‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning [Book Review]

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This is one of those texts I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. Aurora Leighmuch like Paradise Lostis a novel that is entirely written in poetic verse–if that sound terrible to you then move on, I understand.

Goodreads Summary

Aurora Leigh is the foremost example of the mid-nineteenth-century poem of contemporary life. This verse-novel is a richly detailed representation of the early Victorian age. The social panorama extends from the slums of London, through the literary world, to the upper classes and a number of superb satiric portraits: an aunt with rigidly conventional notions of female education; Romney Leigh, the Christian socialist; Lord Howe, the amateur radical; Sir Blaise Delorme, the
ostentatious Roman Catholic; and the unscrupulous society beauty Lady Waldemar.

However, the dominant presence in the work is the narrator, Aurora Leigh herself. From early years in Italy and adolescence in the West Country to the vocational choices, creative struggles, and emotional entanglements of her first decade of adult life, Aurora Leigh develops her ideas on art, love, God, the Woman Question, and society.

This is the first critically edited and fully annotated edition for almost a century. – ;Aurora Leigh is the foremost example of the mid-nineteenth-century poem of contemporary life. This verse-novel is a richly detailed representation of the early Victorian age. The social panorama extends from the slums of London, through the literary world, to the upper classes and a number of superb satiric portraits: an aunt with rigidly conventional notions of female education; Romney Leigh, the Christian socialist; Lord Howe, the amateur radical; Sir Blaise Delorme, the
ostentatious Roman Catholic; and the unscrupulous society beauty Lady Waldemar.

However, the dominant presence in the work is the narrator, Aurora Leigh herself. From early years in Italy and adolescence in the West Country to the vocational choices, creative struggles, and emotional entanglements of her first decade of adult life, Aurora Leigh develops her ideas on art, love, God, the Woman Question, and society.

This is the first critically edited and fully annotated edition for almost a century.

I think the part of this book that stood out to me most was the fact that Aurora Leigh–our humorous protagonist–is a poet herself. I don’t write poetry but I cheer for any character that has taken on this writing thing–it’s a lot of work. More importantly, she talks about what it means to be a creator–I’m especially fond of her description upon discovering poetry:

O life, O poetry,

–Which means life in life! cognisant of life

Beyond this blood-beat, passionate for truth

Beyond these senses!

Book 1, Lines 937-940

I can still remember that moment for me when I first discovered novels that I adored.

But more than that I like how this moment is foreshadowed earlier in the story when Aurora is describing her aunt’s attempts to civilize her:

[…] I only thought

Of lying quiet there where I was thrown

Like seaweed on the rocks, and suffering her

To prick me to a pattern with her pin,

Fibre from fibre, delicate leaf from leaf,

And dry out from my drowned anatomy

The last sea-salt left in me.

Book 1, Lines 382-388

Not only is this beautifully written but also notice the alliteration. Sticking with my rule that authors do EVERYTHING deliberately, I’m left to ponder the importance of Aurora using a poetic form to describe how she felt as she was unmade by her aunt. There’s patches of defiance and challenge everywhere when she talks about her aunt and I like to believe this is Aurora’s way was assuring the reader that no matter how hard her aunt tries to “prick [her] to a pattern”, Aurora will find her own way of interacting with the world.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Browning is masterful in her verse and I can only wish that I could write poetry like this. If poetry is your thing and you’re not afraid to read a whole book written in this way, I highly recommend this one.

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