Sunday, 18 December 2016

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Torn Between Assertion and Submission

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

She takes the wrong means to prove her manhood and swears without provocation. The tragedy of a poet's struggle between femininity and creative ambitions. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in Durham in 1806 and lived for most of her early life near Ledbury in Herefordshire. Her family prospered from money generated by Jamaican plantations. She shared her brothers' lessons in Latin and Greek, but after an illness at fifteen, she became depressed and continued to suffer poor health. As a result of the abolition of slavery, her family fortunes diminished and the house and estate were sold in 1832.

The Barretts moved to London which offered new social opportunities for the young Elizabeth. Shocked at her brother's death by drowning in 1840, she devoted her life to poetry, believing it was God's will. After the publication of her volume Poems in 1844, Robert Browning began a correspondence with her. They fell in love and eventually married in 1846.
The Growth of the Woman-Poet
Barrett Browning produced her first works anonymously, but her genius was acknowledged and her status secured after the publication of Aurora Leigh, a novel in verse, in 1856. Aurora Leigh examines the connection between reality and the spiritual and between femininity and creative ambitions. The story juxtaposes the position of Aurora, an artist, against that of Romney, a philanthropist. Aurora receives a proposal of marriage from her cousin, Romney, but he wants her to abandon her poetry and help him with his interest in political reforms.
Aurora has an aunt who is intent upon 'improving' Aurora for domesticity. Aurora refuses to submit to her aunt's domination, deciding instead to write poetry. Gilbert and Gubar, in their book, The Madwoman in the Attic, describe the purpose of the poem as follows: 'Briefly Aurora Leigh is...about the growth of a woman poet and the education of her heart through pride, sympathy, love and suffering.' Aurora's insistence that it is a woman's right to make her own choices is the premise of the poem.
In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar praise Barrett Browning for Aurora Leigh, describing it an as epic of feminist self-affirmation. They explain that it is a major work, produced in a culture that was far from conducive to the fulfilment of women's creative potential: '[I]t embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century.'
The Woman-Poet who Tried to Prove her Manhood!
When considering Barrett Browning's genius, one can only imagine the indignation she must have felt when she was proposed as the new Poet Laureate, in 1850, on the death of William Wordsworth. The publication 'The Athenaeum', had described the post as 'an unmeaning piece of buffoonery' and maintained any poet would do to fill it. 'The Westminster Review' attacked Barrett Browning with reference to Aurora Leigh: 'She takes the wrong means to prove her manhood...She swears without provocation.'
It is little wonder the poet complained of a feeling of isolation and felt compelled to speak out for the female condition. Yet she was always aware of her responsibility as a woman poet and tried to become the grandmother she had always searched for. This must surely confer upon her the honour of being a leading proponent of feminist thought.
Barrett Browning died aged 55 in 1861. Her influence on English poetry has been immeasureable.
  • Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds, Ohio University Press, Ohio, 1991.
  • Gilbert, S. M and Gubar, S. The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1979.
  • Calder, A. and Goodman, L. 'Gender and Poetry', Literature and Gender, ed. Liz Goodman, The Open University, London, 1996.
  • Barret Browning, E. 'The Athenaeum' quotation from 'Introduction by Margaret Forster', Selected Poems - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Chatto and Windus, London, 1988.
  • Showalter, E. 'The Westminster Review' quotation from 'Women Writers and the Double Standard' Women in Sexist Society; Studies in Power and Powerlessness, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, New American Library, New York, 1972.

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