s a child, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was raised in the Evangelical faith and its doctrines strongly influence her choice of Biblical types and her construction of personal myth in her verse-novel Aurora Leigh. According to Evangelical belief, the fall from paradise of Adam and Eve resulted in the innate depravity of man. Paradoxically, the fall of man sharpens his awareness of his own humble nature and brings him to a fuller appreciation of Christ's sacrifice for mankind. Possessed of the knowledge of his own wickedness, the Evangelical believer lives with the dual conviction that he is a product of original sin and still a recipient of Christ's redeeming love.
In Aurora Leigh, the Biblical type of the fallen man is resurrected from Puritan texts, which emphasize the historical background of the type, and given Victorian meaning. According to Kerry McSweeney, "The essential conext in which Aurora Leigh must be placed if it is to be understood and fully savored...is high Victorian...Like Carlyle and Ruskin, the poet of Aurora Leigh is a cultural prophet inscribing a secular scripture" (McSweeney xxxii). In keeping with standard Victorian literary usage, Barrett Browning's use of Biblical typology illustrates the spiritual dimension of the seemingly commonplace. In her personal myth, nature becomes a metaphor for the fusion of the spiritual and the earthy elements of existence.
In Book IX, Aurora Leigh, a thirty-year-old poet who has just been reunited with her cousin Romney, typifies her rejection of Romney's wedding proposal ten years ago as her fall from grace. Her "secular scripture," which bursts from her in the sudden emotional epiphany of which the Evangelicals were so fond, reflects Elizabeth Barrett Browning's own poetics:
...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.
Flower from root,
And spiritual from natural, grade by grade
In all our life. A handful of the earth
To make God's image! the despised poor earth,
The healthy odorous earth — I missed with it
The divine Breath that blows the nostrils out
To ineffable inflatus — ay, the breath
Which love is. Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolizes heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven. I, Aurora, fell from mine. (IX.645-59)
Barrett Browning believed that the poet, although remaining "firmly grounded in the natural world" (McSweeney xxxiii), must also "reach / The spiritual beyond it" (VII.779-80). She considered the marriage of man and woman to be the earthly analogue of God's loving union with humanity. Barrett Browning's usage of Aurora as a porteparole is based on a common practice in Victorian autobiography, as Machann explains:
When one studies the genre of Victorian autobiography on its own terms in its historical setting, one is less likely to impose ahistorical standards such as that of intensive introspection and of confession for its own sake. Victorian autobiographers explore their own personalities and analyze their mental development primarily as a means of explaining or defending their engagements in social discourse and public works, and for a professional writer that is usually a matter of explaining or defending one's oeuvre. (Machann 165)
Related Web Materials
- Fictional Autobiography: Definitions and Descriptions
- Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (II): The First Female Kunstlerroman
- Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (III): The Victorian Woman's Revenge Fantasy
- Aurora Leigh and Fictional Autobiography (IV): Inadequacies of the Form
- Great Expectations and Fictional Autobiography (I): Fantasy and Nightmare
- Great Expectations and Fictional Autobiography (II): The Beast and His Keeper
Last modified 1996