eception histories of an author's work typically privilege the opinions of reviewers and critics: they present 'the critical heritage', to cite the title of one well-known series. Like literary histories in general, such collections and surveys do not record the responses of the culturally marginalized. Nor do they include responses expressed in pyschological and social transformations rather than in writing. Ironically, however, the socially marginalized and/or socially mobilized often dramatically alter history in ways that official histories obscure. In Frederic Jameson's words, history is a 'process of the reappropriation and neutralization ... of forms which originally expressed the situation of "popular", subordinate, or dominated groups', with the result that there are innumerable silenced 'utterances scattered to the winds, or reappropriated' (86) by the hegemonic order. Yet it is precisely these silenced utterances that constitute the seeds of historical change and the sites of historical struggle.
Since no reception history can hope to reap the 'winds' that Jameson invokes, this one begins by emphasizing what it will inevitably exclude: the transformations Barrett Browning's works produced in the minds and lives of those who did not write because they were immersed in action, or who spoke and wrote privately but were not heard or recorded. 'Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant [189/190] thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl ... ?', George Eliot asks of Gwendolyn Harleth in Chapter 11 of Daniel Deronda. Yet the most compelling half of her last and greatest novel explores that very terrain, while the earlier Middlemarch begins — like the history of Herodotus, Eliot pointedly observes — with the story of a woman.
Like Eliot, Barrett Browning is vitally concerned with the ways in which the historical process is shaped by dramatic or subtle movements of consciousness in the minds of apparently insignificant girls. For Aurora Leigh, the conversion is as cataclysmic as St Paul's' Life calls to us / In some transformed, apocalyptic voice' (1:673-74) — when she first encounters 'the poets' among her dead father's books. 'As the earth / Plunges in fury, when the internal fires / Have reached and pricked her heart', Aurora recalls, her soul '[l]et go conventions and sprang up surprised' (1:845-52). Yet books can also lead to silent invisible refigurations of consciousness, as Romney testifies when he tells
Aurora that her poems have 'moved' him
'in secret, as the sap is moved
In still March-branches, sign less as a stone:
But this last book o'ercame me like soft rain
Which falls at midnight, when the tightened bark
Breaks out into unhesitating buds . .. .' [8:593-97]
We cannot hope to trace even a fraction of the shifts in consciousness, 'signless as a stone', that Aurora Leigh and Barrett Browning's other works produced as they were reissued in edition after edition from the 1860s on, with over twenty editions of Aurora Leigh alone before 1900. As the root metaphors permeating Aurora Leigh imply — the roots of conviction (2:894), the roots of 'the fibrous years' (4:598), the roots of motives [190/191] (7:2), the roots of days (8:492), the roots of vision (2:944; 9:914) — action is transformed mto art and art into action in myriad subtle ways. We do know, however that a 'new American edition of Barrett Browning's work could sell ten thousand copies' (Reynolds AL 149). And we do know how important Aurora Leigh in particular was to some young women who later embodied the 'roots' of their own vision in writing.
Looking back almost forty years, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who passed her girlhood in Andover, Massachusetts, recalled how Aurora Leigh entered and transformed her mind in 1860 when she was sixteen.
There may be greater poems in our language than 'Aurora Leigh', but it was many years before it was possible for me to suppose it; and none that ever saw the hospitality offame could have done for that girl what that poem did at that time. I had never had a good memory — but I think I could have repeated a large portion of it; and know that I often stood the test of haphazard examinations on the poem from half-scoffing friends, sometimes of the masculine persuasion . . .. [W]hat Shakespeare or the Latin Fathers might have done for some other impressionable girl, Mrs. Browning .. . did for me. [Letters II, 404]
'Masculine persuasion' is a nice touch — reflecting the influence of Aurora's satiric wit and her critique of essentialist gender ideologies. What 'the poets' were to Aurora, making her earth plunge and clear 'herself/ To elemental freedom' (1:845-50), Barrett Browning's works were to Phelps. Her aspiration to become a writer was confirmed by Aurora Leigh, and she went on to produce the highly successful Civil War novel [191/192] The Gates Ajar (1868), making her one of Emily Dickinson's more famous contemporaries.
Dickinson's response to Barrett Browning's greatest work is not enclosed in a 'house of prose'. But she did leave a few marked passages in one of her two copies of Aurora Leigh, scattered references to Mrs Browning in her letters, and three cryptic poems including the powerful 'I think I was enchanted ', testimony to the 'Conversion of the Mind' she first experienced on reading Barrett Browning's 'Tomes of solid Witchcraft' (poems 593, 312 and 363). One can readily imagine the inner earthquake accompanying that conversion in the poet who identified herself as 'Vesuvius at Home' . Noting the many 'lines, images, and phrases' in Dickinson's poems that echo Barrett Browning, Betsy Erkkila points out that the period when Dickinson read Aurora Leigh — 'between 1857 and 1861 ' — was also the period in which 'her poetic output increased from about fifty poems written in 1858 to over 300 written in 1862' (72-73). In Dickinson's case too, one might say, Barrett Browning's poems and the few other 'Books' she lists in her letters — Keats, Robert Browning, Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and Revelations — supplanted 'Shakespeare and the Latin fathers'.
The dissemination of Barrett Browning's works among women readers in general in the nineteenth century — women without literary inclinations, yet with intense, individual aspirations of varying kinds - has yet to be explored. However, the educational reformer Alice Woods gives some sense of how important Aurora Leigh was to the generation of Victorian women activists inspired by the earlier example of Barbara Bodichon and others. Woods first encountered Aurora Leigh in 1873. For her the passage used by Bodichon as an epigraph for Women and Work, along with other passages in the same vein like [192/193] Aurora's declaration, 'get work, get work; / Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get' (3:167-8), gave 'living expression' to the longing for worthy employment she shared with so many other young middle-class women of her time (cited by Hewlett 291). In traces such as these we glimpse the lines of transmission that made Aurora Leigh a text of Revelation for Susan B. Anthony as well as for Emily Dickinson.
It comes as no surprise, given the relative absence of women's histories before 1970, that such connections should have been buried. What is more difficult to account for, given Barrett Browning's poetic stature in the nineteenth century and her impact on a host of other writers and thinkers, male as well as female, is the virtual elimination of her major works from most standard literary histories within fifty years of her death — with the telling exception of the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Only 'Elizabeth's' status as Robert Browning's wife and the popular appeal of their romantic story saved her from becoming one of the 'disappeared' altogether. At the same time, these very circumstances helped to furnish the means of containing and co-opting the force of her emancipatory example.
The story of the reception of Barrett Browning's works from the time of her death in 1861 until the beginning of the second wave of feminism is, in more ways than one, a handmaid's tale. Mrs Browning — the wife, the mother, the muse — remained in a variety of supplementary roles. But Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet was erased, even as many of her generic and technical innovations were appropriated and in some cases even attributed to male writers whom she had clearly influenced. Thus, like the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, her creativity was assimilated by a hegemonic [193/194] discourse that denied her enabling agency — and that outside the circles of feminist critical studies often does so still. One of the pleasures of artistic creation for a woman, according to 'Guerilla Girls' subversive activists in the world of contemporary art, is seeing your ideas live on in the works of others — unacknowleged, of course. Barrett Browning, were she alive, might well agree.
A number of broad cultural transformations not necessarily related to ideologies of gender clearly contributed to the drastic decline in Barrett Browning's reputation: Within fifty years of her death. The anti-Romantic spirit of early Modernism led to a preference for qualities thought to be 'Classical', while Barrett Browning is a Romantic writer fired by Promethean aspirations. By 1900, Christina Rossetti, a poet of less range and audacity but more perfect technique, had displaced Barrett Browning as the greatest English 'poetess' in many anthologies and literary histories. The aesthetic movement of the 1890s with its cry of 'art for art' also led to condemnations of Barrett Browning's politically or ethically engaged poetry, condemnations revived in the neoformalism of the 1950s and 60s. Those readers who were politically engaged In the 1890s, and in the Georgian and World War I periods, often endorsed a jingoistic patriotism that made them hostile towards Barrett Browning's Italian sympathles and her strong critique of English parochialism in Casa Guidi Windows, Aurora Leigh, and Poems before Congress. The final poem in Poems before Congress, 'A Curse for a Nation', had been interpreted by some outraged English reviewers and subsequent critics as Mrs Browning's 'hysterical' curse on her own country when the collection was published in 1860. By the turn of the century, such descriptions of Barrett Browning's political poetry as 'hysterical' [194/195] were increasingly common. Finally the Edwardian reaction, which led to a slump in the reputation of Victorian writers generally, undoubtedly contributed to Barrett Browning's decline in reputation.
Taken together, however, all of these cultural transformations do not suffice to explain the burial of Barrett Browning's unprecedented achievement. As E. K. Brown observed in 1942, 'no other Victorian of comparable talent . . . suffered so steep a decline in public admiration and critical interest' (352). The questions I address here are straightforward then. How, when, and where was England's first major woman poet erased from literary history? Who buried her and why? In her study of the reception of Barrett Browning's works up to 1900, Tricia Lootens observes that the poet crowned as England's 'Queen of Song' in 1850 soon came to fit the profile of Marge Piercy's 'Token Woman', who' "serves a season / then is ritually dismembered'" (179). As Lootens suggests, 'absurd though it would be to presume a monolithic conscious conspiracy, it would be equally foolish to presume that a monolithic unconscious innocence underlies the suppression of Barrett Browning's work' (17-18). Nevertheless, Lootens' own emphasis falls more on unconscious innocence, as she demonstrates how the narrative paradigms of 'conventional literary historiography' obscured Barrett Browning's achievement by casting her as a series of 'stock romantic figures': a sister-saint, a Queen of song, a domestic heroine (8).
While these narrative paradigms undoubtedly contributed to the myths that concealed Barrett Browning the poet, the reception history of her works also embodies a remarkably overt conflict between competing ideological agendas. Certainly the substitution of Christina Rossetti for Barrett Browning as [195/196] England's new Queen of Song was not motivated merely by aesthetic concerns or the unconscious perpetuation of fictional conventions, In 1915, for example, Arthur Waugh praised Rossetti's poetry as the best produced by her sex because 'it accepts the burden of womanhood', whereas Mrs Browning's fails 'because she is trying to make a woman's voice thunder like a man's' (cited Rosenblum 1).
The assumption that history is marked by 'progress' — concept that we castigate as 'Victorian' yet often implicitly endorse — might suggest that twentieth-century critics were somehow more enlightened than their Victorian precursors and therefore less likely to object to women who rejected 'the burden of womanhood', Margaret Reynolds reflects the general view of the reception of women writers in the Victorian period In obserVing that they were effectively silenced 'through the undervaluing of "women's" subject matter' and poetic forms, through 'professional scorn' for their mediums of, publication (the Annuals), through 'the dismissive pigeon-holing' of a diffusive feminine style, and above all through 'the overriding assumption, that only men could be the producers of "true" poetry' (AL 4), Although there is much truth to these claims the case of Barrett Browning suggests that the mid-Victorian era was a less repressive period for women Writers than the 1890s and the early twentieth century. Because the transformations generated by women's entry into various fields of literary discourse were occurring so quickly in the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when the institutions of criticism were themselves undergoing metamorphosis, critical discourse about women's writing was markedly dialogized in the period. By the 1890s, however, the reaction to the midVictorian women's rights movement had set in, a [196/197] reaction now amply documented in studies like Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity, Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin's Edging Women Out, and Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy, This reaction, comparable In some ways to the 1990s backlash to second wave feminism, is reflected in the reception of Barrett Browning's works, Turn-of-the-century and early modern critics were more actively, hostilely, and unanimously involved than their mid-Victorian precursors in erasing the transformative presence of England's first major woman poet from the emerging canon of nineteenth-century literature.
Nevertheless, I begin with the obituary assessments of 1861-62 here because they prefigure many of the ideological strategies subsequently deployed to domesticate diffuse or deny the subversive potential of Barrett Browning's example, The obituaries also form a fascinating site of ideological struggle because the gender debate they reflect is so overt and, so marked by internal contradictions and clashing perspectives, Almost all of the critics retrospectively assessing Barrett Browning's achievement are intensely preoccupied with the manifestations of 'Woman's Powers' in literature, to use the running title that appears in the North British Review essay, But they interpret these 'Powers' in very different ways, Gerald Massey, the author of the North British Review essay, responds positively to 'Woman's Powers', taking issue with Thomas De Quincey's prophecy that there will never be a great woman poet, and pointing to the great strides of woman writers 'during the last twenty years', Despite the cultural obstacles that In effect mean 'a woman-Shakespeare would really have to be doubly as great as the man Shakespeare', women have run 'almost abreast' of their brothers in 'more than one department of literature, Massey [197/198] observes, instancing 'fiery little Charlotte Brontë', George Eliot laying hold of life 'with a large hand', and Mrs Browning, 'the greatest woman-poet of whom we have any record', Sappho included. Even in the North British Review obituary, however, there is a note of defensiveness: Eliot is 'almost a prose Shakespeare', and 'De Quincey himself would have admitted that in Mrs. Browning we have woman's nearest approach to a great poet' (514-16). Other reviewers are more divided and, in some cases, much more hostile to the signs of 'Woman's Powers' and what they see as the unhealthy femininization of literary genius. Several of the obituary writers are still willing to grant Mrs Browning the status of the greatest English poetess or even of a great poet, but only after elaborate ideological manoeuvres producing startling contradictions. Employing what was to become the most common strategy for containing Barrett Browning's empowering example, the North British Review obituary domesticates her as a womanly woman and her husband's handmaid: 'inasamuch as she was a great woman, she was greatly a woman; and if she exceeded her sex in strength and aspiration, it was only to foreshow what a woman may gain in her proper sphere, — not in another, — and to assure us that no soul of man, however high, need lack a companion to strengthen and complete, as well as beautify, his life.' Mrs Browning sought intellectual equality with men and, with 'beautiful insanity', imagined a state of sexlessness in heaven in her sonnet 'To George Sand: A Recognition', the reviewer observes. But her 'great success is in her failure ', which illustrates what woman is and what she may do in her own sphere. Predictably, the writer observes that Mrs Browning's life came to a climax when she wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese, a statement he fails to [198/199] reconcile with his acknowledgement of Aurora Leigh as her 'greatest work' The gender ideology informing this assessment of Barrett Browning is undisguised. 'The moral difference between the sexes is not an accidental or unessential matter ... It is necessary, radical, and most unchangeable.' Mrs Browning remained a woman and 'only a woman' and therefore not a 'monstrosity in God's creation'.
More overtly hostile reviewers employ what may be called the double-stick strategy in their obituaries on Barrett Browning: that is, they use her as a yardstick to measure the achievement of other women writers, and as a stick to beat down any new women aspiring to scale Parnassus. The Edinburgh Review's comprehensive critique of her works up to and including Poems before Congress is a case in point. After a savage critique of Barrett Browning's poetical ambition, 'grotesque ideas', 'intolerable conceits', and 'coarsely masculine' tone, the writer faintly praises her more conventionally feminine and slight poems (for example, 'My Doves'), and then concludes: 'Considering the great capabilities she possessed, her career may be accepted as some proof of the impossibility that women can ever attain to the first rank in any imaginative composition.' The Saturday Review is even blunter: 'no woman can hope to achieve what Mrs. Browning failed to accomplish.'12
In the Saturday Review obituary, we also encounter the increasing insistence on Barrett Browning's imitation of other male writers — including Poe (who clearly was influenced by her) and her own husband. The related assumption that a woman writer can be no more than a simulacrum of a male writer appears frequently in mid- and late Victorian responses to Barrett Browning. For instance, the writer of the North American Review obituary cited above observes: 'There [199/200] is no philosophy in "Aurora Leigh." It is rather a playing with philosophy, — an acute and imitative handling of the tools of the masculine workman' (345). Similarly, in keeping with his theory that women writers 'put on the earthly feminine likeness of some favourite of the other sex', Leigh Hunt defined Barrett Browning as 'an ultra-sensitive sister of Tennyson'; while George Barnett Smith's earnest lucubrations on whether Mrs Browning could better be described as Shakespeare's daughter or Tennyson's sister produced Henry James' apt sarcasm, 'it might do better to try "Wordsworth's niece" or "Swinburne's aunt'" (Lootens 151, 330).
Most insistently, however, she was cast as Browning's wife in her poetry as in her life by many reviewers. Shortly after her marriage, when Barrett Browning's fame still completely eclipsed Robert's, she was amused to find one reviewer complaining that her husband had started to imitate her defects, while another reviewer simultaneously and independently complained she was imitating his. But by the time of her death, the emphasis was principally on her imitation, not his. Thus the writer of the Saturday Review obituary referred to above condescendingly observed: ' [T]he only considerable poetess who ever married an original poet may well be excused for copying, and perhaps exaggerating, his casual peculiarities' (492). A subsequent article on 'Poetesses' in the Saturday Review indicates that women poets were damned if they did 'imitate' male writers and damned if they didn't. According to this writer, Mrs Browning missed greatness because 'women, in writing poetry, draw their style from other women, and thus miss that largeness and universality which alone compel attention'.13
The references to Browning in the obituaries [200/201] marking Barrett Browning's death raise some interesting questions about the interconnections between the reception of his works and the reception of his wife's. Editions of her works frequently included advertisements for his throughout the 1850s. Browning also quite consciously used his wife's name on occasion to encourage publishers to accept work from him (Reynolds AL 84). It seems very likely, therefore, that Barrett Browning's international reputation at the time of her death in 1861 significantly contributed to Browning's growing public recognition in the 1860s. The emphasis in the reviews of the 1860s on Barrett Browning's womanly role as Browning's wife and the inferiority of her poetry to his furthermore suggests that the lionizing of Browning may have been related to the ideological work of domesticating his wife's audaciously female genius. By acknowledging Browning's genius or, at the very least, his originality, as the Saturday Review does, critics could more easily put his wife in a suitably subordinate position. As the North British Review indicates, however, not all male critics in the 1860s were unprepared to acknowledge female literary genius. Nor did they consistently reduce Barrett Browning to a figure ancillary to Browning. Indeed, up to the turn of the century, she was categorized and approached as a major poet not only by numerous British and American critics, but also by French, Italian and Russian critics. In his detailed analysis of Aurora Leigh as 'Le poeme d'un siecle', Joseph Texte notes that his admiration for Barrett Browning's works is shared by Hippolyte Taine (240); while Patrick Waddington documents the considerable praise of Barrett Browning's works (and the dismissal of Browning's) in Russian criticism up to the 1890s.
Among British and American critics, H. Buxton [201/202] Forman and Edmund Clarence Stedman are representative of late Victorians who accord Barrett Browning the status of a major poet. Forman, who engages in an eloquent defence of women writers, takes several of his chapter epigraphs from her works in Our Living Poets (1871) and pairs her suggestively with Walt Whitman in the epigraphs facing his title page. He also offers astute and high praise of various works in her canon in his analyses of Jean Ingelow, Augusta Webster, Christina Rossetti and George Eliot; and, contrary to those critics who see Mrs Browning as imitating male writers, he points to the echoes of her works in poets such as Coventry Patmore (II, 99-100, 182-83,231-37, 261, 481-85). Stedman's essay on 'Elizabeth Barrett Browning' in his often reprinted Victorian Poets is a work of criticism more mixed with sentimental hagiography, as Lootens emphasizes (324-34). Nevertheless, he provides a comprehensive and often perceptive analysis of her works, allotting a full chapter to her, and only a third of a chapter to Matthew Arnold by comparison. Moreover, although Stedman judges Aurora Leigh a 'failure' considered merely 'as a poem' by 'accepted standards', he simultaneously pays tribute to its 'audacious, speculative freedom'. It contains 'enough spare inspiration to set up a dozen smaller poets', he observes; and its verse is 'flexible', 'noticeably her own', and 'terser than her husband's'. He further praises Aurora Leigh as 'the metrical and feminine complement to Thackeray's "Pendennis"': '[n]owhere in literature is the process of culture by means of study and passional experience so graphically depicted' (141-42). Forman and Stedman are far from alone in their consideration of Barrett Browning as a major nineteenth-century poet, as the examples of William T. Herridge, Thomas Bradfield, and Lewis E. Gates indicate. Gates, who ranks Barrett Browning with [202/203] Arnold and above Arthur Hugh Clough, perceptively counters the stereotypical picture of her as a secluded visionary invalid, still apparent in some current criticism. One might have expected her to be a 'dreamer', he observes. 'Yet in truth in reading her poetry we are taken ... into the thick of the tumult of living ... She belonged vitally to her age' (32). I cite these critics in some detail because their often laudatory assessments disappeared from literary history, as opposing and more hostile or dismissive views of Barrett Browning prevailed.
One index of the hostility that the author of Aurora Leigh aroused in some Victorian men appears in a letter written by Edward Fitzgerald on hearing of her death in 186l. 'Mrs. Browning's death is rather a relief to me', Fitzgerald confided to a friend.
'[No] more Aurora Leighs, thank God! A Woman of real Genius, I know: but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and their Children' and perhaps the Poor: except in such things as little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better, leaving that which Men do worse or not at all. [I, 407]
hen the letter was published in Fitzgerald's Letters and Literary Remains in 1889 and came to Browning's attention, he was understandably outraged, and it was deleted from subsequent editions of the Remains. But the opinions privately expressed by Fitzgerald in 1861 came to be expressed more openly in the ensuing decades, as articles in the notoriously conservative Saturday Review indicate. The evaluations of Mrs Browning in its 1861 obituary, and in a subsequent 1868 essay on 'Poetesses' are mild and not uncomplimentary compared to the denunciation in its pages in 1888 of 'the endless gush and the sickening sentimentality, the nauseous chatter about "womanhood" and "woman's heart", and all the rest of it, which she [203/204] almost invented, but of which the secret by no means died with her'.18
Opposition to the author of Aurora Leigh and the 'secret' which 'by no means died with her' is also indirectly discernible in Frederic Kenyon's indication that there was some talk on Browning's death in 1889 of transferring Mrs Browning's remains from Italy to England, 'to lie with his among the great company of English poets in which they had earned their places. But it was thought better, on the whole, to leave them undisturbed in the land and in the city which she had loved so well ... In life and death she had been made welcome in Florence' (LEBB 2:452). In other words, Kenyon implies, there were those (and no doubt he had Fitzgerald in mind) who had not welcomed or would not welcome her in England 'in life and death'.
Indeed, when Kenyon's carefully prepared edition of The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning appeared in 1897, Edmund Gosse joined Fitzgerald in expressing relief over her early death: but he expressed his relief publicly, not privately. In A Short History of Modern English Literature, he claimed that Mrs Browning's' late work was formless, spasmodic, singularly toneless and harsh, nor is it probable that what seemed her premature death, in 1861, was a real deprivation to English literature'. As for her readers, '[ t]heir nerves were pleasurely [sic] excited by the choral tumult of Miss Barrett's verse, by her generous and humane enthusiasm, and by the spontaneous impulsiveness of heremotion. They easily forgave the slipshod execution, the Pythian vagueness and the Pythian shriek.' This assessment contrasts strongly with Gosse's earlier enthusiasm for the 'broader and robuster spirit' of poetry reflected in the 'stupendous epic-satire' of Aurora Leigh (cited Lootens 413, 408, and Thwaite 116). Gosse's image of the 'Pythian shriek' associates [204/205] Barrett Browning with the demonic figures of the witch and the sorceress so prevalent in fin-de-siècle representations. Susan Casteras notes that 'personifications of positive feminine knowledge' were increasingly rare in the images produced 'from the 1860s' onwards, displaced by 'the negative side of female sapientia or wisdom, namely, witchcraft' (Morgan 145). Given this, it is hardly surprising that the woman who had been read as a sage, and who had created in Aurora Leigh a positive and powerful figure of female wisdom, began to be portrayed as a witchlike figure.
Notwithstanding the misogyny of Gosse and Fitzgerald, it would be erroneous to conclude that only men participated in the critical devaluation of Barrett Browning, in opposition to critics like Stedman and Forman. The ideological clash between opposing views was also apparent among women. It emerges with particular starkness in two editions of Barrett Browning's collected works published in 1900: Harriet Waters Preston's Cambridge edition and the scholarly edition prepared by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke. Preston's highly critical view of Barrett Browning is readily apparent both in the Preface to her edition, and in an essay which had appeared the previous year in the Atlantic Monthly.20 Casting Mrs Browning as a writer whose later works were 'Hysterical', she joins Gosse in echoing and endorsing Fitzgerald's relief that the poet's death meant no more Aurora Leighs could be written. Porter and Clarke, on the contrary, present Mrs Browning 'as one of the great poets of the Victorian era, her work standing comparison with the most original among the men of the age' (CW6:xv). Moreover, they analyse her works with illuminating detail in the successive 'Critical Introductions' to the volumes of their carefully [205/206] annotated edition, noting, among many other points, those 'signs of the sibyl' in her works condemned by critics such as Gosse — the same signs 'against which the sober-suited critics of her own day pompously admonished her' (CW 2:xii). They also acutely summarize the absurdities and contradictions of the criticism accusing Barrett Browning of 'imitating' male writers like Tennyson, Poe and Shelley (CW 2:xx).
Given its scholarly annotation, one might have expected Porter and Clarke's edition to consolidate Barrett Browning's position in the canon of major nineteenth-century poets, and to provide a resource for subsequent studies. But this edition is almost never cited in criticism after 1900. It seems to have virtually disappeared until the 1973 reprint, along with the laudatory analyses of Barrett Browning's poetry by critics such as Stedman and Taine, whom Porter and Clarke cite in support of their interpretations on more than one occasion. The hostile and disparaging views of critics like Preston and Gosse carried the day, along with the related, though apparently more benign approaches to Barrett Browning as either an appendage to her husband or one of a group of 'poetesses'.
The transition to the 'appendage' approach is apparent in Mrs Margaret Oliphant's The Victorian Age of English Literature, one of the first literary histories to treat Barrett Browning's poetry in a supplementary section of a chapter on her husband's works rather than in a separate and prior chapter. Oliphant pauses over the 'question in chronology whether the other poet whose name is for ever linked with that of Robert Browning, the first of women-poets in her own race, perhaps in the world, should not have come before his in the record, the beginning of her work, preceding [206/207] his by a few years, and the end of it by many. But it seemed undesirable to separate the great Twin Brethren of our generation from each other' she explains, alluding to Tennyson. 'Why it is that no woman (except in fiction) ever attains the highest rank in poetical literature, it is probably quite impossible ever to determine', Oliphant continues. The suppression of Barrett Browning's name throughout these ponderous speculations is symptomatic, like the claim that the Sonnets from the Portuguese represent 'the highest tide' of Barrett Browning's poetic genius (I, 227, 231). At the same time, however, the doubt Mrs Oliphant expresses is revealing.
Later critics had no second thoughts about the chronological violation in treating Barrett Browning as a supplement to her husband. Indeed, it became standard practice in literary histories for a discussion of her life and works (increasingly the former) to appear as a sort of conventional tailpiece to the section on Browning. How different such representations are from the image of the Brownings as poetical peers and equals we find in Harriet Hosmer's famous sculpture of 'The Clasped Hands' of the Brownings made in 1855. Although Robert's slightly larger hand partially encloses Elizabeth's, her hand is in the foreground, granting the two a visual equality.
Ironically, Barrett Browning's objections to Richard Hengist Horne's treatment of Mary Howitt in A New Spirit of the Age provide a prophetic prefiguration of her own fate as the female half of a literary couple. 'I wish m th~s second edition of yours you would give Mary HowItt room to take her full stature', she wrote to Horne. 'She appears in the book simply as Mrs. Howitt, William's wife, whereas his reputation has grown from the stem of hers' (LRHH 2:25-6). As she wryly observed ofthe conventional comparisons of 207/208] the poet John Gower to Chaucer, 'He who rides in the king's chariot will miss the people's "hic est"' (CW 6:246). In her case, it made no difference that she had once been the 'Queen of Song' and that she had at one point overshadowed Browning in her own chariot — so much so in fact, that in the 1899 essay cited above, Preston observes: 'I myself have heard, as late as the early eighties, a well-connected and presumably wellinstructed Englishman, of the military caste, stoutly deny that there were two poets of the name of Browning, — a man as well as a woman!' (822).
A further phase in the reduction of Barrett Browning to a mere supplement or handmaid of Browning is reflected in critical assessments by John W. Cunliffe and Laurie Magnus appearing in 1908 and 1909. 'Elizabeth Barrett Browning was not a great poet, but she was the ideal counterpart of a great lover', Magnus observes in his survey of nineteenth-century literature. 'Literature owes her a great debt for Aurora Leigh and Sonnets from the Portuguese, but the indirect debt is larger for her influence on Robert Browning's life and work' (287). Cunliffe more dramatically converts Barrett Browning into a handmaid to her husband's genius:
Browning's influence upon his wife is written large on the surface of all her later works, the best thing she ever did, the Sonnets from the Portuguese, being directly due to his inspiration. Her influence upon him is subtler, deeper — the influence of the weaker and finer upon the stronger nature. Richly as her ardent spirit developed under the emotional and intellectual stimulus she received from him, I am inclined to believe that her most enduring contributions to literature were not direct but indirect - through the influence she exerted on her poet-husband. [209/210] Her best work is to be found not in her own writings, but in his. [69-70]
This interpretation is remarkable for the way in which, in Robert Graves' well known words, it translates Barrett Browning into a 'muse or nothing'. Browning's role as muse, on the contrary, is translated into an inscription 'written large' on all his wife's works: he is presented as a muse and everything else, one might say. Cunliffe's article indicates the ideological context in which edition after edition of the Sonnets from the Portuguese came to be published. Meanwhile, Warner Barnes' bibliography indicates that no new edition at all of Aurora Leigh appeared between 1905 and Cora Kaplan's 1978 Women's Press edition.
Hugh Walker's magisterial survey of Victorian literature (19lO) reflects the other common approach to Barrett Browning among literary historiographers after the turn of the century. Walker is a literary monarchist bent on constructing a male line of king poets. Accordingly, he discusses Browning and Tennyson in a chapter entitled 'The New Kings' that makes no mention of Elizabeth Barrett. Nor does he include more than a passing reference to her in the preceding chapter on 'The Interregnum', dealing with the period between the Romantic 'kings of thought' and 'The New Kings' — though she was one of the most important poets in this period. At last we find her, in the seventh and last subsection of a third chapter on 'The Minor Poets: Earlier Period', in a separate ladies' compartment entitled 'The Poetesses'. The first six subsections in 'The Minor Poets', on such subjects as 'The Balladists', 'The Philosopher Poets', and 'The Political Poets' are almost exclusively concerned with male writers. The fact that Barrett Browning wrote important works in all of these [209/210] categories calls in question the assumption that Barrett Browning was dismissed by mainstream male critics because she did not 'fit with the periodization and concerns of male literature' (Cooper 4). On the contrary, Walker explicitly acknowledges Mrs Browning's 'sex' as his justification for placing her in the seventh subsection of 'The Minor Poets' of The Literature of the Victorian Era (287, 252, 327, 360, 328, 343, 366.). His strategy of ideological quarantine is particularly ironic because it so grossly distorts the ideal of historical comprehensiveness he strives to achieve.
Because Walker was such a formidable authority, his pronouncements regarding Mrs Browning proved to be very influential. But rather than offering any original analysis of her works, he simply consolidated the critical commonplaces tirelessly recirculated after 1900. For example, he emphasizes her imitation of her husband, identifying the 1844 Poems as 'the point where the influence of Browning begins'. Unlike some critics, he saw this influence as largely negative: 'She was thoroughly feminine; but under the impulse from him she unconsciously adopted a more masculine tone. She imagined herself a thinker; in reality she felt, and in the attempt to translate her feeling into thought she fell into numerous mistakes.' Predictably, he pronounces the Sonnets from the Portuguese her greatest work because they are 'the genuine utterance of a woman's heart'. He pronounces upon her deficiency in art. 'She will not restrain herself, he complains, criticizing her for the carelessness of her rhymes and ignoring the explanations of these as deliberately experimental in the letters published by both Richard Hengist Horne and Frederic Kenyon. Aurora Leigh he dismisses as an 'ambitious metrical romance' suffering from excessive expansiveness. 'He who has read it once shrinks for travelling again through many flats of [210/211] commonplaces', despite the 'beautiful oases of poetry' it offers (367-70). Walker bears out Lootens' observation that the 'most damaging attacks' on Barrett Browning's greatest work 'would deny rather than condemn its audacity' through strategic use of the 'politics of boredom' (248, 233). The ideological agenda underlying his apparently aesthetic assessment of mere monotony is more visible in an earlier study, The Age of Tennyson, where he bluntly asserts that 'always the thought, the social discussions' of Aurora Leigh 'are wrong' (329).
Between The Literature of the Victorian Era in 1910 and the 1950s, I have discovered no significant critical assessments of Barrett Browning that question the views articulated by Walker and the growing body of professional academic critics — with two notable exceptions. The first is the voice of G. K. Chesterton, saltily testifying in the critical wilderness like some irreverent prophet; the second is Virginia Woolf. Chesterton eschews gender-inflected essentialist distinctions between Barrett Browning and other Victorian writers. On the contrary, he explicitly rejects the 'false sex philosophy' that would see her strengths as masculine and her weaknesses as feminine: 'we remember all the lines in her work which were weak enough to be called "womanly", we forget the multitude of strong lines that are strong enough to be called "manly"; lines that Kingsley or Henley would have jumped for joy to print in proof of their manliness.' Chesterton also trenchantly dismisses the idea that Barrett Browning imitated her husband: 'As to the critic who thinks her poetry owed anything to the great poet who was her husband, he can go and live in the same hotel with the man who can believe that George Eliot owed anything to the extravagant imagination of Mr. George Henry Lewes' (179-81). Chesterton is particularly refreshing in emphasizing [211/212] Barrett Browning's cosmopolitanism, rather than her 'hysterical' un-English sympathies with Italian liberation. Browning, with 'all his Italian sympathies and Italian residence ... was not the man to get Victorian England out its provincial rut', Chesterton suggests. 'His celebrated wife was wider and wiser than he in this sense ... She is by far the most European of all the English poets of that age; all of them, even her own much greater husband, look local beside her. Tennyson and the rest are nowhere' (178). He also praised her wit and the 'powerful concentration' of her rhetoric (181), in contrast to the conventional critical emphasis on her diffuse and feminine expansiveness: 'She excelled in her sex, in epigram, almost as much as Voltaire in his. Pointed phrases like: "Martyrs by the pang without the palm" ... came quite freshly and spontaneously to her quite modern mind' (177-78). Chesterton's own strength in the epigram makes his witty survey of Victorian literature engaging reading. Yet, despite the fact that his study was reprinted at least twelve times between 1913 and 1931, his evaluations of Barrett Browning are never cited by subsequent critics.
Virginia Woolf's 1931 reassessment of Aurora Leigh was similarly disregarded during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Since the 1970s, however, feminist critics have repeatedly quoted her sardonic description of Mrs Browning's assignment to 'the servants' quarters' in the 'mansion of literature ... where, in company with Mrs Hemans, Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, Alexander Smith, Edwin Arnold, and Robert Montgomery, she bangs the crockery about and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife' (134). While the appreciation of Woolf's grotesquely apt metaphor for literary hegemonies is understandable, the focus on this graphic passage in her essay on [213/214] Aurora Leigh has tended to foreground her defensive distancing of herself from 'Mrs Browning'. As a result, critics have less adequately appreciated both the daring iconoclasm of Woolfs critical revisionism and her tribute to Barrett Browning as one of her own literary 'grandmothers'.
Like Chesterton's views on Mrs Browning, Woo1fs were those of a voice crying in the wilderness. What she had to say about Aurora Leigh and Barrett Browning may have been true, but it was not 'in the true', to use Foucault's well-known formulation. 'Speed and energy, forthrightness and complete selfconfidence', combined with the spell-binding narrative powers of the Ancient Mariner (135): these were hardly qualities that critics like Walker or Gosse or Cunliffe had associated with the author of Aurora Leigh. Nor did they dwell on Aurora's satire of women's education, as Woolf did, or the fact that she 'was blessed with a little room' of her own in which to read and write (136). In the face of the demure domestic handmaid or the diffusive, emotional poetess constructed by the prevailing critical tradition, Woolf stressed as Chesterton did that 'the mind of Elizabeth Barrett was lively and secular and satirical', passionately engaged with 'the arguments, the politics, and the strife of the modern world'. If Aurora Leigh was not 'the masterpiece it might have been', the circumstance was not due to the quality of Barrett Browning's genius or to her sex, according to Woolf, but to the 'irreparable damage' of her long years as a cloistered invalid and to the social conditions of Victorian woman writers for whom 'the connexion between a woman's art and a woman's life was so unnaturally close' that it was 'impossible for the most austere of critics not sometimes to touch the flesh when his eyes should be fixed upon the page' (137-9). This comment [213/214] is typical of Woolf's subtle indirectness in revaluing Aurora Leigh. She introduces this comment in her essay by stating that 'Mrs. Browning could no more conceal herself than she could control herself, then attributes this circumstance to historical conditions, and finally ends by implying that male critics, with their eyes 'fixed' on a woman writer's 'flesh', were in fact those in danger of losing control.
Although Woolf does not see Barrett Browning's attempt to mix poetry with the novel in Aurora Leigh as a success, her own views on this point are themselves strikingly mixed and developed at length, with the result that she pays tribute to the work even as she seems to dissect its weaknesses.
[I]f Mrs Browning meant by a novel-poem a book in which character is closely and subtly revealed, the relations of many hearts laid bare, and a story unfalteringly unfolded, she failed completely. But if she meant rather to give us a sense of life in general, of people who are unmistakably Victorian, wrestling with the problems of their own time, all brightened, intensified, and compacted by the fire of poetry, she succeeded. Aurora Leigh, with her passionate interest in social questions, her conflict as artist and woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age. . .. The aunt, the antimacassars, and the country house from which Aurora escapes are real enough to fetch high prices in the Tottenham Court Road at this moment. The broader aspects of what it felt like to be a Victorian are seized as surely and stamped as vividly upon us as in any novel by Trollope or Mrs Gaskell. 
As in the case of her earlier essay on George Eliot, the originality of Woolf's revaluation of Aurora Leigh can [215/216] only be appreciated when we consider the critical current she was writing against in 1931, to use one of her own metaphors. For thirty years, critics concerned for their reputations had only felt safe in praising the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Yet Woolf not only focuses on Aurora Leigh, excluding any consideration of the Sonnets. She also asserts that Aurora Leigh is a work that 'still commands our interest and inspires our respect' (140).
Aside from opposing the orthodox views established by critics like Gosse and Walker, Woolf was also swimming against the current created by the spate of books (at least eight) popularizing Barrett Browning as the heroine of a romance appearing between 1928 and 1931, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and The Immortal Lovers conspicuous among them.25 'Passionate lovers in curls and side whiskers, oppressed, defiant, eloping. In this guise thousands of people must know and love the Brownings who have never read a line of their poetry' (133). This is Woolf's point of departure in her essay, and it is not a promising one for initiating a reassessment of Barrett Browning and a forgotten work that she views as almost a 'masterpiece'. Woolf's difficulties were compounded by the fact that the elopement making the Brownings such a popular symbol of defiance against Victorian parents ironically co-existed with the denigration of Barrett Browning's poetry as dreadfully, earnestly 'Victorian'. The patronizing tone of Irene Cooper Willis' E. B. Browning (1928) In the 'Representative Women' series illustrates this attitude. Characterizing the Victorians as 'oppressively rigid and moral', indeed as 'hideously moral, Willis presents Mrs Browning as a 'true mid-Victorian . .. inspired by piety as well as ruled by it': a woman who articulated a 'dreary gospel of suffering and sacrifice, and who presented In Aurora Leigh an [215/216] 'absurd picture of English social life' because she 'did did not know what she was writing about' (9, 13,44, 80).
Such responses become more understandable, in the general public's case if not in Willis, if we consider the contexts in which many readers no doubt encountered Aurora Leigh: in the excerpted '''vallooable thoughts", recalled by Paul Landis, which included, 'It takes a soul/To move a body' (cited Lootens 405). Nevertheless, we should not overlook the complicity of scholarly academic criticism as well as school texts and popular biographies in promoting the construction of Barrett Browning as the rescued naive heroine of a sentimental romance. As Lootens astutely observes, 'the very literary historiographers who scorned the presumed sentimentality' of Mrs Browning's works, of women readers, and of the Victorian public generally 'continued to develop Miss Barrett of Wimpole Street as a sentimental heroine of their own'. The 'poet's works were increasingly (and retroactively) consigned to a sentimental public, while her life provided literary historians with an opportunity to indulge their own sentimentality by writing the woman's biography as romantic or comic relief from accounts of the "real" development of literary tradition' (410-11).
The 'real' development of the Victorian literary tradition as it was constructed in the 1930s, 40s and 50s could not accommodate the conceptualization of Aurora Leigh as a work of transformative gynocentric sage discourse, an approach that Woolf's analysis implies in focusing on the work's dynamic engagement with vital social problems and its generic heterogeneity. In these decades, as Carol Christ observes, the body of Victorian prose sage writing was gathered together from the various disciplines into which it had been dispersed (for example, history and philosophy) and consolidated as 'a heroic masculine bulwark set up [216/217] against a democratized and feminized novel' (Morgan 26). Victorian poetry was similarly constructed as a predominantly or exclusively male discursive space. Thus the first edition of Walter E. Houghton's and G. Robert Stange's widely used Victorian Poetry and Poetics (1959) included no women writers at all, while the second edition (1968) added Christina Rossetti as the single woman among its roster of nineteen poets.
By the 1950s, then, Barrett Browning, the candidate for Poet Laureate in 1850 and the author of Aurora Leigh, had effectively disappeared from literary history, except in her capacity as the romantic heroine who laid bare her heart in the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In a categorization perhaps suggested by Gosse, Jerome Buckley included a brief consideration of Elizabeth Barrett's 'feverish lyricism' (61-63) and of Aurora Leigh in his chapter on the Spasmodic poets in The Victorian Temper, but he gave much more sustained attention to poets like Philip James Bailey and Sydney Dobell who never approached Barrett Browning's fame or critical success in the mid-Victorian period, Buckley's comments on Aurora Leigh are not without his usual insights: at least he acknowledged that there were many anti-Spasmodic elements in the work. The bald summary of Elizabeth Browning's works by John D. Cooke and Lionel Stevenson in 1949 is more representative of the critical consensus in this period:
Her poetry was fluent and copious, with emphatic rhythms. She was always motivated by generous enthusiasm: in her early work it was aroused chiefly by literary and historical subjects; later her husband's influence directed it towards contemporary events. Her narrative poems were inclined to slip into sentimentality, and her political [217/218] poems were sometimes hysterically violent. Carried along by the flow of obvious rhythm, she often wrote too much, and was careless with the meaning of words and the accuracy of rhymes. ... The discipline of the sonnet was good for her, and artistically as well as emotionally, the Sonnets from the Portuguese rank with her best work, whereas the diffuse Aurora Leigh is no longer read . .. . Both the charm and the weakness of her poetry reside in the impulsive naIvete which originated in her bookish girlhood and was never subjected to the abrasions of everyday life. 
Typically, Cooke and Stevenson devote far more words to describing 'Elizabeth's' life than her poetry.
This is also the principal focus of Gardner Taplin's The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1957), the most comprehensive study to appear in the thirty years following Woolf's 1931 essay. No reader of Barrett Browning's works in the 1970s can fail to be indebted to the thoroughness of Taplin's scholarship, still a resource for critics today. At the same time, the biases and omissions of his study are equally striking and all the more insidious in their effects because Taplin seemed to be, and in many respects was, so meticulous and authoritative. The biases are most evident in Taplin's surveys of contemporary reviews of the 1844 Poems and of Aurora Leigh, which often suppress the more positive criticism, creating the impression that Barrett Browning was merely a popular rather than a critical success.
Taplin's study is also informed by a persistent attitude of condescension, accompanied by and perhaps even producing some startling contradictions. Thus he criticizes Elizabeth for reading the classics [219/220] 'largely as an escape' and failing to 'assimilate much of what she read', with the result that her poetry was 'lawless' (70); meanwhile his own documentation elsewhere reflects the speed and thoroughness of her reading of Greek texts (29), and the deliberately experimental rather than merely 'lawless' nature of her verse technique (134). He also suggests that she abandoned Greek and Latin in order to read 'much that was merely ephemeral: newspapers, periodicals, travel books, memoirs, and romances, none of which could be considered serious literature' (94). As we read down the page, however, we find that this 'ephemeral' material included journals like the Athenaeum, Blackwood's, and the New Monthly Magazine; and 'almost all of the fiction and poetry published in England from about the middle of the thirties to the middle of the forties'. To this should be added, the 'ephemeral' novels of France by authors like Balzac and George Sand — novelists Elizabeth Barrett was ahead of her time in appreciating according to Henry James in a review of her correspondence with Horne that Taplin was certainly familiar with (419). Barrett's scholarly articles and reviews on the Greek Christian poets, the history of English poetry, and contemporary authors (in her contributions to Horne's A New Spirit of the Age) are described by Taplin as the output of ' her brief career in journalism' (105). Meanwhile, the male authors who wrote on her works in the pages of the same periodicals are referred to as 'professional critics' (163).
Throughout his biography, Taplin creates a picture of an emotional, impulsive, undisciplined woman and writer: Elizabeth's approach to social problems was 'idealistic and emotional' (116); she had 'only a hazy idea of what she was trying to express' in A Drama of Exile (126); most of the 1844 poems 'now seem diffuse, [219/220] sentimental, and trite' (132); 'Elizabeth's approach to the problems of the Risorgimento . . . was based on emotion rather than logic' (218). This last point has remained an enduring critical commonplace despite the strong evidence to the contrary provided by Julia Markus in the 'Introduction' to her edition of Casa Guidi Windows, and by Flavia Alaya's spirited dissection of the misogynist criticism concerning Barrett Browning's political views. After very little analysis of her actual poetry, Taplin concludes that, because Elizabeth's 'ability to create failed to keep pace with her abundant thoughts and feelings ', '[i]t is the quality of her life even more than her artistic achievements which will live' (424).
Unlike Taplin's biography, Alethea Hayter's Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and its Setting (1962), focuses on Barrett Browning's poetry, not her life. Indeed, Hayter's is the most detailed analysis of her poetry published in more than fifty years. One cannot help wondering about a woman critic's work and its setting in sensing the dominant paradigms that constrain Hayter at various points, as in her defensive dismissal of Barrett Browning's ballads. Yet her critical analysis is often astute, and her chapter on 'Experiments in Poetic Technique' remains the best treatment to date of Barrett Browning's experiments with assonantal double rhymes, metrical variations, play with the pause, enjambement, artfully varied refrains, and differing forms of syntactical ellipsis and compression, including the use of adjectives as nouns. Together with Fred Manning Smith's largely forgotten PMLA article of 1939, suggesting how Barrett Browning anticipated the technical innovations of poets like Emily Dickinson, Archibald MacLeish, and W. H. Auden, Hayter's work bears out the truth of Woolf's oblique observation that Mrs Browning had [220/221] 'some complicity in the development of modern poetry' (Hayter 47).
A decade after Hayter's scholarly study appeared, the publication by the Feminist Press of Mary Jane Lupton's Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1972) marked the recovery of Aurora Leigh that Woolf's 1931 article had failed to bring about in an earlier, more ' alien environment. This was the beginning of the period when feminist students began passing around 'pirated photocopies' of the out-of-print Aurora Leigh, as if it were a 'scurrilous tract or a new underground newspaper instead of the most ambitious, controversial work of nineteenth-century England's most famous woman poet' (Lootens 1). Imagining the controversy some of these students may have stirred up themselves in seminars on Victorian literature may help to explain the peculiar intensity with which some established male critics now sought to dismiss Aurora Leigh and its author.
In their 1974 biography of Browning, for instance, William Irvine and Park Honan summarize his wife's novel-epic in terms reminiscent of Gosse and those conservative Victorian reviewers for whom a woman writer was always already an inferior simulacrum of some prior male writer. 'Nothing if not serious and didactic, Elizabeth began with a load of themes', they observe of Aurora Leigh, and then proceed, with rhetorical guns blazing, to discharge their volley of condemnations.
The narrative first person is based on a thinly disguised inward autobiography, which in the First Book is a pious and conventional Prelude, and thereafter a record of travel and literary composition told in an inflated, overelaborate variant of her letterwriting style, with suggestions of Tennysonian [221/222] music, Byronic satire, and Browningesque stream-of-consciousness. The result is frequently vivid and frequently mawkish. At any rate the 'Pythian shriek' is seldom heard. Mounted on this rather elaborate autobiographical structure is an entire novel of intrigue . . . drawn from the teeming recollections of twenty years of compulsive novel reading. [348-49]
In the 1973 anthology of Victorian poetry and prose he edited with Lionel Trilling, Harold Bloom adopts a more minimalist approach than Irvine and Honan. Categorizing Mrs Browning under 'Other Victorian Poets', Bloom and Trilling observe that, despite her 'enormous contemporary reputation', she survives 'only in her husband's work and in a handful of lyrics' (689). Aurora Leigh is dismissed with the bald and unsupported assertion that it is 'very bad'. The ideological grounds of this judgment are more visible in Bloom's A Map of Misreading (1975). Here he revealingly remarks, 'I fear to tell students that while I judge Ruskin to have been the best critic of the nineteenth century, he did proclaim Aurora Leigh by Mrs. Browning to be the best poem of that century.' In the same chapter, he expresses alarm at the way in which literary tradition has 'become the captive' of the Romantic 'revisionary impulse', expressed in the 'common garishness' of "black poetry" or the "literature of Women's Liberation". He also assumes the oracular mantle writing, we may note, in the tradition of sage discourse so powerfully transformed by the gynocentric energy of Aurora Leigh — to 'prophesy .. . that the first true break with literary continuity wi ll be brought about in generations to come, if the burgeoning religion of Liberated Woman spreads from its clusters of enthusiasts to dominate the West' (28, 36, 33). [223/224]
Rather than making any 'break with literary continuity', three landmark studies, Ellen Moers' Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977) and Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic (1979), demonstrated that there were other traditions than the phallocentric one Bloom had in mind. Along with Cora Kaplan's 1978 edition of Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, sections of these books began the process of contextualizing Barrett Browning's works in the matrix of women writers explored in my first chapter. Again, the reactions of older, more established Victorian scholars help to illumine the ideological currents shaping and shaped by these acts of reconstruction. In a more sympathetic 're-hearing' of Aurora Leigh in 1979, Taplin opened his review of the new feminist criticism by citing, first, Fitzgerald's 'misogynist' response to Barrett Browning's death in the letter quoted above, and then a letter to him from the Browning biographer who had savaged Aurora Leigh in 1974: 'Park Honan ... has written to me from Birmingham to report upon Mrs. Browning's emergence as a leader in the feminist movement of the nineteenth century. "I can't resist writing to you . .. to report the delicious news that" 'Woman's Lib'" in England are now espousing EBB with great fervor - and at the expense of her husband's reputation! She really is such a good poet (as I felt in supervising a Ph.D. thesis on her recently). So it's nice that British ladies, at least, or some of them are turning to her, don't you think?'" (Taplin, 'Aurora Leigh', 7).
Feminist critics turned to Barrett Browning in increasing numbers during the 1980s, producing dozens of articles (though still mainly on Aurora Leigh in isolation from her other works) and several full-length studies: most notably, those by Mermin, [223/224] Leighton, Cooper, Stephenson and Lootens that I have drawn on throughout this book. One is therefore tempted to think that Barrett Browning's works are now being 'rescued' in ways that make it impossible for them to be buried again. Yet the relative ghettoization of this recovery in women's series and feminist journals points to the dangers of complacency. 'The greatness of works of art lies solely in their power to let those things be heard which ideology conceals'(57-58), Adorno observes. As 'the handmaid's tale' of Barrett Browning's reception history suggests, however, the reverse very often occurs. Subversive works are themselves concealed by the hegemonic structures they challenge from within.
In Barrett Browning's case the latter pattern has persisted in the 1980s, as the recovery of her canon has remained largely unacknowledged in many quarters: Bernard Richards' 1988 survey of Victorian poetry, appearing in an influential critical series and in many respects providing a comprehensive overview, is one index of Barrett Browning's continuing marginalization in mainstream literary histories. In a welcome departure from previous surveys, Richards does briefly consider how Aurora Leigh participated in the important Victorian debate between past and present (88) — a dimension of the text more fully treated by Kerry McSweeney in his 1993 edition. But Barrett Browning's canon is otherwise completely excluded from Richards' survey of representative Victorian genres, themes and movements.
Among Browning scholars in the last decade there has been growing recognition of the need to explore Barrett Browning's artistic interaction with her husband, as Daniel Karlin's penetrating analysis of exchanges in the love letters indicates. Yet Barrett Browning still tends to be bracketed in literary history [225/226] as a figure supplementary to her husband. The handmaid paradigm has also persisted. In Robert Browning: His Poetry and His Audiences, for example, Lee Erikson perceptively discusses Elizabeth's role as a discerning critic and 'ideal audience' of her husband's poetry. Yet he presents her not as a major poet in her own right, at least in the eyes of her contemporaries, but as the 'poet of some merit and popular acclaim' whom Browning claimed as '"my Audience, my crown-bearer, my path-preparer"' (104, 108)
Even within the field that Showalter terms 'gynocritics' there are startling gaps. For instance, there are no comprehensive studies of the ways in which feminist activists such as Barabara Bodichon, Frances Power Cobbe and Susan B. Anthony appropriated Aurora Leigh as a revolutionary text — although, as my previous chapter indicates, all three testified to its influence. The connections between Wollstonecraft and Barrett Browning also remain largely unmapped, lIke the connections beween Barrett Browning and Romantic women writers generally, among them Joanne Baillie, the woman she honoured as a poetical 'grandmother'. Modern feminist poets and critics like Adrienne Rich and Alicia Ostriker who have been quick to celebrate Dickinson as a foremother often overlook the ways in which Barrett Browning's emancipatory strategies made her a 'path-preparer' not for Robert Browning, but for subsequent women poets. Despite Betsy Erkkila's succinct overview of Dickinson's response to Barrett Browning in The Wicked Sisters, assimilating and adding to the work of earlier critics, the ways in which Dickinson emulated and resisted the formidable author of Aurora Leigh are still insufficiently appreciated. Surprisingly, even less attention has been given to Barrett Browning's impact on Christina Rossetti, although Antony Harrison's [225/226] examination of Rossetti's 'Eve' as 'a minimalist sequel to A Drama of Exile' is a welcome exception to this rule (131). In Margaret Laurence's classic Canadian novel, The Stone Angel (1964), the protagonist Hagar Shipley describes her futile search among her old school books for poetry to sustain her in the desert of an unfulfilling marriage: 'I'd thrown away my collected Browning, for when I left school I'd much preferred Robert's wife, with Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I found in the trunk, inscribed and annotated with violet ink - "n.b. passion" or "plight of women," scribbled there by a nincompoop who'd borne my Christian name" (126). Aurora Leigh was non-existent for the aptly named Hagar and, one assumes, for Laurence herself in 1964. Nor did the Sonnets from the Portuguese revealed by Angela Leighton's revisionary reading twenty years later exist for Hagar. Otherwise, she might have found in the margins, along with 'plight of women', 'n.b. the sexual-textual politics of a woman reversing the conventions established by centuries of poets'.
In what light will Barrett Browning's works come before future readers, many of whom we might think of as Hagar's children? Will today's feminist reconstructions permanently transform the appreciation of her place in the history of English literature? Or will they go the way of Porter and Clarke's 1900 edition of her poetry? Will future readers be guided instead by summaries like the entry on Barrett Browning in the 1987 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, written by J. Hillis Miller, one of the most influential critics of our time? Miller makes no mention of Aurora Leigh. Instead he writes about Elizabeth's son, her hospitality, and her complexion (Lootens 274).
In Aurora Leigh itself the heroine observes, [227/228]
What the poet writes,
He writes: mankind accepts it if it suits,
And that's success: if not, the poem's passed
From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,
Until the unborn snatch it, crying out
In pity on their fathers' being so dull,
And that's success too. [5:261-67]
Clearly, Aurora's Romantic aesthetic of the artist's transcendence over time and her opposition between success in one's own time or success in a future one do not adequately accommodate either the vicissitudes of Barrett Browning's own 'success', or her exploration of the intense struggle of competing ideologies in Aurora Leigh. What saves this passage from being merely a rearticulation of consoling Romantic ideology is Barrett Browning's emphasis on the drama and potential conflict of hand-to-hand textual transmission: hands that pass on texts, hands that obscure the distinctive features of texts, and hands that 'snatch' and discover texts anew.
Among the already born of the future Aurora alludes to, those of us living more than a century later than Barrett Browning, the snatching may persist for a time. To use Kristeva's words again, the 'productive violence' engendered by Aurora Leigh and Barrett Browning's other texts will no doubt continue to pr?voke the struggles that register their vitality, for thiS generation at least. On the one hand, the zeal of Barrett Browning's rescuers — sometimes exhibiting the inflections of what Reynolds describes as 'feminist folk poetics' (10) — shows no immediate signs of dlmllllshmg. On the other, resisting critics will no doubt continue to disparage Aurora Leigh, or to write as if it never were published, or to imply that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a Victorian who achieved [227/228] popular success, but who now lives on only in her husband's works. Or, in a subtler manoeuvre, on a more ambiguous middle ground, some may argue that she was never a feminist in any sense of the term, that Aurora Leigh — the book that inspired Barabara Bodichon and Susan B. Anthony — is not a feminist work, and that it can therefore be appreciated even by those who reject feminist ideology. As for the 'unborn', what they will make of Barrett Browning lies in their own hands — to the extent that they recognize the role their own hands play in the textual transmissions that constitute literary history.
Last modified 14 June 2014