Aurora Leigh is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most ambitious work. Both its very high poetic quality, when the poem is at its best, and its sometimes turgid moralizing, when it is at its worst, were noted by contemporary reviewers like George Eliot, Coventry Patmore, and W. E. Aytoun, as well as by friends and correspondents of the Brownings, like John Ruskin. The poem is rightly called a novel in verse, but it is important to stress the verse part of that definition: It is full of extremely intense poetry as well as of novelistic interaction, and is in fact about the relation between the kinds of things of interest to a poet and the kinds of things of interest to a novelist. Indeed it stages a debate between these two kinds of interests—a debate that consciously and explicitly updates the debate between poets and philosophers in Plato.
In Aurora Leigh that debate takes place between the narrator of the poem, Aurora herself, and her cousin Romney Leigh, who has extremely high ambitions as a social reformer in the mode of Charles Fourier. The kind of literature that he would like if he liked literature is the socially conscious and tendentious (but great) fiction of Charles Dickens (5.403), whom he discusses with Aurora just before undertaking a Dickensian marriage with a poor and down-trodden but morally dazzling young woman who could easily be a character out of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities. Aurora, however, has aspirations for the soul-addressing beauties of poetry and is skeptical of her cousin’s technocratic elevation of political economy above all else.
These two attitudes are explicitly couched in feminist terms. Romney believes that poetry is effeminate; poetry by a woman all the more so, and while he has all the respect in the world for Aurora (their relationship is handled with much subtlety and tact by Browning), he does not respect her vocation as she does. Since Aurora is in large part an autobiographical figure (though her father dies instead of anathematizing her the way Browning’s own father had), the stirring encomiums to vocation that Browning puts into Aurora’s mouth are her own defenses of poetry, and consciously and powerfully feminist defenses at that.
In the structure of the story and the development of human relationship that it depicts, Marianne Erle, the abject young woman whom Romney wishes to marry after Aurora has refused him, but whom he does not love, represents the possibility and indeed the necessity for both Romney and Aurora to concede the rightness of each other’s commitments. Marianne, Dickensian in all her sentimental but heartbreaking splendor and goodness, represents a powerful appeal to sustained commitment to the spiritual and immaterial, vivid in her single mother’s love for the child conceived through rape (here, also, Browning put her own experience as a mother into Marianne’s attitude and feeling), a commitment that poetry mediates (far from being the imitation of an imitation, as Plato said, poetry for Aurora allows clearer contact with what is outside the cave of the material world), while also showing the necessity of working to ameliorate the oppressions of the earth that leave its Marianne Erles so vulnerable and many others so tortured into their own modes of pettiness and evil. (Thus, Marianne’s father strikes 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.)
The fact that we get this all from Aurora’s point of view makes her the opposite of a standard story depicting an anxious, overambitious hero—a Plantagenet Palliser or Phineas Finn, for example, saved through the ministrations of an oppressed but loyal woman who returns at the end to find fulfillment in rescuing him. Rescue him she does, but the poem depicts her changing values, not his, and only summarizes his moral development in the last book retrospectively. The changes Aurora undergoes are of the sort that could commit a poet who began with Wordsworthian balladry (Aurora dismisses the ballads she used to write) to the novelistic perspectives of the contemporary moment, which is why the last books of Aurora Leigh are formally contemporaneous, written in a journalistic mode and not the autobiographical mode of the retrospective account she gives of her life before she comes upon Marianne Erle again. As the poem moves into the present, it takes on the unpoetic social horrors of the present, most particularly rape and abandonment of women. (It should be noted that Browning’s relation to Wordsworth includes an expansion of the very line of subjects for poetry that he had inaugurated.) The novelistic subject matter reflects the strong social and political ambitions in Browning’s work akin to Dickens’s (whom she cites in the poem), but overtly feminist, while its poetic form simultaneously shows its aspiration towards permanence. Romney and Aurora stand for these two modes, and Browning means their powerful and moving reconciliation at the end, therefore, to demonstrate how humanist and feminist demands in the political sphere manifest as well the spiritual aspiration to the enlargement of the human soul and not only the material aspiration to economic and social equality.
If Aurora Leigh presents poetry as feminine in its concern for beauty and in its emphasis on individual sorrow, the fact that feminism is a radical and growing movement makes both Aurora’s and Browning’s feminism, and their poetry, just as political as Romney’s political economy. The poem finally declares for modern times and modern concerns, but for a modernity inflected by the insights into the actual individual experience of human psychology and human suffering that poetry affords. Feminism is a feature of modernity, and to be truly progressive would mean to be feminist as well. Romney would not disagree, perhaps, but what he fails to see at the start is that if poetry has now (as Romney, but Aurora above all, insist) become the province of women, then feminism will have to be part of the new and advanced order of things because poetry by its nature will have to be part of the new and advanced order of things. Without poetry, Browning insists, there can only be failed social engineering: Poetry reminds one of God. Conversely, since feminism is part of the new order, so is the poetry that Aurora defends in her intellectual arguments with Romney. Thus, the political argument of Aurora Leigh could be summarized this way: There can be no genuine progress without the inclusion of feminist concerns, which are important not only for women but for everyone. Those concerns include poetry; if women are now going to be writing the important poetry of the day—important not least because of its political ambition—then there will be no genuine progress without feminist poetry that makes this very point.
Poetry survives in Aurora Leigh because women make it survive, so that at the end of the poem generosity and greatness of heart go with feminism and political modernity, and all of them go with being a poet. By combining feminism with poetic vocation, Browning strengthens them both and paves the way for the great women poets who would succeed her. And at her best, though she has neither their consistency nor their range, she challenges and bears comparison with any of the other Victorian poets. (Indeed Aurora Leigh is a kind of answer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s mild skepticism about women’s ambitions for higher education in his long poem The Princess.) Aurora could achieve the highest cultural height, and so could her creator, as the moving and deep character she has created makes clear.