In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, the character of Aurora Leigh is shaped a great deal by the experience, upon her father's death, of going to live with her father's sister in England. It is apparent from the very moment that the two women lay eyes upon one another that Aurora and her aunt are simply not of the same spiritual design. Aurora yearns to be free and explore a wider world. Her aunt, however, is a different case entirely. Aurora tells us in the first book how
She had lived
A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird.
Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
In thickets, and eat berries! [I, 304-309]
Aurora herself, as an inhabitant of her aunt's home, is submitted to the indignity of being inhibited and suffocated by her aunt's demands and expectiations.
A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.[I, 309-312]
Aurora pities her aunt for her dullness and her adherence to societal norms; Aurora herself longs for something far greater. Thus she quickly learns how to escape her aunt's ever-present gaze:
Capacity for joy
Admits temptation. It seemed, next, worth while
To doge the sharp sword set against my life;
To slip down stairs through all the sleepy house,
As mute as any dream there, and escape
As a soul from the body, out of doors,
Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane,
And wander on the hills an hour or two,
Then back again before the house should stir. [I, 689-697]
1. Does Aurora ever truly escape the "cage-bird life" that she so abhors? Does Aurora's work allow her to escape the confines of society, or confine her further? In the time that Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh , is such an escape possible or feasible?
2. What other characters have we met in Victorian novels, or novels in general, who seem to possess the same traits that Aurora finds so irksome in her aunt? Which characters possess traits that seem more characteristic of Aurora? Do these characters meet similar or different ends than Aurora and her aunt?
3. How does Aurora's experience with her aunt affect the rest of her life? How does it affect her interactions with her cousin Romney and others she interacts with in the future? Is her desire to fly and be free a direct result of her aunt's desire to cage her, or is the desire present before her father's death?
4. The image of Aurora as a pent up bird waiting to flee is important to the rest of the work as a whole. How does nature imagery affect Aurora throughout the novel? What role does it play in her desire to become a poet? How does it affect her interactions with her aunt and Romney?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 15 March 2004