n E.B. Browning's Aurora Leigh, we note that there is a shift in the poem's notions of gender after the first five books. Whereas the beginning portions of the poem underlines very pronounced distinctions between the two genders, the poem soon begins to highlight certain commonalities between men and women. The poem slowly destroys our conventional conceptions of engendered behaviors as men begin to act like women, and women begin to show signs of maleness. Finally, at the end of the poem, the entire notion of gender seems to be eradicated as Romney and Aurora unite in their affections for one another. It is here that Browning ultimately reveals love as a union of two souls.
Nevertheless, what is interesting about this shift is that, until the end of the poem, it happens entirely in the voices of secondary characters. As characters such as Lady Waldemar and Marian Erle allude to Aurora's love for Romney before Aurora herself even realizes it, we begin to feel slightly less trusting of our somewhat short-sighted narrator. These secondary voices in the poem, however, reveal more than just a foreshadowing of plot; they also hint at underlying themes within the poem. We see the above deconstruction of the concept of gender most clearly in Marian Erle's final monologue when she states: "[I] Have come to learn, . . . a woman, poor or rich, / Despised or honoured, is a human soul" (lines 328-329, Ninth Book). Marian, therefore, anticipates what becomes the ultimate definition of both men and women in the poem, for, at the end of the ninth book, humanity is revealed as a collection of souls. Furthermore, Browning suggest that only by uniting with one another in love, only by uniting our souls, can we live a fruitful life. Even Lady Waldemar sees, or rather admits, the profound significance of love long before Aurora acknowledges it, for she says in her letter to Aurora Leigh:
I cannot chose but think
That, with him, I were virtouser than you
Without him: so I hate you from this gulf
And hollow of my soul, which opens out
To what, except for you, had been my heaven,
And is, instead, a place to curse by! LOVE. [lines 167-172, Ninth Book]
It is, therefore, Lady Waldemar who conceives of love in the more profound and spiritual sense of the word long before Aurora, and she does so by using a metaphor for Romney as her own personal "heaven" and by then acknowledging the soul as a physical space for both spiritual and romantic love (which here are noted as existing hand in hand). Lady Waldemar's soul is described as "empty," and thus she seems to suggest that our souls are formed and filled by love. It only follows that love then comes to Aurora at he end of the poem as a higher, more spiritual, way of living. There is also, however, a more difficult ambiguity in this passage of Lady Waldemar's. She states that her soul "opens out" to what would have been a heaven but instead, because of Aurora, it is "a place to curse by." Does this accursed place then refer to a hell of sorts?
If so, does this hell exist externally in the unrequited love of Romney, or does it dwell in a more abstract sense in the very being, in the very soul, of Lady Waldemar herself?
We thus see that the many voices within the poem render Aurora's own narration somewhat less reliable. However, are these secondary voices reliable in themselves? We know that the character of Lady Waldemar is not so reliable, but how do we see Marian at the end of the poem?
Also, it seems that Lady Waldemar, who despite her own cunning and our inclinations as readers to distrust her character, is the one to reveal the deeper significance and moral that lies beneath the poem. Why does Browning choose to use Lady Waldemar in this way? And does Lady Waldemar's very honest admission at the end of her letter make us more sympathetic to her character?
Last modified 16 October 2003