I too have my vocation,

Dear Elizabeth,

In Aurora Leigh (1856), you push your protagonist to make an impossible choice between two instances of her personality: her womanhood and her art. By opening your protagonist to the readers from inside out, you make the point that such a choice can only throw her inside a void.

The book centres on the sentimental education of the eponymous Aurora, the daughter of a Tuscan mother and an English father. Her mother died when she was four, and her father raised her in Italy, tutoring her in Greek and Latin and instilling in her the love of reading. When Aurora is thirteen, her father dies, and she is sent to England to live with her aunt, a stern spinster to whom a girl’s education should be nothing more than a training for marriage.

As Aurora is made to read dry conduct books, and wastes her time memorizing the Collects of the Anglican Church and learning to perform otherwise useless tasks (such as modelling flowers in wax…), you seem to be making a strong case in favour of women’s education: instead of contributing to Aurora’s spiritual and personal growth, her aunt’s traditional educational model, centred on eradicating any vestige of a girl’s enquiring mind, forces our protagonist to unlearn everything that had been most dear to her until then.

Luckily for Aurora, however, one day she discovers her father’s library hidden away in the attic, and promptly starts to educate herself by reading through its books and composing her own verses. She feels her mind opening up, as if in a volcanic eruption: “As the earth / Plunges in fury, when the internal fires / Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat / The marts and temples, the triumphal gates / And towers of observation, clears herself / To elemental freedom—thus, my soul, / At poetry’s divine first finger-touch, / Let go conventions and sprang up surprised, / Convicted of the great eternities / Before two worlds.”

The novel then goes on to explore women’s roles in Victorian society. When Aurora is twenty, her cousin, Romney Leigh, a somewhat Quixotic social activist, proposes marriage to her, in what has to be the clumsiest choice of words since Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): “Women as you are / Mere women, personal and passionate, / You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives, / Sublime Madonnas and enduring saints! / We get no Christ from you — and verily / We shall not get a poet, in my mind.”

He belittles her desire to become a poet, denying that women have the innate capacity to make true art, and tries to convince her that female talent lies in being of service to men. Romney asks her to relinquish her calling and to marry him to join his social cause – which, he supposes, is much superior to her dream of pursuing a career as a woman writer. He is basically asking her to be his wife for the reason that he needs her to help him in his philanthropic endeavours.

However, despite loving him, your Aurora is having none of it: “With quiet indignation I broke in. / You misconceive the question like a man, / Who sees a woman as the complement / Of his sex merely. You forget too much / That every creature, female as the male, / Stands single in responsible act and though / As also in birth and death. Whoever says / To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me, / Will get fair answers if the work and love, / Being good themselves, are good for her — the best / She was born for. / But me your work / Is not best for — nor your love the best, / Nor able to commend the kind of work / For love’s sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir, / To be over-bold in speaking of myself: / I too have my vocation, — work to do.”

She promptly refuses her cousin’s proposal: Aurora is not going to give up her calling. It is interesting to note that, both to Romney and to Aurora, marriage is initially seen as a form of subjection of the woman to the man’s calling, leaving her no room for a career of her own. It is this view that makes him propose to her, so as to get her to help him in his cause. And it is this same view that makes Aurora to deny his proposal.

The dichotomy between the social roles of woman and poet makes Romney scoff at Aurora’s dream: as a poet, our protagonist would have to develop a public voice; however, as a woman, she was strongly pressed to remain silent, relegated to the domestic sphere.

This same dichotomy will lead Aurora to scoff at marriage: even though she loves her cousin, she cannot abide at being treated as a piece of private property with no will of her own, nor as a mere complement to his work. She sees the role of wife and mother as incompatible with her artistic aspirations, and even takes a derogatory stance towards anything considered as ‘feminine’ (“It seems as if I had a man in me / Despising such a woman”). In the struggle between pride and love, her pride will initially win.

Since Romney is the male heir to the family fortune, her choice to remain single also implies that she will be left to fend for herself with barely no money. And this is precisely what she will take upon herself: in a society where spinsterhood and lack of money are the worst things that could happen to a woman, your Aurora will risk both in the name of her ambition to become a writer. Like Madame de Staël’s Corinne (1807), or George Sand’s Consuelo (1842), your protagonist is a fiercely independent woman: she will go to London, and she will eventually succeed in making a living by her pen.

Aurora and Romney will go through a lot of events in their personal lives, and, despite her professional success, our protagonist will grow to consider the victory of her pride over her love as a fall from grace. “Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God / And makes heaven. I, Aurora, fell from mine: / I would not be a woman like the rest, / A simple woman who believes in love, / And owns the right of love because she loves, (…) / I must analyse, / Confront, and question; just as if a fly / Refused to warm itself in any sun”.

Neither money nor the enthusiastic following she earned with her poems are quite as satisfying to her as she expected they would be. Almost ten years have passed since she started her career, and our protagonist feels that she is yet to create a true work of art.

In mocking Aurora’s aspirations, Romney has also, in a way, fallen from grace. He grows to change his mind about a woman’s ability to write: he reads Aurora’s book and believes it to be great art. The true measure of his endeavours has also been shown to him: all his attempts at social reform have failed. Worse still, after he converted his home into a refuge for the poor, a mob burned it, thinking that it was a prison, and he ended up blinded by the fire.

Here it is impossible not to notice the similarities between your novel and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In both, we have an orphan female protagonist; a stern aunt; a fire; and a male character who goes blind. Only when Mr. Rochester is forced to relinquish his pride and his superiority, Jane can accept to be his wife. Similarly, only when Romney and Aurora are brought to each other on equal terms, there can be a fruitful relationship between them.

You seem to be saying that, only in loving each other, they will be able to accomplish their personal callings. Instead of being based on Aurora’s dependence (as it would have been, had Aurora accepted Romney’s first proposal), their later marriage is based on mutual dependence: they serve as complements to one another.

The dichotomy upon which they had based their previous decisions is shown to be false: woman and poet, love and art, marriage and vocation are categories that can coexist. “Except that I was prouder than I knew, / And not so honest. Ay, and, as I live, / I should have died so, crushing in my hand / This rose of love, the wasp inside and all,— / Ignoring ever to my soul and you / Both rose and pain,—except for this great loss, / This great despair,—to stand before your face / And know I cannot win a look of yours.”

Such as women and men must be equally treated in their relationship to each other, also love and intellect must be considered as equally valid and complementary instances of it: “Our work shall still be better for our love, / And still our love be sweeter for our work”.

Romney cannot save the world by himself; and Aurora’s fame is for itself insufficient: “He mistook the world: / But I mistook my own heart,—and that slip / Was fatal”. Moreover, without love and mutual support, both Aurora’s and Romney’s endeavours are doomed to fail. “For which I pleaded. Passioned to exalt / The artist’s instinct in me at the cost / Of putting down the woman’s,— I forgot / No perfect artist is developed here / From any imperfect woman. Flower from root, / And spiritual from natural, grade by grade / In all our life. A handful of the earth / To make God’s image! the despised poor earth, / The healthy odorous earth,—I missed, with it, / The Divine breath that blows the nostrils out / To ineffable inflatus: ay, the breath / Which love is. Art is much, but Love is more.”

Only when both Romney and Aurora break free from the false dichotomies they were operating under, they are able to pursue their callings in a true collaboration. And here comes your vision on the purpose of art. For you, art has a twofold nature: it not only has to provide a representation of the times (as you do here, in writing about class struggle and the woman’s question), but also has to transcend the times and give a glimpse of beyond: “But poets should / Exert a double vision; should have eyes / To see near things as comprehensively / As if afar they took their point of sight, / And distant things as intimately deep / As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.”

The artist leads a twofold life, between “two incessant fires,—his personal life’s, / And that intense refraction which burns back / Perpetually against him from the round / Of crystal conscience he was born into”.

The purpose of art consists then in “Transfixing with a special, central power / The flat experience of the common man, / And turning outward, with a sudden wrench, / Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing / He feels the inmost: never felt the less / Because he sings it.”

Art, in your view, is more powerful than all Romney’s endeavours. The triumph of the poet is to say “the word so that it burns you through / With a special revelation, shakes the heart / Of all the men and women in the world, / As if one came back from the dead and spoke, / With eyes too happy, a familiar thing / Become divine i’ the utterance! while for him / The poet, the speaker, he expands with joy; / The palpitating angel in his flesh / Thrills inly with consenting fellowship / To those innumerous spirits who sun themselves / Outside of time.”

In this view, art can better infuse mankind with higher values: “Thus is Art/ Self-magnified in magnifying a truth/ Which, fully recognised, would change the world/ And shift its morals.” Romney and Aurora are made even more complementary by your stance on the purpose of art: since her writing can transcend reality, it can go where his social experiments would never be able to. Romney comes to understand that “It takes a soul,/ To move a body — it takes a high-souled man,/ To move the masses.” Since poetry was regarded, in your time, as an intellectually superior genre (and thus ‘masculine’), while novels were seen as a more ‘feminine’ and less important genre, the fact that you embody this message in a novel in verse may be just another instance of the complementarity between Romney and Aurora.

Arthur Hughes, Aurora Leigh’s Dismissal of Romney (‘The Tryst’), 1860

You also explore class struggles in the characters of Lady Waldemar, a society woman who schemes to marry Romney, and Marian Erle, a lower-class woman born into a morally degraded family. It also seems that both of them operate as doubles of Aurora. While Lady Waldemar, a woman who is willing to marry without her husband’s respect, embodies a model of femininity against which Aurora has rebelled, Marian embodies the kind of motherly love for which she is yearning. In contrast to Aurora’s moral compass, her Victorian peers are more willing to accept the morally dubious Lady Waldemar than the fallen Marian.

Furthermore, you give a voice to your fallen woman, so that she is able to engage the reader’s sympathies by telling her own story: her father was an abusive man and her mother tried to sell her off as a prostitute to a local squire. Marian escapes, but, after a series of unfortunate events, ends up in a brothel, where she is attacked, raped, and left pregnant.

In a subversive turn, ignoring social and class prejudices, your Aurora offers Marian a ‘marriage’ of sorts: she takes her and her son to Italy, where they live together as a family. “I am lonely in the world, / And thou art lonely, and the child is half / An orphan. / Come, – and henceforth, thou and I / Being still together will not miss a friend, / Nor he a father, since two mothers shall / Make that up to him.’”

As in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862), we have here a matriarchal household where the rules of society are suspended: there is no angel in the house, and the fallen woman is restored to respectability. In both novels, redemption is only achieved through the potential of female friendship. Out of an evil you and Rossetti seem to condemn (promiscuity), a higher good is born (sister- and motherhood).

Aurora had started the book by informing us that she would write her story: “Of writing many books there is no end; / And I who have written much in prose and verse / For others’ uses, will now write for mine— / Will write my story for my better self / As when you paint your portrait for a friend, / Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it / Long after he has ceased to love you, just / To hold together what he was and is.”

By the end of the story, we come to understand that the subject of the book is also the process of its composition: it is the story of a woman finding her calling; and it is also a story of a woman being created by the strength of this calling. A life lived like a book written: monstrous and exquisite, as Virginia Woolf would later write.

Yours truly,

J.


‘Woman Writing at a Table’, by Thomas Anshutz, c. 1905.

About the book

  • Oxford University Press, 1998, 361 p. Goodreads
  • Penguin Classics, 1995, 544 p. Goodreads
  • First published in1856
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • I read this book for Victober and The Classics Club.

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