common theme in Victorian poetry is that men project all their desires onto a female object. Although Browning obviously intended Aurora Leigh to reject such patriarchal domination, in many instances the poem objectifies women. For example, it contains a succession of cruel and domineering maternal and female figures. Aurora's aunt forcibly molds her into patriarchal society's version of femininity, that of a subordinate and subservient woman. The aunt raises Aurora with the intent of giving her to Romney. Marian is one of the most objectified characters in the poem. Marian's mother attempts to sell her to a man and Lady Waldemar's depraved former servant sells Marian to male desire. Marian says "'Twas only what my mother would have done . . . A motherly, unmerciful, good turn" (7:9-10).
Although the meaning of Aurora's life is to escape objectification by men, she constantly categorizes women and projects her ideas onto them. When Aurora is a young girl living in Italy, she experiences ambivalent feelings towards a portrait of her dead mother's face. The portrait conjures up in her mind images of women who are spiritual and demonic, empowered and sorrowful, tender and monstrous (1:154-63). The conflicting qualities which she projects onto the mother figure come to represent her complex attitudes towards women in general. Lady Waldemar is also an expression of the poet's categorizations of women. She is "that woman-serpent," one of the associations the young Aurora has with her Mother's portrait. Marian also becomes the object of Aurora's projections about women. She is, for Aurora, both a spiritually pure, suffering Madonna and a violated, impure victim. Aurora consistently distances the women she encounters by projecting preconceived notions on to them.
Throughout the poem, Aurora both denies and accepts these different aspects of womanhood in herself. In book 5, she discovers her hair beginning "to burn and creep,/Alive to the very ends" (5.1126-27). In the context of her seduction of Romney, she begins to see herself as the Medusa of her mother's portrait (1125). She also identifies herself with Marian and the mother figure when she insists that they be "two mothers" for Marian's fatherless child (7.124). At the same time, Aurora objectifies and distances Marion by envisioning her as a Madonna:
And in my Tuscan home I'll find a niche
And set thee there, my saint, the child and thee,
And burn the lights of love before thy face,
And ever at thy sweet look cross myself
From mixing with the world's prosperities. (7.126-30)
Earlier in the poem, Aurora accuses Romney of wanting a woman he can make into his disciple and helper in his social cause. How is Aurora justified in converting Marian into a religious icon that she can use in her poetry?
Aurora's return to her motherland, Italy, can be read as a step towards reclaiming her female identity. Given the images in this passage, what particular aspect of her femininity do you think Aurora wishes to reclaim? How does Aurora view women in relation to the spiritual? How does this contrast with her ideas or stereotypes about men? In Aurora's mind, how does her femininity make her more or less suited to the poetic vocation?
Does her acceptance of the mother figure play a role in her acknowledgment of her love for Romney at the end?
While she is articulating her feelings for Romney which she has thus far denied, Aurora identifies with the other women she has previously distanced:
Now I know
I loved you always, Romney. She who died
Knew that, and said so; Lady Waldemar
Knows that; . . . and Marian. I had known the same,
Except that I was prouder than I knew,
And not so honest [9.684-89].
Aurora's Aunt, Lady Waldemar and Marian all embody for Aurora conflicting aspects of womanhood. In now acknowledging what they knew about her love for Romney, is she accepting the qualities in herself that they represent?
Last modified 16 October 2003