "insolent" and "absurd." Romney offers marriage to Marian and she at first accepts, but then on second thought, says that she is "dead" and won't love another other than her child. Perhaps she never loved him, she muses (only that she had wanted to be his slave). She exits the scene and Aurora and Romney reconcile. Romney at first feels that he is unworthy of Aurora but she further humbles herself, saying she is not a generous woman, and that she forgot that she was a woman who loved like the rest. "He mistook the world, / But I mistook my heart" so she judges her crime more seriously. She even admits that his aunt, Lady Waldemar, and finally Marian were all right in seeing that she loved him. The epic ends with the two of them setting off to do God's work and an image of a New Jerusalem.
As a "novel-poem," the form of Aurora Leigh mirrors the eventual joining of Romney and Aurora. After all, the Victorian realist novel's ascendancy in this period consolidated the notion that the novel was the socially-minded genre, and heightened anxieties about poetry's place in social progress. Such anxieties over art's role in life were repeatedly expressed by the most prominent poets of the era, poet laureate Tennyson included. Still, poetry as a genre maintained its status as the more expansive, artistic form which channeled principles that reached beyond the material contingencies of earthly life. Thus Barrett-Browning's yoking together of a socially-mired form and a spiritually-independent form experimentally attempts to forge a unified genre which might better speak to the requirements of modern life. The work is novelistic in its heteroglossia; it includes many other voices than Aurora Leigh's through letters, dialogue, and more subtly, via free-indirect discourse. The poetic form is blank verse, in remarkably regular and controlled pentameter lines--indeed, Barrett Browning's poetry seems to fall into this form quite easily and readily; Aurora Leigh's description of the spirit of a poem shaping its form seems apt here.
Marian perhaps presents the greatest problem for novelistic discourse because she points out important class inequities: while Browning manages to allow the working-class Marian a voice, Marian conveniently "disappears" when necessary, bowing out of marrying Romney once again at the end so that Aurora and Romney may reconcile. Perhaps, though, such a disappearance was meant to seem problematic, and realistic, which indicates an interesting potential critique of Victorian liberalism. Essentially, while Victorian liberalism imagined that individuals might transcend their class situations to realize an abstracted, ideal, higher self, here Browning might be showing that this is a myth, and that this "ideal" self is constructed along class lines. Aurora and Romney are able to meet while espousing "equality" between themselves only because they are both well-off enough to have developed such notions of equality. The terminology and rhetoric of equality which constructs it isn't something which was available to someone who was only able to snatch at fragments of reading in her crucial years of youth. Elaine Hadley's critique of Victorian liberalism today was made by Barrett Browning, if we read Marian's quick exit as intentionally problematic.
Finally, an additional generic label might add to the evidence of an imbedded liberal critique. Aurora Leigh is a kuntslerroman, a story of an artist's growth and maturity. Narrated retrospectively, Aurora ironizes earlier moments in her history (the reader knows, for example, that she is silly as she tries on her crown of ivy because of the exaggerated way in which she describes the moment paired with the anticlimactic arrival of her public--"Romney"). Retrospective narration also enables Aurora to heighten the reader's sense of where she has been wrong by delaying revelations of her wrong. For example, she allows the reader to think badly of Lady Waldemar when presenting her own hateful letter to her, heightening the sense of wrong when it is finally revealed, in Waldemar's own words, that such accusations as Aurora made were "insolent and absurd." The same thing happens with Marian; we don't find out what has happened to her until after Aurora accuses her of weakness. Along with Aurora, the reader experiences the shame of knowledge revealed later, thus making the wrong seem more poignant since it belongs to the (presumably well-off, liberal?) reader as well.