n the May 1995 issue of Ebony magazine, a review by Monique Burns of a new book, Dared and Done by Julia Markus, bore the headline, "A Cultural Bombshell: Two of World's Greatest Lovers — Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning — Were Descendants of Blacks." Markus, who claims that the poets descended from Jamaican plantation owners, reached her conclusion by delving into the curious desire of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father, Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett, to not have any of his children marry.
One reason given has been that he desired to keep his children at home and under his control. This was certainly true. Another has been that he had an unease about his children's sexuality. A father who insists on his daughter's purity is not an unfamiliar type. One who insists that his sons not marry is a unique type. (Ebony 97, excerpted from Dared and Done )
Most scholars had assigned the father's desire to a religious basis, but Markus claims that what Edward "did not want to do was to carry on the Moulton Barrett line" (Ebony 97). Markus supports her claim from photographs of Elizabeth and Robert Browning, both of whom were reported by friends as having a dark complexion. Markus also provides quotes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (henceforth Browning) describing herself as "little and black" and confessing to her husband-to-be of what she believed to be her true ancestry: "'I would give ten towns in Norfolk (if I had them) to own some purer lineage than that of the blood of the slave!'" (Ebony 152). Markus also claims that Robert Browning descended from a similar lineage of Jamaican plantation owners.
Another piece of evidence that Markus uses is the composition of the poem, "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," during the Brownings' honeymoon. The poem deals with the suffocation of a mulatto child by the child's slave mother because the child reminds her of her master: "Every time I see his face I see that master's race" ("The Runaway Slave," quoted in Ebony 100). Markus sees the parallel to Browning's life in her father's attempt "to suffocate the next generation" (Ebony 152).
Aurora Leigh's consciousness of her ancestry immediately reveals itself near the beginning of the "verse-novel" when she becomes an orphan and goes to live with her aunt. Upon Aurora's arrival, her aunt "with two gray-steel naked-bladed eyes /Searched through my face — ay, stabbed it through and through, /Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find /A wicked murderer in my innocent face" (I, 327 - 330). Aurora Leigh also describes the negative reaction of her aunt to her father's marriage to her Italian mother.
Another veiled reference in Aurora Leigh to her miscegenated lineage occurs during Romney's proposal to Aurora:
a You gather up
A few such cases, and when strong sometimes
Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
Your father were a negro, and your son
A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,
All, coloured with your blood ...
This reference concurs with Markus's theory of Browning's ancestry, but a greater problem exists other than the racial makeup of the poet. Does the work of art relate in any way to the factual incidents in the author's life? Is Browning playing with her readers or is she subtly trying to tell them something?
In her book, Realism and Power, Alison Lee says that the New Critics view a poem as separate from the poet's life: "Because language is public, they argue, the poem is also public, and therefore has little to do with the private or idiosyncratic details of the poet's life" (22). A problem with autobiography and fictional autobiography is that the reader does not always know when the author tells the truth or suppresses it. Postmodernist skepticism of narrative sees it as a false account of the truth. Narrative is removed from the truth because it involves one person's account; the narrative embodies the narrator's personal biases and perspective. Poetry exacerbates the problem because it involves a "poetic license": Plato ostracizes the poet from his Republic because he thought that poetry was three times removed from the truth. Another problem with autobiography lies in the re-telling of one's life through one's memory. A person's current emotions tend to cloud his or her memory of past events so that a happy childhood is recalled as melancholic if the person is in a depressive state. These problems blur the border between art and autobiography and, as we shall see, present to the reader some difficulties in interpreting the meaning of the narrative's biographical elements in relation to the author's actual life, and in trusting the narrator with the narrative.
Aurora Leigh starts off with her declaration that the book is a "story for my better self /As when you paint your portrait for a friend" (I, 4-5). This statement introduces two problems: the book is a story and the book is a portrait. A story usually connotes some fictional elements, but her declaration that it is similar to a self-portrait for a friend should raise a red flag. A self-portrait usually flatters oneself in the best possible light; but when doing it for a friend, the artist would probably be extremely careful in this regard. The reader also has to be careful because it is through the fictional character that the author vicariously voices this declaration. Is the fictional character, who is an accomplished poet, trying to paint herself in the best possible light? Is the author, who is also an accomplished poet, trying to paint herself in the best possible light?
As Browning's autobiographical essay, Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character, declares, "TO BE ONE'S OWN chronicler is a task generally dictated by extreme vanity and often by that instinctive feeling which prompts the soul of man to snatch the records of his life from the dim and misty ocean of oblivion" (Quoted from Sanders, 56). Even at the early age of fourteen, she recognizes the "extreme vanity" inherent in an autobiography.
From the records of her life, we discover that Browning's mother died when she was twenty-two years old. However, in Aurora Leigh, Aurora's mother dies when she is only four years old. The earlier maternal death in Aurora Leigh reflects Browning's feelings of loss for her own mother, who cared for her in her child-like incapacitation due to her valetudinarian situation.2 Browning describes Aurora's mother as a loving and kind mother, but after the death of Aurora's mother, Aurora would gaze upon the portrait painted after her mother's death and imagine her to be a
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will .... (I, 154-59)
These are all the various incarnations, mostly unflattering, of women in literature written by male writers.3 But Aurora recognizes that her imaginary projections are not her own mother because after describing all of them, she says:
Or my own mother, leaving her last smile
In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth
My father pushed down on the bed for that —
Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
Buried at Florence. (I, 164-68)
>Clearly, she distinguishes between her imagination and reality.
Browning describes with gentility Aurora's father as well, and he also dies when Aurora was young. The early paternal death contradicts with her real life because Edward Barrett lived until 1857, four years before her own death. She was very close to her father, just as Aurora Leigh was attached to her father. Both fathers supported and encouraged their daughter's literary and educational pursuits. Browning read voraciously during her childhood, reading most of the texts in their original languages. Her father helped finance the private publication of The Battle of Marathon when she was only fourteen years old. Browning could say along with Aurora that her father "taught me what he had learnt the best /Before he died and left me — grief and love" (I, 185-86).
After Browning defied her father and secretly eloped with Robert Browning, her father's support did not continue because he disowned all of his married children. This severed relationship may explain why Browning killed off Aurora's father so early. If we had no evidence of Edward Barrett's disowning of Browning, we would not know that she repressed her anger at her father's refusal to receive any communications from her and that she projected her anger via the fictional early death of a father figure.
The courtship of Romney and Aurora Leigh provides an interesting look at her own courtships, good and bad. Romney's unfortunate fate at the end of the poem parallel events in her own life. Romney's loss of the estate inherited from Aurora's father corresponds to the Barretts' loss of Hope End in 1832. Her first relationship was with a blind Greek scholar named Hugh Stuart Boyd. In her diary accounts of the relationship, she describes her unrequited affections. According to Laurelyn Douglas, "For a year her entries calculate the bitter difference between his regard and her own, and she wonders if she can ever hope for reciprocation" (Douglas). This relationship cauterized her heart, and she found "her womanly capacity for feeling a liability and wishes she could feel less" (Douglas).
Aurora Leigh has to achieve her goal of being a great poet to prove to Romney that women can write great poetry before she can return his affections. But this poses problems for the reader because the reader only possesses her accounts of the events. Aurora may be acting on hubris because after she becomes an accomplished poet, she writes her autobiography for her own use.
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine — (I, 1-3)
Aurora has to continually remind herself about her pride when she talks about her poetry: "Aurora Leigh, be humble ... Aurora Leigh: be humble" (V, 1, 42). She also states her reasons for not writing in other literary forms, preferring to write only poetry.
I will write no plays;
Because the drama, less sublime in this,
Makes lower appeals, submits more menially,
Adopts the standard of the public taste .... (V, 267-70)
Is Aurora twisting the truth for poetic reasons? Romney's fate seem to be a bit unrealistic; one disaster would still be realistic, but to be blinded and to lose your home at the same time is quite unfortunate for a man who only wanted to love Aurora. Maybe these events are hinting at Browning's life: Romney's blindness parallels Boyd's blindness and the loss of Romney's home is similar to the Barretts' loss of Hope End due to Edward Barrett's financial downturn.
Browning does not seem to have any other relationships until a young man named Robert Browning sends her his congratulations for her work in Poems. Aurora Leigh finally accepts Romney's love for her after he accepts her poetry and concedes his error concerning women's capacity for writing poetry. Her earlier relationship with H. S. Boyd and her valetudinarian condition made her question "what sort of a gift her heart would make to Browning since she was not young (thirty-eight), six years an invalid, [and] broken-spirited in guilt and sorrow" (Douglas). After Robert earned her trust, their courtship provided them fame from their letters as passionate lovers and provided to literature a collection of love poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese, named after Robert's nickname for Elizabeth, "The Portuguese." This nickname, incidentally, supports Markus's argument of Browning's non-English features and darker complexion.
As we have seen from these parallels, the works of an author have very much to do with the incidents in their lives. However, the reader still has to sort through the artistic licenses to find the little bits of information that may reveal something about the author. Comparisons with biographical details allow the reader to find out if their bits of information are the truth or not. The reader also has to be aware of the author's mental state during the composition of the work. A further complication with Victorian authors, especially with Victorian women authors, involves the genre of the autobiography. Women were not supposed to have a public life, much less write about their personal lives for publication. However, women had an advantage after they gained acceptance for their writing: "From the point where women first began to write about themselves, they showed a greater interest than men in the 'unofficial' side of their lives" (Sanders 54). According to Sanders, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her autobiographical essay, felt the need to "justify her stance without in some way overturning contemporary gender expectations, and deserving the accusations of vanity which trouble her throughout the Essay" (57).
- Great Expectations section of the original essay
- Waterland section of the original essay
- Bibliography and footnotes for all parts of the original essay
Last modified 1996