Decorative Initial In Dickens and Women, Michael Slater acknowledges that "no comment of Dickens's has so far come to light on the work of the most famous woman poet of his day, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but we may imagine that he would have found Aurora Leigh, if he ever looked into it, disagreeably coarse and unwomanly in many places" (320). What, specifically, are the places in Aurora Leigh with which Dickens would have a problem?

First, Dickens presumably would not find appealing Aurora's decision to pursue a literary career rather than marry Romney Leigh. Slater has observed that women's writing was reconcilable with the Victorian gender construction provided "that it took second place to whatever domestic responsibilities a woman might have" (321). A Victorian woman's first duty, therefore, was to fulfill her role as the angel of the domestic sphere. Dickens likewise would probably have scoffed at Barrett Browning's decision to write her narrative as a fusion of genres. The novel-poem which Barrett Browning wrote, feminist scholars like Marjorie Stone claim, "entails a fusion of genders since Victorians viewed epic, philosophic, and racy satiric poetry as male domains, but thought the novel more suited to female writers" (115). Using Gilbert and Gubar as sources, Stone illustrates that Victorians found women better suited for writing novels since they "did not require or display the knowledge of classical models barred to most women, novelists did not aspire to be priestly or prophetic figures interpreting God and the world to their fellows, and the novel was less subjective than the prevalent lyric and confessional poetic forms and therefore more congruent with the self-effacing role prescribed for Victorian women" (Stone 115). Despite Aurora's assertion of autonomy in Book II and Barrett Browning's fusing of two distinct genres, the ideal woman which Aurora Leigh imagines is similar to that which Dickens imagines. Aurora Leigh shares with Great Expectations the notion that women have the power to remoralize man and to bring him closer to God.

Although Barrett Browning gives Aurora Leigh an existence outside the confines of the domestic sphere, she still depicts Aurora as a keeper of virtue, as one whose words have the power to align mankind with divinity. In Book VII of the novel-poem, Aurora gives us her manifesto on art and its function in society. Art, for her, should not merely imitate the natural world; instead, true art is infused with the spiritual.

Natural things And spiritual — who separates those two In art, in morals, or the social drift, Tears up the bond of nature and brings death, Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse, Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men, Is wrong, in short, at all points. [VII. 762-768]

According to Aurora's paradigm, art has a twofold nature, being at once a representation of the physical world and giving a glimpse of some transcendental space. Aurora later writes, "Art's the witness of what Is/ Behind this show. If the world's show were all,/ Then imitation would be all in Art" (VII. 834-836). Art — whether literature or music or painting — gives a vision of the spiritual realm. It is this vision which moralizes mankind. "Thus is Art/ Self-magnified in magnifying a truth/ Which, fully recognised, would change the world/ And shift its morals." (VII. 854-857) Aurora, as the artist, brings these higher truths to mankind just as the "angel of the house" brings pure values to her family.

Aurora's definition of true art — that which infuses mankind with higher values — is precisely what her writing does for Romney after the failure of his social experiments. Upon meeting Aurora and Marian in Florence, Romney tells Aurora that he has read her book. He tells her "It stands above my knowledge, draws me up;/ 'Tis high to me" (VIII. 285-286). In Book VIII, Romney retracts his earlier statement that women cannot make good poets. Romney, in his apology to Aurora, repeats the words Aurora spoke the day she rejected his marriage proposal. After reading her book, he now understands that "It takes a soul,/ To move a body — it takes a high-souled man,/ To move the masses" (VIII. 430-432). Aurora has introduced Romney to a new value system, one which places emphasis on spirituality. Romney even refers to Aurora as an angel, thereby reinforcing the notion that the female poet is a mouthpiece of God. "'Ah,' he said/ 'Aurora! when the prophet beats the ass,/ The angel intercedes'" (VIII. 794-796). Aurora, though not confined to the home, still functions in the text as a keeper of virtue, as a necessary complement to man's dealing with the amoral world of the marketplace.

With Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning revises the Victorian gender construction which roots the virtuous woman firmly in the domestic sphere. Barrett Browning imagines that a woman can have a public existence and still perform her function as moral repository. In revising the Victorian gender paradigm, however, Barrett Browning runs into a difficult problem. How is Aurora going to keep her virtue once she has an existence in the amoral public sphere? Gail Turley Houston has observed that a new metaphor for the writer began to emerge in the nineteenth century — that of the prostitute. Houston cites that the "growth of a mass audience in the 1830s and 1840s and the establishment of cheap serial publication allied to the practice of paying authors by the line" contributed to this new metaphor of writer/artist as prostitute (Houston 214). With the commodification of literature in the nineteenth century, the writer no longer depended on a patron for his/her support. Writers now had to sell themselves in the marketplace, like prostitutes, in order to survive (Houston 214). Indeed, Aurora runs head-on into the predicament of supporting herself with her writing. In Book III, Aurora admits to having to write for "cyclopaedias, magazines,/ And weekly papers, holding up my name/ To keep it from the mud" (III. 310-312). She, in effect, needs to sell herself by writing in these mundane forms in order to be able to write her more sublime poetry. Aurora not only operates within a public space, but also operates within that space as a metaphorical prostitute. Clearly her virtue is at risk. How, then, does Barrett Browning construct Aurora so as to prevent her from being corrupted by the marketplace?

Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi has observed that Aurora expresses a deep ambivalence about being a woman in the first few books of the text. Gelpi cites as evidence Aurora's description of her deceased mother's portrait, in which she uses the ambivalent images of "angel," "witch," "Medusa," and "Lamia" to describe her mother. Gelpi writes that "central to their paradoxes is the thought that if as a woman she is to be an artist, she will betray her role as mother; yet the mother in her will in turn betray and transfix the artist" (38). I would like to offer a revision of Gelpi's argument that Aurora's ambivalence stems from her fear that the artist in her will render her unable to perform her role as mother. I would argue instead that Aurora's ambivalence towards femininity stems from the tension she experiences as a woman writer operating in the public sphere. Aurora's method of dealing with this tension is to depict herself as an androgynous individual, thereby preserving her femininity from the dangers of the marketplace.

Gelpi notes several places in the text where Barrrett Browning depicts Aurora in masculine terms. For instance, not only does Aurora share the same last name with Romney, she also resembles him physically. Lady Waldemar writes, "Your droop of eyelid is the same as his" (IX.163). In Book I, Aurora's "belief in herself as a poet leads [her] to escape when possible from her conventional life as an English lady and see herself as a deer — but a stag, not a doe: 'I threw my hunters off and plunged myself/ Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag/ Will take the waters' (I. 1071-1073)" (Gelpi 41-42). Perhaps the most striking example of Aurora's gender inversion occurs when she compares her situation as a young girl learning the classical languages from her father to that of Achilles, whose his mother dressed him in women's clothes to prevent his going to the Trojan War.

And thus, as did the women formerly
By young Achilles, when they pinned a veil
Across the boy's audacious front, and swept
With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,
He wrapt his little daughter in his large
Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no. [I. 723-728]

Here Aurora not only identifies with the masculine Achilles, but also imagines herself as dressed in the "clothes" appropriate to the opposite gender. Gelpi writes, "so the sense of herself as masculine, which she feels she needs in order to think seriously of herself as a poet, becomes the sense also which eats into the flesh of her self-esteem. She is manlike (according to the culture's associations with masculinity) in some respects but not, after all, a man, just as Achilles was not a woman" (42).

In the beginning of the text, Aurora uses masculine terms to describe herself in order to justify her place in the public sphere and to preserve her femininity from the amoralness of that sphere. As the poem progresses, Aurora begins to lose her masculine identity and becomes a true woman (i.e. a feminine woman) in both action and spirit. Gelpi cites as crucial to Aurora's becoming a feminine woman her desire to help Marian Erle once she finds her and her illegitimate child in Paris. "It is the first instance in which we see the imaginative Aurora involved in the physical care of a fellow human being, while just at the same time, we learn later, the actively charitable Romney lies quiet for the first time, listening to and deeply moved by Aurora's poetry. The split between 'masculine' activity and 'feminine' spiritual insight is disappearing" (Gelpi 45).

By the novel-poem's end, Aurora seems to have lost all traces of masculinity. She tells Romney that she was wrong in her initial assumption that she could not simultaneously be a wife and an artist.

But I who saw the human nature broad
At both sides, comprehending too all the soul's,
And all the high necessities of Art,
Betrayed the thing I saw, and wronged my own life
For which I pleaded. Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's, I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman. [IX. 641-649]

Now Aurora claims that it is precisely because she is not a wife (and therefore is an "imperfect woman") that she is not a perfect artist. She writes several lines later that "Art is much, but Love is more. . ./Art symbolizes heaven, but Love is God/ And makes heaven" (IX. 656; 658-59). Aurora's idea is that, because she did not feel love, she was not fully connected to God and therefore was not a complete artist. Her model for what makes a good artist in the last book is the opposite of her model in Book II, when she originally rejects Romney. Whereas before she argued that she needed independence from Romney in order to write, she now argues that she needs to be in union with him in order to be fully connected with the spiritual. Aurora, by the novel-poem's end, has given into the dominant gender construction in which women define themselves through their relationships with men.

The Victorian gender construction which defines men and women as occupying separate social spheres clearly informs both Dickens's Great Expectations and Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. Dickens relegates his female characters to the domestic sphere. Women such as Mrs. Joe who do not conform to the Victorian gender norm ultimately find themselves controlled by their male counterparts. Whereas Barrett Browning does not contain Aurora within the confines of the home, she ultimately has Aurora submit to the bourgeois construction of gender by having her admit that she cannot function as a woman or as an artist independently of her cousin Romney. Her submission to the gender ideal established by Victorian culture is not nearly as violent as that of Mrs. Joe or Molly or Estella. The fact that she submits to this construction on her own demonstrates the extent to which Victorian women internalized the image of women idealized by their culture — the image of woman as the 'angel of the house,' as a moral repository whose function it was to counterbalance the husband's exposure to the amoral world of the marketplace.


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh bibliography  Gender Matters

Last modified 1996