At a time when family life, hearth and home, was considered to be an essential institution that a Victorian woman adhered to, those same traditional ideas were the ones subject to question and scrutiny. Many of the constraints placed on women of the day contributed to their submissive roles as dutiful wife and pious daughter, further oppressing women’s achievements and desire for independence. Within those socially constructed obstacles emerged a “New Woman,” one who was discontent with repressed life, one who seized professional opportunities and allowed her powerful imagination to move her image beyond the home. Among the educated women that promoted this type of freedom and equality was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a major poet in her own right and passionately outspoken over the issue of social injustice. In Browning’s most popular, and controversial, epic novel/poem “Aurora Leigh,” female independence is celebrated despite the encroachment of masculine society standing in the way of change. It is the story of a writer, Aurora, making her way in life, vehemently pursuing her career as a poet, demonstrating the conflict between artist and woman, self-expression and submissiveness.
“Aurora Leigh” begins with an overwhelming air of discontent, evident when Aurora determines she has lived “a harmless life, she called a virtuous life/a quiet life, which was not life at all” (1093; 288-289). As part of the beginning stages of the poem, we can already make the conclusion that Aurora is a dissatisfied, maybe even restless, woman who does not seem to agree with her placement in life. She yearns for more in the world; a life full of color and emotion with meaning and accomplishment. Even as she is being taught disciplines by her aunt, we can see the type of structures and disciplines that are being ingrained in women of that day. What is masked as learning of intellectual topics, is really a way to teach women how to behave, act, and even which hobbies to pursue. Aurora realizes the absurdity in her learning, “I read a score of books on womanhood/to prove, if women do not think at all,/they may teach thinking” (1096; 427-429) and also notices that she is being instructed on how to behave as a dutiful wife in her future, like all other women, “as long as they keep quiet by the fire/and never say “no” when the world says “ay” (1096; 436-437). The blatant idea here is that the world, or society, should determine a woman’s actions and place, and not the woman herself, with her own desires or dreams. Browning aligns this idea with the image of a woman becoming frail; when being directed by others how to live, a woman will crumble, her inner light will burn out. The poet illustrates this image when Aurora’s visitors notice in her “the Italian child,/for all her blue eyes and her quiet ways,/thrives ill in England: she is paler yet/than when we came the last time; she will die” (1097; 495-498). The comparison between Aurora’s “sickness” and her dreams being stifled as a woman is a powerful statement made by Browning, and one that continues to dominate her writing.
As the poem continues, a marriage proposal emerges from Aurora’s cousin Romney as he tries to dissuade her dreams of being a poet, “but men, and still less women. . ./Scarce need be poets. . ./Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze/Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles/The clean white morning dresses” (1100, 92-96). This type of condescending air was typical of men’s beliefs that women didn’t have many other desires in life other than to fulfill their partner’s needs. Aurora fights back, contesting the rigid stereotype that women are capable of less than men, “am I proved too weak/To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear/Such leaners on my shoulder? Poor to think,/Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought?/Incompetent to sing. . ./Yet competent to love, like HIM?” (1101, 359-364). She understands Romney’s motives to make her his wife and rejects the sacrifices that she would have to make were she to accept that role, “for my part, I am scarcely meek enough/To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse./Do I look Hagar, think you?” (1102, 411-413). He would never accept, or have any regard for, her interests of independence and intelligence, to which she remarks, “you misconceive the question like a man,/Who sees a woman as the complement/Of his sex merely” (1102, 434-436).
For Aurora, her love is her work, a clearly conflicting determination for her to make in a world where it was considered a violation for her to cultivate, as she explains, “your scorn is better, cousin Romney, I/Who love my art, would never wish it lower/To suit my stature. I may love my art” (1104, 492-494). Her dream of pursuing poetry must mean complete resistance of the all-consuming act of love. Her focus is on her art, fighting to be recognized, understanding what she needs for herself. She speaks of poets as, “their sole work is to represent the age,/Their age, not Charlemagne’s, – this live, throbbing age,/That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,/And spends more passion, more heroic heat,/Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms” (1105, 202-206). The idea that Aurora chooses her work as her only love put on trial the very institution that embodied family and marriage, an extremely bold reinvention to promote freedom and equality for Victorian women. Aurora is a strong female character, assertively proclaiming, “I too have my vocation, – work to do” (1103, 455). She does not succumb to the obstacles placed before her and she does not allow the practical role of women in society to hinder her yearning of a life that offers more, even if it means rejecting those roles and attributes that a woman should accept as her vocation, “you’ll grant that even a woman may love art,/Seeing that to waste true love on anything/Is womanly, past question” (1104, 495-497).
Towards the end of Browning’s poem we see a compromise between Aurora’s drive for self-expression and the role of submissive service to which she must adhere to. This softening of expression by Browning also reveals a very important idea related to women’s changing roles of the times. While the struggle between alteration in status and limited choices presented itself as an inevitable conflict of the day, the “woman question” proved this difficulty in the obstacles that appeared. Although “Aurora Leigh” is a celebration of the rebellious nature of Victorian women who struggled to be recognized as their own person, it is also an acknowledgement of the fair balance between independence and comfort in life. Browning also paints a clear picture of the beauty in finding love in one’s work; that poetry should be revered, “this bosom seems to beat still, or at least/It sets ours heating: this is living art,/Which thus presents and thus records true life” (1106, 220-222). In Browning’s clear and exact portrayal of Aurora’s conflictions, she is also addressing real issues affecting women of the day, and most accurately, herself. By speaking through her poetry, she maintains a powerful stance to be a credible source of Victorian feminism. The journey that Aurora takes is the same one that Browning finds herself on. While both her and her main character feel like a caged bird in a constricting environment, they both also keep their inner desires burning while outwardly conforming, trying to find and maintain a balance between the two. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was not only a major player among English poets, but her works are also great examples of a wide range of issues and ideas concerning Victorian women. She used her poetic gift of writing to explore themes surrounding social responsibilities and the position of women, making her the best example to probe into the depths of women’s social issues during that time.