Romney's challenge in Book Two defines Aurora's goal:
...Women as you are
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you — and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.
To achieve to the rank of Poet, Aurora must become capable of "widening a large lap of life to hold the world-full woe." (II, 188-9) Over the course of the novel, she tries to reconcile her femininity with her artistic aspirations. In both cases, she is denied emotional fulfillment. She refuses to accept the role of obedient wife, since it would mean forgoing the intellectual independence needed to develop as an artist, but then she must also refuse the love of a husband. In Book Five, she mentions three poets, none of whom she admires for their "popular applause" (V, 517). Yet she admits that she envies them for the adoring women that provide emotional support and fill out the void in their personal lives. ("Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh," 26) If Barrett Browning were simply to reverse gender roles, a submissive male figure would upset literary codes of acceptable and attractive masculinity. ("Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh," 21) Curiously, Marian seems to fulfill some of Aurora's longings. Although she embraces Marian as the perfect mother, she does not seek to develop those qualities in herself, and instead assumes the masculine role of her provider and protector.
In Great Expectations , Pip grows up with his overbearing and derisive sister; similarly, Aurora is raised by her overbearing and derisive aunt. Yet whereas Pip ends up unconciously adopting the belief system of his sister, Aurora rebels against the prejudices of her aunt. Perhaps too successfully. Just as Pip judges people based solely on wealth, Aurora judges women pejoratively based on their femininity. She initially feels a detached pity for Marian, that she should be so willing to do Romney's work. When Aurora meets Marian again in Paris, however, Marian has the kind of love that Aurora yearns for. Furthermore, Aurora cannot become a part of that love and must be content to play the role of protector.
Although her appraisals of others do not depend on the opionions of others, Aurora judges herself only as Romney reflects her. He is a symbol of Victorian male authority. When he catches her out in the garden playing Corinne at the Capitol, he adapts that myth to suit his own purposes. He tells her:
Keep to the green wreath,
Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
The clean white morning dresses. (II, 93-6)
He interprets her stance as that of a statue, that she might aspire to appear as Corinne, a more picturesque wife for him, completely ignoring Aurora's intention to pose herself as a poet. As Angela Leighton remarks, "To stand still in a wreath is thus turned back into the attitude, not of solitary poetic triumph as Aurora had fantasised, but of sexual and domestic appeal." (Victorian Women Poets, 89) In search of his favor, Aurora must quelch the love she feels for him over and over again in order to have him on her terms. Although she does not admit until the end that she loved him all along, it is evident in her bitterness towards Lady Waldemar, the society beauty who embodies what Aurora's aunt would have liked her to become. In Book Three, Aurora coldly staves off Lady Waldemar (and even bristles at her talk of love) until she mentions Romney's impending marriage. But her artistic dreams preclude Aurora assuming that role: in order to gain power, she thinks she must relinquish her Victorian femininity. She will not marry without love, as Marian intends, nor will she marry without her husband's respect, as it appears Lady Waldemar does.
Although Aurora never becomes a Marian or a Waldemar, in the final scenes of Aurora Leigh she harmonizes her femininity with her artistic aims. Previously, she lumped all expressions of feminitity into the same group, labelled "weak." When she meets Romney again, she can finally separate the society femininity which repulses her (Lady Waldemar) from sincere feminine expression of love (Marian). She even goes so far as to exclaim, "Art is much, but Love is more. / O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!" (IX, 656-7) When she accepts her suitor, she discovers that all her successes have been compromised by suppressing that love.
Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's, I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman. [IX, 645-49]
Romney in turn admits that she can be both a woman and a poet, thus their love is consummated. And as he, now blinded and powerless, must give up his male pride, she surrenders her artist's power and declares her previous boasting to be foolish.
I am changed since then, changed wholly - for indeed
If now you'd stoop so low to take my love
As men use common things with more behind
(And, in this, ever would be more behind)
To any mean and ordinary end -
The joy would set me like a star, in heaven,
So high up, I should shine because of height
And not of virtue. (IX, 673-81)
Last modified 1996