This is Part II of the author's "Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle."
Aurora Leigh portrays masculinity much like Jane Eyre does. Aurora has an up-and-down relationship with her young cousin, Romney, who argues with her about the worth of women writers. This conversation leads to moral debates similar to those of Jane and Rochester. They each see the role of a woman differently. Aurora sees the role of a woman as one of a mother and teacher to the world. She understands the role of a mother as someone who rears children to take their proper places, guiding them on their moral paths and teaching them the ways of the world. Fathers, and therefore men, love in a different sort of way.
. . . Women know
The way to rear up children, (to be just)
They know a simple, merry, tender knack
Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
And kissing full sense into empty words,
Which things are corals to cut life upon,
Although such trifles . . .
Such good do mothers. Fathers love as well
— Mine did, I know, — but still with heavier brains,
And wills more consciously responsible,
And not as wisely, since less foolishly;
So mothers have God's license to be missed. [Browning, I.47-64]
Aurora sees woman as a teacher for mankind. Instead of conceiving the domestic role as something passive, she sees it involved in the active shaping of human character. Indeed, in responde to the claim that women are not logical, she says, "I read a score of books on womanhood/ To prove, if women do not think at all,/ They may teach thinking" (Browning, I.428-430). For her the woman is figured as shaper of all people, including men.
Aurora belives chivalry has left in the world; it is replaced by the compassion of women. Men have ceased to do deeds simply for the good of others; women, however, have taken up the role of martyr in their willingness to suffer for others.
. . . To see a wrong or suffering moves us all
To undo it though we should undo ourselves;
Ay, all the more, that we undo ourselves, —
That's womanly, past doubt, and not ill-moved . . .
We're all so, — made so — 'tis our woman's trade
To suffer torment for another's ease.
The world's male chivalry has perished out,
But women are knights-errant to the last. [VII.215-225]
Women have taken over the masculine role of the hero and have made themselves into self-sacrificing heroines who save the men with their compassion and love. Compassion, which she sees purely as a female quality, is now elevated above brave deeds and chivalry. Men have no bravery, no compassion left. Women are superior in their ability to feel for others. Their true power lies in their ability to love and therefore save men from the evils of the world. "I thought, "Now, if I had been a woman, such/ As God made women, to save men by love, — / By just my love I might have saved this man" (Browning, VII.185-188)
Romney, in contrast, sees women's compassion as something less positive and unhelpful to the world. In the earlier stages of their relationship as young adults, Romney and Aurora argue over the ability of women poets to make a difference in the world. Both Aurora and Romney see the role of poet as someone who raises awareness about social issues, but Romney is unable to see a place in this for women. For him, though women are the more sensitive sex, their sensitivity is limited and cannot encompass the entirety of human suffering.
. . . There it is! —
You play beside a death-bed like a child,
Yet measure to yourself a prophet's place
To teach the living. None of all these things,
Can women understand. You generalize
Oh, nothing, — not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts,
So sympathetic to the personal pang,
Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
A whole life at each wound, incapable
Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
To hold the world-full woe . . .
...Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you, must remain
Uninfluenced by you. — Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you, — and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind. [Browning, II.179-225]
Romney sees no value in a woman's ability to sympathize with suffering, to put a face to pain. He only wants poets to focus on the suffering of the entire world, to sympathize with sick millions rather than one sick child. For him, true compassion is that which encompasses all people but generalizes and blurs them; for women, compassion focuses on the individual sufferings constantly occurring in the world.
Romney is effeminized in this story in his desperate pursuit of a wife, a role that was thought to be a woman's. Women traditionally pursued men with the intent to find a husband; men were thought to be independent, whereas women were in need of the protection of a man. Aurora reverses this idea and emasculates Romney by putting him in the place of the pursuer. She goes on to say that women are actually more independent than men, and it is men who need women most.
. . . The man's need of the woman, here,
Is greater than the woman's of the man,
And easier served; for where the man discerns
A sex, (ah, ah, the man can generalise,
Said he) we see but one, ideally
And really: where we yearn 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.
At board, at bed, at work and holiday,
It is not good for man to be alone. [Browning, V.1073-1083]
Men need to be "doubled", they need to have another person to make their lives fuller. Women's lives appear to be plenty full, for they are figured as already existing as pearls. Women simply want to find the one person with whom they can enmesh their existence, but this need is far less dire than that of men. A man is not complete until he finds another, specifically, a woman, to add full meaning to his existence.
In the end, after all of his boasting, Romney comes to see that not only is Aurora a poet in her own right but he was wrong about what women have to offer to the world. He assumed women were not able to generalize their sympathy and therefore could not express any truths about the world, but after reading her book of poetry he finds himself not only moved but enlightened.
I only thank the book for what it taught,
And what, permitted. Poet, doubt yourself,
But never doubt that you're a poet to me
From henceforth . . .
. . . [I]n this last book,
You showed me something separate from yourself,
Beyond you, and I bore to take it in
And let it draw me. You have shown me truths,
O June-day friend, that help me now at night
When June is over! truths not yours, indeed,
But set within my reach by means of you,
presented by your voice and verse the way
To take them clearest. Verily I was wrong . . . [Browning, VIII.589-614]
She can show him truths that guide him, show him things about the world that help him even when she is not there, because they are recorded in her poetry. She has assumed the Jane Eyre-esque role of truth holder for the man, of holding the answers to things which a man must ascertain through her.
Just as in the ending of Jane Eyre demands the blinding of Rochester as a sign of his clean moral slate, so too Romney is blinded in order for Aurora to be able to marry him. He must sacrifice his arrogance and admit he was wrong in order for her to be able to melt her fine pearls into his wine.
. . . The man here, once so arrogant
And restless, so ambitious, for his part,
Of dealing with statistically packed
Disorders (from a pattern on his nail),
And packing such things quite another way, -
Is now contented. From his personal loss
He has come to hope for others when they lose,
And wear a gladder faith in what we gain . . .
Through bitter experience, compensation sweet,
Like that tear, sweetest. [Browning, IX.585-594]
Though Aurora too must compromise some of the pride she has shown throughout the narrative, her sacrifice is not nearly that of Romney's. He must be whittled down to a blind, humble man in order to be lead by Aurora's truths, just as Rochester's slate must be wiped clean and he made helpless in order for Jane to guide him through life.
Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle
Last modified 22 May 2004