Aurora Leigh and her cousin, Romney, wish to devote their lives and energy to helping the poor. Romney has devoted himself to the masses, feeling it is his calling to help all of God's creations. This appears to be a noble task that he has laid out for himself, but the fact that he is from a much higher rank complicates this. His philanthropy at times is condescending, especially seen in his strange relationship with Marian, a poor woman he intends to marry for part of the book. He feels it is his duty to lower himself to her and the people of her class.
Romney and Aurora have discussions over the merits of working for the poor, yet Aurora herself, when describing them, always describes them in animalistic and dehumanizing language. At the wedding of Romney and Marian, she describes Marian's guests in just this language.
They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream, like blood. To see that sight,
The noble ladies stood up in their pews,
Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate,
Some simply curious, some just insolent,
And some in wondering scorn, — "What next? what next?"
These crushed their delicate rose-lips from the smile that misbecame them in a holy place,
With broidered hems of perfumed handkerchiefs;
Those passed the salts, with confidence of eyes
And simultaneous shiver of moiré silk:
While all the aisles, alive and black with heads,
Crawled slowly toward the altar from the street,
As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole
With shuddering involution, swaying slow
From right to left, and then from left to right,
In pants and pauses. What an ugly crest
of faces rose upon you everywhere
From the crammed mass! you did not usually
See faces like them in the open day:
They hide in cellars, not to make you mad
As Romney Leigh is. — Faces! O my God,
We call those, faces? men's and women's . . . ay,
And children's; — babies, hanging like a rag
Forgotten on their mother's neck, - poor mouths,
Wiped clean of mother's milk by mother's blow
Before they are taught her cursing. Faces? . . . phew,
We'll call them vices, festering to despairs,
Or sorrows, petrifying to vices: not
A finger-touch of God left whole on them,
All ruined, lost . . . [p. 124, ll. 553-583]
Though Aurora distinguishes herself from the wealthy women who either see the poor as a spectacle or an annoyance, she herself is both objectifying them and scorning them. It seems that she has no pity in this scene for the lower classes, yet in other scenes she discusses the merits of working for them with Romney:
" . . . We must be here to work;
And men who work can only work for men,
And, not to work in vain, must comprehend
Humanity and so work humanly,
And raise men's bodies still by raising souls,
As God did first." "But stand upon the earth,"
I said, "to raise them, (this is human too,
There's nothing high which has not first been low,
My humbleness, said One, has made me great!)
As God did last." [p. 309, ll. 849-858]
It would seem in this passage that both her and Romney want to sympathize with the lower classes in order to help them, rather than have a condescending role, emulating Jesus and God himself, which contradicts her descriptions of the poor when she actually comes in contact with them.
1. How does class work in this book? Are there clear distinctions or blurred lines between the different classes? Is it one of the central questions it brings up, or just a foreground to the plot?
2. How do Romney and Aurora treat the poor? Do they think they act one way but really act another, or are they aware of the complications in their trying to serve those that are lower than them in social rank? Is it possible for them to give themselves completely to the work they set out for themselves without being scornful or condescending?
3. Like Dickens, Browning uses metaphors of inanimate objects to describe animate objects, and visa versa. Where else do we see this? How does Browning use it, in comparison to Dickens? Does it have the same or a different effect for the novel than the language of Dickens?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified 16 March 2004