Aurora Leigh is a beautiful, sublime poem written in blank verse. The language, however, is not the only strong point of the poem. The character of Aurora is fierce and compassionate, as she adapts to her new life in Britain despite her stern aunt. Aurora is born to an English father and an Italian mother and happily spends her childhood among the mountains in Italy. Aurora’s mother dies when she is only four, but her father continues to raise her in Italy among her mother’s people. Aurora’s father also tragically dies when she is at the young and pivotal age of thirteen, and Aurora is shipped off to live in England with her father’s sister. Her aunt is a stern spinster who makes Aurora learn what she believes are appropriate skills for a proper English girl.
But Aurora is resilient and even though her life is more restrained and cumbersome in England, she still finds pleasure in books and poetry. The beautiful estate on which her aunt lives becomes the inspiration for Aurora to begin writing her own poetry. She takes quiet walks in the early morning before the rest of the house is awake and develops her skill as a writer. Furthermore, Aurora doesn’t take what would be the easy way out by marrying her cousin Romney Leigh when he proposes to her. Marriage and financial security would have been a much easier fate for Aurora; but even when her aunt dies and Aurora is disinherited, she moves to London where she works and supports herself as an author.
Browning weaves the theme of class struggles throughout the poem and she especially highlights this social problem through the character of Romney. The poor are depicted as wreteched and even ugly; Romney makes it his life’s work to help out the poor and destitute. After his marriage proposal is rejected by Aurora, he saves a woman named Marian Erle from her miserable life and proposes to her next. Marian is the daughter of tramps that roam around the countryside finding any work they can. Marian’s father is abusive and when her mother tries to sell her off to a local squire, Marian finally runs away from her parents in horror. Romney decides that, even though Marian is well-below his social class, she will make a perfect wife to help him in his charitable missions. But we are left wondering if these two are really suited as husband and wife. Does Marian truly love Romney or does she simply worship him as her savior. Does Romney really have feelings of love for Marian or is he still in love with his cousin Aurora?
The upper class don’t fair any better in Browning’s verse. They are depicted as vain, judgmental, and petty. The character of Lady Valdemar is the epitome of a greedy upper class English woman who will do everything in her power to fulfill her selfish desires. Lady Valdemar is in love with Romney and once she finds out that he is going to marry a lower class woman like Marian, she sets in motion a series of events that have devastating consequences for all involved in this love triangle. Lady Valdemar’s singular focus of getting Romney to the altar makes her a despicable and opportunistic character.
At the end of the poem Browning brings the characters back to the place where everything was simpler and happier: Aurora’s native land of Italy. There Aurora finds peace once again as she is finally away from the petty gossip and prying eyes of the upper classes in England. Aurora does, however, admit that despite her new surroundings, there is still something missing in her life. She is a successful author who has become famous for her poems and novels about love. But will she ever experience this elusive feeling for herself? You will have to read Browning’s beautiful poem to find out.
In the 1830s Barrett’s cousin John Kenyon introduced her to prominent literary figures of the day such as William Wordsworth, Mary Russell Mitford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle. Browning’s first adult collection The Seraphim and Other Poems was published in 1838. During this time she contracted a disease, possibly tuberculosis, which weakened her further. Living at Wimpole Street, in London, Browning wrote prolifically between 1841 and 1844, producing poetry, translation and prose. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery and her work helped influence reform in child labour legislation. Her prolific output made her a rival to Tennyson as a candidate for poet laureate on the death of Wordsworth.
Browning’s volume Poems (1844) brought her great success. During this time she met and corresponded with the writer Robert Browning, who admired her work. The courtship and marriage between the two were carried out in secret, for fear of her father’s disapproval. Following the wedding she was disinherited by her father and rejected by her brothers. The couple moved to Italy in 1846, where she would live for the rest of her life. They had one son, Robert Barrett Browning, whom they called Pen. Towards the end of her life, her lung function worsened, and she died in Florence in 1861. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband shortly after her death.
4 responses to “Review: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning”
Such a beautiful painting ( and book cover)! EB Browning is known by most (who know her) for her Sonnets from the Portuguese. Too bad that this long poem is less familiar now. I am no different–I haven’t read it, I don’t think. It seems to have many autobiographical elements, which makes it more interesting to me. I am a fan of the play “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” which shows her invalid family life, her scary tyrannical father, and the romance with Browning which enabled her escape to Italy and a new full life, for as long as her health held out.
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I will have to read the play next. It’s in the collection I bought! The focus on Italy as a place with happy memories must be autobiographical in Aurora Leigh.
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Another lovely review! I adore Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and especially like Sonnets from the Portuguese. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to reread this. My last read of it was in the ’70s, so I think we can agree that it’s time!
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Thanks so much! It was really such a beautiful poem, and it will definitely be one of those that I will reread!