Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is astute about her cousin Romney's feeling and motives, but blind to her own emotions. She knows what she needs and wants in the sphere of her poetic work, but in the personal sphere, specifically her feelings for Romney, she is in deep denial. Barret Browning, like her husband in poems like "My Last Duchess," uses Aurora's own words to show the reader emotions that the character herself isn't ready to acknowledge. One of the best dramatizations of Aurora's passion and her denial of that passion comes after she finds Marian in Paris and struggles to decide whether to write to Romney about Lady Waldermar's part in Marian's exile:
I will not let thy hideous secret out
To agonise the man I love — I mean
The friend I love . . . as friends love . . .
O Romney, O my Romney, O my friend!
My cousin and friend! My helper, when I would,
My love that might be! mine!
Why, how one weeps
When one's too weary! Were a witness by,
He'd say some folly . . . that I loved the man,
Who knows? . . . and make me laugh again for scorn.
At strongest, women are as weak in flesh,
As men, at weakest, vilest, are in soul:
So, hard for women to keep pace with men! [172-201, book 7]
Immediately after she breaks through her intellectual distance with some true emotion, she bottles it up again with denial and misogyny. Aurora is set up in the beginning of the poem to be more clear-sighted than the people around her, Romney in particular. Does her denial of her true feelings for him make her a hypocrite when she faults the same characteristic in Romney?
If Aurora weren't in the dark about her emotions, might she have taken a different path in her relationship with Romney (for example, accepting his first proposal or being honest about Lady Waldemar)?
Is her over-intellectualization part of what causes her poetic struggle? Barrett Browning suggests that when Aurora takes on social problems in her work she finally becomes a true poet (with the corollary that her earlier work was "low" because she was too light, or emotional). How does her emotional blockage affect our understanding of the dynamics of her poetic success (as perceived by herself and by others)?
Part of the reason that Aurora shuts her feelings away is doubtless related to the early loss of her parents, but part of it seems also to be her desire to distance herself from the "vile woman's way/ of trailing garments" (59-60, book 5). Is Aurora a feminist? Can the book still be a feminist text if the heroine is not?
Last modified 16 October 2003