Elizabeth Barret Browning does not conceal her feminist views in Aurora Leigh. The heroine, Aurora, constantly demonstrates her knowledge of art and literature, asserts her independence and speaks her opinions. In one sarcastic passage, Browning (with Aurora's voice) criticizes the conventional role of women:
The works of women are symbolical.
We 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. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this...that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps (15).
Amidst a novel-poem filled with such passages as this, the theme of a female leading character who saves a man does not seem out of context. Aurora Leigh, like many other Victorian novels, revolves around a central female character who marries her beloved man in the end of the novel and by so doing saves him from a life that would otherwise be meaningless and desolate.
Romney Leigh finds Aurora at the end of the novel, the perfect example of a man in need of salvation:
To be blind, turned out of nature, muleted as a man,
Refused the daily largesse of the sun
To humble creatures! When the feaver's heat
Dropped from me, as the flame did from my house.
And left me ruined like it, stripped of all
The hues and shapes of aspectable life,
A mere bare blind stone in the blaze of the day,
A man, upon the outside of the earth
As dark as ten feet under, in the grave (838).
He stood a moment with erected brows,
In silence, as a creature might, who gazed:
Stood calm, and fed his blind, majestic eyes
Upon the thought of a perfect noon (351).
The salvation of a discouraged, ruined, or crippled man by the female heroine appears in several Victorian novels written by women. In each case, the author has feminist tendencies, and thus the theme does not seem out of place. For example, in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Jane's return to Thornfield to marry Rochester saves him from a future of solitude and despair. When Jane first sees Rochester, she notices in him "a change: that looked desperate and brooding — that reminded me of some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird, dangerous to approach in his sullen woe" (Bronte, 379). However, when Rochester learns that Jane still loves him, and will stay with him despite his blindness and his injuries, he becomes a changed man:
I thank my Maker that in the midst of judgment He has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my redeemer to give me strength to henceforth lead a purer life than I have done hitherto." Then he stretched his hand out to be led. I took that dear hand, held it a moment to my lips, then let it pass round my shoulder...I served both for his prop and guide. We entered the wood and wended homeward (395).
Under Jane's care and guidance, Rochester plans a better, purer, and happier life and, indeed, fulfills his dreams and lives happily with his new wife, his child and his increasingly restored vision.
Elizabeth Gaskell also writes with feminist tendencies and includes in her novel, North and South, the theme of a woman rescuing her man from a state of ruin and despair. After Mr. Thornton becomes forced to give up his business, he crawls back to Margaret, lonely and discouraged. Margaret at last reveals her love for Mr. Thornton and thereby saves him from a horrible future. In a symbolic gesture, upon realizing that Margaret loves him, Mr. Thornton places her arms in a protective position around him — as they had been during the riots. In a sense, Margaret protects Mr. Thornton again; protects him from himself and from the loneliness and uselessness that he would experience if it were not for her. The book then ends on a playful and happy note, completing the salvation and securing Margaret's importance.
Browning, Brontë, and Gaskell's inclusion of this theme in their novels does not seem surprising. All three authors convey feminist opinions in their works and the presence of a female-centered or female-empowering theme fits perfectly. However, these three woman were not the only Victorian authors to utilize this theme, since Dickens does so, too.
Last modified 1993