[One of the greatest issues of concern in feminist theory is the role women play in relationships and the relative importance placed on a woman's identity as both a lover and as an artist. The following passages from by Kathleen Blake's
Aurora Leigh is a "verse novel" in blank verse and nine books, longer than Paradise Lost, and it offers a comprehensive treatment of E.B.B.'s complicated feelings about love. Love forms the highest of religious imperative, as we have seen in her Drama of Emile. Aurora's father dies with the words, "Love my child, love, love!", and the pauper girl Marion Erle has only to look up at the sun to be taught a "grand, blind Love / She learnt God that way" (I, 212; III, 893-5). But in this life an on this earth the ways of love prove difficult to follow. To the probings of its injuries, inequities and conflicts found in her other poems and her personal writings, E.B.B. adds the question of its role for the woman artist. Aurora Leigh tells the story of the development of a woman poet largely as the story of her struggle to understand how her life and art can accommodate love. Aurora Leigh envies male poets because they find it possible to write poetry for their wives an mothers (V, 501-35). In a woman's case art and love are connected by a "but": "Art is much, but love is more" (IX, 656). To be an artist means living as a lone woman. This wrongs the artist's feminine nature and, in turn, undermines her art because "No perfect artist is developed here/From any imperfect woman" (IX, 648-9). Aurora Leigh assumes a feminine instinct of love, from which it develops the woman artist's dilemma: she cannot become a full artist unless she is a full woman, but she can hardly become an artist at all without resisting love as it consumes women, subsuming them to men.
Men literally consume women in the poem. Aurora Leigh gained notoriety and went into multiple editions for its treatment of prostitution. Marion Erle's mother tries to sold her to a man, and later she is conveyed unknowingly into the hands of a bawd, raped in a continental brothel, and made mad with the indignity. No complete recovery can follow such a thing. Some power of feeling perishes. Only her child can rouse response, and Marion refuse to marry the noble-hearted Romney Leigh, even though marriage would redress dishonour. From her drugged violation she "waked up in the grave" (VI, 1218), and she remains enshrouded, never to be decked out in nupital imagery.
Yet Marion Erle ends up with a curious dignity, her life lopped of everything except her feeling for her child, but also having gained a certain bleak freedom from dependence on man or his wedding ring. Before the disaster she had been betrothed to Romney. He had taken her up as one of "the people", to whom he ministers with selfless philanthropy. His feeling for her derived more from principle, not equal affection. She doted on him like a dog, like a handmaid more than a wife, because he lifted her up. According to Aurora, more than a little arrogance coloured his condescension. He intended to take a wife as he would sign a subscription cheque (IV, 300-2). The poem exposes in their engagement the misguideness of the highest intentions. Because of its imbalance Marion runs away into danger. She comes to grief partly because Romney has put her in such an untenable position. Moreover, her suffering is ultimately more tenable for a self-responsible human being than marriage to him would have been. When she turns down his second proposal, she explains that she used to feel unworthy of him or only worthy of his miraculous bestowal of worth. But now through her grief she has learned "a womanäis a human soul". For all of her external degradation, she values herself without needing restoration by an offer of marriage (IX, 274-390). For Marion, developing consciousness comes from utter casting down. She emerges from her period of madness to confront herself, "I, Marion Erle, myself, alone, undone" (VI, 1270). She is cast upon her own resources and thereby finds them. Presumably she would not have found them in a marriage of grateful, worshipful subservience to grace-conferring Romney Leigh. She would have forgone more than she lost by being raped.
Aurora Leigh runs the same risk from Romney in a very different form. His ideas about the relation of the sexes invite her also to forgo herself out of feeling for him. Romney Leigh has little use for poets and less for women poets. He believes that art finds its only excuse in being the best, and that female art usually fails to qualify (II, 144-9). He thinks that women possess a too personal and circumstantial vision for the disinterested ideality of art. This follows from his own bias for the general and systematic. He is a philanthropist on a scale too grand to allow for individual sentiment. A debate on art versus practical benevolence and the role of women in each ensues when Romney discovers the young Aurora crowning herself with laurels in playful symbolism, a would-be Corinne crowned at the Capitol. He wants her to marry him instead, initiating a contest between love and art, for though Aurora's heart belongs to Romney, as later becomes clear, she must resist him. He wants to turn the artist into the philanthropist's handmaid. Aurora reacts bitterly to his lordly charity in offering to put her to use. She accuses him of wanting "a wife to help your ends, — in her no end" (II, 403). Romney typifies the man, "Who sees the woman as the complement/Of his sex merely. You forget too much/That every creature, female as male,/Stands single in responsible act and thought" (II, 435-8) Aurora views such relationship to a husband as dangerous and common because of the difference between the sexes, she amorously self-dissolving and he self-aggrandising:
Where we learn to lose ourselves
And melt like white pearls in another's wine,
He seeks to double himself by what he loves,
And make his drink more costly by our pearls.
Knowing her own susceptibility — "I love love" — Aurora is also dismayed by what love does to women — "for love,/They pick much oakum" (III, 703; II, 448-9). She chooses vocation by turning Romney down. The two acts are one.
A good portion of the rest of the poem is devoted to showing Aurora's heart-starvation as the price of her accomplishment. She neither finds happiness in working are full belief in the value of the work. Her looks and health decline much faster than Romney's. She becomes so demoralised that she even experiences her fame in ironical terms, first, because she suspects that popular success signals inferiority, and second, because she thinks women are so constituted as to find the adulation of the crowd no substitute for personal affection (III, 231-2; V, 475-81)
Besides forfeiting her love, and believing that her art depends on the forfeiture, but doubting whether her work is good enough to be worth it, Aurora Leigh also suffers from guilt over the effect of her denial upon Romney. Just as Jane Eyre has to resist feeling responsible for Rochester's reprobation when she leaves him, Aurora suspects that Romney would have escaped dangerous entanglement with Marion Erle and Lady Waldemar if she had married him.
The worst of her choice of the artist over the woman is that neither obliterates and each rebukes the other. After her outburst in favour of femininity, she suffers the rebound, and "It seems as if I had a man in me,/Despising such a woman" (VII, 213-14). Her ambivalence produces a certain misogyny. Romney observes "you sweep your sex/With somewhat bitter gusts from where you live/Above them" (VII, 707). Some of Aurora Leigh's most powerful sequences evoke her disgust with herself: "I live self-despised for being myself" (VII, 707). In an effectively nauseous image, she finds herself dissolving slowly until lost, like a lump of salt that spoils the drink into which it disappears (VII, 1308-11).
According to Aurora Leigh, women dissolve in love like pearls in men's wine, but without love like salt in a ruined drink. Feminine or feminist self-postponement (the artist's vision of these) — there is little to chose between them. The first precludes poetry; the second enables but ultimately demoralises it. And yet be holding out until the latter dissolution, after which Aurora lacks spirits to write, she produces a great poem. It is so great that it even converts Romney to appreciation of art and the woman artist. He himself is brought low, as his humanitarian schemes fail and he loses his eyesight in a melodramatic debacle, symbolising his former lack of true perception. Stripped of his masculine arrogance, he declares his love again, and Aurora accepts him. Like Jane Eyre, she is vindicated and compensated, and also assured of power enough to balance the relationship by her husband's new-found debility. The rift between art and love is pronounced healed near the end of the poem but the conflict remains more compelling than its resolution in Aurora Leigh. Denial of love was necessary to the production of Aurora's great poem while steadily eroding the capacity to go on writing great poems, that is, when the writer is a woman. Aurora's continued vocation as a poet doesn't seem very likely at the end because she so completely identifies her former achievements with abdication of love, and because she so completely repudiates the abdication.
Ultimately, it reveals the insufficiency of artistic ambition and success to make up for the lack of love on which they depend. "As in all the works of its kind, which women have so freely poured out from their full hearts during late years, we see the agony more fully than the remedy."
- Is Blake's analysis an appropriate reading of Aurora Leigh?
- What does the idea of needing not only a room of one's own in which to write, but a man to keep you company there, imply?
- Does Marion Erle really find "her own resources"? If so, what are they, comparatively?
Kathleen Blake. Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Last modified: 19 February 2001