Meredith's Reviews > Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Jan 19, 09

Read in January, 2009

** spoiler alert ** [warning: plot summary intended for my orals review]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's novel in verse Aurora Leigh (1856) tells the story of the eponymous heroine from her birth in Italy to an English father and Italian mother, to her orphanhood and upbringing in her aunt's home in England, to her days as a popular poet in London, to her eleventh hour reunion with her soul mate (and cousin) Romney Leigh. But after giving his ancestral home over to be a charity for the poor, a vindictive man (the father of Marian, the long-suffering pauper Romney almost married) burns the home to the ground. As Romney dashes in to the flames to save a painting that reminds him of Aurora, a burning beam falls on him and he is blinded (Jane Eyre, anyone?). Romney shakes off his aristocratic devotee Lady Waldemar, to find Marian and Aurora in Italy. He offers to marry Marian and to act as father to the son conceived when Marian was raped (side-story). Aurora gives her consent to this union, but Marian declares that she wants to give all her love to her son. Aurora and Romney thus come together in perfect love.

Whereas the figure of Aurora generally stands for spiritual beauty; that of Romney generally represents social progress and pragmatism. Their union at the end suggests a unity of the social and aesthetic, spiritual and physical, political and personal. Browning reminds us in the conclusion that, "Art's a [social?:] service." While the conclusion seems conservative (no cross-class marriage), Browning does advance some radical visions in the final lines: "blow all class-walls level as Jericho's" and "[there:] shall grow spontaneously/ New churches, new economies, new laws/ Admitting freedom, new societies/ Excluding falsehood." I'm still undecided as to whether this work is aesthetically and politically conservative, progressive, or both. I'm not undecided in my immense admiration for Browning.
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