Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Article excerpt

Aurora Leigh is even more prominent than usual in EBB criticism this year, with a new "Reading Guide" and several articles or book chapters treating it from various angles (portraiture, religion, gift-giving, and parallels with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, revision of Wordsworth's Prelude, the discourse of sensibility). EBB's "new poem" (p. 12), as she describes it on March 15, 1853, is also central to Volume 19 of The Brownings' Correspondence, edited by Philip Kelley, Scott Lewis, and Edward Hagan (Wedgestone Press, 2012), covering the period from March 1853 to November 1853. Other works discussed this year include "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," "The Cry of the Children," "The Seraphim" and two other poems from the same 1838 volume ("Sounds" and "Earth and Her Praisers"), EBB's poems on pictures, and her poems on Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon. There are also treatments of some spirited writing from her girlhood, her manipulation of meter, the nature of the illness she suffered from, her "elopement" and "honeymoon" narratives (as compared to Mary Shelley's and George Eliot's), and the dissemination of her works among German women writers.

Volume 19, The Brownings' Correspondence and Aurora Leigh

EBB seldom explicitly discusses work on Aurora Leigh in this new volume of The Brownings' Correspondence, after describing it to Mary Mitford in April, 1853, as "the novel or romance I have been hankering after so long--written in blank verse,.. in the autobiographical form,.. the heroine an artist-woman[-] not a painter": a work "intensely modern" and "crammed from the times" (p. 46). Nevertheless, the volume is filled with letters that reveal the contexts shaping her most ambitious work, interspersed with comments on revisions for and revenue from her 1853 collected Poems. As usual, there are many previously unpublished or only partially published letters, or misattributed ones like the letter to Mitford cited above, first published in part in Frederic G. Kenyon's Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1897) as addressed to Anna Jameson. EBB expected that Mitford might not like her plan for Aurora Leigh and the Supporting Documents to this volume reveal the older woman writing to others that the "plan seems to [her] bad because so many trashy novels have taken the same line" (p. 366).

One is struck, first of all, in these letters by EBB's repeated descriptions of her happiness and health, an indication that embarking on the work she had first conceived in the mid-1840s was facilitated by a period of relative vitality and fulfillment. Again and again, she speaks of the "quiet happy life" filled with "poetry" and love (p. 31) in Casa Guidi the previous winter, when she was "very happy and well" again after the "English climate had invalided" her during their London visit in 1852 (pp. 158-159). The winter was followed by a summer and fall in Florence and Bagni de Lucca "round[ing]" out "seven years with so much happiness everywhere!" (p. 283). Both of the Brownings were at work, writing in companionable artistic solitudes--RB on the "volume of lyrics" that would become Men and Women (1855),.. EBB delighted in the fact that Robert had a room "'all to himself'" even in Bagni di Lucca (p. 175) and remarked: "We, neither of us, show our work to one another until it is finished--An artist must, I fancy, either find or make a solitude to work in .. if it is to be good work at all" (p. 213). Pen was flourishing, provoking countless anecdotes of his lisping sayings and childhood joys; meanwhile the aging Flush, seldom mentioned, was going bald, "'in transmigration into a pig,'" a friend quipped (p. 157). Pen also provokes EBB's observations on her "system" of not educating children against their will (p. 263),or her "non-education theory" as she elsewhere describes it (p. 281)--a theory embodied in Aurora's education by her loving father in Book I of her novel-poem.

In Florence, EBB especially enjoyed an "agreeable sort of bachelor society" with RB, Robert Lytton (son of Bulwer Lytton, the novelist), Frederick Tennyson (brother of Alfred), and others, possibly shaping the conventionally masculine role Aurora has as the working intellectual in her cohabitation with Marian in the same city. …

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