lizabeth Barrett Browning depicts a number of strong female characters in Aurora Leigh. Aurora, Marian, and Lady Waldemar embody different worldviews and social standings, but each woman possesses qualities that contribute to a new kind of feminist position that Browning puts forth in the novel-poem. Aurora chooses her own path as a poet, refusing to give in to Romney’s pleas until she is ready for marriage. Marian refuses Romney’s assistance in raising her illegitimate child. Lady Waldemar appears as an independent woman who manipulates others in her life. However, Deirdre David argues against a feminist reading in ‘Art’s a Service’: Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and ‘Aurora Leigh.’” Rather, she reads Aurora Leigh in terms of an expression of Barrett Browning’s “conservative sexual politics” (David 113). She understands the characters, themes, and form as serving long-established patriarchal forms, “female imagery is employed to show that the ‘art’ of the woman poet performs a �service’ for a patriarchal vision of the apocalypse. In Aurora Leigh woman’s art is made the servitor of male ideal” (David 113).

Paradoxically, David claims that Barrett Browning unites two powerful myths of woman and poet in a unique, powerful way:

Empowered through vocation to reveal the organic connections between God, man, culture, and society which have been obscured in a secular world, the ideal poet is made a woman poet in Aurora Leigh. And the language of imagery derived from female experience is employed by that woman poet in an alignment of two powerful myths: the traditional myth of poet as witness to a transcendent order is aligned with the traditional myth of woman as moral servitor. [117]

Barrett Browning synthesizes two powerful myths in a uniquely feminine configuration. This alignment of poet and moral guardian seems say something powerful about the potential role of women. Aurora embodies both moral virtue and the poetic ideal. She links religion and society — the physical and the metaphysical. As David argues, she paints something of an essentialist portrait of women, but Barrett Browning adds complexity to the traditional view and endows women with the choice to obey passion or duty. The poet, Aurora, ultimately chooses both for her life.

David continues her argument with a brief synopsis of the critical reception of Aurora Leigh. Again, her argument seems a bit weak. The novel was criticized for its formal innovations and stylistic choices. David mentions one positive review in the midst of a sea of negative reviews:

This was a rare moment in an avalanche of negative criticism (including the rest of the Westminster’s review) which roundly condemned Barrett Browning’s prolixity, extravagant metaphors, eccentric rhymes, riotous meter, and, most significantly and pervasively, her use of “unfeminine” poetic language and her choice of poetic subject. She is labeled an “unchaste poet.” Accused of depicting female types the critics seemed to prefer not depicted by a “poetess beloved as much for her refined seclusion as she was for the delicacy of her verse, she had dared to parade before her astonished readers a lascivious aristocrat, a raped working-class girl, and in intellectually independent heroine. [118]

The nature of these criticisms does not seem consistent with a Barrett Browning possessing a conservative agenda of sexual politics. The text clearly evoked strong feelings in its readers by not conforming to the standard expectations of female writing. The fact that Aurora ultimately unites with Romney does not necessarily suggest anything regarding feminism. Love is not exclusive to an essentialist worldview, and feminism is not incompatible with love. Barrett Browning creates a new feminine writing that enriches essentializing ideas regarding women. She dares to tackle controversial subject matter with a unique form to challenge the popular conception of women’s writing and its possible expressions.


1. When evaluating positions in novels, such as gender politics, race, and other controversial contemporary topics, what is the most useful approach to take? Does it make sense for us to evaluate Aurora Leigh in terms of today’s ideas regarding feminism? To what degree must we remain faithful to the originating context?

2. To what degree do the female characters conform to an essentialist idea of femininity? Does the text’s poetic form challenge or conform to gender politics of its time?

3. What can we make of Aurora and Marian’s life together in Italy? Does this challenge the essentialist model or does it ultimately conform to it after Romney reappears?

4. What is the relationship between Aurora Leigh and epic poetry? Aurora very frequently evokes classical poetry and drama. Why?


David, Deidre. “Art's a Service": Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and Aurora Leigh.” Browning Institute Studies, 13 (1985): 113-36. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

Last modified 21 March 2010