lizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, initially establishes Italy as a place of distasteful passions and sensuality, standing entirely opposed to the more straight-laced English culture in which Aurora lives, and to which she is expected to conform. As a child, Aurora comes to understand that her aunt dislikes her "Tuscan mother" because her aunt believes that this Italian woman led her English brother astray. Seeing some of the "Italian" in Aurora, the Aunt remarks that "We'll leave Italian manners, if you please./I think you had an English father, child,/And ought to find it possible to speak/A quiet "yes" or "no", like English girls, without convulsions" (Second Book, 727-31). Italy is established as a distasteful country with an equally distasteful culture. But the "the Italian" comes to be profoundly important for Aurora as a young woman, for it is in Italy that she comes to gain a deeper understanding of her art, religion and even love. The seventh book is filled with lush descriptions of Italy, and in this book Aurora examines the nature of art, and comes to define and appreciate it more fully than she could in the beginning of the poem, as a less mature and reflective writer. Living "tenderly" (line 1052) in Italy, Aurora comes to understand art as "Self-Magnified in magnifying truth/Which, fully recognized, would change the world". In Italy she feels a profound sense of liberation, such as she did not seem to have in her native England. It seems that perhaps this liberation and anonymity allows her to mature and more deeply reflect on the nature of art and love. Italy, her mother's homeland, is a place of liberation and reflection for Aurora, and comes to affect the course that her life takes in the very end of the poem.
I understood her meaning afterward;
She thought to find my mother in my face,
And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,
Had loved my father truly, as she could,
And hated, with the gall of gentle souls
My Tuscan mother who had fooled away
A wise man from wise courses, a good man
From obvious duties. . . . [First Book, lines 337-43]
This perfect solitude of foreign lands!
To be, as if you had not been till then,
And were then, simply that you chose to be:
To spring up, not be brought forth from the ground,
Like grasshoppers at Athens, and skip thrice
Before a woman makes a pounce on you
And plants you in her hair! — possess, yourself,
A new world all alive with creatures new,
New sun, new moon, new flowers, new people — ah,
And to be possessed by none of them! no right
In one, to call your name, inquire your where
No what you think of Mister Some-one's book
Or Mister Other's marriage or decease,
Or how's the headache which you had last week,
Or why you look so pale still, since it's gone? [Seventh Book, lines 1193-1208]
A simple question: How does Aurora change and mature in Italy? What does she find so luminous about the country?
How does her personal growth inform her work?
Is it significant that Italy is also the country of her mother's birth? How?
What does Elizabeth Barrett Browning imply about "the foreign" and its relationship to "art"? What does her experience in Italy have to do with the notion of women's independence?
Why might Aurora's aunt be shocked by her language and descriptions in the passage about the glories of solitude? Does she seem to rebel against the culture in which she was raised?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 24 March 2004