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Aurora Leigh By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sandra Watson
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Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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



Aurora Leigh By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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