Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Magic Word: Verse-Novel
In the middle of the 19th Century, at the very heart and height of the Victorian period, a peculiar1 and peculiarly perverse genre, the verse novel arose in English only to disappear again by the 1870s.

Dino Felluga

The verse novel has its origins in Ovid, Goethe, Byron’s Don Juan, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1831).
The reason for the rise of the verse novel was because of the increasing marginalization of poetry that occurred after the collapse of the luxury market for poetry, which the Romantics had enjoyed, in the 1820s.

- Publishers simply stopped publishing first editions of poetry. Virtually, the only exception between 1825 and 1850 was Edward Moxon, and he required the poet to underwrite part of the costs of publication.

Poets therefore experimented by incorporating those characteristics that made novels so popular:

  • narrative sequentiality,

  • realistic description,

  • historical referentiality,

  • believable characters,

  • dramatic situations,

  • fully realized dialogism and,

  • above all, the domestic marriage plot.

Characteristics of the Verse Novel

  • set in a contemporary world with characters who are naturalistic rather than2 mythic or heroic

  • there is usually a good deal of quotidian detail

  • some attempt at3 credible dialogue and

  • interest in the issues4 of the day

  • the conventions of the prose novel are often to be felt in the plot5 construction.

The other great Victorian verse-novel was The Ring and the Book (1868-69) by Robert Browning

- it is in fact a murder mystery built out of6 a series of dramatic monologues.
Other examples include

- Amours de Voyage (1858) by Arthur Clough

- Modern Love7 (1862) by George Meredith

- Anderleigh Hall: A Novel in Verse (1866) by Edmund C. Nugent, which in fact was a parody of the verse novel.

Elizabeth Barrett
Born in 1806.
Elizabeth was tutored along with her younger brother, Bro

By the age of 8 she could read Ancient Greek.

When she was young. she discovered Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and became something of a ‘feminist’

(some people might say the word is anachronistic).

She started taking laudanum for back pains at 15 and became a life-long addict (like any self-respecting Romantic poet!).
Her father encouraged her poetry but was upset8 when she wrote a poem against slavery

- the family’s money had come from slave plantations.

1828 her mother became ill and died.
1832 the family moved to London. EBB met Wordsworth.
Her reputation was established in 1838 with The Seraphim.

- Further enhanced by Poems (1844).

1841 EBB acquires Flush, a cocker spaniel; a valuable dog, Flush was twice kidnapped9 and held to ransom!

- for the next 5 years she rarely leaves her third-floor bedroom.

1844 EBB mentioned Robert Browning’s fine poetry in a ballad, Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.

1845 Browning wrote back saying he loved her and her poetry.

- They each believed the other was the better poet.
1846 Second dognapping of Flush. EBB visits the London slums on a rescue mission.

- used this in Aurora Leigh.

Mrs Browning
1846 EBB married Browning in secret

- despite her low opinion of marriage (like Wollstonecraft)

- she was disinherited by her father when he found out.

- he disinherited any of his children who married.

Best known for Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850).
In 1850 EBB became the first woman ever to be seriously considered for the role of Poet Laureate.
1854 Flush dies.
1861 EBB died.

- it is now believed that the opium repeatedly prescribed to make her symptoms tolerable worsened10 her condition.

Following her death Christina Rossetti called EBB

“the Greatest Poetess of our own day”.

Over a quarter of a century later, Oscar Wilde still considered EBB to be

“an imperishable glory of our literature” and

“the greatest female poet since Sappho”.
1933 Virginia Woolf wrote a fictional biography of EBB’s spaniel11: Flush
1934 Biopic: The Barretts of Wimpole Street
1957 Remake of The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Aurora Leigh
In ‘An Essay on Woman’ – probably written in 1822 when EBB was 16 – Elizabeth had berated ‘Imperious Man’ (represented by Alexander Pope) who famously satirized woman to “teach her a lovely thing, to be!12

- Aurora Leigh works to make women and the woman poet the subject rather than13 the object of poetry.

1845 initial idea

1853 started writing the poem

1857 Aurora Leigh was published: one of the longest poems in the English language.

It consists of 11,000 lines of blank verse

Aurora Leigh is included in this course because it is a battleground for warring bands of feminists:

- Cora Kaplan says it is very feminist and forward-looking

- Deirdre David says it is reactionary.
For the rest of us it is just14 something of a failed experiment: a novel in blank verse.

- too long to be popular today.

Aurora Leigh deals with:

  • utopian politics

  • female sexuality,

  • rape,

  • urban misery15 and

  • women’s struggle for professional recognition.

Victorian women were not meant to write poetry about social, political, or current issues.

- Women weren’t really meant to write poetry and if they did, it was supposed to be about: nature, children, God, love, their husbands, their houses, and their simple lives.
Hybrid Genre
Aurora Leigh mixes features16 of a range17 of genres:

- novel, - autobiography,

- social satire, - tract for the times,

- treatise on poetics, - narrative,

- dialogue, - prophecy and

- theodicy.

- it is also a sustained cry for human intellectual and creative freedom, and for women’s independence.
Aurora Leigh explodes the generic and thematic scope of the Victorian poetess, fusing lyric with novelistic, dramatic, satiric, and ‘sage’ discourse to create a new kind of epic.

Susan Brown

The poem combines a range of forms and rhythms, including

  • sonnet

  • verse drama

  • ballad and

  • above all blank verse.

It’s something of a Bildungsroman

- or rather18 a Künstlerroman, (= story of a young artist struggling to create an artistic identity despite adverse conditions)
The verse-novel can be interpreted as a debate between the poetic (Aurora) and the novelistic (Romney)

- consciously updating the debate between poets and philosophers in Plato.

The Leigh cousins have to learn to concede the rightness of each other’s commitment.
A Frankenstein’s Monster of a Poem
The first 40 years of EBB’s life were very sheltered19

- originally living isolated from society in the Herefordshire countryside.

- then living isolated from society as a semi-invalid.
She described herself as a ‘blind poet’ because of her lack of20 experience of life.
It is therefore quite natural that she cobbled Aurora Leigh together21 from bits of other people’s works.
“I want to write a poem of a new class, in a measure – a Don Juan, without the mockery22 and impurity...” [EBB]

- the worldly and satirical aspects of EBB’s poem owe a lot to Byron’s.

- comparing the inadequacy of the central characters’ educations could be an exam topic.
From Austen’s Pride and Prejudice comes the central lovers’ need to overcome their preconceptions about each other (much like Elizabeth and Darcy).
From Wordsworth’s Prelude comes

- the early loss first of the mother and then the father

- the substitution of a natural bond for the maternal one

- early poetic inspiration and self-doubt, then

- growing assurance of vocation.

- The failure of radical hopes for social reform;

- The ending with the protagonist in his/her 30s reaffirming his/her faith in poetry as a force for good in individual human lives.
From Madame de Staël’s Corinne (1807) comes

- birth to an Italian mother and a British father

- a life in Italy until early adolescence, when she is taken to a country house in England where she is taught to be a conventional gentlewoman and where she comes to realize23 that her vocation is to be an artist.

- Later in the novel Corinne returns to Italy in sorrow and lives in the countryside outside Florence brooding on24 her loss.

From George Sand’s Consuelo (1843) comes

- the title character as a woman artist who eloquently insists on her right to liberty.

- Sand’s real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, so our Aurora may be named after her.

- Sand also wrote about cross-class romances.

From Jane Eyre comes

- Romney Leigh (who is basically St. John Rivers renamed); Romney suffers the fate of both Rivers (rejection) and Rochester (purification by fire and blinding).

From Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) come EBB’s description of urban squalor25.

- Marian Erle could easily be a character out of Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities.

The Plot: Italy
We know from her journal that EBB read Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) in 1831.

In it, first Emily’s mother dies, which leads to her forming a special bond with her father centred on their mutual love of nature.

When Emily’s father also dies she is forced to go and live with her unaffectionate non-nature-loving aunt.

Madam Cheron, the aunt, marries the Italian Signor Montoni, which places Emily under his control in the Castle of Udolpho.

Montoni wants to marry Emily to his friend, Morano...

- With this novel in mind, Aurora Leigh reads like a defence of Italy against the slights26 of English Gothic fiction.

The plot of Aurora Leigh traces the development of the heroine from her Florentine childhood to her eventual27 marriage to her cousin Romney.
Aurora is the child of an English father and an Italian mother

- he renounced his inheritance (due to28 a clause in the entail forbidding marriage to a foreigner – cf. Pride and Prejudice).

Italy – her ‘motherland’ in every sense – is seen as nurturing; England is cold and wet.

- Aurora is separated from mother, from surrogate mother (beloved Italian nurse), from motherland and from mother tongue.

- symbolizing a fragmentation of the family and of Aurora’s sense of self-identity.
Aurora sees her mother in a chilling posthumous portrait commissioned by her father as “Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite, / A dauntless Muse”

- suggesting the universal mother’s positive and negative effects on her daughters (as she too often trains her daughter to take her place in an oppressive society).

The Plot: England
Aurora is sent to England to live with her aunt on the death of her parents when she is 13.

- (Fantasy) Italy is warm, maternal and nurturing,

- England is cold paternal and practical.
Aurora’s aunt subjects her to an ‘education’ system which threats to eradicate both her enquiring mind and her individuality.

- She is made to read conduct books on how to be a good woman, learn lists of useless facts, and perform obtuse tasks like spinning glass and modelling flowers in wax.

“The violent, neo-Wordsworthian fall into division from the mother and into “my father’s England”, home to alien language and orphanhood, is followed by a more subtle but equally violent fall into gender.

Arriving in patriarchal England at the crucial age of thirteen, Aurora discovers she is a girl, destined to be brought up in ‘A sort of cage-bird life’ (l. 305) by a new and different ‘mother’ – her father’s sister, who is her “mother’s hater” (1.359-60), for “Italy / Is one thing, England one (1.626-27); inexorably parted, the two nations are irrevocable emblems of separation.

Hence, as many feminist critics have pointed out, the girl is coerced into (at least on the surface) accepting a typical Victorian education in ‘femininity’, reading

...a score of books on womanhood

To prove, if women do not think at all,

They may teach thinking...”

(1.427-29), learn ‘cross-stitch29, and so forth30.

That she has ‘relations31 in the Unseen’ and in Nature, which romantically persist and from which she draws32 ‘elemental nutriment and heat... as a babe sucks33 surely34 in the dark’ (1.473-75)... the only [sign] that somewhere in the shadows of her psyche her mother country endures, despite the pseudo-Oedipal wrenching35 she has undergone36.”37

Notice the ‘Romantic stratagem38 of resisting patriarchal authority through communion with nature.

- Mother Nature is “an elemental mother which will allow39 her to preserve her

...inner life with all its ample room

For heart and lungs, for will and intellect

Inviolable by conventions.” (1.478-80).40
This of course is similar to young Jane Eyre’s reliance on the spirit world to see her through41 Lowood.
Notice how Rochester tempts Jane with a Mediterranean villa.

- similarly, Aurora Leigh repeats the idea of the warm south as a place to escape cold British morality.

The aunt – “a witch stepmother, at the hands of whom the fairy-tale heroine undergoes an initiation42 – trains her in the conventional accomplishments of English young ladies

  • collects and catechism,

  • a complement of classical French

  • a little algebra

  • the internal laws of the Burmese empire,

and for marriage to an imperial administrator, possibly her cousin.
From another perspective the aunt is a good person who leads a life that is restricted and unfulfilled.

- she lacks warmth, vitality and initiative – unhappy and aged by her experience.

- she helps the poor through her poor-club, but does nothing to challenge the social system.
“As Aurora grows towards marriageable age, fairy-tale and romantic nature myth[s] modulate into43 a novelistic conflict of codes.

Although Aurora has escaped what appear to be a wicked stepmother’s designs on her life, she still has to deal with the ‘realistic’ consequences of her aunt’s value system.”44

At this point her father’s books – discovered in an attic – provide comfort and inspiration in her resistance against convention.

- books open up Aurora’s mind and her world.

EBB saw first-hand what the education of middle-class girls to attract a husband really meant.

- her mother’s health and intelligence had been ground down45 in subjection to her husband, her ‘sweet, gentle nature’ had been soured46 by a life of perpetual pregnancy and childcare.

The account of motherhood in Aurora Leigh shows her experience as a mother, an experience vividly and explicitly separated from that of being a wife:

- EBB saw maternal devotion as one of the great experiences of human life, but did not confuse it with the subjection of patriarchy.

- Marian Erle eventually47 chooses to be a single mother despite a second marriage proposal from Romney.

After ‘the Feminine Education of Aurora Leigh’
Romney is a sort of socialist St. John Rivers.

- in contrast to Brontë’s missionary, Romney administers to the physical needs of the poor but ignores their spiritual needs.

At the age of 20 Aurora refuses his proposal, inherits a small income on the death of her aunt, and moves to London determined to become a poet.

- Aurora asserts her right to work and be independent rather than accept her cousin Romney’s half-hearted marriage proposal.

- Moreover, she (scandalously!) asserts that poetry is work which women can do just as well as men.
Some 10 years later (having achieved modest recognition of her work), she learns that the Christian socialism favoured by Romney which she had scorned48 as insufficient to remedy social evils, has taken the form of intended marriage to a working-class girl, Marian Erle.
Marian had been beaten and abandoned by her alcoholic father and left with a mother who tries to prostitute her.
In a stunningly visual depiction that calls to mind Hogarthian London, rich and poor meet at St. James’s Church where Romney awaits his bride in vain.
Marian never arrives, having been persuaded to leave for Australia by Lady Waldemar – a sort of Lord Voldemort in a skirt! – a woman who wants Romney for herself.

- Lady Waldemar evokes thoughts of maternity with her full breasts and is thus49 able to trick Marian into believing she will act as the girl’s mother (which in one sense she does!).

- Duped by the maid of this voluptuous aristocrat, and drugged in a French brothel, Marian is raped.
Meanwhile, Aurora Leigh writes a long verse novel (effectively Aurora Leigh!).

Plot: Italy Again
Aurora learns Marian’s story two years after ‘the Clarissa Harlowe calamity’50 when, on her way to Italy, Aurora spots Marian, now the mother of a baby boy, in a Paris flower market.
Aurora takes the mother and child to Italy where they live happily together in the countryside of Aurora’s childhood.

- they effectively form a sort of feminist commune (of two).

- Aurora/EBB asserts that Marian is morally pure rather than51 morally tainted.

- she deliberately confuses the angel/whore dichotomy of middle-class domestic ideology: Marian and Aurora for a time become the bastard child’s ‘two mothers’ [VII.124] in a matriarchal domestic idyll.

Believing Romney to have married Lady Waldemar, Aurora is astonished to see him arrive on her porch one summer evening.
The last two books of the poem are devoted to an extended dialogue between Romney and Aurora about the need to unify spiritual and material remedies for social ills.
The poem ends with an apocalyptic vision of the New Jerusalem, Aurora having at last realized52 that Romney has been blinded by an injury received in the fire that destroys his utopian socialist community.

- Ironically, Marian’s father has struck Romney a vicious blow that ends up blinding him, while simultaneously offering him the Miltonic sight that allows him at last to see Aurora for what she is.

- Why is it that Victorian women writers need to blind their male protagonists to make them acceptable marriage material?
The poem is punctuated by Aurora’s lengthy meditations upon art.

It contains an arresting amount of violent imagery.

Aurora Leigh: the Protagonist
Aurora is poetess as healer both for Marian and Romney.

- she is also something of a radical.

She lives in a society where pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a woman is to remain unmarried.

And she says that poetry is

“most serious work, most necessary work, /

As any of the economists’.”

Aurora’s name suggests

- new life

- early-morning baptismal dew

- the dawning of a new day.

By the end of the verse-novel both cousins realize that they have each placed too great an emphasis upon limited aspects of man’s character:

  • Romney in considering and supplying only the physical needs of the underprivileged and focusing exclusively on class, while ignoring the individual;

  • Aurora in relinquishing all love and companionship in order to pursue her ambitious intellectual ideal of a poet’s vocation.

Aurora’s marriage to Romney represents ‘female’ art union to ‘masculine’ politics.

There is a Hegelian feel to the conclusion:

- EBB implies that the individual and society advance by synthesis of opposites (male-female, material-spiritual, English-Italian).

Really the story is less important than

  • the poem’s forceful and often witty speculations

- on the poet’s mission

- on social responsibilities, and

- on the position of women

  • its vivid impressionistic sketches of crowds and social groups, and

  • its glimpses53 of dewy English countryside and luminous Italian landscapes.

Aurora Leigh was shocking54 for conservatives:

- ladies weren’t expected to set up ‘in a room of their own’ to earn a living as professional writers.

- ladies certainly weren’t meant to consort with working-class women who had illegitimate children.

- ladies couldn’t write about things like rape.

- the very idea of EBB writing a gigantic/epic poem was considered rather unladylike.
None of this affected the huge55 popularity of Aurora Leigh amongst Victorian readers.
Moreover, Ruskin praised Aurora Leigh as:

“The greatest poem in the English language”. (a wee bit of an exaggeration).

By the time of Barrett Browning’s death in 1861 it had gone through five editions.

By the end of the 19th Century it had run to 20 editions.

Virginia Woolf commented:

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.56

However, the verse-novel was largely57 ignored in the 20th-century,

- until renewed feminist interest in the 1980s.

At its best, there is some fine poetry in Aurora Leigh

- however, a great deal of58 the blank verse is distinctly prosy and only nominally metrical.

Insufficient attention is given to the difficulties of accommodating two generically different elements:

- a first-person retrospective account of inner development, and

- a presentation of modern life held together by a love-plot.
The mixture of these elements leads to59 confusing switches60 between retrospective and present-tense narration, and to a blurring of the distinction between the narrating self and the experiencing self.
Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4enmalEsH6w

for a good commentary on an excerpt from the poem.


  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh by Kerry McSweeney [Oxford World Classics, 1993]

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems by Helen Cross [Oxford Student Text, 2015]

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems by Paul Nye [York Notes, 1988]

  • Victorian Women Poets by Joseph Bristow [New Casebook, 1995]

  • Victorian Women Poets by Tess Cosslett [Longman Critical Readers, 1996]

  • The Victorian Poets by Peter and Margaret Mullany [Monarch, 1964]

  • Victorian Literature by Beth Palmer [York Notes Companion, 2010]

  • Companion to British Poetry: 17th and 18th Centuries by Virginia Brackett [Facts on File, 2008]

  • A Companion to Victorian Poetry by Richard Cronin et al [Blackwell, 2002]

  • Companion to Victorian Poetry by Joseph Bristow [Cambridge, 2000]

  • The British Novel by Virginia Brackett [Fact on File, 2006]

1 peculiar – strange

2 rather than – as opposed to, instead of

3 attempt ateffort to create

4 issues of the daycurrent questions/controversies

5 plotstoryline, story

6 built out of – constructed from

8 upset – offended

9 to kidnap – abduct

10 to worsenaggravate

11 spaniel – (false friend) breed of dog (e.g. King Charles, Cocker, Springer)

12 a lovely thing, to be – (poetic) to be a lovely thing, to be an appropriate subject for men’s poetry

13 rather than – as opposed to, instead of

14 just – (in this case) merely, only

15 miserysuffering

16 featureelement, characteristic

17 range – variety

18 rather – (in this case) more specifically

19 sheltered – protected

20 lack ofabsence of, deficient

21 to cobble sth. together – unite in an unsystematic way

22 mockeryridicule

23 to come to realize (come-came-come) – become conscious

24 to brood on – obsess about

25 squalor /’skwolər/ – insalubrious living conditions

26 slightsinsults

27 eventual – (false friend) at the end of the book

28 due to – because of

29 cross-stitch – embroidery

30 and so forth – et cetera, etc.

31 relationsrelatives; relationships

32 to draw (draw-drew-drawn) – (in this case) derive, extract

33 to sucksuckle, breastfeed, drink its mother’s milk

34 surelyconfidently, securely

35 wrenchingviolent separation

36 to undergo (-go/-went/-gone) – suffer

37 Sandra M. Gilbert From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Risorgimento (1984)

38 Dolores Rosenblum Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-century Poetry (1983)

39 to allow – permit, enable

40 Dolores Rosenblum

41 see her through – survive

42 Dolores Rosenblum

43 to modulate intogradually become

44 Dolores Rosenblum

45 to grind down (grind-ground-ground) – gradually weaken

46 to sour – embitter, ruin

47 eventually – (false friend) in the end

48 to scorn – reject with disdain

49 thus – in this way

50 i.e. being drugged and raped like the central character in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1767)

51 rather than – as opposed to, instead of

52 to realize – (false friend) become conscious

53 glimpsemomentary view, (in this case) sketch

54 shockingscandalous

55 huge – enormous, great

56 p. 229, Woolf, Virginia. ‘Aurora Leigh. The Second Common Reader, 1932

57 largelymostly, generally, more or less

58 a great deal of – a lot of

59 to lead to (lead-led-led) – result in

60 switch – abrupt change

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