oday, the readers of Elizabeth Barret Browning's Aurora Leigh — especially the women — are struck by Aurora's admirable independence and strength of character. Such a well-educated and strong-minded heroine seems extraordinary coming from the pages of a nineteenth century Victorian work of literature. Aurora's far-reaching knowledge of artists and authors impress the reader, and when she asserts her independence following a particularly unappealing marriage proposal from her amorous cousin, the reader cheers at her courage and sensibility:
You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the compliment
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought,
As also in birth and death. Whoever says
To a loyal woman, "Love and work with me,"
Will get fair answers, if the work and love,
Being good themselves, are good for her —
The best she was born for. (51)
Aurora's attitude in this passage represents her character well, however, not everyone approves of such independence. Aurora's aunt insists that if her charge believed anything but that complete dependence on Romney and thankfulness for his proposal were acceptable, she must be mad: "'You,' she cried, 'have got a fever. What, I talk and talk an hour long to you, — I instruct you how you cannot eat or drink or sit or even die, like any decent wretch in all this unroofed and unfurnished world without your cousin'" (Browning, 58). The modern reader instinctively disagrees with Aurora's aunt and hopes that the heroine will ignore those repressive words and continue to think independently.
In a contemporary review, the anonymous critic attacks Aurora's character for the very qualities that make it (no doubt through Browning's intention) so appealing to modern or feminist readers. The review claims that Aurora "is not attractive, she is not a genuine woman, one half of her heart seems bounding with the beat of humanity while the other half is ossified: what we miss in her is instinctiveness which is the greatest charm of women (Blackwood's Magazine, 81, 1857). The article goes on to say, "with all deference to Mrs. Browning, and with ideas of our own perhaps more chivalric than are commonly promulgated, we must maintain that woman was created to be dependent on the man, and not in the primary sense his lady and his mistress.
This might have been a necessary comment to make in the middle of the nineteenth century, but when such words are read today, they immediately deny the critic full credibility; he (or she) was clearly biased by the predominant social attitudes of the time. The critic does like the character of Marian and revels in her motherhood, claiming that "we envy the imagination that can conceive of a sweeter picture than this:"
Gentle and loving, — lets me hold the child,
Or drags him up the hill to find me flowers
And fill those vases, ere I'm quite awake, —
The grandiose red tulips, which grow wild,
Or else my purple lilies...
At early morning laid across my bed,
And woke up pelted with a childish laugh
Which even Marian's low precipitous 'hush'
Had vainly interposed to put away. (268)
This passage certainly conjures beautiful images and sparks warm feelings within the reader, but one can not help but wonder whether the critic realized the bitter side of this sweet picture. Perhaps the motherly qualities of Marian give her the "feminine charm" that Aurora lacks, but it seems that a different passage might have been chosen as the sole excerpt that this critic found pleasing. For a more feminist reader, any mention of Marian and her child carries a certain sorrow from the pervious scene in which Marian declared herself dead — dead by the condemnation of society for the possession of a bastard child.
The review ends with a general compliment to Browning, claiming that the work "with all its faults, is a remarkable poem; strong in energy, rich in thought and beauty." This may be an earnest compliment, however, it has a slight edge of condescension to those who have read the complete review and the anti-feminist sentiments therein. The review provides a good representation of the social climate in which Elizabeth Barret Browning was introducing her feminist work. With the knowledge of the opinions that surrounded notions of an independent and intelligent female, and the ready compliments that were available for the portrayal of a conventional woman, it becomes all the more impressive that Browning chose to create a character as strong-minded and self-sufficient as Aurora Leigh.
Last modified 1993