Aurora Leigh as Paradigm of Domestic-Professional Fiction

Article excerpt

I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment.

--Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning; February 27, 1845

If, therefore, I move certain subjects in this work, it is because my conscience was first moved in me not to ignore them.

--Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Julia Martin; February, 1857

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Through an analysis of Aurora Leigh as domestic-professional fiction, in this essay I investigate Elizabeth Barrett Browning's evolving feminist and artistic philosophy. I define domestic-professional fiction as possessing several distinctive attributes: a prominent character is a professional woman writer who also occupies the role of caregiver in the home. While fulfilling the role of the ideal Victorian woman, "The Angel in the House," the domestic-professional author also subverts Victorian expectations of women by asserting her right to confront immediate political and moral issues and offer solutions. Domestic-professional texts offer paradigms of the woman/writer whose chosen vocation is that of social critic, a model intended to replace the Victorian ideal of woman precisely by co-opting it. Finally, domestic-professional fiction ultimately challenges its readers to make the decision to effect social change.

Barrett Browning's philosophy of literature, revealed in the content and form of Aurora Leigh, most definitively envisions a feminine strength and morality that address society's needs, extending the domestic ethics into the public sphere. Barrett Browning also stresses the power of writing as a means of discovering "truth" and as a woman's construction and acceptance of her self. Aurora's growth as a writer and a woman results from her relationships with Romney Leigh and Marian Erie. Thus, since a central thematic principle in domestic-professional fiction is that a woman break free from cultural conventions to cultivate the power that can transform society, Barrett Browning's doctrine of art encompasses the personal and the political, of which Aurora and Romney's marriage is the ultimate symbol; the "New Jerusalem" they anticipate at the end of this epic verse-novel emphasizes the need to work toward a just society. Importantly, while Barrett Browning advocates the construction of a fair society, she does so by critiquing a cherished Victorian ideal, that of the Angel in the House that she believes denigrates both women and society. For Barrett Browning, society will benefit much more from the professional woman than from the woman who has no creative outlet other than her domestic duties.

Aurora Leigh was first published in 1856, two years after another poem whose female figure would increasingly personify the ideal Victorian woman, Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House. Barrett Browning uses a variety of characters familiar to Victorian readers--the lovelorn heroine (Aurora), the "good" woman (Aurora again), the "fallen" woman (Marian), the social idealist (Romney), and the conniving aristocrat (Lady Waldemar), among others, in surprising ways to address her concerns regarding contemporary issues, such as the woman question, individualism and social conditions. One character type that appears only marginally is the Angel in the House, the feminine figure who is becoming increasingly codified into the middle-class norm as the ideal woman.'(1) There are several instances in which the Angel does show up briefly in Aurora Leigh, only to be exorcised by Barrett Browning, who realizes how damaging this image is to women. She teasingly introduces such a woman in the form of Aurora's mother on the first page of the book:

   But still I catch my mother at her post
   Beside the nursery-door, with finger up,
   `Hush, hush--here's too much noise!' while her sweet eyes
   Leap forward, taking part against her word
   In the child's riot. …