ITLE>Literary Motherhood in "Aurora Leigh"


Barrett Browning employs motherhood as a conceit, or perhaps leit motif, that signifies her search for a matrilineal literary ancestry. Compelled by the absent or deceased parent, Victorian literature seems in search of contemporary maternal heroes. After the death of Aurora's mother and father in Book One, Aurora finds her father's sister a rigid and passionless mother surrogate. "Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight / As if for taming accidental thoughts" (1.273-274), Aurora's aunt knows only the "frigid use of life" (1.276). Aurora's aunt values tradition more than emotion. Similarly, Lady Waldemar perhaps assumes a quasi-maternal position of dominance over Marian — a position of advantage that allows her to manipulate and domesticate Marian for her own purposes, only to displace Marian from the household space once those purposes are spent. Lady Waldemar coaxes Marian with fulsome empathy, explaining how "Twas plain a man like Romney Leigh / Required a wife more level to himself" than Marian could hope to be (6.1027).

If Aurora's aunt plays an inadequate surrogate mother, and Lady Waldemar portrays the domestic villain, then Marian's demonstration of motherhood and rejection of Romney's hand suggest both her own heroism and her facilitation of Aurora's rise to domestic authority. "I am nothing more," she says, "But just a mother" (6.823-824). In the following passage, Marian questions whether life and birth can exceed and perhaps replace the violence of her rape:

Did God make mothers out of victims, then,
And set such pure amens to hideous deeds?
Why not? he overblows an ugly grave
With violets which blossom in the spring. (7.56-59)

Marian's maternal agency enables her resurrection from a position of debasement, stigmatization, and victimization. By embracing her child as a "blossom" signifying birth and renewal rather than an emblem of the "hideous deed" itself, Marian achieves defiance out of abjection. "I have as sure a right / As any glad proud mother in the world," she says (6.661-662). Marian becomes the champion for working-class women and mothers. "I claim my mother-dues / By lawŠThe common law, by which the poor and weak / Are trodden underfoot by vicious men" (6.665-668). Her narration of the rape and her rejection of Romney's offer of marriage complete her transition from suffering to redemption. No longer dependent upon Aurora's commiseration, Marian paves the way for Aurora's rise to domestic authority — a rise from a position of financial dependence to a position of dominance over the disenfranchised and blinded Romney.

As Margaret Reynolds argues, shortly after Aurora meets Marian in France during Book Six, Barrett Browning frames their journey to Marian's humble apartment upon the literal and metaphorical reversal of who leads and who follows. At first, Aurora narrates how "I led her by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters" (6.482-483). However, after Marian voices to Aurora her indifference to Romney's whereabouts during her absence, Marian takes the lead. Then she led "The way," says Aurora, "and I, as by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters, followed her" (6.500-502). By the novel-poem's conclusion, Aurora follows Marian's example of domestic heroism. Having confronted and overcome her violent rape, Marian reclaims an integrated female identity predicated upon the motherhood of her child, her sacrifice of Romney's hand in marriage, and ultimately her routing Aurora towards the control of her own domestic contract with Romney.

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Victorian Overview E. B. Browning The Warden The Warden

Last modified 1996