Like twentieth-century authors, such as Graham Swift, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens also confront the formal inadequacies of autobiography. Barrett Browning struggled in the schizophrenic role of a "poet highly aware of her literary heritage, with a 'filial spirit,' 'a reverent love of the grandfathers,' but regretful to find no poetic grandmothers" (Blake 387). Barrett Browning's conflicting awareness of herself as a traditional autobiographer and a pioneering woman poet upsets the conventional form:

In the first four books of [Aurora Leigh] the principal subject is Aurora's artistic development, and the narration is clearly retrospective. Beginning with Book V, however, the principal subject is the search for emotional fulfillment and the attainment of its prerequisite, self-knowledge. Here the mode of narration changes from authoritative retrospection to an immersion in events that presupposes no distance between character and narrator. (McSweeney xxv)

Given the "high degree of self-reflexivity in the narrator of Aurora Leigh " and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "habit of self-consciousness" (xxvii), the poet found it easy to forget the fictional distance between herself and her narrator, as her affinity with Wordsworth's Romantic poetics will demonstrate:

[Elizabeth Barrett Browning] makes Wordsworth the poet hero at whose feet the present generation of poets should sit in her most sustained work of criticism, Essays on the Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets . Here she stresses Wordsworth's writing out of his own personal experience, giving "the actual audible breathing of his inward spirit's life." And in his work nothing is too common to treat; Barrett Browning applauds the "daring in his commonness." Further, common things expand in meaning because of an "infinite egotism" (pp. 105-8), for Wordsworth sees not merely with the optic nerve but with his mind and soul [cf. the death of the "visual nerve" in John Milton and Romney Leigh in Barrett Browning's aesthetic articulated in Aurora Leigh, X.645-59]. Such are the elements of a Romantic aesthetic that Barrett Browning identifies in her essay. Together they form a poetry that reflects an individual inward life encountering what is common day by day and transmuting it by its own imaginative powers, or ego, so that it yields the richest significance. Barrett Browning's own ars poetica may be identified with this aesthetic. [Blake 388]

By adjusting the incidence of reflection in autobiographical narrative, Barrett Browning simultaneously maps her philosophy and her femininity onto a male-coded mirror.

Related Web Materials

  1. Fictional Autobiography: Definitions and Descriptions
  2. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (I): Fall from Paradise
  3. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (II): The First Female Kunstlerroman
  4. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (III): The Victorian Woman's Revenge Fantasy
  5. Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (IV):Inadequacies of Form
  6. Great Expectations and Fictional Autobiography (I): Fantasy and Nightmare
  7. Great Expectations and Fictional Autobiography (II): The Beast and His Keeper

Victorian Overview E. B. Browning

Last modified 1996