Places: Aurora Leigh

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1856

Type of work: Poetry and novel (verse novel)

Type of plot: Künstlerroman

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Italy

*Italy. Aurora LeighCountry in which Aurora Leigh begins her life. She is born in Florence–a major Italian cultural center–to a Florentine mother and an English father. Barrett Browning portrays Aurora’s first years in Florence as edenic, although her mother dies when she is only four years old. Afterward, Aurora and her father moved to Pelago, a mountainous village, where she is sheltered and raised with the assistance of Assunta, a servant. Her father provides her with books and treats her as an intellectual equal; his last words to her–advice to seek love–shape the context of the evolving verse novel. After her father dies when she is thirteen, she is whisked away to “frosty” England, in contrast to the “green reconciling earth” of Italy, the latter country being, in all senses, her “motherland.” Italy remains ever afterward the place to which Aurora always returns, even in her imagination, for comfort and safety.

*England

*England. While Aurora lives with her father’s sister in England, her life takes a different turn. Her aunt’s country home has a wild beauty that differs from the warm Pelago. Nevertheless, Aurora learns to love it and continues to pursue the life of the mind. She tests her father’s advice, to find love, when her cousin Romney falls in love with her and she refuses to marry him.

*London

*London. Capital city of Great Britain, in which Aurora struggles to support herself as a writer after her aunt’s death. Now alone, she must face many trials in a strange city in order to prove herself. London stands in direct contrast to the wild innocence of Italy, even to her aunt’s country house. She visits St. Margaret’s Court, an area known for prostitution, to meet the seamstress Marian, whom her cousin now intends to marry, and Barrett Browning provides readers with a glimpse of the wretched conditions in which London’s poor live–the desolation of the area, the sickness of its children, and the hopelessness of its people.

*Paris

*Paris. France’s capital city presents the occasion for the renewal of Aurora’s artistic dreams. Having lost confidence in her abilities, she is refreshed by the similarities of geography. Finding art all around her, she is greatly moved by the beauty of nature, very much like that of Italy.

BibliographyGilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Feminist reading with emphasis on discussing Barrett Browning’s solution to the contemporary conflict between “woman” and “poet.” Clarifies maternal imagery in the poem.Kaplan, Cora. Introduction to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. London: Women’s Press, 1978. Provides an excellent starting point for comprehending the scope of the poem. The editor’s comments are often cited to support other readings of the poem. Good notes and a bibliography of critical material available at the time.Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. A useful reading of Aurora Leigh as feminist poem, especially in its defiance of patriarchal dominance of women and poetry.Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A biographical study emphasizing the female in Aurora Leigh, its position as a novel, maternal images, and its heroine’s defiance of traditional attitudes toward women. Includes an excellent, comprehensive bibliography.Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Focuses on the influence of Mme de Stael, George Sand, and Elizabeth Gaskell on Barrett Browning and her influence on later writers, especially Emily Dickinson. Moers suggests that Dickinson’s poems be read in concert with Aurora Leigh. Cites epic features and establishes it as “the feminist poem.”
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