Crafting Social Criticism: Infanticide in "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" and Aurora Leigh

Article excerpt

What kind of poetry can promote meaningful social change? Can women rite such poetry? These are two of the questions Elizabeth Barrett Browning grappled with in her 1857 novel-poem Aurora Leigh. Romney Leigh is the voice of dissent in the poem. Early in the text, he informs Aurora that women are "weak for art" and only fitted for "life and duty." (1) According to Romney, this is a result of women's inability to generalize from individual cases of oppression to the larger social problems that cause that oppression:

      The human race
   To you means, such a child, or such a man,
   You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
   Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
   A few such cases, and, when strong, sometimes
   Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
   Your father were a negro, and your son
   A spinner in the mills. (2.189-196)

Romney's accusation is drawn from actual debates over women's capabilities taking place in the Victorian press. (2) However, the examples he gives in the passage above are tailored specifically to fit Barrett Browning's own body of work. Just as Aurora proves Romney wrong about woman's capacity to create significant art, Barrett Browning in her own poetry demonstrates the importance of tempering generalization on social problems with the kind of individual approach that Romney deplored. In her anti-slavery poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (one of the poems she was likely referencing in the passage above) and in Marian Erie's story of white urban poverty in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning employs the popular motif of infanticide in order to write tales of domestic suffering that attack the general hypocrisy and oppression surrounding single motherhood while not losing sight of the important differences that set the runaway slave and Marian Erie apart from one another.

The infanticidal plot of "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" has inspired many articles. Scholars have written about the poem's relation to Barrett Browning's life and family history, its rhetorical connections to the Garrisonian abolitionist circle, its representations of infanticide, its textual history, and its thematic links to Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. (3) However, the important connections between the infanticide represented in this poem and Marian Erie's story in Aurora Leigh have yet to be fully explored. The intersections between these two poems demonstrate that Barrett Browning was aware of "the analogy between the middle-class marriage market and the slave trade" and that she viewed "slavery as a feminist issue" that was connected to the oppression of white British women. (4) However, these poems also show that she was sensitive to the differences between white female oppression and African slavery. A close examination of the infanticide narrative in each poem shows that Barrett Browning maintains the separate nature of the enslaved woman's experience from that of Marian Erie, despite the way their stories echo one another.

When Barrett Browning chose to incorporate an act of infanticide into "The Runaway Slave" and allusions to infanticide into Aurora Leigh, she linked her texts with many other works by social reformers on both sides of the Atlantic who also used infanticide as a symbol of the catastrophic failure of various social systems. Infanticide played this important symbolic role on both sides of the Atlantic because of the commonly held assumption during the nineteenth century "that all women, whether biological mothers or not, had a maternal instinct." (5) This instinct was "credited ... with making women nurture their children" as a matter of nature, not choice. (6) Authors, working from this assumption, often used infanticide as an extreme example of how manmade systems subverted and/or destroyed the allegedly "natural" order of things. For this reason, infanticide was, as Laura Berry writes, "separated from a discourse of individual guilt and criminality and was invented instead as a widespread social problem. …