Note: This review will contain spoilers both for this book and for Jane Eyre.
This epic poem tells the life of Aurora Leigh, whose parents died in her childhood and who was raised by her aunt. She is romantically pursued by her cousin Romney, who wants to devote his life to philanthropic causes and believes she should do the same with him, but she rejects him in spite of loving him. She instead wants to earn her own way as a poet, which he doesn’t consider a noble-enough profession. They go their separate ways, only to be brought back together every few years, which pains them both.
In many ways, Aurora Leigh is a retelling of Jane Eyre, except without a physical mad-woman in the attic, or two suitors. Instead, Romney represents both sets of Jane’s suitors – first as St. John with his philanthropy and cold proposition of marriage, and later, blinded in a fire that burns down his house (yes, I’m serious), humbled and honest and more emotional as Rochester. The thing that keeps these two apart, the “madwoman in the attic” so to speak, is in their different approaches to life and their inability to find a compromise. They both need to be humbled and lowered before they can be happy together. Aurora Leigh (the character) is unlike Jane Eyre in that she isn’t necessarily correct in all her actions from the beginning. She has a fantastic amount of pride, and while she perhaps was right to reject Romney’s stilted version of marriage in the beginning, she claims to have no feelings for him at all that aren’t just “cousinly.” She hides her feelings from the world and herself, but as the book goes on, her mask starts to crack. In the end, she can only openly admit her love because Romney admits to being blinded. In some ways, Aurora never does manage to overcome her pride.
I felt sorry for Romney for much of this book. It wasn’t just the comparisons to Rochester, which is a connection I didn’t even make until the end of the book when I found out his house burned down and he was blind. I felt sorry for him because he kept trying every way he knew how to make the world better, to do good, and his work is continually thrown in his face. I also felt like, once rejected by the person he really loved, he wanted very much to move on (for both their sakes) and find someone with whom he could be comfortable, but every time he tries, the relationships fall apart. First there is Marian, a low-class runaway girl abused by her parents, that he takes in and cares for. Does he love her? Perhaps not – his heart belongs to Aurora – but he cares for her and is good to her. Still, she runs away, her love for him poisoned by a rival. That rival, Lady Waldemar, then becomes his second bride-to-be. She and Romney are friends, but he doesn’t know of the horrible things she did to Marian to get rid of her. He only discovers them after Lady Waldemar leaves him when he is blinded.
Nothing he tries works out. His house is burned down by the people he is trying to help, and everyone he loves or tries to love leaves him. In Jane Eyre, I felt like Rochester was blinded and burned, losing all his possessions, in order to be lowered to an equal status with Jane, while Jane is at the same time elevated to independence. I felt like those things needed to happen for the two to be together. But with Romney, he was already a good person and while I may not agree with all his ideas on philanthropy, I don’t feel like he did anything wrong. He was at least trying to do good. It was only after he gave up helping others altogether, while Aurora got wealthy and famous from her writing, that they were able to finally be with each other. The message of the book is very mixed and I’m not sure I agree with it.
Now I will say that my ability to read and understand poetry is not very developed, and it’s possible there’s a lot in here that I misread. I know much of the book went over my head. Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses a lot of archaic language and refers to books I’ve never even heard of, so adding that to the fact that this was written in verse means I probably only understood half of what was going on. I really loved the book and thought it was beautifully written, but I still haven’t sorted through all the things it made me think. It’s one of those books that I imagine I’ll have to read multiple times before I can really fully understand my thoughts on it. It’s also one of those books I would love to hear read aloud.
This is my second book by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, after Sonnets From the Portuguese (one of my favorites of last year). I still like Sonnets better, but I’m glad I finally attempted this one after Jason’s been trying to get me to read it for over a decade.