urora Leigh holds an ambiguous place within feminist criticism. The work voices female interiority and defends the legitimacy of the woman-poet, even as it reduces women to objectified body parts and obsesses over the female’s proscribed domestic and sexual roles. Some female critics defend the lack of radicalism in Barrett Browning’s novel-poem as symptomatic of a patriarchal context. Deirdre David, reading through Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, links the objectification and iconicity of mothers with the “male-defined masks and costumes” that Aurora is “fated to inhabit,” and which, in turn, “inevitably inhabit her, altering her vision,” (David, 135 n.9). This contextual reading, of a poet forced into her hegemonic place, maps nicely onto other critical trends, but does little to deconstruct the masks and costumes themselves.
The novel-poem clearly concerns itself with the woman’s proscribed place in society, and student responses range from defining the text as adamantly feminist in its subject matter (Constable) to citing it a work in which “questions of class undercut feminist views concerning the woman artist in a commercial market” (Vergara), to taking issue with Aurora’s own complicity in upholding “the dumbness and silence imposed on women by patriarchy” (Byecroft). Yet, at its time, Aurora Leigh received equal criticism for using &ldsquo;unfeminine’ poetic language” and a troubling “choice of poetic subject” (David, 118). The disjunction, it seems, stems from the attempt to write a female Kunstelrroman; indeed, when Allison Case locates Aurora’s “frustration at the gap her gender creates between artistic and emotional self-fulfillment — between the happy ending of a Kustlerroman and that of a love story” (Case, 26), we might also locate the origin of an inherent split between literary reviewers interested in poetic subject and form and feminist critics troubled by the mother-want and the marriage plot as preconditions for artistic development (Case 23-4, 26).
Both strands of inquiry find their roots in Aurora’s “mother-want” (I. 40), an intellectual and emotional driving force throughout the work. Dorothy Mermin cites Aurora’s mother as an ambiguous figure, “simultaneously encouraging and quelling” the child’s impulse to speak (Mermin, 508). Similarly, in the 1983 Winter issue of Victorian Poetry, Virginia V. Steinmetz writes that Aurora’s mother-want both impels and impedes the poet’s creative impulses. Desperate to occupy both sides of the “nourishing interchange” between writer and reader, Aurora writes specifically of physical wants “which women have special knowledge of: birth and hunger” (Steinmetz, 355). What drives Aurora’s poetry, Steinmetz suggests, is precisely the want of the mother, a lack which must be grappled with but never fully rectified. Aurora’s search for mother-substitutes ends with Romney, her “feminized lover” who “commissions her to “touch’ through imaginative vision his maternal “hills with a radiance not their own’ (IX, 909) and to speak, not with the “Poor milkless lips’ (I. 116) of a motherless child, but with “woman’s lip’” (Steinmetz 367). Romney appears here to give voice to the eyes of the mother which “Leap forward, taking part . . . in the child’s riot” (I. 18-19). Aurora’s story ends, then, with a relationship in which she is not the mother, but can be mothered, prided, and encouraged in her creative ambitions. In identifying and then rejecting Lady Waldemar and Marian Erle, Aurora takes “steps toward becoming an ideal female artist in which the active hunger for creative and sexual fulfillment and the regressive hunger for mother-nurture can be integrated. Insofar as she can incorporate these contraries in her nature, Aurora can be a mother to the next generation of women artists.” (Steinmetz, 357). Significant, and troubling amidst all this seeming resolution, is Steinmetz’s opening claim that “Barrett Browning is preoccupied throughout Aurora Leigh with the failure of mother-sources and can imagine few female symbols which are not signs of despair” (Steinmetz, 352), “negative symbols reinforcing the theme of deprivation and representing the poet’s need to bring obsessive infantile fantasies into light where they could serve rather than dominate her” (Steinmetz, 351). Aurora’s mothering, then, of a successive generation of artists, seems predicated upon a dangerous representation of female roles.
Dolores Rosenblum insists that Aurora achieves redemption and humanization of “the silent, iconic face that looms over so much [Romantic] nineteenth-century poetry” which, in male hands, “can be made to stand for everything Ð except female selfhood” (Rosenblum, 322). She describes the moment Aurora sees her mother’s face in/on Marian’s face as “confirming her parallel achievements of self-integration and commitment to her poetic vocation” in which “the poet who imagines this recognition and the persona who finds the living woman symbolically recover their mothers, lost not only through death, but also through the repudiation of the mother that is the “natural’ course of a daughter’s development” (Rosenblum, 321). Modifying Lacan’s theory that the discovery of absence motivates infant speech, Rosenblum insists upon the need for “a mother-presence to substitute for the mother-lack as a source for poetic inspiration,” a presence that Aurora, ultimately, locates within herself (Rosenblum, 327). Oddly, however, Rosenblum’s conclusion is that finding the mother-sister “maternal face that returns her gaze” allows Aurora to “make the bridge between art and life, give and receive love” (Rosenblum, 327). This idealistic version of the mother-search resolves the mother-want and allows artistic production to emerge from love, but it seems to leave no space for the heterosexual relationship. For at the novel-poem’s end, as we have seen, when Aurora insists that Romney will be her poetic muse, she speaks to a “feminized lover.” The role of the mother, whether as subject or as object, seems relegated to character-figures; Aurora herself, even at her love-story resolution, can give birth only to words.
1. Why, despite decades of feminist criticism, do Aurora Leigh’s mother figures continue to resist definitive categorization? Does Barrett Browning invest her images with female selfhood, or merely objectify the female presence in the poem-novel
2. Steinmetz links Romney, Marian, and Aurora together through their mutual mother-want as well as their need to mother others. Most surprisingly, “Romney describes the failure of his own and other Victorian social experiments in a grotesque image of maternal depletion, a symbol of the disjunction between sign and reality, word and act, desire and fulfillment” (VIII. 846-852; Steinmetz, 360). To what degree do these points of connection, orphanhood and the mothering impulse, speak to broader “physiological and psychological motives for Victorian aspirations, the “obsession with origins’” that drives nineteenth-century social reform (Steinmetz, 352)?
3. What role does heterosexuality play in Aurora Leigh? Does female desire ever find a sanctioned place in this novel-poem? (We might think of Marian, “the raped woman, spoiled yet innocent” (David, 123)
Case, Alison. “Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry 29.1 (1991): 17-32.
David, Deidre. “Art's a Service": Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and Aurora Leigh.” Browning Institute Studies, 13 (1985): 113-36. Published by: Cambridge University Press.
Mermin, Dorothy. “The Idea of the Mother in Aurora Leigh. Aurora Leigh. Ed. Margaret Reynolds. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996. 508-513.
Rosenblum, Dolores. “Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh’ and Nineteenth-Century Poetry.” Victorian Studies 26.3 (1983): 321-338.
Steinmetz, Virginia V. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry 21.4 (1983): 351-367.
Related material in the Victorian Web
Byecroft, Brianna. “Representations of the Female Voice in Victorian Poetry.
Constable, Emily. “Female saviors in Victorian Literature.”
Vergara, M. Bernadette. Questions of Feminism in Aurora Leigh.”
Last modified 21 March 2010