lizabeth Barrett Browning's novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, is the semi-autobiographical story of a girl trying to find love in a society where the social conventions and restrictions on women make it nearly impossible. She spends her childhood with her freethinking father in a small Italian town. Her father dies when she is thirteen and she goes to England to live with her aunt. Her aunt, the epitome of the Victorian middle-class ideal, she feels that it is her "duty" to turn her niece into a similar pillar of modesty and morality. Aurora finds this role of a Victorian woman to be contradictory and dulling. She attempts to appease her aunt by being obedient, yet in her heart and mind she still believes in love and freedom. On her twentiethth birthday, Aurora goes outside in the early morning before her aunt wakes up, and while she is enjoying this freedom to do whatever she wants, Romney, her cousin and future husband, interrupts her.
"Thanks to you
My cousin! That I have seen you not too much
Witch, scholar, poet, dreamer, and the rest,
To be a woman also."
With a glance
The smile rose in his eyes again and touched
The ivy on my forehead, light as air.
I answered gravely, "Poets needs must be
Or men or women — more's the pity"
But men, and still less women, happily,
Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,
Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
The clean white morning dresses."
"So you judge!
Because I love the beautiful I must
Love pleasure chiefly, and be overcharged
For ease and whiteness! Well, you know the world,
And only miss your cousin, ิtis not much.
But learn this; I would rather take my part
With God's Dead, who afford to walk in white
Yet spread His glory, than keep quiet here
And gather up my feet from every step
For fear to soil my gown is so much dust.
I choose to walk at all risks. — Here, if heads
That hold rhythmic thought, must ache perforce,
For my part I choose headaches — and today's
"Dear Aurora, choose instead
to cure them. You have balsams."
The headache is too noble for my sex.
You think the heartache would sound decenter,
Since that's the woman's special, proper ache,
And altogether tolerable, except
To a woman."
(Second Book, ll. 84-114)
1. The passage before this shows Aurora choosing which plants she wants to put in her hair. She thinks symbolically about each plant and chooses carefully, wanting to represent the right state of mind. From the passage above, how does balsam fit into this list? What would it represent to her? To Romney?
2. Romney seems to see her differently for the first time in this passage. He sees her as an attractive woman, yet he does not approve of the very aspects that make her attractive. Is this true? Why?
3. What is the significance of whiteness in this passage? How does whiteness relate to the role of women in Victorian England?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified 18 March 2004