Dr Simon Avery considers how Elizabeth Barrett Browning used poetry to explore and challenge traditional Victorian roles for women, assessing the early influences on her work and thought.
Across the course of the 19th century, the question of women’s roles and rights was fiercely and widely debated. How should women – and particularly middle-class women – be educated? What was their ‘proper’ place in society? Should they be allowed to work outside the home? Should they be able to vote and have a political voice? These and a range of other issues constituted what the Victorians termed ‘The Woman Question’, which was fervently analysed in discussion groups, in the press, in parliament, and in scientific and medical circles as women pushed for greater recognition and equality. Changes in social expectations and in legislation were achieved very slowly – the vote was only granted to women over 30 in 1918 and women over 21 in 1928, for example – but in the meantime the Woman Question was firmly on Britain’s social and political agendas. It was an area, too, where many women writers, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, made powerful and engaging contributions.
Barrett 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
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a ground-breaking work of feminist philosophy, primarily attacking those who felt that education should be withheld from women. This copy contains Wollstonecraft’s manuscript notes.
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Barrett Browning also believed that this educational training was crucial to her aim to be recognised as a successful poet. This was particularly so given that the dominant conservative culture of the time believed that poetry was principally the literary terrain of men. If women were to write poetry, they should write about love, nature or pious religion – that is, nothing that was perceived as too intellectually demanding. From the start, however, Barrett Browning sought not only to assert her right to be a poet, but to be a poet who dealt with key social and political issues of the day: war, nationalism, industrialisation, slavery, religious controversy, the manipulation of power, and the fight for liberty on numerous fronts. There was little conforming to conservative expectations here.
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.
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Barrett 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.
This independence of thought is linked to Aurora’s commitment to being recognised as a professional poet. During the 1850s, when Aurora Leigh was published, the question of meaningful work for women was central to many early women’s rights movements such as the Langham Place Group. Barrett Browning’s poem locks into this contemporary debate as Aurora asserts her right to work and be independent rather than accept her cousin Romney’s half-hearted marriage proposal. As she tells Romney, poetry has the power to transform opinions and bring about social change, and is ‘“most necessary work/ As any of the economists”’ (Book 2, ll. 459–60). Moreover, this is work which she believes women can do just as well as men. The poem follows Aurora from her lowly position in a London garret where she writes to make ends meet, to her position as successful and highly-regarded poet living in Italy – making Aurora Leigh a case study in women’s right to work and a celebration of women’s achievements.
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.
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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.
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One other major area makes Aurora Leigh an important text in relation to the Woman Question: the narrative of the working-class figure Marian Earle. Marian is abused by her family and subsequently, through a series of plot turns, she is sold into a brothel. When Aurora meets her in Paris, Marian is living in a slum as a single mother. In conservative Victorian thinking, Marian is now a ‘fallen woman’, beyond the pale of society even through her baby is a result of Marian’s being raped – 'man’s violence,/ Not man’s seduction, made me what I am', Marian explains (Book 6, ll. 1126–7). On hearing this story, Aurora rejects conventional judgements and takes Marian with her to live in Florence. She therefore shows support for the woman that conservative society condemns and boldly asserts that Marian is morally pure rather than morally tainted.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry therefore shows her to be acutely alert to many of the key concerns of the Victorian Woman Question. Her works engage forcefully with issues of education, marriage, work, sexuality, motherhood, female solidarity and the need for gender equality. It was the power of these writings – and Aurora Leigh in particular – which would have such an influence on subsequent poets like Christina Rossetti, Mary Coleridge and Charlotte Mew as they continued to interrogate women’s position in society to the end of the century and beyond.