Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Woman Question
Early influencesBarrett Browning was always interested in the position of women in society, and throughout her career she wrote challengingly and combatively about the need for gender equality. In her youth she was an ardent admirer of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose controversial book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) emphasised the ways in which middle-class women were denied any proper education and were therefore made unfit for meaningful roles in society. It was a book which Barrett Browning believed should be read repeatedly because of its strong call for change. Certainly, she made sure that she educated herself to the highest levels through extensive reading in history, literature, the classics (particularly Greek), and a range of modern foreign languages.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792. This copy contains Wollstonecraft’s manuscript notes.View images from this item (15)
Oppression and celebration: themes in Barrett Browning’s poetry
By the late 1830s, Barrett Browning was starting to explore her concern with the social roles prescribed for women much more critically through her poetry. In particular, she was increasingly interested in the power dynamics that lie at the heart of heterosexual relationships. In a series of ballads composed in the 1830s and early 1840s, for example – poems such as ‘The Romaunt of Margret’, ‘A Romance of the Ganges’, ‘The Romance of the Swan’s Nest’ and ‘The Romaunt of the Page’ – Barrett Browning repeatedly criticises women’s secondary role in society, the ways in which the institution of marriage oppresses them, and the idea that love and sexual relations are often grounded in problematic and often brutal power games. Betrayal, duplicity and loss are dominant themes in these poems, which often see the women silenced or dead at the end. Conventional society’s expectations are entrapping and potentially deadly.
By the 1840s, however, Barrett Browning was also starting to celebrate particularly strong women in her work. In ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’, for example, published in Poems (1844), she depicts Geraldine as a woman who rejects the image of female passivity embodied in the statue of Silence in the woods on her estate. Instead, Geraldine asserts independence and agency as she initiates a cross-class relationship with the poet Bertram. Also contained in Poems are the two sonnets ‘To George Sand: A Desire’ and ‘To George Sand: A Recognition’. These were written for the French novelist Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin who published under the pseudonym of George Sand. A highly controversial figure who frequently dressed in traditionally masculine attire, Sand produced novels which openly questioned the systematic oppression of women, sexual hypocrisy and established religion. For Barrett Browning, Sand represented a positive model of ‘True genius, but true woman’ (‘A Recognition’, l.1).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems, in Two Volumes, 1844
‘To George Sand: A Recognition’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, published in Poems, 1844.View images from this item (6)
Aurora LeighBarrett Browning brought together these interests in various aspects of the Woman Question in her major poem, Aurora Leigh, published in 1856. Her longest work, which is written as a nine-book epic, it traces Aurora’s struggles to establish herself as a professional woman poet. It is also, as Barrett Browning wrote in the Dedication, ‘the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered'. In the first book of the poem, Barrett Browning returns to the issue of women’s education as Aurora’s aunt subjects her to an ‘education’ system which threats to eradicate both her enquiring mind and her individuality. She is made to read conduct books on how to be a good woman, learn lists of useless facts, and perform obtuse tasks like spinning glass and modelling flowers in wax (Book 1, ll. 399-426). It is only when Aurora discovers her father’s library, with its extensive range of ideas and knowledge, that she feels her world and mind opening up, imaged here in terms of volcanic eruption:
As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart […]
–thus, my soul […]
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised (Book 1, ll. 845–52)
As the poem demonstrates, this is a far more meaningful education for Aurora – one which transcends traditional middle-class women’s education and which offers more than just a training for marriage.
Letter from Robert Browning to his son Pen, discussing Edward FitzGerald's attack on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 13 July 1889
Aurora Leigh’s new ideas about gender led to it being criticised in the press; in this letter to his son Robert Browning recounts Edward Fitzgerald’s vicious attack, 1889.View images from this item (3)
Women and Work
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh quoted in proto-feminist Women and Work by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, member of the Langham Place Group, 1857.View images from this item (8)
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