At the age of 13, the eponymous narrator of the Elizabeth Barret Browning novel-poem Aurora Leigh is orphaned and forced to live with her strict and "dutiful" aunt. At first, she gets along well with her aunt. Aurora is "a good child on the whole / A meek and manageable child. Why not?" (p.16) As she matures, though, her desire to learn as a means for discovering truth increasingly conflicts with her aunt's traditional view that a woman should learn only to become an industrious and dutiful wife. When Aurora turns twenty, her aunt dies, and so does the legitimacy of her archaic views of women. Aurora, aided by her strong thirst for knowledge, becomes a soundly educated and respected writer.
In the passage below, Browning documents an early stage of Aurora's rejection of her aunt's educational ideals. Aurora does not complain when her aunt tacitly admonishes her for the intellectual passion in her eyes, and she submits to her aunt's orders to crochet. But her compliance is uneasy and she notes that her aunt treats her more like a pie that needs baking than a human with a desire for education.
For me, I wrote
False poems, like the rest, and thought them true
Because myself was true in writing them.
I peradventure have writ true ones since
With less complacence.
But I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window now and then,
They had not set there. Who had set it there?
My father's sister started when she caught
My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say
I had no business with a sort of soul,
But plainly she objected, — and demurred,
That souls were dangerous things to carry straight
Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.
She said sometimes, "Aurora, have you done
Your task this morning? — have you read that book?
And are you ready for the crochet here?" —
As if she said, "I know there's something wrong,
I know I have not ground you down enough
To flatten and bake you to a wholesome crust
For household uses and proprieties,
Before the rain has got into my barn
And set the grains a-sprouting. What, you're green
With out-door impudence? you almost grow?"
To which I answered, "Would she hear my task,
And verify my abstract of the book?
And should I sit down to the crochet work?
Was such her pleasure?" . . Then I sate and teased
The patient needle til it split the thread,
Which oozed off from it in meandering lace
From hour to hour. [p. 35]
How does the reading and writing Aurora does independently compare with the reading "tasks" her aunt assigns?
What is women's work in the novel? How does Aurora characterize crocheting and other needlework?
In the above passage, Aurora compares herself to a house and a pie ingredient under the hands of a baker. What other passive objects does Aurora liken herself to, as a ward of her aunt? What is the significance of these comparisons?
Is a soul "a dangerous thing to carry through the saltpetre of the world?" How does Aurora qualify her aunt's idea?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified 15 March 2004