In the first book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem Aurora Leigh, the title character narrates the events of her childhood. After describing the deaths of her parents, Aurora Leigh discusses her new life with her aunt and the ways in which it changes her. One important area which she spends time detailing is the concept of womanhood and what it means to her aunt. One of the activities appropriate for women, in the aunt's mind, is sewing or making clothes. Aurora Leigh comments on her aunt before she begins to make her own distinctions about what sewing and other activities mean for women and the perception of women in society:
And English women, she thanked God and sighed
(Some people always sigh in thanking God)
Were models to the universe. And last
I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like
To see me wear the night with empty hands
A-doing nothing. So, my sheperdess
Was something after all (the pastoral saints
Be praised for't), leaning lovelorn with pink eyes
To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
Which slew the tragic poet. [lines 444-455]
1. In the paragraph following this one, Aurora Leigh more clearly reveals her impatience and concern with the work women are expected to do. Is there evidence of this slightly mocking tone in the above paragraph? Does her opinion stem organically from her feelings about womanhood, or is her relationship with her aunt a factor in influencing her views in a certain direction — i.e, is she rebelling against her aunt? How does her relationship with her aunt compare to Jane Eyre's similar situation?
2. Who is "the tragic poet" to whom Aurora Leigh alludes?
3. In the phrase "wear the night" the verb "wear" could be a synonym for "pass" or "sit through". However, "wear" as in "wear clothing" is also described in the passage, and directly relates to the activities discussed. Are the two kinds of "wearing" connected at all? Are the activities and clothing both types of oppression? What reactions do other female characters in Victorian texts have to sewing?
4. Aurora Leigh describes her aunt as "leaning lovelorn with pink eyes." Why pink? Does it refer to femininity, love, or something else entirely?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified 15 March 2004