decorative initial 'I' n the England of Elizabeth's Barret Browning's Aurora Leigh, the standard view of middle-class female identity involving love and marriage contradicts the idea of a woman's poetic vocation. In order to pursue an independent identity and develop herself as an artist, Aurora must reject the conventional female role in Victorian society, that of man's wife and helpmate. She wants to produce art for nobody but herself. Romney's love is threatening to her desire for an independent self. For Aurora, being a poet requires, in a sense, a denial of her womanhood. Aurora's womanhood is linked to her mother who is associated with wordlessness and lush, green nature. Her aspirations to be a writer and poet are the reverse of the only words she remembers her mother saying to her as a child: "hush, hush — here's too much noise!" (1.17). The speaker also comments that women know how to speak to children the best: "And Stringing pretty words that make no sense, / And kissing full sense into empty words" (1.51-52). The emphasis here is on the meaningless, "empty" words that women speak.

The female or mother figure is also associated with nature. When Aurora's mother dies, her father takes her away from Florence and into the mountains where she will be closer to nature: "Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need of mother nature more than others use" (1.112-113). In passages where the speaker is learning domestic skills and being initiated into other fine points of female gentility, she often positions herself in relation to nature and the outdoors:

Certain of your feebler souls
Go out in such a process; many pine
To a sick, indorous light; my own endured:
I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
The elemental nutriment and heat
From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.
I kept the life, thrust on me, on the outside
Of the inner life, with all its ample room
For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,
Inviolable by conventions. God,
I thank thee for that grace of thine!
At first
I felt no life which was not patience — , did
The thing she bade me, without heed to a thing
Beyond it, sate in just the chair she placed,
With back against the window, to exclude
The sight of the great lime-tree on the lawn
. . . and walked
Demurely in her carpeted low rooms,
As if I should not, harkening my own steps,
Misdoubt I was alive.

In Victorian society, women were usually confined to the indoors and domestic sphere. The speaker describes her English Aunt as leading a "sort of cage-bird life" (305). What do you make of this connection between women and nature, particularly green pastoral settings? What is the significance of Aurora's green bedroom (unrelated to this passage)?

A recurring theme in Victorian poetry is the "embowered woman at the window." The "Lady of Shalott" exemplifies this contrast of the interior world of the woman and the exterior world of life, romance and nature. How does E.B. Browning's poem take this recurring image to a different level? Does the "unseen" which the Aurora speaks of act as a substitute or replace the real, vivid outer world for her? Note the metaphorical nature describing how she accesses nature as the "earth feels the sun at nights."

What does this inner room of the speaker's consciousness consist of? Is it the seat of poetic inspiration and vision? How does the image of the babe relate to the association of the mother with nature, if at all? Why does Aurora put her back to the window while she does domestic chores? How do sight lines function in this passage?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified: 5 October 2003