Aurora Leigh lives in an era in which middle-class men and women dwell in separate social spheres, where the male-dominated church and state circumscribes the female-centered family and home. The moral and political ideologies that define the separate spheres, however, do not only govern human behavior on a broad, sociological scale. Gender relations within the home are themselves regulated by a sense of nationalism, whereby middle- and upper-class families uphold the heterosexual nuclear family as a symbol of both domestic and national stability. As Anne McClintock observes in her essay "'No Longer in a Future Heaven': Gender, Race and Nationalism," "After 1859 and the advent of social Darwinism, Britain's emergent national narrative took shape increasingly around the image of the evolutionary family of man. The family offered an indispensable metaphoric figure by which national difference could be shaped into a single historical genesis narrative" (91). McClintock goes on to note, "the metaphoric depiction of social hierarchy as natural and familial — the "national family," the global "family of nations," the colony as a "family of black children ruled over by a white father" — depended in this way on the prior naturalizing of the social subordination of women and children within the domestic space" (91).
In keeping with their subordinate relation to men, Victorian middle-class women typically moved from their father's to their husband's home. Moreover, once in the home, women found their very sexuality regulated by the "metaphoric figure of the family." The "angel in the house" is the paradigm of Victorian female sexuality against which Browning positions her female characters. Subordinated within the domestic space, this "angel" maintains a utilitarian view of her sexuality, engaging in sexual activity only when it is necessary for reproduction. Women who resist this model either by refraining from sex altogether, as would a spinster, or by having non-reproductive sex, as would a prostitute, defy middle-class norms and values and are considered social outcasts. Browning's novel-poem is notably free of these "angels." Indeed, we could classify most of her female characters as social deviants: women who do not submit to the social regulation of their bodies, either by choice or circumstance. Aurora defers matrimonial bonds for as long as she deems necessary and supports herself — independent of male patronage — as a professional writer. Moreover, Aunt Leigh is unmarried, Lady Waldemer is a widow, and Mrs. Erle defies any code of family values in her willingness to sell her own daughter into prostitution. Although we can more easily gauge the moral integrity of spinsters and prostitutes, the "fallen woman" in Aurora Leigh proves somewhat more problematic. Marian Erle is an unmarried mother who, as a rape victim, is neither virgin nor whore. Her ambiguous place in Victorian class hierarchy is further complicated by her insistence on self-sufficiency, which she most blatantly demonstrates in her refusal to marry Romney. In this socially deviant move, Marian not only refuses to conform to a standard female gender role, but she also refuses to legitimize her single-motherhood through union with a man. Most strikingly, Marian refuses to be silenced by her rape, a typically taboo subject in Victorian society. Perhaps turning to her voice as her only instrument of resistance, Marian derives a sense of self-empowerment from telling Aurora that she can and will talk about the violence committed against her.
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong,
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.
Let pass the rest, then; only leave my oath
Upon this sleeping child,-man's violence,
Not man's seduction, made me what I am,
As lost asÉI told himI should be lost.
When mothers fail us, can we help ourselves?
That's fatal!-And you call it being lost,
That down came next day's noon and caught me there
Half gibbering and half raving on the floor,
And wondering what had happened up in heaven,
That suns should dare to shine when God himself
Was certainly abolished [6.1219-34].
1. How does Browning's novel-poem view institutionalized control of sexuality? Is the "angel in the house" as the norm or anomaly in Aurora Leigh? If the "angel" is the anomaly, then what "metaphoric figure of family" does Browning formulate?
2. What is the relationship between class and femininity in Aurora Leigh? How would a Victorian reader compare Marian's economic independence to Aurora's? What other factors might this reader consider when gauging the class-bound femininity of these two women?
3. Given her lower-class rank, how would a Victorian reader view Marian's social death? With applause? With horror? With sympathy? Would they think her redeemed in any way?
4. In her tirade against male rapists, Marian seems to implicate bad mothers as playing a role in the downfall of their daughters. In the same breath, she affirms her dedication to her son, who is perhaps her only saving grace at this point in her life. In a culture that valorizes motherhood, how are we to view mothers like Mrs. Erle? Would Victorians hold her accountable for Marian's "fall"? Would they think Marian justified in blaming her mother for her disgrace?
5. What are we to make of the radical union that Aurora proposes to Marian in lines 122-125 in Book Seven when she says,
and henceforth thou and I
Being still together will not miss a friend,
Nor he a father, since two mothers shall
Make that up to him
6. What alternative family is Browning suggesting here? What would be at stake for Aurora if she were to help Marian raise her child? Would Marian face similar or different consequences? How does this radical union disrupt or threaten the Victorian construct of a gendered national identity that McClintock describes?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
McClintock, Anne. "'No Longer in a Future Heaven': Gender, Race and Nationalism." in Dangerous Liasons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Last modified 22 March 2004