Upon the death of her father, the title character of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh must reside in Leigh Hall, her family’s ancestral home and the residence of her controlling aunt. The woman willfully orchestrates Aurora’s education in a wide variety of subjects — religion, foreign language, mathematics, music, dance, and cross-stitching — because “she liked a range/ Of liberal education” and “misliked women who are frivolous” (Book I, 401-2 and 406). In short, Aurora’s aunt demands her niece possess the qualities of a demure lady; Aurora, conversely, finds her aunt’s stipulations oppressive, something to endure rather than enjoy. The ten-year-old finds her salvation in the world of books: “After I had read for memory,/ I read for hope” (Book I, 729-30). Aurora sees a distinct similarity between the worlds created in literature and the world in which she lives, specifically the prominence of “God’s providence” in each.
The world of books is still the world, I write,
And both worlds have God’s providence, thank God,
To keep and hearten: with some struggle, indeed,
Among the breakers, some hard swimming through
The deeps — I lost breath in my soul sometimes
And cried, ‘God save me if there’s any God,’
But, even so, God saved me; and, being dashed
From error on to error, every turn
Still brought me nearer to the central truth. [Book I, lines 792-800]
Aurora, the speaker, crafts a metaphor that emphasizes God’s heartening relationship with his followers: individuals resemble breathless swimmers who face life-threatening challenges in the form of treacherous breakers, and God delivers those who seek his aid. Both literature and earthly life, she stresses, reflect this relationship. It becomes apparent that Aurora believes both in the power of piety and in literature as a mechanism to convey God’s protective nature. For Aurora, literature and writing provide hope for the future, a hope that she can propel herself away from the confines and restrictions of Leigh Hall.
1. The editor of Aurora Leigh, Margaret Reynolds, notes that the phrase “God save me if there’s any God” originates from the prayer of the common soldier: “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!” Elizabeth Barrett Browning admits that, as a child, the prayer “took my fancy and met my general views exactly.”
By attributing similar sentiments to her title character, does Browning establish Aurora as a mouthpiece for her personal opinions? Can the reader always assume that the opinions of the speaker are synonymous with those of the author?
2. To what does “the central truth” refer? In the course of Browning’s novel-poem, does Aurora constantly strive toward attaining this central truth?
3. Prior to the quoted passage, Aurora distinguishes between good and bad books: “I read books bad and good — some bad and good/ At once… books that prove/ God’s being so definitely, that man’s doubt/ Grows self-defined the other side the line,/ Made atheist by suggest.” Does Aurora equate “good” books with those “that prove God’s being so definitely”? Does this assertion support her claim that literature can influence how the reader perceives God?
4. Aurora’s assertion (and, arguably, Browning’s) that literature reflects God’s providence is reminiscent of the philosophy that claims art imitates life. Where have we seen this subject before and how would those authors respond to Aurora’s claim that “the world of books is still the world”?
Last modified 18 March 2011