'A dropped star / Makes bitter waters, says a Book I've read' (5: 917-18), Aurora Leigh comments midway through the text in which she writes her identity as both woman and poet. The 'Book' Aurora alludes to in this pivotal passage is Revelation, the Biblical book most frequently invoked in Aurora Leigh as in Emily Dickinson's poetry and H.D.'s Trilogy. The 'dropped star' is the 'great star from heaven' called Wormwood that flames down 'burning as it were a lamp' to embitter a third part of the earth's waters in the final Judgment (Revelation 8). In Aurora's book, however, this ominous star primarily signifies not God's wrath, but the destructive power of the woman artist who abandons her vocation for the material security of marriage.
The dropped star metaphor is prompted by a marriage proposal received by Aurora seven years after she emphatically rejects her cousin Romney Leigh's proposal that she share his philanthropic work and his fortune. Unlike Romney's, this second proposal is a ' "stereotyped", one brought to Aurora by her friend Lord Howe from Eglinton of Eglinton: a man' "[k]nown chiefly for the house upon his back", (5:866) who is '"so little modest", as to want' "a star upon his stage'" (5:915-16). It is "'[t]he same he wrote to, — anybody's name, / Anne Blythe the actress [134/135] when she died so true" to '"Pauline the dancer", after her' "great pas" "and to '"Baldinacci, when her F in alt / Had touched the silver tops of heaven itself', (5:899-906). Barrett Browning uses Eglinton's proposal to connect Aurora to her other sisters in art, in keeping with her intent to present a representative 'artist woman' in her novel-epic (LEBB 2:112). But the 'dropped star' of Revelation also traces a path linking Barrett Browning's heroine to siimilar 'artist women' in Charlotte Brontë's works before Aurora Leigh and George Eliot's after. Unlike the 'Alcharisi', the great opera singer in Daniel Deronda who marries suddenly when she believes she is losing her voice only to mourn her decision in embittered fallen splendour, Aurora does not make the mistake of accepting Eglinton's proposition — despite Lord Howe's warning that '" it is hard to stand for art", without' "some golden tripod"': ' "To be plain, dear friend, / You're poor" (5:939-49). Yet neither does she burn herself out in solitary self-consuming absorption in her art like the actress Vashti in Villette, whom Brontë figuratively represents in terms of the same flaming star in Revelation.
Instead, Aurora sells her English father's books, along with the 'long poem' (5:12 13) that is the most mature fruit of her seven-year apprenticeship in a London third-floor flat, to finance her relocation to her motherland ofItaly — the Italy that, as Sandra Gilbert suggests, was both a nurturing matria and the 'home of art' to a succession of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury women writers (196). 'And now I come, my Italy, / My own hills! ' '[D]o you feel tonight / The urgency and yearning of my soul', Aurora asks, 'As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe / And smile?' (5: 1266-71). On the way to Italy, she rediscovers Marian, the working-class woman whom Romney [135/136] unsuccessfully sought to marry for 'social ends' after proposing to Aurora for 'charitable ends' (5:1091-4). Betrayed, sold to a French brothel, raped, and now the mother of a 'sucking babe', Marian, finally embraced by Aurora as a 'sister', helps her to discover the 'sleeping mother', the common woman, and, more fully than before, the poet in herself. I When Marian finally proposes that Aurora and Romney marry, and Aurora finally declares her love to Romney, not once but three times over (9:607-13, 713-14), all signs suggest that the artist will not become a dropped star buried in the bitter waters of a wife. On the contrary, as Romney suggests, Aurora will be a radiant "morning-star" (9:908) speaking her revelation to the world. Fittingly, then, the book she writes for her 'better self (1:4) takes her own name: the name which she first calls herself by in the moment of vocation generated by her girlhood encounter with 'the poets' (1:854-55), and which she does not surrender even in finally marrying Romney Leigh.
Since Ellen Moers' recovery of Aurora Leigh in 1976, Barrett Browning's 'poetic art-novel', as she herself described it (LEBB 2:228), has most often been approached as a portrait of the woman writer closely paralleling Barrett Browning's own development. It has been described as a 'verse-novel on the growth of a poet' (Rosenblum, 1983, 321); the first 'properly female Kunstlerroman' in 'English letters' (Freiwald 414); a 'bildungsroman' depicting Barrett Browning's struggle to overcome the 'antifeminine biases' she had internalized as a woman poet (Gelpi 36); and a 'Kunstlerroman' recording her 'own personal and artistic struggle for identity' and the 'insurrection-resurrection' of her marriage to Browning and journey to Italy (Gilbert 194-200). Even those who have emphasized the generic hybridization of Aurora Leigh still treat it [136/137] primarily as a portrait of the woman writer.2 Rachael DuPlessis' influential distinction between 'the love plot and the Bildungs plot' in Aurora Leigh, like Alison Case's similar distinction, does not mark a departure from the Kunstlerroman approach so much as an elaboration of it, designed to accommodate the conflict between love and art, vocation and marriage, that many have made a focus for discussion.3 In encapsulating this conflict, the 'dropped star' metaphor accords with prevailing interpretations of Aurora Leigh. At the same time, however, in foregrounding the pervasiveness of Barrett Browning's allusions to Revelation, it points to another way of conceptualizing her greatest work and the cultural work it carried out in its age.
We leave out less in Barrett Browning's representation of the Hero as a Woman of Letters if we approach the teeming, heterogeneous text of Aurora Leigh not simply as a Kunstlerroman, but rather as a portrait of the artist embedded within one of the Victorian period's most notable works of sage discourse: in short, as a work offering nothing less than a revelation. Or more accurately, given the new light cast on the composition of Aurora Leigh by Margaret Reynolds in her annotated edition, it might be described as a Kunstlerroman generating the sage discourse that surrounds and completes it. For Barrett Browning's purpose, according to an unpublished letter cited by Reynolds (AL 85), was to show how 'in life, morals, or art', the movement is always 'from inner to outer'. True to this principle, Barrett Browning shows how Aurora's sage discourse grows out of her development as a 'prophet-poet' to her age.
Recent criticism has started to explore the importance of women writers such as Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, and Christina Rossetti in the [127/138] tradition of Victorian sage writing previously constructed as almost entirely male: a tradition composed of Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, Newman, Disraeli, Arnold, and a George Eliot, uncomplicated by any considerations of gender. Yet Barrett Browning has had a surprisingly low profile in this critical recovery to date. Most notably, the writers in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power make only passing mention of Aurora Leigh (2-5, 116). This neglect is surprising because Aurora Leigh is vitally concerned with the nexus of gender and power, and it exhibits in abundance the characteristic features of sage writing identified not only in Victorian Sages but also in earlier studies by George Landow and John Holloway.4 Most obviously, Aurora Leigh enters the tradition of Victorian sage writing through its representation of a prophetic speaker, its pronounced Biblical allusions and typological patterning, its polemical sermonizing on the times, its argumentative intertextuality, its exploitation of metaphor and definition as strategies of persuasion, its quest for a sustaining 'Life Philosophy', and its vision of a new social and spiritual order. As I hope to show, however, Barrett Browning also transforms the sage tradition through her gynocentric adaptation of its characteristic strategies, and her subversion of the authoritative stance so strenuously asserted by Victorian prophets like Carlyle. In keeping with her belief that the subjective is 'the nearest approach to a genuinely objective view' (AL 28), she employs a narrative perspective in Aurora Leigh that has strong affinities both with the dramatic monologues she experimented with throughout the 1840s and with the experimental first-person form of novels like Charlotte Brontë's Villette.
Nevertheless, despite this novelistic perspective, [138/139] Aurora Leigh was clearly read by many mid-Victorians as a work of sage discourse. Indeed, up to the end of the century it was viewed less as an epic of the literary woman than as a modern epic that philosophically addressed some of the most urgent issues of the age. Smce no enumeration of textual properties can adequately convey the most vital dimensions of any dynamIcally polemical work of sage discourse, this chapter draws on contemporary reader response in order to reconstruct the cultural work that Aurora Leigh carried out in the mid and late Victorian periods. In effect, then, my analysis attempts to reverse the movement from 'inner' to 'outer' reflected in the genesis, form and philosophy of Aurora Leigh itself. The Victorian reception of Aurora's book helps to illumine the ideological transformations and conflicts it both manifests and addresses as sage discourse; and a better understanding of the political, philosophical, and aesthetic stakes involved in these may promote a fuller understanding of Barrett Browning's motives and methods in the book she described in the Dedication as 'the most mature' of her works, and the one embodying her 'highest convictions upon Life and Art.
Accounts of the Victorian reception of Aurora Leigh are often distorted by two complementary fallacies. One — that the poem's appearance was marked by a 'comedy of critical extravagance' — has been ably discredited by Tricia Lootens (211-12). The other - that it was actually greeted by an 'avalanche of negative criticism ' in the serious reviews — is equally maccurate (David, Intellectual Women, 114). As Mermin's overview suggests (222-24), critical responses to Barrett Browning's most audacious work were as diverse as the conflicting ideological agendas readers brought to it. [139/140] Ideological concerns are particularly apparent in the response to Aurora Leigh because many Victorian readers clearly approached it less as a Kunstlerroman than as a work of sage discourse as polemical and philosophical as Carlyle's Past and Present or Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (complete text). This is the case in harsh critiques of Aurora Leigh like John Nichol's, as well in laudatory assessments like George Eliot's, both published in the Westminster Review. Nichol explicitly challenges Ruskin's praise of Aurora Leigh in The Elements of Drawing as 'the greatest poem of the century'. But the very force and energy with which he mounts an attack on the coarseness of the work, its mixture of poetry and prose, its disregard for classical unities, the repelling and unfeminine 'self-consciousness' of its heroine, and, above all, Barrett Browning's political and philosophical views, indicates how much Aurora Leigh dialectically engages some of the most controversial political, social, aesthetic and philosophical issues of the time. Moreover, in pointing to the parallel between Aurora Leigh and Ruskin's 'mistake of exaggerating the effect of Art', while expressing a comparative 'contempt of material wants and depreciation of political struggles', Nichol directly links Barrett Browning to one eminent Victorian sage. In explicitly challenging Ruskin, Nichol was also implicitly challenging Eliot, whose earlier, briefer review of Aurora Leigh in the had asserted that no poem of the day 'embraces so wide a range of thought and emotion'. By emphasizing the thought of Aurora Leigh, Eliot implies a view that it embodies the wisdom of the sage: its 'poetical body' is 'everywhere informed by soul', she observed.5 But her anonymous review was conveniently forgotten by literary history (Lootens 226), while Nichol's was frequently cited. Nevertheless, like Ruskin's, Eliot's response to [140/141] Aurora Leigh was by no means atypical in its time. Ruskin's description of Barrett Browning's novel-epic as the 'perfect poetical expression of the Age' in a letter to Browning coincides with Charles Hamilton Aide's similar view of Aurora Leigh in a private letter as 'the Poem of the Age'. In public, Aide wrote that "Aurora Leigh" has been called "a modern epic" and a "a three-volumed novel" '; it is 'an epic, inasmuch as it treats of the passionate struggles, and the halfconquest, half-failure, of two heroic natures in their life-battle'; and a novel in that 'the fable is of our own time'. But he emphasized the epic and philosophic elements embodied in the representation of Romney and Aurora, 'one ministrant to the physical, the other to the spiritual wants of their fellowmen, each acknowledging the failure of their self-reliant schemes'.6
The British Quarterly Review similarly described Aurora Leigh as a work embodying 'the result of much reflection on some of the most anxious issues of our time', notable for its 'sound philosophy' and the many 'wise and large-minded thoughts, vigorously expressed in felicitous and glowing language'. Morever, the reviewer speaks of Barrett Browning in terms clearly marking her as a sage:
Our generation scarcely numbers more than one or two among its master minds from whom we could have looked for a production at all to rival this in comprehensiveness — a poem with so much genuine depth and so free from obscurity. The results of abstract thinking are here, and yet there is no heavy philosophising or set purpose. A warm human life meets us everywhere. There are no broad levels of prosaic reflection, such as sometimes test the patience even of true Wordsworthians. Men and [141/142] women are introduced who learn philosophy by actual life.7
Such views are not simply the product of an initial rash of enthusiasm greeting Aurora Leigh. They persist up to the end of the nineteenth century. Edmund Clarence Stedman described Aurora Leigh as a 'versatile, kaleidoscopic presentment of modern life and issues', noting how 'Mrs. Browning, with finer dramatic instinct' than Tennyson, 'entered into the spirit of each experiment' in the 'social and intellectual phases' of the era (141 ); while Lewis E. Gates observed of Aurora Leigh that it 'is really an interpretation and criticism of the entire age in which it was written' . For the French critic Joseph Texte in 1898, Aurora Leigh was still a work of intense relevance to 'contemporary idealism ' — indeed 'the poem of a century', written by the most philosophical poet of the age.8 It is not hard to see why mid-Victorians saw Aurora Leigh as a 'modern epic' philosophically addressing contemporary concerns. Topical references jostle on every page, reflecting Barrett Browning's aim of taking her material 'from the times, "hot and hot" (AL 85). Among much else, we encounter references to the 'Tracts' for and 'against' the times (1:394), Parliamentary committees (3:612), the educational catechism of the middle-class girl of the period (1:392-446), crystal balls and spirits (6:169), the exploration of the Nile (6:166), the Irish potato famine and the political fortunes of Guizot and Louis Napoleon in France (4:398-406), the controversy over the authorship of the Homeric works (5:1246-57), and contemporary scientific controversies like that surrounding the 'ad-force' of the German scientist Reichenbach — a mesmeric force that, oddly enough, supposedly flamed from the fingertips of healthy men, [142/143] whereas female fingers emitted only a feeble light (AL 654). Aurora Leigh is also notable for its modern cityscapes of London, Paris and Florence which Barrett Browning paints with swift strokes praised by more than one of her contemporaries for their Turneresque quality. The London fog is described With Dickensian metaphoric gusto in Book 3 while skeletal teeth grin at Aurora and the reader from dentists' signs on the streetcorners of Paris in Book 6. !n an often cited passage (7:395-452), the railway Journey from Paris to Marseilles is conveyed as vividly as Dickens conveys the train that crushes Carker in Dombey and Son. Fleeing southward on 'the roar of steam', Aurora watches as the landscape of France falls away behind and the train sweeps into the tunnels under the Alps, its
fierce denouncing whistle wailing on
And dying off smothered in the shuddering dark.
At a deeper level, however, the intense modernity of Aurora Leigh for mid-Victorians sprang less from its topical allusions and contemporary scenes than from the social issues it engaged. 'It sings of our actual life, embodying the schemes and struggles, the opinions and social contrasts of our day', as one reviewer put it.9 Reflecting the growing activism of mid-Victorian feminist reformers, Barrett Browning confronts the pressing questions associated with women's work women's education, women's property rights, battered wives and systemic prostitution in their complex interactions with 'the social question' (AL 85). The 'social question' includes the gulf between social classes, the threat of class warfare, the reforms it precipitated, and French and English political developments between 1846 and 1853. Allusions to French politics in Aurora Leigh make it clear that Romney's Fouriestic schemes reach a peak in the period when [143/144] Chartist and socialist agitation culminated and collapsed in England and America. In France, where socialist reform was less politically marginalized, the early 1850s brought a similar setback with the crowning of Louis Napoleon as Emperor. These developments spawned a host of works addressing the 'condition of England': among them, the novels of Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley, as well as Carlyle's Latter Day Pamphlets and Tennyson's Maud. Although Aurora Leigh is seldom included in discussions of this 'condition of England' discourse, its representation of the 'social question' reflects many of the same concerns. Influenced in part by Kingsley, Barrett Browning further portrays the 'social question' in conflict with what might be termed the 'art question' in the prolonged, complex debate between Romney and Aurora, who represent what she described as 'the practical and the ideal' lives (AL 85). This debate is inflected at every turn by the persistent 'woman question', which expands into a systematic exploration of gender ideologies. Although these dimensions of Aurora Leigh interpenetrate each other, Barrett Browning's representation of the 'woman question' generated the most innovative and iconoclastic elements in her sage discourse and also provoked the strongest response among her contemporaries. Peter Bayne aptly described Aurora Leigh as a 'modern epic' singing '[n]ot of arms and the man, but social problems and the woman' (107). But Barrett Browning's singing had a discordant sound to many of her male reviewers. The greatest source of controversy was not, as she had feared, her depiction of Marian's rape and illegitimate motherhood. The feminist views of her heroine were the features that led the Roman Catholic Tablet to [144/145] condemn 'brazen-faced Aurora', and the Dublin University Magazine to blame Mrs. Browning for assuming 'the gait and garb of a man' and writing a book that should be 'almost a closed volume for her own sex'; while the Spectator liked the book best when 'Aurora forgets she is a poetess, or, still better, when she herself is forgotten ' (Lootens 212-14; 231-32).
Aurora is not easily forgotten, however. Indeed, Barrett Browning most overtly enters the tradition of Victorian sage discourse through representing a woman who unabashedly aspires to become a 'prophet-poet' (5:355). Aurora is repeatedly affiliated with Biblical, classical, and even Muslim prophets and figures of wisdom, at times in a spirit of parody, at times in complete seriousness. The opening line of Book 1 echoes Ecclesiastes the preacher, but allusions to various Biblical figures are even more pervasive in the opening of Book 3, originally the introduction to the entire work (AL 671-75). In earnest emulation, Aurora compares her struggle to realize her ideals in the world to the martyrdom of Simon Peter and the other apostles after the zealous 'first girding of the loins' in youth. Soon after, with one ofthose mercurial shifts to self-mocking irony that characterize her narrative, she notes that one of her fans, Kate Ward, sees her as Elijah — in hopes of becoming ' "Elisha to [her]'" (3:54). She also playfully compares the opening of letters from her critics and readers to the opening of the seven seals in Revelation 5: 'A ninth seal; / The apocalypse is drawing to a close' (3:98-9) . Aurora does not directly set herself up as Elijah or John of Patmos, but subsequent allusions link her to the 'prophet-poets', including Mahomet (5:354); to the Pallas of the Vatican — a classical and, significantly, a female figure of wisdom (5:799); to Dante with his 'prophet-breath' (7:936); and to Aaron [145/146] in his priestly robes (7: 1303; 9:252). Aaron might seem atypical in this company, but when Aurora actually speaks as Aaron does in the Ninth book, she compares herself to the Levite at the moment when he divests himself of his priestly robes to die — to an Aaron, in other words, who is less priest than prophet. The focus on Aurora as a prophetic rather than a priestly figure points to the importance of Romantic paradigms both in Barrett Browning's mature works and in Victorian sage writing generally. Janet Larson observes that Victorian sage discourse, like Romantic poetry, reflects the historical displacement of the 'longstanding Protestant view of the prophet as the obedient interpreter of Mosaic law' by a new 'prophetic type, independent and creative' (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 67-68). Aurora Leigh incorporates Romantic paradigms not only in its representation of poets as prophets — 'the only truth-tellers now left to God' (1:859) — but also in its defence of individualism (Reynolds AL 16), its embodiment of the Coleridgean organic form it defends (5:223-29), its Wordsworthian and Carlylean metaphysics of Natural Supernaturalism (7:821), and its free-wheeling social satire, which blends Byronic wit and ironic self-reflexiveness with Carlylean moral purpose.
The Romantic transformation of the priestly interpreter into the independent prophet opens the way for Barrett Browning's iconoclastic project of depicting a female sage whose prophetic aspirations are both undisguised and explicitly challenged on the grounds of her sex.
[You] measure to yourself a prophet's place
To teach the living. None of all these things,
Can women understand" [2:181-83]
Romney roundly asserts to the twenty-year-old Aurora on her youthful "mountain-peaks of hope" " where she stands' "All glittering with the dawn-dew, all erect / And famished [146/147] for the noon" of poetic greatness (2:534-36). Romney obviously hadn't read that other visionary and searing social critic William Blake, who said 'To generalize is to be an idiot', because his chief ground for scorning Aurora's aspirations is the generalization that women can ' generalise / Oh, nothing, — not even grief' (2:183-84). Like Carlyle, who poetically denounced poetry and spoke at great length in defence of silence, Romney also stresses the virtues of labour and action over poetry and song. Tormented by the 'social spasm / And crisis of the ages" (2:273-74), the highminded Romney dedicates himself to the social and political reform the desperate condition of England calls for. '"Who has time" "he asks Aurora impatiently,
'to sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands?
When Egypt's slain, I say, let Miriam sing!
Before — where's Moses?' [2:168-72]
To which Aurora scornfully ripostes,
Where's Moses? — is a Moses to be found?"
Without exactly claiming to be the Moses who will deliver England out of the 'Egypt' of social injustice into the promised land of Fourieristic socialism, Romney nevertheless sets himself up as a type of Moses, meanwhile casting Aurora as Miriam, the female adjunct who will sing his victories. In his typological role casting, he forgets, as Aurora and Barrett Browning do not, that Miriam is identified as 'the prophetess' as well as 'the sister of Aaron' in Exodus 25:20. Romney also proves to be a poor prophet in asserting of '[m]ere women, personal and passionate', that' "We get no Christ from you, — and verily / We shall not get a poet" (2:221-25). For, [147/148] after much aspiration, struggle, and self-doubt, Aurora becomes a veritable 'prophet-poet' — even in Romney's eyes — singing the revelation of a new social order at his urging:
"Now press the clarion on thy woman's lip ...
And blow all class-walls level as Jericho's." [9:929-33]
In Barrett Browning's recasting of the Exodus story, Miriam's singing does not follow and celebrate the triumph of Moses. Quite the reverse, it is Miriam's prophetic singing that creates the possibility of the new spiritual and social order that Moses envisions.
The typological structuring evident in the allusions linking Romney to Moses, Aurora to Miriam, and the 'condition of England' to the state of the Israelites in Egypt is another characteristic of Aurora Leigh identifying it with the Victorian sage tradition. This structuring is further manifested in the complex narrative palindrome of the plot analysed by Cooper (153-54) and Reynolds (AL 32,50), in which repetition creates the opportunity for revision and reinterpretation, much as New Testament figures and events echo and reveal the significance of Old Testament types. Most notably, the debate in Book 2 between Romney and Aurora over the relative merits of art and social action is replayed in Book 8, where the allusions to Miriam and Moses recur (8:334, 1144). In between, we hear Marian's first and second stories of sexual victimization, terrified flight, and redemption: the first, an incomplete redemption to be passively achieved through Romney, the second a more complete redemption that she achieves through her own evolving strength.
The extended debates between Romney and Aurora provide ample opportunity for the sermonizing on the 'signs of the times' and the call for social and spiritual change that the sage typically engages in before [148/149] presenting his vision of a redeemed society, according to the paradigm of sage writing proposed by Landow (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 34). In Aurora Leigh, however, the characteristic activities of the sage are initially split between Romney and Aurora. He is the bleak prophet warning of catastophe, while she sings the vision of a new world. In her succinct terms, 'he marked judgment, I, redemption-day' (4:428). Yet they are not the only sages in this text, we gradually realize. Both Aurora and Romney have much to learn from the graphically conveyed and particularized suffering of Marian, and from the wisdom she acquires. Through Marian's means, the split focus on judgment and redemption fuses in the conclusion with its revisionary interpretation of Revelation, just as Romney and Aurora fuse in a mystical Swedenborgian vision of' "the love of wedded souls" (9:882). Barrett Browning's representation of a raped, fallen woman as a source of wisdom indicates how radically she subverts the phallocentric discourse of the prophetic and wisdom traditions. For Marian is in effect the priest who brings Aurora and Romney together, 'permitting, not through law, but from a feminine and specifically outcast position, Aurora's desire and marriage' (Reynolds AL 46).
The tendency to approach Aurora Leigh as a Kunstlerroman has led to a focus chiefly on Aurora's development as a woman and artist. But Barrett Browning actually presents three interconnected spiritual autobiographies — Aurora's, Romney's, and Marian's — which together embody the quest for a sustaining 'Life-Philosophy' that Holloway finds at the heart of Victorian sage writing. Such a Philosophy cannot be simply propounded. As the British Quarterly Review puts it, Barrett Browning depicts 'men and women .. . who learn philosophy by actual life'. The [149/150] wisdom they acquire must be learned and conveyed through individual experience because it involves what Holloway describes as a transformation in perception, 'seeing new things in old ways' (Holloway 9). In Aurora Leigh, the search for a Life-Philosophy centres on the question of how best to be of use in the world. "Of use! ... there's the point / We sweep about for ever in argument'" (4: 1169-70), Aurora says as she meets with Romney approximately seven years after his marriage proposal, when they resume their protracted debate between the relative merits of social activism and art. The conflict that divides them is still very much with us. Should one write, paint, study? Or should one march, open a home for battered women, work in the inner city or the tellingly named 'Third World'? At a 1977 conference, the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective observed of the conflict between the ideological and the practical in Aurora Leigh, 'On this Moebius strip we too as Marxist-Feminist critics and writers inscribe ourselves' (201). "Make bread or verses (it just came to that)" " as Vincent Carrington the painter, the mutual friend of Aurora and Romney, aptly says of their conflict (7:636).
That the disjunction between bread and verses is a false one is something Aurora Leigh in its entirety demonstrates. In the eucharistic imagery · that expresses 'the double action of the metaphysical intention ' in Aurora Leigh (LEBB 2:243), 'verses' are metamorphosed into 'bread', just as the bread of daily existence is transformed into poetry. As Aurora's books become stronger in art, taking in more of others' actual lives and embodying' "something separate", from herself (8:606), they begin to live and move within Romney. Ten years after Romney dismissed Aurora's 'verses' because her 'sex is weak for art' [150/151] (2:372), and she rejected his marriage proposal because he asked not for a wife but for a 'helpmate' in his social programmes (2:402), he testifies of her 'long poem' (5:1 213), '"My daily bread tastes of it, — and my wine"' (8:267).
Again, however, it is Marian who most reveals some of the essential similarities between Aurora the poet and Romney the social activist in revealing how the projects of both are excessively abstract and intellectual. It is too often overlooked that Romney is chiefly criticized in Aurora Leigh not because he is a pragmatic reformer of class inequities, but because he is an ideologue, wedded as Fourier was to rigid blueprints ofreform. ' "You have a wife already whom you love, / Your social theory" (2:409-10), Aurora sarcastically observes to Romney, meanwhile not recognizing how much she herself is wedded to poetic theories. In part through Maria n, Aurora and Romney eventually learn that neither the ideal nor the practical can suffice in itself. Marian's rape and victimization 'shows what can and will occur to a woman when the body is treated purely as body, divorced from spirit .. . . and both Aurora and Romney are guilty of that separation', Joyce Zonana rightly observes (256). At the same time, the opposition Zonana posits between Romney's materialistic focus on the body and Aurora's 'disembodied' pursuit of poetic ideals is too schematic to convey the paradoxes and ironic contradi ctions Barrett Browning explores in suggesting how alike these two high minded, idealistic cousins are. '[T]he practical & real (so called) is but the external evolution of the ideal & spiritual', Barrett Browning said of her chief argument in Aurora Leigh (AL 85 ). Aurora makes a similar assertion as a naive young poet, but she as much as Romney needs to appreciate the application of this truth to her mission in life. [151/152] If Barrett Browning's condensed statement of her argument in Aurora Leigh seems disappointingly trite, we should remember that, put simply, the summarized teaching of any sage never seems particularly original or impressive. In sage discourse, nothing can take the place of the reader's experience of the 'life and meaning' in the sage's actual creative use of argument, figure, and narrative. If philosophical and moral truth are grounded in the process of discovery and transformation which individual characters undergo, as it is brought to life in the minds of individual readers. In George Eliot's words, 'we learn words by rote, but not their meanings; that must be paid for with our lifeblood, and printed in the subtler fibres of our nerves' (cited by Holloway 17) Thus Marian, as Barrett Browning observed, 'had to be dragged through the uttermost debasement of circumstances to arrive at the sentiment of personal dignity' (LEBB 2:242). Only then does she acquire the strength, like Alice Walker's Celie in The Color Purple, to claim and take pride in her essential humanity and individuality by asserting, '"a woman, poor or rich / Despised or honoured is a human soul", (9:328-9). Thus Romney's attempts to establish a Fourierite phalanstery collapse in disarray before he recognizes that he was too '"absolute in dogma", (8:370) to acknowledge the importance of the individual soul or to anticipate the actual social conditions that sabotage his '"abstract willing'" (8:800). Thus Aurora, at the zenith of her artistic success, feels her self dissolving at the core 'like some passive broken lump of salt' dropped in 'a bowl of oenomel' (7:1308-9) because her abstract poetic idealism is not enough to sustain the 'poor, passionate, helpless blood' of the body's need she confesses to on the pavement of a Church in Florence (7:1271). Like other Victorian sages, Barrett Browning [152/153] embodies the process of discovering sustaining life philosophies in a text that is dynamic, heterogeneous and insistently intertextual — a text constantly 'dialogized' by the interplay of conflicting social voices, and engaged in a 'dialectical process' of persuasion and rebuttal (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 2-3). Critics have frequently emphasized the intense intertextuality that led Cora Kaplan to compare Aurora Leigh to a 'collage' in the ground breaking 'Introduction' to her 1978 Women's Press edition (14). Kaplan's remains the single most dynamic and comprehensive analysis of the 'overlapping sequence of dialogues with other texts, other writers' in Aurora Leigh (16), although others have joined her in exploring Barrett Browning's intertextual debates with Wordsworth's Prelude, Tennyson's The Princess, Carlyle's Hero-worship', Clough's The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich and Kingsley's Alton Locke.13 As I note below, Barrett Browning's letters and the response of reviewers also point to her strategic revisioning or questioning of Thomas DeQuincey's and Coventry Patmore's views on women, Richard Hengist Horne's 'penny epic' Orion, Dickens' David Copperfield, Richardson's Clarissa, Bryon's Don Juan and Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance.
Barrett Browning's transformations of a whole range of texts by modern male writers suggest the aptness of Reynold's reference to her 'art of bricolage', the use of 'a magpie form which steals fragments of a tradition or language, from which women have been alienated, to rewrite or invert them' (AL 50). Indeed, the dropped star allusion strikingly reveals that Barrett Browning not only 'steals' fragments from the classical and Christian fathers who establish her authority. She also submits these fragments to a gynocentric metamorphosis, anticipating the textual [153/154] practice of modern women poets like Muriel Rukseyer, Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood as Alicia Ostriker and others have described it. The boldness of Barrett Browning's famed use of the 'woman's figures' (8:1131) is particularly apparent in her use of metalepsis — the troping of a precursor's trope. Thus the 'dropped star' retains traces of its symbolic reference to God's wrath, while simultaneously signifying the thwarted woman-artist's ominous power. Metalepsis is a feature that Harold Bloom associates with Milton's 'transumptive allusion' and the culminating phase of the 'strong poet'.14 As any reader of Carlyle recognizes, however, it is also a prominent feature of Victorian sage discourse: indeed, one of the chief tools Carlyle uses to refashion traditional Christianity — 'Hebrew old clothes', in the terms of Sartor Resartus — into a new life philosophy. The 'transumptive allusions' of Aurora Leigh draw on classical as well as Biblical texts, combining them in a textual palimpsest with densely interwoven allusions to her more immediate precursors and contemporaries. The adaptation of the story ofIo from Aeschylus' Prometheus to figure Aurora's torment as an artist (7:829-33) and Marian's victimization as a raped woman is one among many examples of 'revisionist mythmaking', to use Ostriker's term (211 ). Zonana and Beverly Taylor have shown how Barrett Browning subtly adapts both the story of Io and the story of Danae in representing the complex process whereby Aurora comes to terms with her own sexuality, in part through Marian's experience. Aeschylus and Homer are the classical authors most frequently visible in the textual palimpsest of Aurora Leigh. But in almost every case the play of allusion decentres the phallocentrism of these two Greek [154/155] precursors, both described by Victorian critics in insistently masculine terms. Thus, while Aeschylus marginalizes the story of Io's torment in representing the Titanic suffering of Prometheus, it is Io, not Prometheus, who most prominently figures in Aurora Leigh. This is the tactic of 'revisionary mythopoesls' that DuPlessis describes as 'displacement': telling the story from the other side in order to give 'a voice to the muted' (108).
A similar 'displacement' of the rugged and masculine Aeschylus occurs in Barrett Browning's mock-epic allusion to the bizarre death he met when his bald head, mistaken for a rock, was crushed by a tortoise dropped by a hungry eagle. The shepherdess that Aurora is forced to embroider to fulfil her aunt's educational regimen has 'pink eyes' where she 'mistook the silks', and a 'head uncrushed by that round weight of hat / So strangely similar to the tortoise shell I Which slew the tragic poet' (1:451-55). Like so many of the metaphors in Aurora Leigh, this apparently playful allusion indirectly activates deeper and graver concerns. Graphic images of death and torture frequently strike out obliquely from the play of Aurora's figures, as in the reference to the Roman 'smeared with honey', bitten by insects and 'stared to torture by the noon' (2:890-91), and to the 'water-torture' suffered by the Marquise of Brinvilliers (1:467), executed for poisoning her father and brothers. Tormented by the water-torture of the young lady's education forced down her throat, 'prick[ed] ... to a pattern' by her aunt's pin (1:381), and trapped like the tortured Roman in the death-in-life of a young girl's English countryhouse existence, Aurora is yet able to preserve the poet 'uncrushed' within her mind and grow beyond a shepherdess by marking her feminine difference from the fathers, in this case the great [155/156] 'tragic poet' who so dominated Barrett Browning's initial artistic endeavours.
According to Bloom's paradigm of poetic influence, the metalepsis or transumptive allusion practised by the strong poet is a means of expressing his mastery over his precursors and rivals. Victorian sage discourse has been similarly viewed as a discourse motivated by the drive for mastery. In Thaïs Morgan's words, 'the sage always aims to establish her or his world view as the right, true, and authoritative one' (Victorian Sages 3). While Barrett Browning questions this stance of monological authority in significant ways, a drive for mastery is nevertheless discernible in the gynocentric metalepsis that makes Aurora's book a subversively female textual body even when it most overtly pays homage to the poetic fathers of Western literary tradition.
One of the more dramatic examples of such metalepsis is the Homeric allusion to Juno's 'cream' prompting the title of this chapter. Expressing her scorn for Friedrich Wolf's theory that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composite texts created by a number of writers, Aurora employs one of the most overtly Titanic female figures in Aurora Leigh. Wolf's an atheist', she declares. The man who 'writes above' Homer's works' "The house of Nobody!",
floats in cream, as rich as any sucked
From Juno's breasts, the broad Homeric lines,
And, while with their spondaic prodigious mouths
They lap the lucent margins as babe-gods,
Proclaims them bastards. [5:1246-54]
The long, widemouthed vowels, followed by the murmuring meeting oflips in 'lap the lucent margins', combine with the syntax of this passage (the interpolated hanging appositive of 'the broad Homeric [156/157] lines') to recreate in the reader the very action of drinking in Juno's cream that Aurora describes. Even more striking are the implications of the compressed, interfused metaphors, as Aurora embodies Homer's artistic creativity in the cream from Juno's breasts and the fruit of her womb, defending his works against the same charge of illegitimacy that subsequently afflicts Marian.
'Juno's cream' seems an apt metaphor for Barrett Browning's own 'unscrupulously epic' (5:214) sage discourse in the work in which she carries out, in the full confidence of her mature powers, her girlhood dream of becoming 'the feminine of Homer' (Mermin 183). Deirdre David, the only critic thus far to emphasize Barrett Browning's affinities with the Victorian sage tradition, overlooks this transformative, gynocentric energy in her influential reiterated claims that Barrett Browning is a 'profoundly conservative' writer whose intellectual practice is '[u]nambiguously affiliated with a male poetic tradition ... [and] hierarchical male supremacy' ('The Old Right', 201; Intellectual Women, 157-58). Granted that the other texts and writers explicitly named in Aurora Leigh are almost exclusively male: Homer (5: 146), Aeschylus (1 :455, 5:291), Plato (7:746); John of Revelation, Dante (5:494; 7:935), Shakespeare (5:246, 316), Keats (1: 1003); and, in two rarer references to contemporary authors, Carlyle (5:156) and 'the poet of our day', Browning (7:810). Nevertheless, one cannot assume that because Barrett Browning so royally invokes the founding texts of the epic and the Christian sage traditions; she therefore acknowledges the supremacy of their patriarchal assumptions. On the contrary, in the Homeric allusion to 'Juno's cream', we encounter the emancipatory, emphatically female energy that led one contemporary reviewer to discern in Aurora Leigh [157/158] 'the old anarchic nature of the Titaness'. 15 The same Titanic spirit is dramatically apparent in the more often discussed image of the 'double-breasted age' (see Stone, 'Taste', 751-2). Little wonder that Barrett Browning's 'choice of language, imagery, and metaphor' was the element in Aurora Leigh, along with its representation of an assertive, female poet-heroine, that Victorian critics clearly found most iconoclastic (Lootens 238). In Helene Cixous's words, once a woman allows her body 'to articulate the profusion of meanings that run through it', she 'will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language'.16
Barrett Browning's appropriation of the characteristic rhetorical strategies of sage writing in Aurora Leigh turns them into the 'emancipatory strategies' identified by Patricia Yaeger in Mary Wollstonecraft, the Brontës, and other 'honey-mad' women writers. Thus, the use of figurative language as 'a half-covert but powerful form of argument', which Holloway discerns in Carlyle's writing in particular, becomes the emancipatory strategy of engendering new gynocentric epistemologies through new metaphors.17 The 'intertextuality characteristic of sage writing' (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 2) operates with a subversive difference when it becomes the circulation of 'male bodies and texts' through a female textual body (Yaeger 161). The 'control of meaning' through strategies of definition (Holloway 41) becomes a tool for 'confronting and appropriating, destroying and reconstructing the sociolect' of gender (Yaeger 83), most noticeable in Barrett Browning's paradoxical play with the contradictory conventional meanings of words like 'womanly'. 'To see a wrong or suffering moves us all / To undo it though we should undo ourselves', Aurora observes of herself in lines that apply equally well to [158/159] Romney's chivalric socialism — 'Ay, all the more, that we undo ourselves, — / That's womanly, past doubt, and not ill-moved' (7:215-18) . Although 'not one woman author is named or quoted directly' in Aurora Leigh (Reynolds AL 50), the influence of women writers, and especially women novelists from Madame de Stael to Charlotte Brontë, is everywhere felt. The textual echoes and revisions of De Stael's Corinne, several of George Sand's novels, Gaskell's Ruth, and Brontë's Jane Eyre have been frequently discussed.18 There were many reasons why Barrett Browning affiliated herself with women novelists in planning to write, as early as 1845, a 'novel-poem .. . as modern as "Geraldine's Courtship," running into the midst of our conventions, & rushing into drawing-rooms & the like ... & so meeting face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age' (LEBB 1:31). No doubt, 'the novel served as a model for contemporary narrative that released her from imitating the masters of the past' (Friedman 209), and gave 'her the confidence of writing for the first time in a strong female tradition' (Mermin 185). But her description of her projected novel-poem suggests that she was also drawn to the novel because, as Yaeger suggests, it is a more dialogical, 'disruptive' form than most poetic modes, providing a 'multivoicedness' that enables 'the woman writer to interrogate and challenge the very voices that tell her to conform' (59). By writing a novelized epic, in short, she could more easily address the subject matter and assume the manner of the Victorian sage.
Wollstonecraft's polemical prose, Gaskell's Mary Barton and Brontë's Villette have ' been less often mentioned in discussions of Aurora Leigh. But they provide particularly important precedents for Barrett Browning's entry into the male realm of sage discourse. [159/160] The 'abruptness and energy' with which Wollstonecraft 'seizes the role of speaking subject and constructs fictive dialogues with silent male interlocutors' (Yaeger 161) is manifested throughout Aurora Leigh — along with Wollstonecraft's strong Enlightenment feminist interest in women's education and employment. As for Mary Barton, though Barrett Browning criticized it as a 'class book' defective in its art when it first appeared (LEBB 1:472), she follows Gaskell and other female predecessors such as Harriet Martineau in representing class conflict: "rich men make the poor, who curse the rich", and there's "nought to see, / But just the rich man and just Lazarus'" (2:27l, 276-77), Romney says, sounding very much like an upper-class version of Gaskell's working-class hero John Barton. The parallels with Villette, a novel which Barrett Browning thought 'very powerful' (LEBB 2: 142), run at a deeper level. Janet Larson has perceptively analysed Charlotte Brontë's most mature and sophisticated work as a 'sage narrative' of 'La vie d'une femme' incorporating a 'combat narrative of encounters with male religious texts ... on the plane of figure and allusion' (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 78, 81, 86). The same might be said of Aurora Leigh, where Barrett Browning's recurrent metalepsis clearly enacts a liberating struggle on 'the plane offigure and allusion'. A more direct connection can be traced in Aurora's pyschological and spiritual breakdown on the pavement of a Florentine Catholic Church in a scene recalling Lucy's similar confession and breakdown in the alien church of a foreign land. Less obviously, the parallels between Villette and Aurora Leigh include the narrative method. Most critics to date have assumed that Aurora is either a fictionalized version of her creator, or a character who is always reliable in what she says about art, politics, [160/161] and metaphysics, if not in what she initially assumes about Marian and her feelings for Romney.19 Yet Barrett Browning's 'Autobiography of a poetess' whom she emphatically identified as 'not me' (AL 85) presents a first-person narrator remarkably like Lucy Snowe in Villette. If Aurora is less duplicitous and evasive than Lucy, her narrative is nevertheless similarly permeated by repressed desires and conflicts, and fissured by chronological ruptures.
The narrative perspective of Aurora Leigh develops less out of Barrett Browning's use of lyric forms in the 1840s, as Susan Stanford Friedman suggests (208), than out of her experimentation with dramatic speakers throughout the 1840s in poems like 'Bertha in the Lane', 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point', 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' and several unpublished or unfinished works, most notably the 'monodrama' on Aeschylus attributed to Browning for many years. Reynolds subtly analyses Aurora's narrative discrepancies, her constant revisions of the past, the 'split' between her roles as actor and narrator, the ' multiplicity of voices' her text incorporates, and the increasing 'self-consciousness' it registers as a 'text-inprocess' (AL 32-38) . All of these features point to the traits Aurora Leigh shares both with Victorian dramatic monologues and with the narrative perspective of novels like Villette . Significantly, Aurora Leigh was not only prompted by Barrett Browning's success in 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship', which can be best d escribed as a framed dramatic monologue in the epistolary mode. Her first mention of her novel-epic to Browning also appears in a letter much concerned with the new kind of drama he should write, immediately after her description of her projected Aeschylus monodrama (RB-EBB 1:30-1). Barrett Browning's choice of narrative perspective [161/162] in Aurora Leigh has significant implications for many of her heroine's utterances. Since Aurora begins writing her story in medias res at the age of twenty-seven, throughout much of the poem she speaks not as a sage and prophet, but as a sage-in-formation whose wisdom is in process of revision and often contradicted by her own actions. The textual ironies thus generated call in question the authoritative stance so strenuously asserted by some male Victorian sages. If the woman artist's power is expressed more overtly in Aurora Leigh than in Villette because Aurora is a much less 'reluctant prophet' than Lucy, to use Larson's term (Morgan, Victorian Sages 84), this does not mean that Aurora is presented throughout as a sage of unquestionable authority, or that Barrett Browning endorses the possibility of such infallibility. An incomplete appreciation of the narrative ironies in Aurora Leigh has resulted not only in a general undervaluation of Barrett Browning's narrative sophistication, but also inthe misrepresentation of her social and political vision. Ever since Kaplan condemned Barrett Browning for her 'vicious picture of the rural and urban poor' (11) and her 'bourgeois rejection of working-class consciousness', critics have abstracted Aurora's opinions on the 'people' and on women's rights from their ironic contexts and objected to the 'constriction ' or weakness of Barrett Browning's views on socialist and feminist activism (Gelpi 35; Lootens 223). Even Reynolds' astute analysis of Aurora's narrative unreliability does not question the view that Barrett Browning's 'condemnation of socialist endeavour ... can be an embarrassment to some twentieth-century readers' (AL 16). In many cases, this 'embarrassment' or unease is prompted by Aurora's description of the poor invited to attend Romney's aborted marriage with Marian. In [162/163] order to stage his symbolic marriage between the classes, Romney takes his wife' "[directly from the people" (4:369), inviting 'Half St. Giles in frieze ... to meet St. James in cloth of gold', and afterwards share a marriage feast (4:538-39). Undeniably, Aurora's response to the crowd that enters the church is graphic and disturbing. In her horrified eyes, 'the people' appear like the 'humours of a peccant social wound', oozing 'into the church / In a dark slow stream, like blood' — crawling 'slowly toward the altar from the street / As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole'raising 'an ugly crest / Of faces' — faces that usually 'hid in cellars, not to make you mad / As Romney Leigh is'. 'Faces? ... phew / We'll call them vices, festering to despairs, / Or sorrows, petrifying to vices': 'twas as if you had stirred up hell / To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost' (4:544-88).
This scene has typically been read as an expression of Barrett Browning's own bourgeois revulsion for the people, reflecting the limitations of her sheltered existence in Wimpole Street. Yet such figurations of the poor were common in the mid-Victorian period, even among those with much more experience of the London slums than Barrett Browning. Similar tropes appear not only in novels by Dickens, Kingsley and others, but also in the Parliamentary Reports on the living and working conditions of the poor. Indeed, the latter 'consistently employ a language of the inferno: bodies tumble together in crowded hovels, dunghills dominate the landscape, and all is festering and pestilential', even though the observers are sympathetic (David, Intellectual Women, 125). Aurora's figuration of the poor thus registers a collective discourse of the poor as much as a personal response on Aurora's or Barrett Browning's part. More importantly, Aurora's middle-class figuration [163/164] of 'the people' as a demonic mass appears at a relatively early stage in her artistic development, and is gradually and subtly undermined both by the representation of the poor elsewhere in her own text and by the ironies pervad~ng her attempt to develo~ an art that confronts and Incorporates the realities of her age. In other words, Barrett Browning strongly embodies representative middle-class assumptions about the lower classes in Aurora's consciousness not In order to endorse them, but in order to question them, much as she subsequently represents and discredits Aurora's initial priggish and conventional assumptions about Marian's illegitimate pregnancy. Aurora Leigh offers little to compare to Gaskell's full and variegated representation of working-class voices and perspectives in Mary Barton. Yet when Barrett Browning does represent the actual voices of workingclass people, what we hear exposes the limitations of Aurora's initial lurid and blurred impressions of the masses. When Romney's wedding ceremony is broken off because of Marian's disappearance, the first sound that fills the pause is 'a baby sucking in its sleep / At the farthest end of the aisle' (4:814-15). The natural hunger the baby expresses finds a more threatening voice in the working-class man who first speaks primarily concerned that' "all the beef and drink / Be not filched from us" (4:816-17). But the woman who cnes out next and at much greater length reveals her concern not for ' beef and drink' but for Marian "I've not stomach even for beef, / Until I know about the girl that's lost"'. Significantly, the crowd is swayed not by the man's voice, but by hers, as it joins In her expression of class solidarity:
'We'll have our rights.
We'll have the girl, the girl! Your ladies there
Are married safely and smoothly every day,
And she shall not drop through into a trap
Because she's poor and of the people: shame!
We'll have no tricks played by gentlefolks;
We'll see her righted.' (4:841-47)
The snobbish, idle, superficial chat of the majority of the 'gentlefolks' prior to this outburst — '"These Leighs! — our best blood running in the rut" (4.685) makes the people's expression of solidarity all the more admirable. Yet Aurora, who participates at thiS point in many of the prejudices she satirizes, in the fashionable St James folk, exhibits little recognition of the people's collective concern for Marian's fate. Instead, she perceives the people as a pack of hungry hounds falling on their Actaeon-like huntsman Romney and then faints away struggling to rescue him much as Margaret Hale flings herself forward to rescue Thornton in Gaskell's North and South. Similar limitations in Aurora's blurred and feverish perceptions of the poor are apparent when she first enters the slum of St Margaret's Court to seek out Marian. Cursed by a 'rouged' woman with 'angular cheek bones' and a 'flat lascivious mouth', who asks, "What brings you here, My lady? is't to find my gentleman/ Who visits his tame pigeon/ In the eaves?" " Aurora states that she did not flinch in saying to the woman, '"The dear Christ comfort you ... you must have been most miserable, / To be so cruel" (3:764-82). But she does not pause to consider the causes of the woman's bitterness, which the reader might see as not unmotivated: her 'angular cheekbones' bespeak starvation (Reynolds note indicates that the manuscript here initially read 'starved to the bone'), her words indicate that her mother is dying of cholera, and she is absolutely right in inferring [165/166] that Aurora comes into her court 'close-veiled' not out of concern for the poor's suffering but because of her interest in a 'gentleman'. Ironically, Aurora's 'unflinching' first encounter with a working class individual ends with her hastily emptying out her purse upon the stones, then fleeing as she imagines hideous sounds all about her in the slum:
a hideous wail of laughs
And roar of oathes, and blows perhaps .. . I passed
Too quickly for distinguishing. [3:786-88, my emphasis]
Aurora first seeks out Marian because she has been informed of Romney's interest in this "drover's daughter", by Lady Waldemar (3:659), the fashionable lady who falls in love with Romney and who completes Barrett Browning's tryptich of working-class, middle-class and upper-class womanhood. Lady Waldemar is linked to Aurora through a complex series of plot and character parallels and contrasts that bring into relief both Aurora's limita tions and her growing strengths. Thus Aurora climbs up to Marian's garret for much the same reason th at Lady Waldemar has climbed up to her third-floor Kensington flat. Both love Romney for his Quixotic nobility while simultaneously criticizing his chilly absorption in abstract ideals. Both think of marrying him to 'save' him: Lady Waldemar professedly acts to save him from marrying Marian, the vulgar seamstress (3:502); and Aurora briefly considers that she might have saved Romney from Lady Waldmar's wiles by marrying him (7: 186), though she quickly rejects such foolish female 'knight-errantry' . In direct contrast to Aurora, Lady Waldemar confesses her physicality and her desire for Romney with a startling frankness:
"We fair fine ladies, who park out our lives ... have
Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts
As ready for outrageous ends and acts
As [166/167] any distressed seamstress.'" [3:456-64]
But her 'warm' heart does not extend to geniune sympathy for the poor, despite her short-lived attempt to act as Romney's helpmate in his phalanstery. Whereas Aurora's perception of 'the people' is profoundly altered by her sympathetic intimacy with Marian and her quest for greater social realism in her art, Lady Waldemar manifests a fairly callous disregard for Marian's fate, for distressed seamstresses (she disdains to wear gowns made by the Ten Hours movement), and for the lower classes generally. She is not so vicious as to be directly responsible for Marian's kidnapping, as Aurora mistakenly assumes. But Lady Waldemar indirectly contributes to Marian's victimization by persuading the girl of her own unworthiness, and by placing her in the hands of the maid who sells her into prostitution.
When Aurora first meets Marian, she marks her off as different from the mass, amazed that such a flower could appear from
such rough roots' — 'the people, under there,
Can sin so, curse so, look so, smell so ... faugh!
Yet have such daughters?' [3:806-09).
Ironically, at this stage in her artistic development, Aurora bears out Romney's claim that she can respond only to the personal, although the limitation is not a consequence of her sex, as he assumes, but of her relative artistic immaturity. She reveals a related limitation as an artist when she submerges Marian's discourse in her own. Rather than respecting the otherness of Marian's story, Aurora decides to ' re-tell' it with 'fuller utterance' (3:828), growing 'passionate' where Marian did not as she imposes her feelings upon the events described (3:847) . Marian's account of her parents — her father, a drover and labourer who drinks between the 'gaps' of irregular work, and her mother, a battered wife who beats her child in turn [167/168] and surrenders her to the squire's lascivious interest (3:858-70) — only confirms Aurora in her unexamined revulsion for the 'rough roots' of the people. But if we listen for Marian's own voice filtered through Aurora's and for the other voices of the poor that Marian conveys, the limitations of Aurora's general assumptions about the people emerge, much as they do in the aborted wedding scene. We can consider, for instance, the variegated expressions of the poor women around Marian in the hospital where she is taken by a kindly waggoner after her flight from her parents (3:1150- 66). Such passages, like the marriage scene, call in question Kaplan's assertion that Barrett Browning represents 'the poor as a lumpen motley of thieves, drunkards, rapists and child beaters' (12). Sigificantly, Marian's account of her mother's attempt to prostitute her is pervaded, as the later account of her rape is, by imagery of animal drovers and of tramping/trampling that makes its first, veiled indirect appearance in Aurora's description of the common lane running by her aunt's country manor,
[O]ut of sight' and 'sunk so deep, no foreign tramp
Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales
Could guess if lady's hall existed behind the wall of shrubbery (I:588-91)
As this textual connection suggests, Marian's story of her life as the daughter of a drover and itinerant labourer, and then as a seamstress, exposes Aurora to the rural and urban poverty her sheltered adolescence carefully fenced out. After Marian's disappearance, her 'memory moans on' within Aurora's mind (5:1097). But it isn't clear that the aesthetic philosophy Aurora expresses in her famous manifesto — the poet's work is to 'represent the age' — has been significantly informed by her encounter with the working-class girl, even though it results in the 'long poem' that Romney later praises for its [168/169] transcendence of the merely personal (8:606). On the contrary, Books 6 and 7 (written not retrospectively but as a journal) indicate that Aurora's growth as a poet-sage must be completed by a more intimate confrontation with Marian's suffering and the urgent social issues it manifests. The opening of Book 6 presents Aurora walking in the streets of Paris, resolving that the love of pastoral poetic beauty will not draw her backward from the 'coarse town-sights': 'I would be bold and bear / To look into the swarthiest face of things', she declares (6:141-47). Striving to contemplate 'the people in the rough' in her sphere of poetry as Romney does in his sphere of philanthrophy (6:202), she states her desire to 'pore upon / An ounce of common, ugly, human dust' rather than to 'track old Nilus to his silvery roots' (6:163-66). Aurora's ideals are laudable, like the political ideals of the French people which she earlier defends. But Barrett Browning signals the gap between her heroine's artistic theory and her practice through multiple textual ironies. Amidst the crowds of Paris, Aurora is 'musing' in a solitary state, 'pulling thoughts to pieces leisurely / As if [she] caught at grasses in a field' (6:229-30) — like the escapist pastoral poet she condemns. Her wandering thoughts reflect her own vagueness, not Barrett Browning's, given that her movement through Paris can be very precisely mapped (Reynolds AL 648). Although she shows a fuller appreciation now of Romney's vocation of philanthrophy, the 'larger metaphysics' Aurora imagines is still unduly dismissive of the need for 'bread' as she focuses chiefly and rather bombastically on the 'essential prophet's word': 'we thunder down / We prophets, poets .. . To inaugurate the use of vocal life' (6:204-20). Just as Aurora asserts that 'a poet's word' is worth [169/170] more to any man than food or warmth, she is struck by the sight of a face: 'God! what face is that? / 0 Romney, O Marian!' (6:221-27). The doubling of Romney's with Marian's face underlines the role Marian plays in reconciling Aurora's life philosophy or metaphysics with Romney's, the need for 'bread' with the need for 'verses'. At this point, however, when Aurora plunges into the crowd in pursuit, she only runs into a 'gentleman as abstracted as' herself, some 'learned member' of the French Institute, 'meditating on the last "Discourse'" (6:261-66). The abstracted and elitist Academician, pinching the 'empty air' as he takes his snuff, strikingly embodies the dangers of the abstract, arid theoretical musing Aurora herself has been absorbed in — ironically while she meditates on a democratizing poetics. Aurora does not begin to translate this poetics into practice until she experiences the concrete and particularized story of Marian's rape and degradation, '[s]tepping by her footsteps, breathing by her breath / And holding her with eyes that would not slip' (6:503-4). Seeing alone is not sufficient, she gradually realizes, given that her 'artist's eye' is ' [h]alf-absent, whole-observing' (6:427-29). '"You feel? / You understand? no, do not look at me, / But understand" , Marian insists (6:1204-05). Like Dante, Aurora has to journey vicariously with Marian into the underworld (Mermin 217) before she can attain the vision and authority of the sage who eventually finds in 'the despised poor earth, / The healthy odorous earth' (9:652-53). Like her utterances concerning the people, socialist reform and her own aesthetic practice, Aurora's comments on women's rights have often been interpreted without sufficient consideration of contextual ironies. Moreover, the neglect of diachronic and dialogical dimensions within Barrett Browning'S [170/171] representation of her protagonist has been mirrored by a similar neglect of the ideological formations and transformations shaping the production of her novelepic. Rod Edmond is a welcome exception to this tendency in exploring some of the ways in which Aurora Leigh 'became part of the wider political and social debate about the status of women' in 1856 (138). But helpful as his historically contextual survey is, it does not sufficiently acknowledge that Aurora Leigh became part of this wider debate precisely because it so directly addressed so many of the issues on the agenda of mid-Victorian feminists like Barbara Bodichon: particularly, women's employment and education.
The emphasis on women's employment permeates Aurora Leigh. Although Bayne saw it as a revision of Virgil's 'arms and the man', one might more accurately see it as a revision of Carlyle's earlier transformation of Virgil. Whereas Carlyle writes of 'tools and the man' in Past and Present, Barrett Browning sings of tools and the woman. Whereas Carlyle, like Romney, denigrates poetry and privileges silence, Aurora includes God's' "singers", among "the workers for his world" (2:1233-34). "I too have my vocation, work to do . . . Most serious work, most necessary work"', Aurora declares to Romney (2:455,457). Later, hard at work in her London flat, writing for the periodical press in order to support herself in her 'veritable work' (3:328), Aurora's pen becomes a 'spade' in her hand (3:294). Such passages convey the passionate belief in the importance of women's work that Barrett Browning expresses in an 1859 letter to Mary Hunter, where she simultaneously reveals the intense desire for a daughter reflected in many of her letters of the 1850s. 'Oh, if I had a daughter', she declares,
'she would be educated [171/172] to stand by herself and work; she should learn nothing that she could not turn to use. I would rather have her a good housekeeper & cheapener in the market, than a fritterer away of time at the piano & painting & reading ... in an amateur fashion. ... [W]omen now-a-days (taking the mass) are educated for the intellectual seraglio' [AL 63]
As this letter suggests, there is a vital connection between the penetrating satire of the typical young lady's education in Aurora Leigh (I:385-481) and Barrett Browning's focus throughout on work.
Ironically, however, one of the strongest expressions of the importance of women's work in Aurora Leigh appears in a passage that has often been cited out of context as evidence for Barrett Browning's contempt for feminist activism.20 In the extended conversation between Romney and Aurora that takes up much of Book 8 and 9, Aurora agrees with Romney that there's "too much abstract willing, purposing / In this poor world" " and sarcastically observes,
Yes, we generalise
Enough to please you.
A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part,
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it, prate of woman's rights,
Of woman's mission, woman's function, till
The men (who are prating too on their side) cry,
"A woman's function plainly is ... to talk."
Poor souls, they are very reasonably vexed;
They cannot hear each other talk.' [8:808-24]
The apparent attack on prating of 'woman's rights' [172/173] in this exchange is permeated by double-edged contextual ironies, as Barrett Browning's satiric shafts characteristically fly in a number of different directions. First, we may note that Romney and Aurora are both talking compulsively and at great length as they denounce talking and abstract willing, largely in order to avoid dealing with their feelings for each other. Aurora herself implicitly acknowledges this strategic evasion in prefacing this speech to Romney by confessing that she was 'fain to throw up thought / And make a game of it' (8:806-07). But Aurora is also ironic at the expense of those prating men who are 'reasonably vexed' at woman's talk because they 'cannot hear each other talk'. This is the most obvious reading of the closing lines of her speech on prating, although the pronoun 'they' is calculatedly ambiguous enough in its context to refer to both women and men collectively. In other words, men are so busy talking on their side of the gender divide, and women's on theirs, that the two sexes — 'poor souls' indeed — are at an impasse in communication. Interpretations of this passage as an attack on feminist activists overlook such ironies as well as two other important points. Aurora is not only talking lightly, for suspect reasons, of those who promote women's rights. She also dismisses those who prate of 'woman's mission, woman's function': in other words, the conservative women like Sarah Ellis who wrote that 'score of books on womanhood' which were anathema to the youthful Aurora — books preaching the 'general missionariness' of woman and her
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners. [I:427-40]
Barrett Browning appears to be deliberately blurring the boundaries between feminist and conservative discourse here, just as she goes on to blur the boundaries between women [173/174] and men talking. And of course, many Victorian men did talk, very loudly, about 'woman's function '. At the same time, however, Barrett Browning states the case for women's work very strongly: women should be free to do the thing they can do best '[i]n life, in art, in science'. If we have any doubt that Barrett Browning is making a case here for the opening of the various professions to women, we can consider what Aurora goes on to stress: women should act according to their aspirations, claim their 'license' to work through action and achievement in various vocational fields. Like Harriet Hosmer, the celebrated sculptor whom Barrett Browning admired in Italy, they should speak through the power of their acts. Similarly, Aurora points out, '"Whoso cures the plague, / Though twice a woman, shall be called a leech"'; while the woman who '"rights a land's finances, is excused / For touching coppers, though her hands be white,- / But we, we talk!"' (8:842-46). Here again, the ironic ambiguities multiply. The 'we' who talk are apparently women, but the phrase refers equally accurately to the long-winded Aurora and Romney, and indeed to all who belong to the age, as Romney goes on to point out.
However we interpret Aurora's talk in this instance, we should note the striking similarities between what Barrett Browning is implying about women and work, and what the 'Langham Place' group of feminist activists associated with Barbara Bodichon were saying in the pamphlets and essays brought together by Candida Lacey.21 Bodichon provides two epigraphs for her groundbreaking 1857 pamphlet, Women and Work: the second comes from the recently published Aurora Leigh, the first from St Paul (Lacey 36). Bodichon quotes the passage in which Aurora asserts
The honest earnest man must stand and work
The [174/175] woman also, — otherwise she drops
At once below the dignity of man. [8: 712-14]
Bodichon thereby creates a subversive intertext converting St Paul ('there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus') into an apologist for women's right to enter the professions and find honest, remunerated employment. Bodlchon subsequently weaves another quotation on women and work from Aurora Leigh (2:439-49) into the body of her argument, evidently assuming that the author and source will be obvious to her readers (Lacey 40).
Frances Power Cobbe's allusions to Aurora Leigh similiarly indicate that Barrett Browning's ideological affiliations with the Langham Place feminists were closer than has traditionally been assumed. In 1860, Cobbe sought an introduction to Barrett Browning in Florence because she was 'bubbling over with enthusiasm for her poetry'.22 Two years later, in her spIrIted and witty argument for women's vocational opportunities, 'What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids?', Cobbe took Aurora's argument about women claiming their 'license' to work one step further by using the example of Barrett Browning's achievement in poetry, along with Harriet Hosmer's in sculpture and Rosa Bonheur's in painting, to prove woman's creative powers in the arts. 'Aurora Leigh is perhaps the least "Angelical" poem in the language', Cobbe remarks, and It bears the relation to the 'feebleness and prettiness ' of conventional fema le poetry that 'a chiselled steel corset does to a silk boddice with lace trimm.ings. The very hardness of its rhythm, its sturdy wrestlmgs and grapplings, one after another, with all the sternest problems of our social life — its forked lightning revelations of character ... all this takes us miles away from the received notion of a woman's poetry' (Lacey 366). [175/176] Barrett Browning also refers to a third important member of the Langham Place group, Bessie Rayner Parkes, more than once in her letters, most revealingly in a letter of 1856 (AL 18): Bessie Parkes is writing very vigorous articles on the woman question, in opposition to Mr Patmore, poet & husband, who expounds infamous doctrines on the same subject ... — Oh if you heard Bessie Parkes! — she & the rest of us militant, foam with rage — . . . I hear he is to Review in the North British my poor 'Aurora Leigh,' who has the unfeminine impropriety to express her opinion on various 'abstract subjects,' — which Mr. Patmore cant abide.
'The rest of us militant' suggests good reason to reconsider the view that Barrett Browning, in Catharine Stimpson's words, 'was fastidiously aloof from the organized women's movement' (Mermin xi), or that she rejected 'militant' feminism (Kaplan 27). Barrett Browning's remarks about Patmore dramatically convey the embattled context in which some mid-Victorian women at least encountered Aurora Leigh, while simultaneously reminding us of the ideological axes many professedly impartial reviewers had to grind. Patmore's 'infamous doctrines' on the woman question had found an earlier expression in his 1851 North British Review essay, 'The Social Position of Women', in part a review of Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century. This is an essay Barrett Browning is likely to have read, given her friendship with Fuller. We know, at least, that the North British was among the periodicals she was reading in the 1850 period (LEBB 1:467), and that many of the arguments Patmore advances for the natural and social subordination of woman are refuted in Aurora Leigh. [176/177] Like her differences with Patmore, many of the intertextual debates Barrett Browning carries on in Aurora Leigh are directly concerned with issues placed on the reform agenda by the Langham Place activists. This is true both of the intertextual arguments with Tennyson, Carlyle, Clough and Kingsley already explored in criticism on Aurora Leigh, and of other intertextual elements which remain largely uninvestigated. For instance, Barrett Browning carries out a multi-faceted revision of Byron's representation of women in Don Juan through a series of textual echoes too numerous to be considered here. As well, the North British Review obituary essay of 1862 saw Aurora Leigh as taking up a gauntlet thrown down by Thomas De Quincey on the subject of the 'woman question. The review opens with the words from De Quincey's 1847 essay on 'Joan of Arc' which are almost certainly echoed in Romney's mistaken prophecy that there will never be a great woman poet: 'Woman, sister — there are some things which you do not execute as well as your brother, Man; no, nor ever will. Pardon me, if I doubt whether you will ever produce a poet from your choirs, or a Mozart, or a Phidias, or a Michael Angelo, or a great philosopher, or a great scholar.' Sounding very much like Francis Power Cobbe, the reviewer then proceeds to pay tribute to the amassing evidence for 'woman's powers' in literature and the arts.23 Another reviewer's comments point to Barrett Browning'S strategic revision of Samuel Richardson in joining 'together the central incident of Clarissa Barlowe with the leading sentiment of Ruth — . .. The combination is striking and original, not to say courageous in a lady'.24 The influence of Gaskell's Ruth is apparent in Barrett Browning's combining of 'the qualities of the Madonna and the Magdalen' in [177/178] representing Marian (Cosslett 52). Yet — she also significantly revises both Clarissa and Ruth in refusing to kill Marian off or ship her out to Australia. She explicitly noted 'that Marian should be permitted dignity and purity and that she should "triumph" over Clarissa in being allowed to live' (AL 44). She also alters Richardson and extends Gaskell's analysis by depicting Marian's rape in the economic and social context of systemic prostitution that makes it a sadly representative rather than an isolated act. As Angela Leighton observes, 'Barrett Browning constantly emphasizes the culpability of the system, and particularly ... the class system' (1989, 112). Despite their very qifferent visions and priorities, both Aurora and Romney passionately indict the social and economic system in which 'all the towns / Make offal of their daughters' for man's use' (7:866). As Romney graphically puts it, prostitution
cruel streets from end to end
With eighty thousand women in one smile,
Who only smile at night beneath the gas. [8:413-15]
In such passages, Aurora Leigh anticipates the prominence of the attack on prostitution by British feminist activists in the 1860s; while, in its representation of Marian's abduction and drugging, it precedes by almost thirty years the attack on the white slave trade in 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' (Hickok 190). The depiction of Marian among her fellow seamstresses underlines the economic causes of prostitution, but Barrett Browning is more actively concerned with its spiritual and philosophical causes, which seemed to her remediable. Tennyson's reading of Maud led her to declare that the Crimean War was ' terrible certainly', but that mass prostitution was a greater evil. '[T]here are worse plagues, deeper griefs, dreader wounds .. . What of the forty thousand wretched women in this city? The [178/179] violent writhing of them is to me more appalling than the roar of the canons' (LEBB 2:213).
In asserting Marian's right not only to live, but also to mother and father her fatherless child, Barrett Browning may have furthermore been critiquing the conventional fates allotted to Little Emily and Martha, the fallen women in Dickens's David Copperfield. She associated her deliberate use of contemporary scenes in Aurora Leigh with walking on Dickens' 'ground' (AL 86); and a passage deleted by Frederic Kenyon in the typescript of an 1851 letter indicates that she read David Copperfield soon after it was published and regarded it as Dickens' 'most beautiful' novel.25 It is not Dickens' portrait of fallen women, however, but his portrait of the writer that she most obviously revises in Aurora Leigh. Thus, in place of Dickens' representation of the young David reading his father's books in an attic room 'as if for life', she represents the young Aurora reading her father's books to preserve her inner life: 'Books, books, books! / I had found the secret of a garret-room / Piled high with cases in my father's name', Aurora recalls as she describes herself 'creeping in and out' among the 'giant fossils of her past like 'some small nimble mouse between the ribs / Of a mastadon' (1:832-38).
Richard Hengist Horne's 'penny epic' Orion, inspired in part by Keats' Endymion and Nicholas Poussin's Blind Orion hungering for the Dawn, is another male portrait of the artist that Barrett Browning echoes and alters in Aurora Leigh. She accurately described Orion as a 'Spiritual epic' of the growth of a poet's mind in her 1843 Athenaeum review, but privately criticized it for fading 'off into a mist of allegorism' (BC 7:205, 219, 173). While she adapted elements of Horne's epic in her depiction of the blinded Romney staring at the sun in the conclusion of [179/180] Aurora Leigh, she replaced his focus on a male poet 'hungering for the dawn' with her focus on a female poet symbolically associated with the dawn herself who — like Emily Dickinson after her — is 'famished for the noon' (1:536). Despite the transcendental metaphysics of her own 'spiritual epic', she was also careful to avoid Horne's excessive 'allegorism' by firmly contextualizing Aurora's development as a woman writer within a modern setting and contemporary debates concerning the 'woman question' and the 'social question'.
Kaplan has shewn how Barrett Browning's emphasis on Aurora's artistic vocation radically critiques Kingsley's representation of women, art and socialist reform in Alton Locke, where Eleanor Lynedale gives up her dilletantish pursuit of the beautiful in poetry and art to engage in socially useful tasks (33). Several textual echoes suggest that Barrett Browning was simultaneously responding to Hawthorne's depiction of the failed socialist experiment at Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance, a work that she had read by the summer of 1853 (LMRM 3:392). The Athenaeum review indicates that Victorian readers were quick to link Romney's failed socialist experiments with Hollingsworth's in Hawthorne's novel. But Barrett Browning's subtle recasting of the love triangle in The Blithedale Romance and the ideological work her revision carried out remain unexplored. To a greater extent than either Alton Locke or The Blithedale Romance, Aurora Leigh foregrounds some of the complex ways in which feminist reform intersected and conflicted with socialist reform in the midnineteenth century. As Barbara Taylor points out in Eve and the New Jerusalem, the conflict was more pronounced than the points of intersection after the demise of Owenite and associated socialist movements [180/181] in the late 1840s, when 'the political location of feminism began to shift' from working-class socialist groups to the middle class (276). Taylor's study of British socialism and feminism indicates that the essentially middle-class perspective so many critics have objected to in Aurora Leigh is as much a reflection of broader historical and cultural developments as it is of Barrett Browning's own social formation and her limitations as a writer. Several passages in Aurora Leigh indicate that she was certainly aware of some of the progressive ideas socialists such as Fourier expressed concerning woman's position and potential. Yet, like the Langham Place activists, she strategically distanced herself from the socialist reform movements that had collapsed in disarray by mid-century, among them the British Owenite movement. That she was far from alone in her scepticism of the abstract idealism of socialists like Fourier is furthermore indicated by the differently motivated critiques of such visionaries in Marx and Engels' 1848 Communist Manifesto, and in the periodical literature of the period. These critiques remind us that Fourier's theories were by no means consistently informed by enlightened, progressive ideals, as modern readers tend to assume. Indeed, certain elements in Fourier's thinking, as in Robert Owen's, were autocratic or systematically bizarre. Even as she distanced herself from the more discredited aspects of socialist reform, however, Barrett Browning appropriated the millenarian discourse of the British Owenites, French Saint-Simonians, and other socialist movements to convey her own vision of a woman-engendered new Jerusalem. The affinities between the revelation Aurora and Romney share in the conclusion of Aurora Leigh and socialist millenarian visions of a female messiah described by Taylor (161-80) are particularly apparent in Barrett [181/182] Browning's symbolic allusions to the 'woman clothed with the sun' in Revelation 12 — a prominent figure in Owenite and socialist feminism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Mary Wilson Carpenter is surely right in interpreting Aurora the 'prophet poet' as a type of this apocalyptic figure (Morgan, Victorian Sages, 116). Like the visionary woman in Revelation 12, the golden-haired Aurora metaphorically stands with the moon beneath her feet in her final passionate embrace with Romney (9:842), as both '[g]aze on, with inscient vision toward the sun' (9:913). In the context of Aurora's artistic development, the woman clothed with the sun emerges as a countertype to the 'dropped star' of the woman-artist buried in the waters of domestic life. In the context of the spiritual evolution that is inseparable from Aurora's artistic development, this visionary figure affiliates Aurora Leigh with a tradition of Protestant iconoclasm in which, as Carpenter notes, the woman clothed with the sun exemplifies 'the activity, change and even violent revolt of the Protestant Reformation' (113). Within this tradition Swedenborg's works, with their emphasis on divine 'dawnism', an androgynous' deity, and love fulfilling itself in useful works, had a particularly important influence on Aurora Leigh, as they did on some of the socialist feminist movements that preceded it. But as James Borg notes, Barrett Browning developed Swedenborg's 'gloss' on the woman clothed with the sun into a 'core' element m articulating her own revisionary revelation (122-27, 137). Nevertheless, in presenting Aurora as a type of the woman crowned with the sun, Barrett Browning does not exalt her 'prophet poet' into an infallible source of authority. Aurora's final vision of Revelation is presented in the context of a number of earlier, [182/183] contradictory interpretations, thereby reinforcing the hermeneutical instability generated throughout Aurora Leigh by the poet-protagonist's narrative unreliability. These contradictory interpretations of Revelation include, on the one hand, the radical young Mr Smith's critique of Romney's conservative Christian socialism and his call for a 'new church' free of 'marriage-law' (5:714,706); and on the other, the conservative Sir Blaise Delorme's castigation of Romney as one of the 'dogs' outside the gates of the heavenly city in Revelation 22 (5:749), a judgment echoed in the vicar's association of Romney not with the dogs but with the 'frogs' or unclean spirits of the false prophet in Revelation 16 (8:903-5). In explicitly contrasting Aurora's 'book' with the vicar's discourses, Romney calls attention to the contradictions between their interpretations of Revelation. Thus we are left with little doubt that the vicar would denounce Aurora too as one of the unclean 'frogs'.
Another particularly complex set of allusions to Revelation, this time on Marian's part, suggests to the contrary that Aurora's limitations as a prophet lie not in her uncleanness, but in her excessive preoccupation with purity. When Aurora priggishly and wrongly rebukes Marian for taking delight in her illegitimate child, Marian compares her to the pure and speckless angels who walk' "up and down the new Jerusalem", holding up their trailing lutestrings from' "brushing the twelve-stones, for fear of some / Small speck as little as a needle-prick" (6:711-16). Later, comparing herself to the dying Aaron, Aurora takes a stand on her speckless purity in sanctifying Marian as a fitting wife for Romney (9:265). But in a sudden reversal, it is the fallen Marian who emerges as the enabling priest and mtermediary in this scene. Marian is the necessary angel of earth who redeems Aurora by reminding her [183/184] of her own humanity, and who leads her towards the revelation of a new order based not on purity but on love, focused not on the afterworld but on this world. This may explain why Barrett Browning divides the features associated with the woman clothed with the sun between Aurora and Marian, in presenting the latter as a Madonna figure who bears a 'man-child', who flees into the wilderness, and who is persecuted by the dragon of ' "man's violence", and inequity (6:1226).
The subversive hermeneutics of Barrett Browning's revisionary mythopoesis have not been adequately considered by those critics who fault the conclusion of Aurora Leigh for its conservative and otherworldly rhetoric and agenda.26 Such readings typically overlook not only Barrett Browning's focus on the woman clothed with the sun, but also the extent to which millenarian discourse was interpreted and mobilized by nineteenth-century reformers in pragmatically political ways. In Rita Felski's words, 'the political value of literary texts from the standpoint of feminism can be determined only by an investigation of their social functions and effects in relation to the interests of women in a particular historical context', and not by 'an abstract literary theory' of "subversive" and "reactionary" forms'.27 Barbara Taylor emphasizes that 'the language of prophecy and apocalypse' in nineteenth-century socialist discourse often 'expressed not a literal faith in millenarian change' but 'commitment to the construction of a new heaven on earth' (160-1). Aurora's clarion call for '[n]ew churches, new oeconomies, new laws' (9:929-47) seems to have been read in this light by many nineteenth-century activists. In carrying Aurora Leigh with her as she travelled through America campaigning for women's rights, Susan B. Anthony clearly interpreted it not as a [184/185] vision of a new heaven, but as a vision of a new woman and a new earth (Barry 121-23).
At the same time, critics are surely right in emphasizing that Aurora Leigh does not offer any blueprints for reform. Barrett Browning emphatically rejects any 'mapping out of masses to be saved, / By nations or by sexes' (9:867-8). Similarly, as Kaplan points out, the critique of female education is not accompanied by an 'alternative system' (21). Kaplan attributes the absence of 'alternative systems' in Aurora Leigh to the fact that Barrett Browning 'has no answer to the misery of the poor except her own brand of Christian love — and poetry' (12). But the provision of such 'systems' would contradict the most fundamental philosophical premises of Barrett Browning's textual enterprise. The manuscript jotting 'System against instinct' was central to Barrett Browning's thinking from the start, as Reynolds emphasizes. 'Her project, formal as well as political, was to privilege instinct and development as process, over the ordering limits of education and system' (AL 25). This project is embodied in the complex series of textual and intertextual processes that Aurora Leigh traces and generates. Any text is a practice rather than 'an archive of structures', Julia Kristeva reminds us (cited in Yaeger 199). But her description of textual practice as involving 'the sum of unconscious, subjective, and social relations in gestures of confrontation and appropriation, destruction and cr.eation — productive violence' seems particularly applicable to Barrett Browning's dynamically intertextual representation of a sage representing her own formation. Although the 'productive violence' of Aurora Leigh sometimes seems to resolve into static philosophical touchstones contradicting Barrett Browning's project, her overall textual practice avoids such reifications of [185/186] process. "Subsist no rules of life outside of life", (9:870), Romney declares, apparently echoing Barrett Browning's privileging of instinct over system. Such a maxim clearly risks exalting 'instinct' itself as a rule. As Rachael DuPlessis observes, revisionary mythopoesis is 'fraught with some irony' since the critique of traditional legitimating narratives often results in the creation of alternative narratives that claim a similar privileged status (107) . Yet the rule that there is no rule, like the assumption that the subjective is the only approach to the objective, can have the radical effect which DuPlessis describes as 'breaking the sequence' of narrative legitimation (108), even though DuPlessis herself does not associate this effect with the conclusion of Aurora Leigh. In her view, on the contrary, Barrett Browning succumbs to traditional narrative patterns in making 'her hero's work facilitate the romance to be achieved' (6) and in aligning Aurora's artistic work with the 'feminine ideology' of self-sacrifice (87). Ironically, however, DuPlessis' reading may reflect her own totalizing narrative pattern concerning the irresolvable conflict between vocation and marriage in nineteenth-century plots, without capturing the textual complexities of the work it purports to describe. For Romney clearly intends his marriage to Aurora to facilitate her work, not the other way round, as he first urges her to '"work for two", while he '"for two, shall love"', then revises his rhetoric of gender complementarity to emphasize that love and work are inseparable: '"let us love so well, / Our work shall still be better for our love" (9:911-12; 925-7). Nor does such an ethic of work merely rein scribe the conventional ideology of feminine self-sacrifice, given that women and men are equally urged to work, and that Barrett Browning's conception of women's work [186/187] throughout Aurora Leigh is analogous to Barbara Bodichon's.
Because DuPlessis' project involves a metanarrative contrasting nineteenth-century and twentieth-century women writers, she does not consider the parallels between Aurora Leigh and twentieth-century strategies of revisionary mythopoesis. Nevertheless, her suggestive reading of H. D.'s transformative appropriation of Revelation suggests the affinities between Barrett Browning's emancipatory sage practice as I have described it and H.D. 's poetic practice in her epic Trilogy. If John declares 'that there shall be no other prophet after him', but H.D. 'demurs, proceding to recast not only John's misogynistic interpretations but also his authoritarian voice' (DuPlessis 119), so too does Barrett Browning. 'For more's felt than is perceived / And more's perceived than can be interpreted', Aurora learns (7:89 1-2); and, given that, no vision of revelation, not even John's or Aurora's, can be definitive. If H.D. transforms the iconography of the Madonna by presenting her as a Lady with 'none of her usual attributes', so too Barrett Browning transforms the iconography of both the Madonna and the woman clothed with the sun in her representation of a raped woman and a woman writer. Finally, if H.D.'s apocalyptic Lady carries a book that resists assimilation into the past' because its text is 'blank, unwritten ... complete potentiality', one might similarly find in the conclusion to Aurora Leigh not a lack of alternative systems but an open-ended apocalyptic potentiality generating the reader's inscription of meaning.
Critics have rightly celebrated Aurora's strong opening assertion, 'I write', though without noting how it contrasts with Marian's initial submission to Romney's authority — 'let him write / His name upon [187/188] her it seemed natural' (6:911-12) — or how it relates to the general dangers of writing for or upon others in Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning reveals a keen awareness of how we are 'written' by dominant ideologies, how we become the texts of others, yet at the same time she retains faith in the individual's potential to write 'for' a 'better self — that is, in order to call a better self into existence. Clearly there are inescapable contradictions in this ideology of individualism, which Reynolds describes as 'a Romantic and liberal position' (AL 18). But as Alice Walker's Celie observes, change has to begin somewhere and our own self is what we have at hand. If, as Barrett Browning believed, life, morals and art develop from within, then the prophet-poet's task is not to write a programme of reform for others, but rather to create a space for each to 'write' the self and the future:
She carries a book but it is not
the tome of the ancient wisdom,
the pages I imagine, are the blank pages
of the unwritten volume of the new . . ..30 [188/189]
Last modified 11 June 2014