Like Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Aurora Leigh (1857) argues that society imposes prisons on its members and that overcoming these prisons requires a strong will, much knowledge, and appreciation of true love and partnership.
The voice of Romney Leigh introduces us to the prison in which society keeps Aurora:
'this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you, — and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind. (p.44)
Aurora serves as Barrett Browning's example of the woman confined by society's unjust rules. We see from the beginning of the poem that society challenges Aurora's determination to become a poet and that the challenge weighs so heavily upon her that she risks not pursuing her talent. Marjorie Stone explains the contemporary societal view that opposed the emergence of women poets:
Since Victorians viewed epic, philosophic, and racy satiric poetry as male domains, but thought the novel more suited to female writers. . .novels did not require or display the knowledge of classical models barred to most women. . .and the novel was less subjective than the prevalent lyric and confessional poetic forms and therefore more congruent with the self- effacing role prescribed for Victorian women. ("Marjorie Stone on Browning's Experiment with Genre in Aurora Leigh," )
Aurora's predicament presents us with the struggle of Victorian women artists, namely poets, to work and succeed in an atmosphere hostile to the achievement of their goals. Contemporary women internalized the "antifeminine biases" that confronted them at every turn ("Aurora Leigh, Femininity, and Class") and thus aided in society's construction of "prisons". As Jason Isaacs observes, "Aurora Leigh shows that women cripple themselves by internalizing patriarchal or andocentric conceptions of them."
Aurora perceptively declares, "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!" (p.50) Romney Leigh not only enforces the boundaries of Aurora's prison, but lives in a prison of his own. He dedicates his life to philanthropic efforts, neglecting to recognize his true self.
Like Dickens's characters, Aurora have not chosen to become prisoners. The society into which they were born facilitated their imprisonment. If the reader needs a blatant reminder, Dickens makes the physical prison of the Marshalsea Little Dorrit's place of birth. But the characters must choose to escape if they want to free themselves. Aurora clearly possesses the necessary will:
'Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say. . .perhaps a woman's soul
Aspires, and not creates! yet we aspire,
And yet I'll try out your perhapses, sir;
And if I fail. . .why, burn me up my straw
Like other false works — ' (p.53)
I can live
At least my soul's life, without alms from men,
And if it must be in heaven instead of earth,
Let heaven look to it, — I am not afraid.'(p.59)
Dickens's characters seem less willing and less capable of victory. Remaining in their imprisoned states often seems more appealing than mustering the effort to change: "Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out" (103). The difficulties of dealing with reality cause weaker characters to surrender to powerful prisons
Barrett Browning's theme that genuine love must exist in order for one to successfully break out of one's prison comes through in this passage:
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. (p.171)
Who loves me? (p. 174)
Aurora knows success and yet knows she needs the love and respect of another. She needs someone of equal strength and will with whom to share her life. Aurora and Romney recognize their need for one another, but only after each has undergone change and growth. Jason Isaacs concludes: "Only when both can break free from the conceptual structures that oppress them can she [Aurora] fully become the woman, wife, and poet she wants to be."
The themes that society creates prisons and that one triumphs over prisons only with effort and love prove common to both Little Dorrit and Aurora Leigh. The conclusion reached by both Dickens and Barrett Browning seems captured by a statement made about Aurora Leigh: "Ultimately, it reveals the insufficiency of artistic ambition and success to make up for the lack of love on which they depend." (Laurelyn Douglas, "The Woman Question, The Problem of Love, and Aurora Leigh")
Last modified 1993