Marjorie Stone, “The ‘Advent’ of Aurora Leigh: Critical Myths and Periodical Debates”


Released by Chapman and Hall on 15 November 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh—a verse-novel and modern epic—set off literary, social, and political reverberations in Britain, North America, and Europe up to the end of the century. “The advent of ‘Aurora Leigh’ can never be forgotten by any lover of poetry who was old enough at the time to read it,” Algernon Charles Swinburne recalled in 1898. By 1900, Aurora Leigh—among much else the first extended poetical portrait of the professional woman writer in English literature—had appeared in more than twenty editions in England and as many in America. Given its innovative, generically mixed form and its controversial contemporary subject matter, it figured in debates over poetry and poetics, the nature of the realist novel, class divisions and social reform, women’s rights, religion, and the politics of nations. Contrary to the critical legend that Aurora Leigh was greeted by an “avalanche of negative reviews,” responses to it were diverse, shaped by periodical competition and differing print-culture, artistic, political, national and religious contexts. This essay surveys seldom-cited notices in the transatlantic daily and weekly press, analyzes critical debates on Aurora Leigh in the major British periodicals, and charts differing patterns in its American and European as compared to its British reception in the years immediately following its publication. It also indicates at points how debates over Aurora Leigh were intertwined with debates in the visual arts associated with the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.

[1]Nota bene: Since this BRANCH entry is considerably longer than average, links to sections are provided to facilitate browsing and targeted reading. For a capsule introduction to the principal characters, themes, and narrative developments in Aurora Leigh, see section iii.

i.  Introduction and Editions (Nineteenth-Century and Modern) 
ii. Setting the Stage: EBB’s International Fame Prior to Aurora Leigh
iii. “Hot and Hot” Controversies, Writers’ Circles, and Critical Myths
iv. The Reception of Aurora Leigh in the Transatlantic Daily and Weekly Press
v. British Periodical Debates: Gender, Class and the Politics of Form 
vi. Romney and Socialism, Marian and the “Wrongs of Woman” 
vii. The Politics of Nations and European Response 
viii. American Reviews and Religious Debates in Britain and the US
ix. Postscript: Obituary and Retrospective Essays in the 1860s

Abbreviations for Frequently Used Materials:

BC—The Brownings’ Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, Scott Lewis, et al. 21 vols. (Winfield: Wedgestone P, 1984 – )

LTA—The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella, ed. Scott Lewis. 2 vols. (Waco: Wedgestone P, 2002)

WEBB—The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gen. Ed. Sandra Donaldson. Vol. Eds.: Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone, and Beverly Taylor. 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010)

Engraving/photo of EBB

Figure 1: An 1871 engraving of an 1859 photograph of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (photograph by Macaire Havre, engraving by T. O. Barlow)

i.  Introduction and Editions (Nineteenth-Century and Modern)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, the work she described in its “Dedication” as expressing her “highest convictions upon Life and Art,” was released by her London publisher, Chapman and Hall, on 15 November 1856 (though dated “1857”). Simultaneously, it appeared from C. S. Francis across the Atlantic in map iconNew York.  In her letters, EBB variously described Aurora Leigh as a “poem of a new class,” a “romance-poem,” and a “poetic art-novel” (qtd. Stone, “Critical Introduction” WEBB, 3: vii). Charles Hamilton Aidé in the Edinburgh Weekly Review noted it had been greeted as both a “‘modern epic’” and a “‘three-volume novel’” (7), describing it in a private letter as “the Poem of the Age” (Meredith 132).  W. J. Fox similarly termed it the “Book of the Age,” while for John Ruskin, it was the “first. . . perfect poetical expression of the Age” (qtd. LTA 2: 326n5, 277n4). EBB was amused to hear that in map iconAmerica, as in England and map iconFlorence, it was sometimes identified as “Mrs. Browning’s gospel,” remarking on the term to her sister Arabella, “Is it entirely prophane, or simply ridiculous?” (LTA 2: 275). After selling out in a fortnight (LTA 2: 273), Aurora Leigh appeared in a fifth edition by EBB’s death in 1861, although only the fourth incorporated new revisions by EBB (Donaldson, “Textual Introduction” WEBB, 3: xxxiii-iv). By 1887, Aurora Leigh was in a “twentieth” English edition (Barnes 121); from 1861 to 1900, it was reprinted at least twenty-one times in the US, with eight reprints from James Miller of New York in the 1860s alone (Barnes 121, 110-13). Moreover, a “new American edition” could “sell ten thousand copies” (Reynolds, 1992 149).

In 1898, in his “Prefatory Note” to yet another “new” edition of the novel-epic that had so engaged its “Age,” Algernon Charles Swinburne remarked:

The advent of “Aurora Leigh” can never be forgotten by any lover of poetry who was old enough at the time to read it. Of one thing they may all be sure — they were right in the impression that they never had read, and never would read anything in any way comparable with that unique work of audaciously feminine and ambitiously impulsive genius.  It is one of the longest poems in the world and there is not a dead line in it. (ix)

Swinburne’s letters attest to the immediate impact of Aurora Leigh in 1856 that he was recalling forty years later (see below). As the examples of Swinburne, Ruskin, Fox, and Aidé among multiple others suggest, men as well as women saw the publication of Aurora Leigh as a key event—or, at the very least, regarded it as a controversial work of the times. Its impact on Emily Dickinson, who saluted Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry as “Titanic opera” in one of three tribute-elegies to “that Foreign Lady,” was profound.[1] In map iconItaly, Aurora Leigh was greeted as a “‘Revelation’” by the expatriate network of English, Scottish, and American women writers and artists surrounding EBB in Florence and map iconRome (Chapman, “Poetry, Network, Nation” 277). These Anglo-Italian networks explain the New York publisher James Miller’s production of a “Florence Edition” in 1870 (Barnes 113). In map iconFrance, leading critics such as Émile Montégut and Hippolyte Taine analyzed the poem in relation to modern English life and letters (see below).

In the first seventy years of the twentieth century, Aurora Leigh—along with most of the other works that made EBB the most internationally recognized English woman poet of the nineteenth century—was largely erased from literary history, and she was chiefly identified as the author of Sonnets from the Portuguese. In effect, “Mrs. Browning” was consigned to the “basement” in “the mansion of literature” to eat “vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife,” as Virginia Woolf sardonically observed in 1931 (134). Modern critics have variously traced EBB’s transformation into a “lost saint,” the “handmaid” to Robert Browning’s genius, and the “madwoman in the basement.”[2] A sense of both how much was lost and of the critical attention EBB’s writings once again command can be gleaned from Donaldson’s annotated bibliography of criticism on EBB’s works from 1826 to 1990 (running to over 600 pages); from essays in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the new Dictionary of National Biography, and the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature; and from the survey of EBB’s life and works in the “Introduction” to the Broadview selected edition of her poetry.[3]

draft manuscript image

Figure 2: image of Wellesley draft manuscript of _Aurora Leigh_

In the case of Aurora Leigh, Cora Kaplan’s 1978 Women’s Press edition was pivotal in recovering EBB’s “Poem of the Age” for modern readers, with an “Introduction” brilliantly elucidating the intertextuality created by EBB’s engagement with a wide range of mid-Victorian texts, authors, and issues. But Kaplan gave little attention to the composition of Aurora Leigh, and even less to establishing a definitive text: work first done by Margaret Reynolds in her award-winning 1992 Ohio University Press scholarly edition of the verse-novel, containing much information on its manuscripts (see Fig. 2), texts, and contexts that could not be included in her Norton Critical Edition (1996). Reynolds’ work, remedying the defects of other editions of Aurora Leigh at the time,[4] is foundational for the Aurora Leigh volume in the 2010 Pickering and Chatto Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by an international team of scholars.[5] The “Critical Introduction,” “Textual Introduction,” and annotations in WEBB incorporate information from EBB’s correspondence and scholarship appearing since the early 1990s: especially in the invaluable, progressively appearing volumes of The Brownings’ Correspondence, edited by Philip Kelley and co-editors.[6] Scott Lewis’s edition of EBB’s letters to her sister Arabella also provides much information on the contexts and reception of Aurora Leigh, as does Florentine Friends, Kelley and Donaldson’s edition of the Brownings’ letter to their intimate friend Isa Blagden.

This BRANCH essay seeks to provide a more comprehensive, transnational analysis of the periodical response to Aurora Leigh than is currently available in these and other editions of EBB’s poetry or in critical studies—including the “Overview” of Victorian and modern criticism at, written as a “digital annex” for my “Critical Introduction” to Aurora Leigh in WEBB.[7] In much of the modern criticism, recycled selective quotations from a limited number of more conservative British periodicals such as Blackwood’s and the Edinburgh Review have perpetuated the skewed and historically inaccurate assumption that critics were almost unanimous in denouncing Aurora Leigh. While I offer a detailed analysis of the reviews in influential British periodicals in section five, I approach them contextually, in relation to each other and to overlooked assessments in seldom-cited quarterlies, monthlies and literary magazines, as well as in light of notices in the transatlantic daily and weekly press. These materials not only illumine the animated, multi-sided debates that Aurora Leigh provoked, indicating “why poetry matters to periodical studies,” as Linda K. Hughes argues in a widely influential article (Hughes, “Wellesley” 2007). The diverse responses to Aurora Leigh also underscore the political, literary, religious, and national affiliations informing reviewers’ approaches and highlight the intense competition among periodicals at mid-century, as new, cheaper weeklies competed with more established quarterlies (Huett 64-5). Given the range of controversial issues EBB’s “poem of a new class” engaged, the reviews thus open a window on the periodical print culture that supplies such a fascinating record of nineteenth-century developments in the arts, society, politics, religion, and the sciences.

ii. Setting the Stage: EBB’s International Fame Prior to Aurora Leigh

In part, the publication of Aurora Leigh in 1856 was perceived as an “advent” because of EBB’s reputation as England’s most internationally recognized woman poet at the time. Her 1838 volume, The Seraphim, And Other Poems, following on ballads published in annuals and periodicals, had identified her as a promising poet of “Genius and attainments” in the eyes of William Wordsworth, among others (BC 4:347). By 1842, Alfred Tennyson and the publisher of his 1842 Poems, Edward Moxon, were also expressing keen interest in her poetry (BC 7:4, Stone, 1995 29). It was her 1844 collection, however—published in England by Moxon as Poems and in America by Henry G. Langley as A Drama of Exile: With Other Poems—that first established her transatlantic fame as “Elizabeth Barrett Barrett.”  The two-volume collection was widely reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, as evinced by reprints of all known reviews of the Brownings’ poetry in the “Appendices” of The Brownings’ Correspondence. George William Curtis recalled in Harper’s Magazine in 1861 that EBB’s 1844 volumes “had a more general and hearty welcome in the United States than [those by] any English poet since the time of Byron and Company” (555).[8]

Like the later reviews of Aurora Leigh, the reviews of EBB’s 1844 Poems record vigorous debates, incorporating both praise and animated criticism. Among much else, EBB’s position as a transatlantic literary celebrity prompted Edgar Allan Poe’s dedication of The Raven and Other Poems (1845) to “Miss Elizabeth Barrett Barrett,” the “Noblest of Her Sex.”  Despite this effusive dedication, Poe’s actual review of the “constatellatory radiance” of EBB’s 1844 collection, “surpass[ing] all of her poetical contemporaries of either sex” with “a single exception” (evidently Tennyson), alternates between rhapsodic praise of the “beauties” of EBB’s poems and condemnation of their “inadmissible rhymes” and “deficiencies in rhythm” (BC 10: 355-6). EBB, for her part, remarked that “Mr. Poe seems to me in a great mist on the subject of metre” and defended the precedents for her experimental rhymes (influencing Dickinson’s later iconoclastic rhyming). She nevertheless was pleased with his dedication to her, quipping to her cousin John Kenyon, “what is to be said when a man calls you the [‘]‘noblest of your sex’ . . . ‘Sir, you are the most discerning of yours.’!” (BC 10: 208, 12 164-5).

With the publication of her expanded 1850 Poems, EBB’s international reputation was further extended: now as “Elizabeth Barrett Browning” or “Mrs. Browning” (although she never used the latter as an authorial name in signing her manuscripts or in publishing, and the anachronistic “Barrett Browning” employed by modern critics was chiefly applied to her son in the Nineteenth Century).[9] Her 1850 collection included selected works from her 1838 collection (often in intensively revised form), all of her 1844 poems (also in some cases revised), and numerous new works: most notably Sonnets from the Portuguese and her much admired 1850 translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus BoundPoems (1850) was reviewed not only in England, map iconIreland, map iconScotland, and America, but also in France, where Joseph Milsand discussed it together with EBB’s first major poem on the “Italian question”—Casa Guidi Windows (1851)—in the influential Continental Revue des Deux Mondes in 1852 (LTA 1:424n15). Some of the first tribute poems to EBB—from Dinah Maria Mulock Craik and Bessie Rayner Parkes in England and from Helen Whitman in America—appeared in response to her 1850 collection.[10]

Demand led to a new, third, English edition of Poems in 1853; this time, EBB made relatively few changes apart from a new opening for the 1844 lyrical drama, “A Drama of Exile.” In the meantime, pirated “new” editions by C. S. Francis were proliferating in America. Dickinson had access to a C. S. Francis pirated edition published in 1852, acquired by her future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert in January, 1853.[11] Given the absence of any effective international copyright law, EBB received “nothing!,” as she noted, for these editions, despite Francis’s reported remarks that “he had intended to pay Mrs. Browning as if she were an American author” (BC 17: 173). The pirated editions did, however, fuel her growing popularity, as they did in the case of Charles Dickens’s novels and Tennyson’s poetry. When Dickinson’s later mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wrote to Robert Browning on 4 January 1854 to express his admiration for the English poet’s little appreciated Sordello, he commented that “Mrs. Browning’s poems are household words in map iconMassachusetts to every school boy & (yet more) every school girl” (BC 20: 53). In England in the same period, the profile of her 1850 and 1853 collections is suggested by Elizabeth Gaskell’s use of four chapter epitaphs from these poems for North and South (1854-55)[12]—a pattern she would later follow in taking her epigraph for The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) from Aurora Leigh (V. 434-41).

A fourth new English edition of Poems was released by EBB’s savvy publisher Chapman and Hall on 1 November 1856, this time in three volumes including Casa Guidi Windows among other new works and incorporating additional revisions by the author in the texts of various poems. This fourth edition of Poems—the last published in EBB’s lifetime (and therefore the copytext for Volumes I and II of the 2010 Works)—set the stage for the publication of Aurora Leigh two weeks later. In America, C. S. Francis now offered to pay EBB a “hundred pounds” for exclusive American rights to the work and advance copy of the poem (LTA 2: 281, 283n20) —a sign of the expectations it generated across the Atlantic. Browning was eventually successful in negotiating an agreement with Francis for this amount to bring out Aurora Leigh simultaneously with its English publication, and a parallel agreement with James T. Fields to publish Men and Women in America for £60 (BC 20: 229n6, 23).

iii. “Hot and Hot” Controversies, Writers’ Circles, and Critical Myths

Apart from EBB’s international fame in 1856, another reason why the publication of Aurora Leigh constituted an “event” was clearly its intense topicality: what EBB termed its engagement with “‘hot and hot’” issues “from the times” (BC 21: 111). She simultaneously addresses artistic debates and what Victorians termed the “woman question” through her portrait of Aurora’s education, apprenticeship, career, and poetic philosophy, employing a dramatic, first-person perspective in a narrative opening with words identifying Aurora as a mature and committed woman writer: the author of “many books” for “others’ uses” who now “will write” her own story for her “better self” (I. 1-4). Through Aurora’s relationship with her cousin, the philanthropic reformer Romney Leigh, Aurora Leigh also engages with what Victorians termed the “social question,” the set of issues so central to “condition of England” novels of the period such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Inspired by French socialist theorists such as Charles Fourier, Romney seeks to recruit the young, orphaned Aurora as a “handmaid” in his schemes for social regeneration, dismissing her own artistic aspirations in the proposal scene of Book II.[13] The proposal precipitates a vigorous debate both between the values of art and material social action, and between Aurora’s and Romney’s conflicting visions of the appropriate roles of women and men, with Aurora roundly rejecting Romney even though the two clashing figures evidently love each other with a repressed passion that Aurora’s keen-eyed English aunt discerns.

The “woman question” is further intertwined with the “social question” in Aurora Leigh through the working-class Marian Erle: exploited as a seamstress after she flees her own mother’s attempts to sexually exploit her, then made the focus of Romney’s reforming mission in a marriage he plans to bridge the gulf between classes, then exploited more harrowingly after the marriage is thwarted by Lady Waldemar (amorously interested in Romney enough to engage in manual labour in his “phalanstery” or commune). The deceived Marian ends up impregnated  in a brothel in France, where Aurora misjudges her initially when the two meet in map iconParis until she hears Marian’s haunting story. Marian then becomes the muse essential to her own further growth as an artist, as well as Romney’s as a reformer, combining body with spirit, the real with the ideal.[14] Through Marian’s story and Aurora’s misreading, EBB intervenes in contemporary debates over prostitution, the “fallen woman,” and violence against women. The vivid scene-painting of settings in London (where Aurora as artist-in-formation ventures into slums she luridly represents without really seeing them), in the Paris of Louis Napoleon, and finally in Florence make Aurora Leigh both an urban and a transnational work. In the continental scenes especially, EBB obliquely addresses Anglo-French politics and Anglo-Italian relations during the Risorgimento: the “rebirth” of Italy through liberation and unification (in England termed the “Italian question”), a subject EBB had earlier addressed in her lyrical, philosophical political poem, Casa Guidi Windows. In this instance, however, not the politics of nations but the politics of a woman-artist’s development is her central subject, from Aurora’s birth in Italy to an Italian mother and English father, to her subjection by her English aunt to a proper young lady’s conventional education (sharply satirized in the verse-novel), to her struggles to establish herself and to live as a woman writer.

In 1853, alluding to work on her novel-poem dealing with “the practical & the ideal,” EBB identified “the social question” as central to her focus (BC 21: 111). By 1856, however, mid-nineteenth-century socialist enterprises underway in England, France and America influencing the representation of Romney (see section vi, below) had collapsed or subsided.  In contrast, the movement for women’s rights to higher education, more employment opportunities, and legal “personhood” gathered steam in the 1850s. This circumstance explains why the “woman question” that EBB had originally considered only a “collateral object” (qtd. Reynolds 1996, 347) emerges as a pivotal issue in both the verse-novel itself and in the reviews. The experimental hybrid form of her “poetic art-novel” also became a recurrent focus of debate, indicating the key role Aurora Leigh played in contemporary artistic debates, such as the conflict over “past and present” (to use Thomas Carlyle’s terms) as suitable subjects for poetry, and controversies over the emergence of the verse-novel as a widely employed literary genre (see Markovitz). Aligning herself firmly with those who defended present-day subject matter even in poetry, EBB wove topical references throughout: from the parliamentary committees discussing “pickpockets at suck” (III. 612) and producing the “Blue Books” that Romney obsessively reads, to new variations on the polka and waltz (I. 424), to crystal balls (VI. 169) and the mesmeric “od-force” flaming in white heat from the finger-tips of men—but only feebly from those of women (VII. 566-8). References to religious debates are especially notable: especially the apocalyptic millenarianism shaping visions of social regeneration and the ending of Aurora Leigh and the “‘Tracts’ for and ‘against’ the times (I. 394) associated with the Tractarian or “Oxford” movement. The movement led some prominent English Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism, or like Sir Blais Delorme, a minor character in Book V, to wear an “ebon cross . . . innermostly” (V. 675-6).

The debates over form are not surprising, given Aurora’s explicit call for an “unscrupulously epic” poem that might “catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” (V: 214-16). This poetic manifesto has been recognized by both nineteenth-century and modern critics as central to the poetic theory, “double vision,” and “unscrupulous” mixing of genres that Aurora Leigh itself embodies. As Kaplan noted in her 1978 Women’s Press edition, the metaphors in the passage alone provoked one Victorian critic (William Caldwell Roscoe in the National Review) to exclaim, “Burning lava and a woman’s breast! and concentrated in the latter the fullest ideas of life! It is absolute pain to read it. No man could have written it” (qtd. Kaplan 13). Kaplan did not note, however, that another male reviewer—the Chartist, poet, and essayist Gerald Massey—later responded to Roscoe’s remarks in an 1862 essay in the North British Review, pointing out that the “apparent incongruities” in EBB’s complex metaphors arise from readers failing to detect underlying “connection[s]” (517-8). Where Roscoe had cried out against the “savage contrast of burning lava and a woman’s breast,” Massey finds instead an allusion to “the lava mould of that beautiful bosom found . . . amongst the ruins of map iconPompeii” (517-8) in the lines, “This bosom seems to beat still, or at least / It sets ours beating” (V. 220-21). His reframing illumines EBB’s metaphoric layering of past, present, and future in a “living art” that “presents” (makes present as it represents) “true life” (V. 219-21).[15]

Embodying the “double vision” its protagonist calls for, Aurora Leigh mixes the heroic with the mundane, and combines classical allusions with contemporary matter, as in the much discussed epic simile comparing the young Aurora’s masculine education at the hands of her loving father to the young Achilles (I. 722-8). Much as EBB’s “double-breasted age” manifesto connects “beating” hearts in past and present, her vivid letters and those of her contemporaries bring the past into the present for twenty-first century reader, conveying the immediate reactions to her “modern epic” in her own writerly circles in late 1856, early 1857. Among the Brownings’ closer friends, the art critic Anna Jameson wrote to say she was “in a trance of wonder & admiration” at Aurora Leigh, pausing in her second reading to think, “what beauty, what power”; in contrast, an older friend Miss Bayley sounded like Aurora’s aunt in writing to tell EBB that “she does not like Aurora Leigh .. isn’t herself either socialist or spiritualist, & so doesn’t sympathize with any of it . . . objecting besides to the ‘vulgarities’ in the church” (LTA 2: 277n7, 286). The poet wrote to her sister Arabella in February 1857 from Italy that she had heard “(indirectly from various quarters) that ‘never did a book so divide opinions in London.’ Some persons cant bear it,—& others . . Monkton Milnes, for instance, & Fox of Oldham, besides Ruskin & the Pre-Raffaelites, crying it up as what I am too modest to write” (LTA 2:2 87).

The founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, did indeed write to William Allingham that Aurora Leigh was “an astounding work”—though, reflecting the cultural shifts of the 1860s, he would later warn his sister Christina about emulating a “Barrett-Browning” or “modern vicious style” of “falsetto muscularity.”[16] The initial Pre-Raphaelite admiration may have been influenced by EBB’s representation of the fictional Vincent Carrington in Aurora Leigh, a “rising painter” whose philosophy of painting “a body well” captures “the soul by implication” (I. 1095-8): lines evocative both of Browning’s artistic manifesto in “Fra Lippo” and the realism of PRB paintings. Some reviewers of Aurora Leigh also noted Turneresque and Pre-Raphaelite qualities in its vivid scene-painting (see e.g., Aidé and the Literary Gazette, below). Significantly, it was also a painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, Arthur Hughes, who produced the first notable painting illustrating the poem in 1860, “Aurora Leigh’s Dismissal of Romney (‘The Tryst’)” []. For the painting, commissioned by Ellen Heaton, a patron of Rossetti, on the recommendation of Ruskin, Hughes appropriately chooses the conclusion to Aurora and Romney’s debate in Book II as a pivotal scene.

In February 1857, the year Swinburne became associated with the second, Oxford wave of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, his letters express the ardent appreciation of Aurora Leigh he recalled in 1898. Writing to his Balliol friend John Nichol, he described it as a “great work” and especially praised a “dramatic power” he did not expect in the poem; it “rivals the male Browning’s character drawing,” he commented. In contrast to those reviewers who interpreted the characters as projections of the author, “Aurora, Marian, and Lady Waldemar” seemed to Swinburne “perfect in idea and execution,” while even slighter characters— “the painter Carrington,” for instance, were “distinct and clearly drawn” (Letters 1. 8). Swinburne obliquely revised these youthful impressions in his 1898 “Preface,” probably influenced in part by Nichol’s much more fault-finding review of Aurora Leigh in the Westminster, along with other critical attacks. Thus, he later remarks that “The career of Aurora in London is rather too eccentric a vision to impose itself upon the most juvenile credulity: a young lady of family who lodges by herself in map iconGrub Street, preserves her reputation, lives on her pen, and dines out in map iconMayfair, is hardly a figure for serious fiction” (x). Swinburne’s “juvenile credulity” may have been more honest, however. As Dorothy Mermin notes, the fact that Aurora lives in what Woolf would later term “a room of one’s own” in London and preserves her reputation while she makes a living by her pen is one of the more “revolutionary” aspects of Aurora Leigh, but less “fantastic” than it seemed (197).

While Swinburne privately voiced his high enthusiasm in 1857, Ruskin’s public “crying . . . up” of Aurora Leigh in the “Appendix” to his Elements of Drawing (1857) as “the greatest poem which the century has produced in any language” (15: 227) further inflamed the debates its publication provoked. EBB herself attributed his rhapsodic praise (also reflected in a letter to Robert describing Aurora Leigh as “the greatest poem in the English language”) not to her work’s merits, but to the art critic’s agreement with its “philosophy” (LTA 2: 273, 277n4). Her inference is supported by Nichol’s explicit rejection in the Westminster Review of Ruskin’s remarks on Aurora Leigh, together with his philosophy of art’s social power (see below). Privately, Carlyle also proclaimed his disagreement with Ruskin, as he marked up a copy of Aurora Leigh and passed it on, saying it would “never be asked for again” and leaving diverse remarks in the margin, from “Twaddle?” to “goodish” (on the satire of a young lady’s superficial education), “snappish,” “ach Gott!, “devh fine!” (on Romney’s Carlylean description of the gaping social wound), “clever child,” “figurative very!,” “why not call a cab? (on Aurora and Romney’s rain-soaked walk through London in Book IV), and “How much better had all this been if written straight forward in clear prose utterance!” (Kinser and Sorenson).

However one interprets Ruskin’s much cited, but still insufficiently investigated response, it underscores the paradoxes of the intertwined though often contradictory views on art, society, and gender that shaped reactions to Aurora Leigh. The paradoxes emerge if one considers that in The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin eulogized EBB’s poem in the same breath (and sentence) as he commended Coventry Patmore’s conservative depiction of “modern domestic feeling” in The Angel in the House, and that Patmore’s poem and essays, like Ruskin’s later essay “Of Queen’s Gardens” (1865), present views on woman’s role and aspirations diametrically opposed to those Aurora articulates to Romney in rejecting his proposal in Book II, and to those Jessie White saluted in Aurora Leigh. EBB told Arabella in March 1857, that White, then “lecturing all over the united kingdom & Ireland on the Italian question,” had written to say “‘Aurora’ is ‘the rage’ in Scotland’” and that it would “‘do more good for women, than a hundred petitions to parliament” (LTA 2:292). In America, the feminist activist and suffragist Susan B. Anthony had a similar response to the representation of women’s aspirations in Aurora Leigh, reflected in the inscription she wrote on the flyleaf of her copy when she presented it to the map iconLibrary of Congress in 1902: “This book was carried in my satchel for years and read & re-read. . . . With the hope that Women may more & more be like ‘Aurora Leigh’” (qtd. Reynolds 1996 x).

White’s remarks and Anthony’s testimony suggest why the “woman question” figured prominently in the reviews of Aurora Leigh, with the portrayal of Aurora herself and to a lesser extent Marian also recurrent topics. The representation of Romney and the “social question” is another common thread. Often, however, the hybrid genre and mixed style of the verse-novel are an even greater focus of attention, especially in British and French periodicals. As Mermin observes, Aurora Leigh transgressed “two boundaries . . . of genre and of gender”: the boundaries between “poetry and fiction” and between “masculine and feminine” (223). Nevertheless, far more reviewers than is commonly assumed were either untroubled by the transgression or actively defended what EBB termed the “experiment” of her “form” (qtd. Reynolds 1996, 341). The breaching of other boundaries than gender, especially class distinctions, is another more obliquely registered concern, especially in more conservative British reviews, but again responses are mixed. Moreover, reviewers link their interpretations of Aurora Leigh to an array of other topics, from trends in contemporary visual arts (responses to J. M. W. Turner’s paintings, for example, along with Pre-Raphaelite paintings), to its religious philosophy and/or language, to its representations of international politics.

The vibrant diversity that makes the immediate reception of Aurora Leigh, like the work itself, an index of its age has been obscured by critical legends first promulgated in the period when Aurora Leigh languished in the critical wilderness, and Victorian women poets collectively were almost completely expunged from canonical anthologies. In his 1957 literary biography, epitomizing the generally dismissive view of EBB’s poetry prevailing at the time, Gardner Taplin stated of Aurora Leigh that “the notices in the more influential periodicals were unanimous in their opinion that the defects in the poem far outweighed its merits” (338). Taplin cited G. S. Venables in the Saturday Review as representative of this consensus. In fact, however, Venables’s critique was among the harshest to appear, in a weekly founded in 1855 and sometimes termed the “Saturday Reviler,” notorious for “slashing” articles that boosted sales (Craig and Antonia 67). In 1962, Alethea Hayter similarly though less sweepingly claimed that all Victorian reviewers “thought poorly of the characterization of the adults” in Aurora Leigh (169) in her otherwise often insightful scholarly study of EBB’s poetry. This inaccurate view persisted in some quarters into the 1980s, as in Deirdre David’s assertion in 1987 that Aurora Leigh provoked an “avalanche of negative criticism” in the serious reviews (114).

As Mermin’s balanced overview (222-4) first began to indicate, however, critical responses to EBB’s most ambitious and multi-faceted work mirrored the conflicting literary, social and literary perspectives and agendas that reviewers (and their respective periodicals) brought to the poem. Donaldson’s 1993 annotated bibliography confirms this diversity, and the striking variations that her detailed annotations chart is a feature too of the 23 new American entries between 1856 and 1862 that Cheryl Stiles adds to the “68 articles and reviews” in American periodicals Donaldson identifies (Stiles 243). Notably, both of these resources include shorter notices and reviews in the daily and weekly press that often preceded discussions of Aurora Leigh in the monthlies and quarterlies.

This initial wave of reviews underscores the extent to which Aurora Leigh constituted a transatlantic publishing phenomenon and reveals the “buzz” its “advent” produced among an expanding audience, a reaction further intensified by the media coverage itself. Moreover, then as now, reviewers avidly consulted, echoed, and argued with earlier reviews. Thus, the daily and weekly press reviews provoked and/or set the terms for the more extended critical analyses that followed. Indeed, one of the reasons why reviewers in the more conservative gate-keeping periodicals bore down so severely on Aurora Leigh was precisely to counter the admiration already expressed for it by a more “promiscuous” and mixed audience of critics and their readers in daily newspapers and weeklies. The focus on asserting literary conventions and standards in the traditionally influential monthlies and quarterlies was furthermore compounded by their economic competition with the daily and weekly press in the rapidly expanding print culture of the period.

Aurora Leigh itself includes a vivid description of the changing material conditions of writers for mid-nineteenth-century periodicals in Book III, where Aurora describes her attempts in London, in a third-floor garrett, to earn her “bread” and “breathing room” for her “veritable work” (l. 328) of poetry:

I wrote for cyclopædias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud. I learnt the use
Of the editorial ‘we’ in a review
As coutly ladies the fine trick of trains,
And swept it grandly through the open doors
As if one could not pass through doors at all
Save so encumbered. I wrote tales beside,
Carved many an article on cherry-stones
To suit light readers,—something in the lines
Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand,
But that, I’ll never vouch for: what you do
For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes . . . (310-322)

As Dallas Liddle notes, “[t]o write for periodicals in this passage, has not meant adapting Aurora’s own ideas and words for a different mode of external publication [than her poetry], but alienating herself from her own voice,” and taking on “voices prescribed by the genre requirements of the periodical press” (15). Moreover, Aurora’s remarks suggest a “troubling ascendency of the periodical genres, to the detriment of the literary ones” (17). Liddle, drawing on the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, may overstate a “binary” difference between journalistic and literary modes (see Hughes, “Media” 294-6). Nevertheless, it is useful to keep the pressures on periodical writers that Aurora specifies in mind (earning their “bread,” meeting deadlines, satisfying editors) in assessing the critical assessments of Aurora Leigh.

iv. The Reception of Aurora Leigh in the Transatlantic Daily and Weekly Press

First to the mark in reviewing Aurora Leigh was the London Globe and Traveller, on 20 November 1856, five days after it appeared. The reviewer introduced it as “a wealthy world of beauty, truth, and the noblest thoughts,” a “gem” glowing “with the life blood of sound humanity”—both a “new, true, and original poem” and also a “first-rate prose novel.” The Globe appreciated the complexity and topicality of Romney’s characterization as a social reformer (see below), noted the keen satire in the “vigorously painted” Lady Waldemar, and especially praised the representation of Marian as “more lovely and poetic than anything else in the poem”: not “excelled in pathos by anything . . . in poetry or fiction, nor in terrible truth by any social misery and crime in yesterday’s police reports.”  These remarks on Marian established a pattern that would prevail in a surprising number of reviews (see section vi). The notice concludes by describing Aurora Leigh in terms akin to those used by Ruskin and Fox as “a poem of this age, —for this age and for all time.”

The Literary Gazette reviewer, on 22 November, even more enthusiastically begins, “The critic who will undertake to gauge the merits of this poem, to estimate how much it adds to the sum of the world’s wealth of written thought and beauty, and to assign its rank among the master-works of genius, will have no easy task.”  Describing himself as still “too much dazzled by the splendor in which we have been wrapped by the genius of the poet” to undertake this task, the reviewer also warns that Aurora Leigh is “no poem to be taken up for pastime”; it requires the “exercise” of the reader’s faculties of “eye, and ear, and soul.”  Into it, “Mrs. Browning has thrown the whole strength of her most noble nature. . . . All the powers which were indicated in her former works seem to us to be displayed in the present poem in perfection. She wields the lightning of her genius with Jove-like freedom.” Despite the poem’s “slender vein of incident,” there is “no flagging of the pulse. Everywhere there is power, everywhere variety” (917).

Notwithstanding such purple language, the Literary Gazette critic zeroes in on the questions of form and the debate over past and present subject matter central both to Aurora Leigh itself in Aurora’s poetic manifesto in Book V and to the periodical debates it engendered. The first passages this reviewer notes at length are those on epic and “double vision” (“The critics say the epic has died out”) and the “double-breasted Age,” presenting them as “words for our young poets to ponder over.” While such words may lead to imitations of Aurora Leigh “diluted in every imaginable medium by the weaker sort,” the reviewer observes, they can also stimulate stronger young poets to “take courage” from the example of Mrs. Browning, rather than “galvanising the simulacra of the past” (917). Later reviewers like Roscoe in the National Review who rejected the poetics of the contemporary in Aurora Leigh seem to have been “galvanized” in turn by these warring words. The Literary Gazette reviewer also highly praises the descriptive “power” of Aurora Leigh, and is the first of many to cite the passage describing Marian’s babe (“She threw her bonnet off . . .”) as an exquisite instance of such description: “a picture, as perfect in force of outline and in its richness of coloring as anything in Tennyson.” He notes too the very different “Titianesque glow” in the portrait of Lady Waldemar at Lord Howe’s party, with her “aspectable breasts” white as “milk,” and he compares the railway journey from Paris to map iconMarseilles (Book VII. 395-452) to Turner in its “power” of turning to “beauty the funnel and smoke” of unpoetical, modern subjects (917-8). The Literary Gazette reviewer was not the only critic to compare EBB’s painterly technique to Turner’s (see Aidé and Aytoun below). Although this review is clearly written by someone conversant with the arts, appeared on the same day as Chorley’s in the Athenaeum (see below) in a long-established and influential literary magazine, and is almost as extended, Chorley’s is repeatedly cited in the scholarship on Aurora Leigh, whereas the Literary Gazette review is not.

Other reviews in the daily and weekly press similarly greeted Aurora Leigh in terms that conveyed its power and originality, even when more mixed in their opinions. Conveying the high expectations surrounding its publication, The Leader review opens, “When, some weeks ago, we anticipated the delight of a new poem from Mrs. Browning, we never, in our keenest expectations, thought of receiving so fine a poem as Aurora Leigh, which surpasses in sustained strength and variety, anything English poetry has had since Childe Harold” (1142). The reviewer goes on to note “many faults,” but does not object to the verse novel form in observing that this novel is “sung,” indeed “sings of our actual life . . . and the social contests of our day.” Many poets have told “stories in verse,” he remarks, instancing Byron, Scott, and Tennyson in The Princess and Maud, and describing Tennyson as doing so with “indifferent success.”

At the same time, the Leader critic divorces the forms that Aurora Leigh unites by considering it as a novel one week, in the first half of the review, and as a poem in the next weekly installment. As a novel, it is “second-rate” like most other stories in verse, even by famous authors like Wordsworth, the reviewer remarks—although “the story draws us onwards, filling the eyes with tears, and the heart with . . . noble emotions,” (1143). As a poem, however, it embodies “affluence and effluence of mind” and “exquisite and easy utterance”; presents “meditations and feelings, expressed in imagery and musical phrase, but not sacrificed to these elements”; and manifests the “constant presence of a noble nature” in “song that is the song of the mind.” The two faults the Leader reviewer identifies in Aurora Leigh as a poem include long sections “without concreteness” after “pages of concrete, picturesque, direct verse” and its “offensive” use of “the name of God”: faults common in “poets of the ‘Spasmodic School,’” but distressing in “a poet in every way so superior as Mrs. Browning” (1169). Notably, this is one of the only instances in which the term “Spasmodic” is associated with, but not applied to Aurora Leigh in the 1856-58 reviews, despite the view in recent scholarship that EBB’s contemporaries viewed it as a “spasmodic” poem (see Aytoun, 1857 below).

Like The Leader review, the Spectator review included some fault-finding, objecting especially to the “disagreeable” resemblance to Jane Eyre in Romney’s blinding as George Eliot subsequently did, as well as to  melodramatic incidents, and to characters too “stationary” and undeveloped (427-29). At the same time, the Spectator described Aurora Leigh in terms conveying its vitality and especially its power, employing “Titaness” analogies that may have influenced Dickinson’s famous reference to EBB’s “Titanic opera” (especially since the review was reprinted in map iconBoston in Littel’s Living Age). “There was always something of the Titaness in Mrs. Browning,” the review begins, finding “the old anarchic nature of the Titaness still discernible” in Aurora Leigh. Nevertheless, although her “steeds still toss their heads somewhat wildly for well-bred carriage horses . . . and would rather ride with Mazeppa than take a ticket by the Great Western,” Aurora Leigh is “a great step forward” in “execution” from her earlier works. Its plan “is too large and complex,” but its author “has succeeded in writing brilliantly and powerfully,” “touched upon social problems with the light of her penetrating intellect and the warmth of her passionate heart,” “sketched characters as a sensitive and observant woman can,” and “dramatized passion with a force and energy that recall the greatest masters of tragedy” (427-8). Like the Globe and Traveller and Literary Gazette reviewers, the Spectator critic did not object to the mixed genre and style of Aurora Leigh. On the contrary, he commends the “free and natural manner” of the verse, losing “little of its ease and lightness in more prosaic parts of the poem, and gain[ing] in much larger proportion in the impassioned parts by being in verse” (428).

Other English and American newspapers were positively glowing, in relation to both the form and subject matter of Aurora Leigh. For instance, the London Daily News termed it “the greatest poem ever written by woman” and classed it among “the master works of the highest order of genius.” The reviewer anticipates “a large number of opponents to the book”: those who might object to Aurora as a “‘strong-minded woman’” because they believe that “the functions of women are to be limited to perpetuating the race”; there will also be those who object to the verse novel’s mixed style and to “colloquialisms” that “give their sense of genteel expression a shock.” Dismissing these probable objections, however, the reviewer lauds the “great human interest” and “astonishing power of subtle mental analysis” in Aurora Leigh. “Mrs. Browning brings the broad blaze of imagination to bear upon the phenomena of internal consciousness with the same power that the old poets did upon the appearance of the external world,” the reviewer remarks, vigorously defending the poem’s subjective focus against the “doctrine that poetry should always be objective.” The “remarkable” learning of Aurora Leigh is also praised: a learning that is not pedantic, but that “adds vitality to conceptions and force to expressions,” as in the use of “Greek history and mythology.” The reviewer concludes this unusually long newspaper notice with a “fuller confidence than ever” that Aurora Leigh will lead its author’s “countrymen and countrywomen” to recognize “her place among those whose genius has rendered their names immortal” (Daily News 1856, 2).

The Examiner critic uses more moderate terms than the Daily News critic. Nevertheless, the Examiner reviewer insightfully elucidates the “philosophical love story” in Aurora Leigh treating “two kinds of effort” embodied in a “pair of lovers”— Romney the “Christian socialist” and Aurora the “poetess,” each with lessons to learn. The Examiner critic further notes the “obvious purpose” in the much discussed blinding of Romney and recommends that Aurora Leigh be “read twice” to appreciate the “great truth living and expanding in the verse” and the “beauty” of insights on “almost every page” (756).

As for notices in American daily papers, EBB described some of these as “ecstatical,” noting, for example, American “delight” in the scene of Romney’s marriage in the church elsewhere criticized by Chorley in the Athenaeum (LTA 2: 279). The New-York Daily Times reviewer commented on the “easy grace” of the blank verse, “such as no living pen can command in greater perfection” (qtd. LTA 2: 283n12)—contrary to the much more cited denunciations of it by Chorley and Aytoun analysed below. This notice also praised EBB’s “highly felicitous” female characters, compared her portrayal of Marian to Wordsworth’s portrayal of humble characters, and drew parallels between her portraits of London life and Thackeray’s. The Boston Daily Advertiser was similarly enthusiastic in describing Aurora Leigh as a poem to be reread, “committed to memory, and quoted from, and never forgotten,” while the Boston Courier descried it as “a triumph of clear, strong purpose, imaginative insight, and intellectual power” never displayed before by a woman, even though all her characters talked “exactly as Mrs. Browning would” (qtd. Donaldson 61, 69).

Such responses indicate that EBB was not deluded in her comments on the response to Aurora Leigh. She had braced herself for “furious abuse” because of its candour regarding Marian Erle’s story in particular (although it was Lady Waldemar’s frankly erotic language that reviewers most often critiqued as “coarse”). But she found that “the daily and weekly press” was “for the most part, furious the other way,” noting as “exceptions” the Press, the Morning Post and the Dublin Tablet (Browning, E.B., Letters, ed. Kenyon 2: 249). There were other negative notices that she did not note: the Guardian, for example, condemned the “coarse and disagreeable” story and the “loose and unmelodious” versification” (qtd. Donaldson 62). The Catholic Tablet most vigorously denounced the much anticipated “advent of this new ‘Aurora’”—in an ironic application of the term Swinburne would later use—and found “the artist-workwoman, the high-souled woman with a ‘mission’ . . . a terrible companion in a journey of twelve thousand lines.” Condemning the form of Aurora Leigh, the Tablet described it as “like a translation into blank verse of a French novel by Frederic Soulié” (462). Richard Simpson’s review in The Rambler, another Catholic periodical, suggests that religious affiliations may have contributed to the intensely negative Tablet response (see below). Similarly, despite commonalities in the reaction to Aurora Leigh in different countries, nationality at times clearly contributed to varying patterns of response in Britain, America, and European countries such as France, as Section VII demonstrates.

v. British Periodical Debates: Gender, Genre, and the Politics of Form

The polarized, but often admiring responses to Aurora Leigh in the transatlantic daily press are played out in a magnified form in the more extended periodical reviews—especially in Britain, but also to a degree in America. In Britain, more conservative periodicals such as Blackwood’s, the National Review, and the Saturday Review published largely negative commentaries, as did, more unexpectedly for EBB, the Athenaeum. Taplin in 1957 drew exclusively on the most conservative reviews in summarizing Victorian critics’ response to the poem: “They asserted it was too hastily and carelessly written, that it was far too long, that it was lacking in dramatic appeal, that the characters were poorly conceived, that the incidents in the story were hackneyed, implausible, and many of them unnecessarily coarse and revolting to good taste” (338). Even the more condemnatory reviews were less unvarying than Taplin’s generalizations suggest, however. More importantly, there were also predominantly or enthusiastically positive assessments in the British Quarterly Review, the Monthly Review, the New Quarterly Review, and the Edinburgh Weekly Review. As for the prestigious Westminster Quarterly, it represented both sides of the question, with warm praise in an anonymous review by George Eliot and the more critical, but still not consistently “negative” follow-up review by John Nichol noted above. In another case—the Dublin University Magazine—passionate praise followed by contradictory caustic critique raises the possibility of two voices in internal conflict within the same mind, or two hands at work in one review, as I indicate below.

G. S. Venables’s review of Aurora Leigh in the Saturday Review, although characterized as “typical” by Taplin (338), represents the negative extreme: unsurprisingly, considering the weekly’s characteristic culture and politics. From its inception in 1855, the Saturday Review, known for its irreverent “slashing” (see above), often took a position hostile to the “woman question.” Its stance was later epitomized by its most-read article over decades of publication: Eliza Lynn Linton’s 1868 attack on “The Girl of the Period.”[17] One of the shaping spirits of the Saturday Review, Venables opens his review of Aurora Leigh with the statement, “The negative experience of centuries seems to prove that a woman cannot be a great poet,” then uses his denunciation of the “fable, manners, and diction” in Aurora Leigh to drive home his thesis with the self-conscious cleverness also cultivated in the Saturday. EBB’s characters are “unreal”; the incidents of Aurora Leigh are “inconceivable” incidents; and its “unbroken series of far-fetched metaphors” are an example of “feminine misadventures in art”—although he does acknowledge “a capacity for humorous satire” in the portrait of Aurora’s “prim, dry, narrow English aunt” (776-7). Describing the “artificial key” of the clashing dialogues between Aurora and Romney, Venables fancifully compares them to “[t]wo Pythonesses singing their responses in parts” but out of harmony (776). Aurora, however, is the “Pythoness” (i.e., the priestess to Apollo, god of poetry), to whom Venables most objects. Indeed, he finds the poem is at its best “[w]hen Aurora forgets that she is a poetess—or, still better, when she is herself forgotten” (778). Venables’s “Pythoness” image in 1856 in the Saturday Review was later elaborated by Aytoun in his 1860 Blackwood’s “Poetic Aberrations”: an all-out denunciation of the “fair sex” meddling in politics and EBB’s “oracular raving” in Poems before Congress. Aytoun here invokes Plutarch’s description of the “Pythoness,” who, “going into the sacred place to be inspired, . . . came out foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breast heaving, her voice indistinguishable and shrill, as if she had an earthquake within her labouring for vent” (1860, 492).[18]

While Venables is cleverly vitriolic, Robert Alfred Vaughan’s assessment of Aurora Leigh in the British Quarterly Review approaches the other end of the spectrum, a feature possibly related to the periodical’s close association with the English Dissenters (Palmegiano 81) and thus a political and religious culture both of the Brownings shared. Vaughan, a founder of and regular contributor to the British Quarterly, objects to neither Aurora nor the portrayal of Romney. Instead, he notes the realistic delineation of fallible “excess” in each character in a work that represents the “hereditary feud between the imaginative mind and the practical” in a tale reflecting on “some of the most anxious questions of our time” (263). He also commends the work’s “sound philosophy,” its “many . . . wise and large-minded thoughts, vigorously expressed in felicitous and glowing language,” citing as an example Romney’s eventual recognition of the problems in “toiling to carve the world anew after a ‘pattern on his nail.’” For Vaughan, the author of Aurora Leigh is a successful artist and a sage: “Our generation scarcely numbers more than one or two among its master minds from whom we could have looked for a production at all to rival this in comprehensiveness—a poem with so much genuine depth and so free from obscurity. The results of abstract thinking are here, and yet there is no heavy philosophizing of set purpose. A warm human life meets us everywhere. . . . Men and women are introduced who learn philosophy by actual life” (265). Like several of the reviewers in the daily and weekly press, Vaughan also approves the “originality” of “a modern novel in the form of an epic poem,” despite its “apparent incongruity” (263). Though he finds the long, poetic speeches sometimes lose their “conversational character,” he finds them “in spirit dramatic,” in a “story . . . “told clearly and well, yet so imaginatively that the reader can never think to himself—‘All this would have been better said in prose’” (266-67).  He also commends the flexible versification in which the poet “has endeavoured to approach as nearly to the language of daily life as was possible without becoming prosaic or colloquial” (263).

The New Quarterly Review, in what EBB saw as a “favorable notice” (LTA 2: 279), similarly approved the generic hybridity of Aurora Leigh: “The incidents of the book would have thrilled in a novel—the loftiness of the philosophy would have allured in a treatise—together, they compose a poem, whose action criticism must allow to be as sustained as its scope is large and noble” (qtd. LTA 2: 283n11). Other reviewers especially noted the virtues of the first-person perspective and scene-painting in Aurora Leigh in terms that freely mixed literary genres, as well as poetry and painting. This mixing is evident in Aidé’s response to Aurora Leigh as a “modern epic” and “three-volume novel” in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal (see above). Aidé—a social acquaintance of the Brownings—observes that Aurora Leigh marks “an epoch in literature” because it is, “in many respects, an innovation on long accepted uses in poetry.” He approves both its generic hybridity and the novelistic perspective which gives a “vividness to the narrative.”  As an “autobiography,” much of it “written soon after the events it records,” it has “the freshness of a journal,” he remarks (7). Aidé, who was himself a painter and musician as well as novelist and poet, also notes the “rich and glowing pictures of nature” in the poem and its “pre-Raphaelite delicacy of touch,” combined with the recognition that such minute fidelity to nature is “not the aim and end of Art.” This last point, evidently a glancing blow at the philosophy Aidé saw as underlying Pre-Raphaelite paintings (8), may have influenced D. G. Rossetti’s description of Aide’s review in the Edinburgh Weekly Journals as “poorish” (Letters 1: 82). Like the Literary Gazette reviewer (see above) and Aytoun (below), Aidé furthermore drew comparisons with Turner, though focusing on a different passage: in Aidé’s case, the “picture of Paris” in Book VI, which he described as “absolutely Turneresque in its vivid brilliancy and breath of touch” (8).

Comments like these form a striking contrast to the often cited condemnations of the mixed genre and style of Aurora Leigh in reviews by Chorley, Coventry Patmore, and Aytoun. Chorley’s Athenaeum attack on Aurora Leigh for being not “a poem, but a novel, belonging to the period which has produced “Ruth,” and “Villette,” and “The Blithedale Romance”’ is among the best known of these critiques, especially his objections to the associated stylistic “mingling of what is precious with what is mean . . . of the grandeur of passion and the pettiness of modes and manners. . . . Milton’s organ is put by Mrs. Browning to play polkas in May-Fair drawing-rooms” (1856 p. 1425). Whereas The United States Magazine reviewer assumes that EBB is not playing Milton’s “sonorous” organ at all, but rather turning to Shakespearean models for a more “human” blank verse (see below), Chorley measures her against Milton. Regarding the poet’s intent at least, the evidence of EBB’s essay “The Book of the Poets” (1842) and twenty-first-century studies confirm the Shakespearean models for what Josie Billington terms the “oscillation between fixity and fluidity” in the blank verse of Aurora Leigh (87). In his close analysis of the poem’s versification, Robert Stark similarly demonstrates that, in emulating Shakespeare (65), EBB radically deviated from Victorian “expected norms” in her “use of caesura, elisions, and metrical substitutions,” as she “transformed blank verse into a pliant verse-form well suited to the age of the novel” (49-52).

A closer look at Chorley’s critique of EBB’s stylistic “mingling” in the context of his review as a whole suggests it was not only the mixed form of Aurora Leigh that disturbed him. He begins his assessment of the verse novel by framing it as a “contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation, which Woman is now raising.” He also satirizes the mingling of “Rank and Rags” readers encounter when Romney the “socialist gentleman” stages his wedding to the working-class Marian (1425). As these responses to the work’s political subject matter imply, Chorley—though generally sympathetic to women writers—was not engaged by either the “woman question” or the “social question.” The anger and fear aroused in him by the political content of Aurora Leigh (more transparently revealed in his later obituary notice marking EBB’s death)[19] may underlie what she found to be the most “unfair & partial” aspect of his “analysis”: that it ignored not only “half” of the “outside shell” of her verse novel’s plan, but also missed entirely what she termed “the double-action of the metaphysical intention” (Florentine Friends 115). Other reviewers came much closer than Chorley to capturing one aspect of this “double-action”—indicated in one of EBB’s working notes for Aurora Leigh, “The Ideal against the practical” (qtd. Reynolds, 1996 349). For instance, the National Magazine critic noted of Aurora and Romney: “The aspiring and scornful idealist finds the noblest use of her gifts in their practical application. The material worker learns that man’s social progress is blindly aimed at unless pursued in light of his immortality” (314).

EBB’s “metaphysical intention” was also not appreciated by Patmore in his review of Aurora Leigh, unsurprisingly given politicized contexts that are again not immediately evident from the review itself, with its apparent focus on aesthetic concerns. She heard in advance that Patmore would be reviewing Aurora Leigh for the North British, and expected him to make “mince-meat” of her, given his publication earlier in 1856 in the National Review of an “article upon women, putting us all in our places most dogmatically” (LTA 2: 262). In the National Review article, Patmore praised the qualities he most admired in women (“charming subordination . . . flattering inferiority”) and denounced “the equality of man and woman” as the most “monstrous” of the “births of modern philosophy” (cited in Florentine Friends 114n12): Writing to Isa Blagden, EBB commended the “very vigorous articles” Bessie Rayner Parkes had written in reply to Patmore’s “infamous doctrines” in the National Review (Florentine Friends 112). In his subsequent North British assessment of Aurora Leigh, Patmore is subtler in expressing his doctrines on women and their place. Like Chorley, he focuses on its mixture of poetry with passages that “ought unquestionably to have been in prose” or “in a review” in analyzing it as a “novel-in-verse, or present-day epic” (237). However, he chooses not to dispute the question at length because he “dissents altogether from certain of the views it advocated” on “Life and Art,” especially its too “sweeping” rejection of “‘conventions,’ which are society’s unwritten laws” (240-41). The inclusion of gender as well as genre and style among these “unwritten laws” is obliquely implied by his dismissal of the “elaborately depicted” portrayal of Aurora’s “development of her powers as a poetess” as “uninteresting” because “Mrs. Browning is herself almost the only modern example of such development” (242).

Aytoun’s review of Aurora Leigh in Blackwood’s in January 1857 is more explicit than either Chorley’s or Patmore’s in revealing the interconnections between aesthetic “conventions” and gender and class hierarchies. EBB did not expect Blackwood’s, given the journal’s long established Tory politics and culture, to be favorable; in fact, Robert Browning expected “some personal blackguardism.”  On reading the review, however, EBB thought it “wrong, but not malignant,” written by someone of “the elder school . . . who judges from his own point of view” (LTA 2:279). Aytoun opens his assessment of Aurora Leigh by framing it in the context of the “woman question,” much as Chorley does, but more flamboyantly: “Mrs. Browning takes the field like Britomart or Joan of Arc” (25). After a summary of what he describes as its “fantastic, unnatural, exaggerated” story (1857, 32), terms similar to Venables’ in the Saturday Review, he proceeds to “maintain that woman was created to be dependent on the man” and that “the extreme independence of Aurora detracts from the feminine charm . . . we might have otherwise felt in so intellectual a heroine” (33). Having insisted on the distinction between the sexes, he turns to insist on “the distinction between a novel and a poem,” observing that “Artists, like architects, must work by rule” (34-5) and condemning the “tendency to experiment” as a “morbid craving for originality” (39).

This generic distinction, framed in a larger context emphasizing gender distinctions, is further intertwined with rules about representing the present as opposed to the past and rules for the proper separation of the social classes. Citing the “double-breasted Age” passage, Aytoun rejects outright the poetics of the contemporary that it articulates. Roscoe in the National Review does the same in arguing that the “greatest poet” is “of no age” and criticizing “high-wrought” metaphors like the lava and “burning breasts” of the “double-breasted Age” (253, 245, 247) in exclamations that are themselves “high-wrought,” as Kaplan’s later citing of them indicates (see above). Nevertheless, Roscoe’s analysis of a poetics privileging the contemporary is, in fact, more multi-faceted and thought-provoking than Kaplan’s brief citation from it suggests. Aytoun’s treatment of this same poetics is, in contrast, relatively one-dimensional and declamatory. “All poetical characters, all poetical situations, must be idealized,” he asserts; “poets in all ages [have] shrunk from the task of chronicling contemporaneous deeds,” until “time has done its consecrating office” (1857, 34-41). Hence, he argues that poetry’s idealism must also not be mixed with the prosaic style and content of the novel, and condemns EBB’s mixing of “passages of sorry prose with bursts of splendid poetry.” To underscore his arguments, his review presents several more prosaic passages in Aurora Leigh formatted as if they were prose (35). Aytoun further invokes Shakespeare’s plays as a model of how a suitably dignified form of diction and blank verse should separate “low comedy” and “discourse in prose” from higher subjects and ranks (37), whereas, he observes, “Mrs. Browning follows the march of modern improvement. She makes no distinction between her first and her third class passengers, but rattles them along at the same speed upon her rhythmical railway” (37). Although Aytoun does usefully distinguish “the humble” and the “mean” as poetical subjects (36), these terms themselves, combined with his railway analogy, speak to his class assumptions.

The link between Aytoun’s aesthetic rules and resistance to social reform is made clear when he confesses that he has “not much faith in new theories of art,” because he classes “them in the same category with schemes for the regeneration of society” (39). Intriguingly, he also compares the “brilliantly colored pictures” in Aurora Leigh to Turner’s as Aidé and the Literary Gazette critic do (see above), but rather than seeing this as cause for praise, he finds both artists “extravagant in the vividness” of their “tints,” with a parallel tendency to “multiply” and “intensify images” (37)—as if he objects to the visual mixing associated with Turner’s impressionistic effects, along with the mixing of genders and classes. As Jason Rudy shows, Aytoun elsewhere assailed what he saw as the “unruly formal styles” of the “Spasmodic School” in the 1850s, in part because of mid-Victorian anxieties created by “increasingly heterogeneous culture” (78), his resistance to the displacement of “objective truth” by “subjective and physiological experience” (81), and the working-class origins of Spasmodic poets: features leading critics to interpret their aesthetic challenges as a “political challenge” (102).

Although Aytoun inscribed the term “Spasmodic” in literary history through his famous parody Firmilian: A Spasmodic Tragedy (1854), he does not actually term Aurora Leigh a “spasmodic” poem in reviewing it in 1857, as modern critics sometimes do.[20] He does, however, obliquely allude to Spasmodic poets such as Alexander Smith, Sydney Dobell, and Philip James Bailey in the extended diatribe concluding his essay, where he turns to castigate “our ‘new poets’ . . . tearing their hair, proclaiming their inward wretchedness, and spouting sorry metaphysics in sorrier verse” (40). Aytoun less clearly distinguishes EBB from poets identified as Spasmodic than The Leader critic cited above does; at the same time, he acknowledges her “extraordinary powers” (41) and encourages her to take a different path. EBB herself read at least extracts from Spasmodic poets such as Smith and Dobell with some interest, but a mixed response.[21] Among the only other references to the Spasmodics in the 1856-58 reviews of Aurora Leigh is the Boston Christian Examiner’s comparison of EBB’s style to Smith’s “vehement extravagance” (qtd. Donaldson 71) and passing mention of “Bailey’s Festus” in the conclusion to the Dublin University Magazine review (470).

This map iconAmerica, as in England and Dublin review in an Irish Protestant periodical modelled to some extent on Blackwood’s presents a strangely contradictory assessment of Aurora Leigh. The review first mounts a vigorous defense of Mrs. Browning’s “artistic purpose and design” in representing “the common-place and prosaic ever touching upon but not blending with the sublime and poetic.” Such juxtapositions appear “again and again” in “real life,” and in Shakespeare’s plays, where “the coarse or foolish, or the low in thought and expression” follows “quickly upon the elevated and poetic,” the review states, using the Shakespearean parallel to vindicate the stylistic mixing of Aurora Leigh, not to critique it as Aytoun does. The review also seems to take aim at Chorley’s Athenaeum review, in commenting that “we hold very cheaply this superficial criticism” that condemns the introduction of a “prosaic and inane” scene in “a fashionable London ball-room” into the “high thinking” about the role of “Art” in Book V of Aurora Leigh.  As the Dublin University Magazine review notes, the verse novel’s author could easily have clothed “the sentiments of the ball-room men and women in poetic language; but she then would have been neither true to their nature nor to her own art” (465).

Some pages following this spirited defense of the hybridized form of Aurora Leigh, however, the conclusion presents a condemnation of it as a failure on both fronts, echoing the sentiments of Aytoun and Venables: as a “poetic novel of real life,” it is filled with “incongruities” and as a “poetic romance” it is “exaggerated, unreal, and extravagant” (469).  Did a senior editor intervene at this point to check and suppress a too enthusiastic and positive review? Or was the reviewer first glowingly speaking to the power of Aurora Leigh only to turn the tables and castigate it with more force? The latter possibility seems unlikely, given the passion, eloquence, and detail of the praise. The former hypothesis might also help to explain other contradictions. For example, from its opening statement that the best test of a civilization is “the position” that women attain within it (460), the main body of the review is highly sympathetic to “the social wrongs of woman” and the power with which they are addressed by “the greatest female poet of our own age” (464). Yet the conclusion focuses on the “grave errors” of “Mrs. Browning” in assuming “the gait and the garb of a man” (470) and seems to veer around and contradict the review’s earlier descriptions of both Romney and Marian (see below).

While the contradictions of the Dublin University Magazine review present a conundrum, the reviews by Aytoun, Patmore, Chorley, and Venables all suggest that conservative stances on class and gender segregation tend to align with resistance to the mixing of genres and styles. Nevertheless, in numerous instances this pattern is complicated, or other concerns and subjects come to the fore, as in the contrasting reviews by George Eliot and by Swinburne’s friend, the Scottish critic John Nichol (see above) in the internationally influential and progressive Westminster Review. Eliot’s review appeared first, anonymously, in a column on “Belle Lettres” in January 1857, and was viewed as “favorable” by EBB although she did not know the author (LTA 2: 279). Beginning by noting the “profound impression” produced in her by Aurora Leigh, Eliot remarks that, while other poems might “have higher finish,” “no poem embraces so wide a range of thought and emotion, or takes such complete possession of our nature.” Her letters bear out this comment, since she later stated that she read Aurora Leigh three times because no other book gave her “a deeper sense of communion with a large as well as a beautiful mind” (Letters 2: 342). Published three months after Eliot’s famous satire of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” had appeared in the Westminster, her review of Aurora Leigh emphasizes intellectual elements radically different from the “the mind-and-millinery species” of women’s novels. Notably, the review appeared as she was embarked on her own first attempt at writing fiction in Scenes of Clerical Life.

Given Eliot’s own cloaking of her identity as a woman writer in anonymity and then a male pseudonym, her remarks on EBB’s paradoxical fusion of “masculine” and “feminine” attributes in her assessment of Aurora Leigh are particularly interesting. As in EBB’s paired 1844 tribute sonnets to the “genius” George Sand[22] (the first beginning “Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man”), Eliot’s emphasis on androgyny in her review resolves into a more fundamental affirmation of female identity. “[I]n this, her longest and greatest poem,” Eliot writes, “Mrs. Browning has shown herself all the greater poet because she is intensely a poetess.” Similarly, in her second sonnet to Sand, subtitled “A Recognition,” EBB writes of Sand’s “woman-heart” burning visibly like Joan of Arc’s through the flames, “disproving” her “man’s name.” Eliot is critical of aspects of the “story” in Aurora Leigh—especially the “mutilation” of Romney, which she compares to Rochester’s blinding in Jane Eyre as the Spectator reviewer had earlier done. Yet her primary emphasis falls on Aurora Leigh’s fusion of intellect with feeling in a “poetical body . . . everywhere informed by a soul.” This “soul” is manifested in its “far-stretching thoughts,” “abundant treasures of well-digested learning,” “acute observation of life” and “yearning sympathy with multiform human sorrow”: all features later integral to Eliot’s own fiction. Although she was writing Scenes of Clerical Life at the time, the metaphors she employs to describe Aurora Leigh anticipate The Mill on the Floss, as she compares the verse and narrative movement of EBB’s verse-novel to “the calm, even flow of a broad river,” yet with “delightful alternation,” carrying the reader “with swifter pulses than usual through four hundred pages” (306-7). It is in Armgart, her later verse drama about the dilemmas of a woman artist, and her representation of the “Alcharisi” in Daniel Deronda, however, that Eliot comes closest to the central subject matter of Aurora Leigh.[23]

While Eliot perplexes gender distinctions and then focuses on the embodied philosophical thought or “soul” of Aurora Leigh, Nichol’s October 1857 review, though clearly progressive in its class politics, embodies quite conservative assumptions about form and versification, and a differing view of the utility of “soul.” Perhaps with Eliot’s earlier comments in the Westminster or his friend Swinburne’s letters in mind, Nichol first notes the “enthusiastic reception” of Aurora Leigh, which “daring[ly]” attempts to be “a novel” when it is “also a poem.” But such a marriage of forms is not possible in his view: in seeking to “be a story,” the work “ceases to be a poem.” Whereas Eliot appreciates the variable “flow” of its verse, Nichol castigates its mixed style as Aytoun, Chorley, and Patmore do, arguing that it breaks the “laws of rhythm and construction” that are “fixed by Nature herself” with blank verse that “break[s] loose altogether from the meshes of versification” (399-400). Like Venables and Roscoe, Nichol also takes exception to EBB’s daring metaphors: especially the “perfect shoal of mangled and pompous similes” (400) in the passage presenting Aurora’s mother’s portrait (Book I. 128-73). In contrast, James Challen, an American reviewer, would later interpret the layered metaphors in this passage as a complex psychological evocation of the contradictory mythologies of motherhood and womanhood mingling in the consciousness of the orphaned Aurora in childhood, much as modern critics now read the maternal death-portrait passage.[24]

Despite his criticisms of the form, versification, and metaphors of Aurora Leigh, Nichol’s review is more mixed than those written by Venables, Chorley, Patmore, and Aytoun. Stating that he does not wish to be “so unfair as the Saturday Reviewer” (Venables), Nichol finds “passages of concentrated beauty and sustained grandeur, enough to establish half a dozen reputations” and “vivid characterization” in the poem (404, 407): the latter point possibly influenced by Swinburne’s remarks on its “dramatic power” in a letter to him (see above). Like Venables, Patmore, and Aytoun, he is repelled by the “self-consciousness” of Aurora and her artistic musings (409). At the same time, he finds Marian’s story deeply moving, as the Globe and Traveller critic also does, along with other reviewers (see below). Aurora Leigh combines “defects” with “excellences,” Nichol concludes, though he ends by condemning it “ethically” for its political argument of “exaggerating the effect of Art” on “elevating the condition of the masses.” At this point, Nichol takes explicit aim at Ruskin for his praise of Aurora Leigh in The Elements of Drawing, finding the same tendency in the great art critic to privilege art or “soul” over more utilitarian social action (412). Presenting views in keeping with the Benthamite Utilitarianism shaping the Westminster Review from its inception in 1824, Nichol acknowledges that “some poetry” is “a power among the better portion of the labouring classes,” but that “[p]oetry about poetry is the last thing to descend to the people. We suspect the large sale of ‘Aurora Leigh’ has done but little to renovate or purify the alleys of London” (413). Ironically, however, his own response to the poem’s portrayal of Marian’s suffering calls in question such a conclusion (see below).

vi. Romney and Socialism, Marian and the “Wrongs of Woman”

Given his differences with Ruskin’s and EBB’s artistic philosophy, Nichol is especially critical of the representation of Romney and his socialist endeavors in Aurora Leigh. Nichols passes over the problematic aspects of Romney’s proposal to Aurora in Book II, contrasting him with St. John in Jane Eyre, who would have treated Jane as a “mere missionary.” According to Nichol, “Romney loves Aurora far more deeply than she deserved,” but she “turns from him because she thinks too much of herself” (407). Regarding Romney’s later actions and their outcome, he exclaims:

Romney is treated no less unfairly than the cause he represents. There are absurd philanthropies in abundance, pretentious schemes with no heart in them, false and idle. Had the hero of this poem advocated the most impracticable of these, his punishment had been too severe. . . . Romney Leigh for being a philanthrophist,—to be rejected and lectured by his mistress—to have his intended wife stolen from him – to try everything, to succeed in nothing—to be laughed at by everybody—to lose his money—to have his house burned about his ears – to get both his eyes knocked out – to beg pardon of his old mistress at last, and confess that she was all right and he was all wrong – to have her to take charge of him afterwards in his mutilated state!!! (414)

Aside from the triple exclamation marks, the inaccuracies in this chain of comments testify to the heat of Nichol’s convictions: Marian is not exactly “stolen” as if she were an object, Romney is not “laughed at by everybody” (as Lord Howe’s esteem for him and Lady Waldemar’s amorous interest in him suggest), and Romney’s eyes are not “knocked out.” At the same time, however, Nichol offers one of the most cogent critiques of the poem’s representation of the “social question,” although he clearly comes down on the side of the utility of “bread,” not “verses,” to use the terms the painter Carrington applies to Aurora and Romney’s debate (VII. 636). Possibly influenced by Nichol’s criticisms of Romney, Swinburne in his 1898 “Preface” still defended Aurora as a successful, “unique” representation of a woman artist, though reflecting a one-sided “heroic and feminine enthusiasm,” but he described Romney as not similarly “real and vital, conceivable and credible” (xii).

While Nichol is among numerous reviewers who criticizes the portrayal of Romney in Aurora Leigh, it is important to note that such criticism comes from differing political directions. In another much cited passage, for example, the conservative Aytoun terms Romney “a very decided noodle” in part because he views the aristocratic socialist’s “opinions” on social reform as “preposterous” (1857, 33). Nichol, in contrast, clearly supports Romney’s desire to address social inequities. He objects to the focus on their failure in the poem, arguing that his “schemes were not so impracticable; he was too good and too great a man to devote his whole life and energy to an honest cause without some beneficent result. He did more holy work in his tender care and reformation of poor girls in London, than his cousin’s poems could effect, were they much better than we can imagine them to be” (414-15). In the Dublin University Magazine review, with its strange internal contradictions (see above), Romney is initially presented as “full of high and unattainable notions of social reform”; though influenced by “false theories,” his feelings for Aurora are finely conveyed (463). In the conclusion, however, he is dismissed as an “exaggerated and unnatural” character rather like Aytoun’s “noodle”: Romney is here characterized as “weak and almost silly at times; impractical in his schemes of social regeneration and absurd in his theories; a modern Quixote, more mad than the errant knight who assailed windmills and slaughtered sheep; and with all this is mixed a nobility of nature and a grandeur of sentiment that make him as a whole, a moral monster” (470).

Both Romney’s own contradictions and the contradictory critical interpretations these provoked indicate that he was a multi-faceted, politically resonant figure for EBB’s contemporaries, associated with the Christian socialism of F. D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, various aristocratic philanthropists, and French socialists. As the Globe and Traveller reviewer observes, “Maurice and Kingsley, Lord Shaftesbury, Mr. Sidney Herbert, and the Duke of Bedford, combine to form Romney Leigh—Fourrier [sic], Comte, and Owen also help to fill out his personality” (n. pag). Despite the poem’s particular focus on Fourier’s brand of socialism, one French critic—Émile Montégut—described Romney as embodying a distinctly English form of socialism, while another French critic (Étienne) interpreted the socialism it represents as both French and anachronistic in the mid-1850s (see below). Among twenty-first-century critics, Romney is similarly subject to diverse interpretations. For instance, Kaplan finds EBB “wary of socialism” and “reactionary” in her representation of Romney’s phalanstery as a “scene of social disorder” and other critics emphasize his deficient masculinity and Rochester-like symbolic castration through blinding.[25] In contrast, however, Clinton Machann argues that Romney has many features, including sex appeal, making him an “exceptional male mating partner” from a Darwinian perspective (69). Machann’s thesis gains support from Lady Waldemar’s frank expressions of erotic interest in Romney in the poem in language that Aytoun found “coarse and revolting” (1857, 33), as several other reviewers did.

Nineteenth-century reviewers and critics also disagreed on the larger question of whether Aurora Leigh is for or against socialism or social reform itself. Nichol clearly interprets it as biased against attempts to address social inequities that he instances through “Mr. Mayhew’s” sociological work “among the criminals of London” (413). He does not consider the French socialist theorists EBB most explicitly critiques, some of them with quite anti-democratic schemes for social renovation, especially Charles Fourier. Aurora Leigh also alludes to Victor-Prosper Considérant (leader of the Fourierists after Fourier’s death), Jean Joseph Louis Blanc, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Etienne Cabet (see Books II. 482-85, III. 584-85, IX. 869). In America, the American Lady’s Home Magazine observed that EBB belonged to the “anti-social reform party,” “practical in a scheming age” in supporting individual reform as the path to social change (qtd. Stiles 246). However, other critics found Aurora Leigh vaguely or excessively pro-socialist. Nor is such a reading surprising, given parallels between the apocalyptic discourse pervading the poem’s ending and socialist millenarian discourse: especially Aurora’s association with the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12, a “prominent figure in Owenite and socialist” movements (Stone, 1995 182). Although he does not seem to be aware of this Owenite discourse, Venables dismisses the “philosophy” of the poem as “a vague intimation that some socialist theory yet undiscovered may, under the mysterious inspiration of Art, hereafter correct what are too hastily assumed to be the gratuitous evils of the world” (778). For Harriet Waters Preston, editor of the map iconCambridge edition of EBB’s works in 1900, there was nothing vague about the “intimation” Venables found in Aurora Leigh: she described it with evident distaste as “distinctly socialistic” or “frankly socialistic” (xvi, 536). In contrast, Thomas Bradfield, writing forty years after Nichol in the Westminster Review (August 1896), praised these very elements in Aurora Leigh, finding it “unique in its . . . burning, outspoken sympathy with whatever conduces to social reforms, individual or national” (183-84).

Just as interpretations of Romney and socialism or social reform vary both in the 1856-58 reviews of Aurora Leigh and in later nineteenth-century criticism, responses to Marian are diverse, although they are more consistently positive than reactions to the assertive Aurora. Critics especially focused on the extent to which the working-class Marian was realistically drawn and the propriety of portraying her sexual degradation so frankly. Patmore flatly dismisses Marian as “an impossible person,” given the circumstances of her upbringing and education (241)—although there were numerous instances of female and male autodidacts among the Victorian labouring classes, as the work of Florence Boos and many others has shown. With more nuance, Aytoun observes that “the character of Marian is very beautifully drawn,” but “her thoughts and language are not those of a girl raised in sordid poverty”; he argues that EBB should have made her “a few shades more respectable” (1857, 33). Roscoe in the National Review, similarly argues that Mrs. Browning is a “subjective” poet whose characters are projections of herself and that the “child of brutal parents” expresses herself “in exactly the same language, the same tropes, the same recondite imagery” as Aurora and her creator do—though he does acknowledge the “trace of dramatic power” in Marian’s letter to Romney when she says she “tried to make [her] gs the way you showed” and observes that she is “admirably described” (256-57). The National Magazine reviewer subtly distinguishes between the “saintly purity” of Marian as a credible “exception” in relation to her inner “spirit,” but not in relation to her “mode of expression,” which ought to have been “more homely.” This reviewer also speaks to the taboos EBB was negotiating in remarking that “passages” in Marian’s story will “startle and probably repel the reader,” as she becomes “the innocent victim of an outrage almost too horrible to glance at.” “Doubtless Mrs. Browning has set forth these horrible details partly to show the nobility of Romney Leigh,” the writer suggests, yet still questions her “harrowing and repulsive” narrative means to this end (314).

The constraints imposed by taboos governing the representation of female sexual experience are also evident in the Spectator review. Like some others, this critic objects to Marian’s character as “a statue of heroic goodness,” yet notes EBB’s innovation on the conventions in “join[ing] together the central incident of [Samuel Richardson’s] Clarissa Harlowe with the leading sentiment of [Gaskell’s] Ruth—that healing and reconciling influence of the maternal passage for a child whose birth is, according to common worldly feeling, the mother’s disgrace. The combination is striking and original, not to say courageous in a lady,” the reviewer adds, though like the National Magazine reviewer, he questions the “propriety” of “introducing the Clarissa Harlowe calamity under any amount of reserve” (430). He does not note the revision of Richardson’s heroine that EBB’s letters reveal she intended, in stating that her Marian would not be “a sublime creature,” and “after all, Clarissa dies .. which I don’t mean Marian to do” (LTA 2: 257-8).

Other critics seem to have found Marian more realistic than “sublime” in embodying a widespread social wrong and did not question the “propriety” of treating her “harrowing and repulsive” sexual exploitation. Nichol, though “repelled” by Aurora and critical of the representation of Romney, found Marian “especially attractive,” and evidently a credible character, though “artless and natural.” Ironically, despite his objections to the Ruskinian philosophy that art can bring about social change, Nichol testifies to its power in terms like those used by the Globe and Traveller critic (see above). He finds the story of Marian’s early life told with “irresistible pathos,” describing “the account of her flight” as a “wonderful piece of writing” (408). As for the story of her later life, it is “a tragedy too terrible for tears,” told with “too deep a pathos to be expressed in any partial transcription” (410-11). The Dublin University Magazine review similarly observes that Marian’s story, illustrating “the results of class oppression and class suffering” and “many such episodes in social life,” is “told with terrible power. It is a masterpiece of sombre and impassioned painting; a recital in which one hears the deep cry of woman’s anguish” (465). In the concluding section of the review, however, possibly written by another hand and dissenting voice (see above), Marian is dismissed as “no true type of a class, either in the high moral or intellectual attributes with which she is invested, or in the sufferings which she endures,” while her creator is condemned for her “unfeminine” conveying of “truths” that make her book “almost a closed volume for her own sex” (470).

Despite the fact that Marian’s child is her disgrace, reviewers were unanimous in critically cooing over the passages in which the fallen mother is at her most Madonna-like, and her babe is sensuously and tenderly described. They repeatedly laud Book VI, lines 560-581, in particular, in which Aurora and Marian together in the latter’s Paris lodgings observe her “yearling creature, warm and moist with life” sleeping with his “pretty baby-mouth, / Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked.” This passage is first cited by the Literary Gazette critic (see above), where the description is praised as Tennysonian. Nichol draws comparisons between the depictions of Marian with her babe and the “masterpieces of Raphael” (409)—a likely influence for EBB given her comments on the great Renaissance master in her letters, her close friendship with Jameson, and the art critic’s Legends of the Madonna (1852). Notwithstanding his otherwise harsh critique of Aurora Leigh, Aytoun exclaims as Nichols does that Mrs. Browning “achieved a triumph” in “passages which refer to Marian and her babe”: not even “The Cry of the Children,” “one of the most pathetic and tear-stirring poems in the English language” compares to these passages in Aytoun’s view (1857, 36). Across the Atlantic, the same passages were lauded in map iconCharleston’s Russell’s Magazine as “unspeakably beautiful, delicate and graceful,” in an otherwise negative review denouncing Lady Waldemar as “unmitigatedly coarse and repulsive,” Marian as a vision, not a person, and Romney as “one of those unfortunate men who fail in everything they attempt” (qtd. Donaldson 76).

Forty years later, Swinburne reiterates these paeans to EBB’s painting of “babyhood” in the gushing peroration concluding the “Preface” to his 1898 edition. In an excess of sentimental rhapsody, he subsumes Marian’s story in the representation of her “yearling creature” (6.567)—misquoted as “yearlong”—and dissolves EBB herself in a mist of sanctifying motherliness:

The piercing and terrible pathos of the story is as incomparable and as irresistible as the divine expression of womanly and motherly rapture which seems to suffuse and imbue the very page, the very print, with the radiance and the fragrance of babyhood. There never was, and there never will be, such another baby in type as that. Other poets, even of the inferior sex, have paid immortal tribute to the immortal Godhead incarnate in the mortal and transitory presence of infancy; the homage of one or two among them, a Homer or a Hugo, may have been worthy to be mistaken for a mother’s; but here is a mother’s indeed; and ‘the yearlong creature’ so divinely described must live in sight of all her readers as long as human nature or as English poetry survives. No words can ever be adequate to give thanks for such a gift as this (xiv-xv).

The description of Marian’s “divinely described” baby by an immortal “mother,” it would seem, is the greatest “gift” the author of Aurora Leigh has offered to the world. Swinburne makes no direct mention even of EBB’s works on Italian liberation or the vivid representations of Italian settings in Aurora Leigh. This omission is particularly striking, since Swinburne had been an English disciple of the Italian patriot Joseph Mazzini, and his Songs before Sunrise (1871) reflect the influence of the poems by EBB that led Oscar Wilde to observe, in 1888, that she lived “not alone in the heart of Shakespeare’s England, but in the heart of Dante’s Italy,” where her “human passion for Liberty” helped to bring about “that unity of Italy that was Dante’s dream” (742-3).

vii. The Politics of Nations and European Response to Aurora Leigh

Swinburne’s reticence about EBB’s Italian works at the end of the century reflects the lingering effects of the outcry over EBB’s 1860 collection, Poems before Congress, on the subsequent reception of Aurora Leigh. As numerous studies document,[26] this is the most striking instance of how reviews of her work were swept up in the politics of nations. Poems before Congress aroused outrage in influential British critics like Aytoun and Chorley, given its opening ode lauding the intervention of Napoleon III in Italy (in America, it was titled Napoleon III in Italy, and Other Poems) and more especially its concluding poem, “A Curse for a Nation.” Originally published in the 1856 issue of the Boston Liberty Bell as an anti-slavery poem directed at America, “A Curse for a Nation” was interpreted in this new context—with some justification—as directed at England for its non-intervention in Italian nation-building. It was this slim volume that led Aytoun to vilify EBB as an “oracular raving” Pythoness in Blackwood’s (see above), in more generally rebuking meddling in politics in the “fair sex,” especially in the form of “cosmopolitanism” and “identification with foreign nationalities” (1860, 490, 492). Chorley, for his part, scolded her for her “scold[ing]” art, “authoritatively dithyrambic” and “more political than poetical” in expressing “blind faith in Napoleon the Third as the hope of Italy, and flinging out a malediction against England” (1860, 371). Swinburne in 1898 essentially took the view of Aytoun and Chorley in obliquely alluding to this controversy, confusedly remarking that “this great and glorious Englishwoman . . . was never more obviously and more regrettably English and womanish than when decrying or denouncing her country” (xii). Yet even among British critics in 1860, Poems before Congress had more defenders than modern criticism suggests, as is more dramatically the case with Aurora Leigh itself. And again, this is especially evident if one considers articles in the daily and weekly press and in America. The Atlas critic, for example, defends EBB’s political stance in Poems before Congress, observing that “Mrs. Browning has the courage and faith in eternal principles of justice to hail . . . the very man whom demagogues and Tories over all the globe have conspired to stamp with odium” (1860, 232).[27]

While fewer reviewers focused on international politics in the earlier 1856-59 reviews of Aurora Leigh, responses similarly varied depending upon reviewers’ views of Anglo-French and Anglo-Italian relations. Aurora famously acknowledges her hybrid, transnational Anglo-Italian identity in Book VI of the verse novel: “a poet’s heart / Can swell to a pair of nationalities, / However ill-lodged in a woman’s breast” (ll. 50-52). Like Aurora, EBB characterized herself as a “citizenness of the world” after she moved to the continent and developed the transnational, cosmopolitan identity Beverly Taylor has explored from various angles, from the poet’s incisive critique of Britain’s 1851 map iconGreat Exhibition in Casa Guidi Windows to her education of her son Pen. As Taylor notes, EBB especially delighted in reporting Pen’s childhood remark, “‘The English always will shut their mouses when the speat.’”[28] While most studies of Aurora Leigh focus on Anglo-Italian relations, Simon Avery argues that it is “France, ‘[t]his poet of nations’ as Aurora terms it (6: 54), which is the most important location for the text and its politics overall” as Paris becomes a site of “social and political transformation” when Aurora encounters Marian in the streets of Paris (87). Significantly, Book VI opens with a satiric thrust at English parochialism: “The English have a scornful insular way / Of calling the French light,” an opinion based on “re-iteration chiefly,” as “boys learn to spell” (ll. 1-7). Such remarks on English insularity and France as the “poet of nations” grated upon some English reviewers, but they found even more provoking Aurora’s characterization of Louis Napoleon as a “Cæsar” who “represents, not reigns,” “no despot, though twice absolute,” a ruler whose “purple’s lined with democracy” (VI. 70-73).

Even before the 1851 coup and plebiscite that transformed Louis Napoleon into the Emperor Napoleon III, British conservative periodicals like the Edinburgh and Quarterly defined what they saw as British superiority against French inferiority and instability, especially during the turbulence of the 1848 socialist upheavals in France (Lewis, M 208-9). Other more liberal or progressive periodicals like the Westminster and the British Quarterly Review were more engaged with continental movements, but for that very reason attentive to the political suppression that followed Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup. Thus, while more conservative reviewers vaguely deplored, as The Tablet critic did, what they read as parallels with decadent French novelists like Soulié in Aurora Leigh (see above), Nichol in the Westminster denounced the characterization of Napoleon III as “no despot,” observing: “The estimate [Mrs. Browning] gives of the French and the eulogy of Louis Napoleon which follows it, is a glaring evidence of a judgment easily misled by the outward shows of things, and arrested by the semblance of power” (412). In contrast, the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual writer, musician, and painter Aidé was evidently not perturbed by the politics of Aurora Leigh in lauding the Turner-like strokes with which its author painted a Parisian cityscape (see above): the setting for his own successful novel Rita, also published in 1856.

In contrast to most English reviewers, critics elsewhere were sometimes more approving than critical of the representation of Napoleon III and the French in both Aurora Leigh and Poems before Congress. Reviewing both volumes together in 1860, James Challen,[29] in New York’s National Quarterly Review, commended the “enlightened and liberal spirit” of EBB’s satire of English “national prejudice” against the French (especially Aurora’s comment on the English “insular way / Of calling the French light”). According to Challen, “the author of Aurora Leigh. . . speaks of all countries as she finds them” without regard to “national vanity” (189-90). Mortimer Collins in 1862 in the Irish Dublin University Magazine similarly noted the truth of “Mrs. Browning’s poetic instinct” in “regard to the English estimate of Frenchmen” in Aurora Leigh (159). The Scottish critic, Peter Bayne, later remarked of EBB’s representation of the French emperor that, while “[n]o one could rejoice more heartily in the establishment of the French Republic” than he did, “the enormous majority by which the French people first called Napoleon III to the Presidency, and then confirmed him on the throne, ought not be swept away from the historical memory,” saying it was “well that Mrs. Browning has put them on record” (99). This interpretation accords more with EBB’s own explanation of her view of Napoleon III in the period when she described him as a politician whose “purple” was lined with “democracy.” She did not believe in his “purity of motive,” or rule out his “improper use” of his power, but repeatedly noted he had the support of the majority of the French people and sarcastically noted the denunciation of the people as “animaux” by his opponents, the “‘intelligent minority,’” including socialists. “For my part, I am a democrat, & I respect the decisions of any people,” she wrote (LTA 1:441). She also, however, at times dismissed the deaths of some of these very people on the barricades in Paris with a troubling casualness.

In France as opposed to England, Ireland, or America, critics focussed less on the treatment of Napoleon III or the Parisian section of Aurora Leigh than on its generic hybridity, representations of socialism, and in some cases, the “woman question.” Émile Montégut analyses the poem’s mixed form and its “double vision” of past and present in considering it along with other English works as “Un Poème de la Vie Moderne en Angleterre” in the influential Revue Des Deux Mondes. Unlike Aytoun and Roscoe, Montégut does not disapprove of poets representing their own age. On the contrary, he approvingly cites (in translation) the passage in which Aurora urges writers to represent “[t]heir age, not Charlemagne’s” (V. 222-3). Yet like Aytoun, Chorley, and Nichol, he insists on the distinction between the idealism he associates with poetry and the more prosaic content of the novel. These conventions are so integral and innate to each genre, Montégut argues, that it is futile for EBB to try to create a collaborative form fusing the two: ultimately, the “story” (“le fable”), despite all its “incidents and episodes,” is less central to her work than “the libretto of an opera” (335-6, my translation).

At the same time, Montégut discusses Aurora Leigh sympathetically and at length, unlike Philaréte Chasles in a much briefer notice in the Journal des débats criticizing the vulgarity of Aurora Leigh and its expression of woman’s eternal complaint (Donaldson, 67). For Montégut, EBB’s verse-novel is an “eloquent, lyrical” attempt to portray “modern life” from the personal or “subjective” perspective that he finds characteristic of English poetry by Shelley, Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Alexander Smith, as well as EBB (333-5). Contrasting Tennyson’s Maud with its shadowy characters and “mad” protagonist with Aurora Leigh, he considers the latter a much happier, more “remarkable” attempt (334-5), in its representation of the “intimate history of two souls” (353). Montégut interprets Romney as a noble spirit, a “political idealist,” of a particularly English type: “aristocratic, radical, Anglican Chartist, Christian socialist” (344).

In contrast, L. Etienne, another French critic, in another extended review in 1858 titled “La Littérature des femmes en Angleterre” in Revue contemporain, groups EBB with other women writers and stresses the French affiliations of Romney’s Fourieristic form of socialism. The socialism the poem depicts, he argues, was by the time of its publication outdated in both France and in England, and in the latter country replaced by Christian Socialism. Étienne also notes the class opposition between Marian, the innocent daughter of the people, and Lady Waldemar, the oppressive aristocrat. As his title suggests, however, Étienne chiefly focuses on Aurora as a female idealist particularly characteristic of England, the power of women writers and women of letters in England, and their struggle to seek their rights (qtd. Donaldson 1993, 77).

Montégut’s reading has more in common than Etienne’s with the later interpretation of Aurora Leigh in 1872 by the eminent French critic, Hippolyte Taine. Choosing EBB’s verse-novel to epitomize the characteristic spirit and “superiority” of the English in poetry in his Notes on England (1872), Taine characterizes it in more consistently positive terms than Montégut, yet similarly emphasizes its subjective perspective. Describing it as a “masterpiece” he had perused “twenty times,” he analysed it as “an epic poem” that turned on “inward monologue” and the “struggles of ideas and passions,” not “the strife of the gods” (344-5). Intriguingly, Taine’s Notes on England, immediately translated into English in America, cited passages that have once again become central to interpretations of Aurora Leigh, including the famous “double-breasted age” poetic manifesto in Book V.  Along with Taine’s discussion of Aurora Leigh, 1872 also brought a Tauchnitz “Copyright Edition” of the verse novel in map iconLeipzig (Barnes 114). Taine’s influence is still visible in later observations by the French critic Joseph Texte in 1898, who presents Aurora Leigh as still a work of great relevance to “contemporary idealism”—indeed, still “the poem of a century” written by the figure whom he saw as the most philosophical poet of the age (240).

Judging by Donaldson’s bibliography, there were surprisingly few reviews of Aurora Leigh in Italy—although, farther afield, it did generate at least one notice in the Australian journal, Month: A Literary and Critical Journal, where it was praised for its “delicious” paintings (qtd. Donaldson 71), possibly because of the Pre-Raphaelite Thomas Woolner’s move to map iconAustralia, where he kept in touch with D. G. Rossetti in England (Letters 1: 82). In Italy, a brief notice in 1857 and a more extended review in 1858 appeared in the Rivista di Firenze et bulletino delle arti del disegno. Both bring a continental perspective to the poem, as Montégut and Étienne do in France. The 1857 notice remarks upon the poem’s warm representation of Italy and affinities with George Sand; the second compares EBB’s incorporation of contemporary life into art to Dante’s (Donaldson 67, 75). Aurora Leigh is also praised as demonstrating its author’s love for Italy and liberty in the introduction to a broadside printed in Florence in 1860, presenting a translation of “The Court Lady” from Poems before Congress by the leading Italian poet Dall’Ongaro (Donaldson 86).

Despite the paucity of Italian reviews and notices of Aurora Leigh, Alison Chapman demonstrates that it was not only the “most famous poem to come out of the expatriate network” of British and American women poets living in Italy; this network also “immediately celebrated” EBB’s work and “claimed its success as its own achievement.” Moreover, as Chapman points out (2013 277-9), its “very title” and the symbolism associated with its Anglo-Italian protagonist, paralleling John Gibson’s stature of a winged Aurora and Michelangelo’s statue of Aurora in the Medici tombs, resonantly associated the poem with the “specifically Italian apocalypse” of the Risorgimento, the birth of Italy as a nation state. (See Alison Chapman’s “On Il Risorgimento.”) The networks in which such symbols resonated extended well beyond the group of expatriate English-speaking women writers in Italy whom Chapman considers. They took in many writers and political activists in Britain and North America, and in other European countries similarly under the yoke of map iconAustria—in part through Guiesppe Mazzini’s extensive political and writerly networks, extended in England by the 1844 post office espionage scandal. (See Marjorie Stone’s “Joseph Mazzini, English Writers, and the Post Office Espionage Scandal: Politics, Privacy, and Twenty-First Century Parallels.″) Dominic Bisignano’s investigations nevertheless suggest that in-depth scholarly analyses of Aurora Leigh took some time to come in Italy. In the 1890s, Italian critics such as Giosue Carducci and Fanny Zampini-Salazar discussed the work the former described as EBB’s “masterpiece”—“dark lightning like molten bronze”—and the latter characterized as rivaling “Balzac and Zola” in its realism. Zampini-Salazer, who was a feminist critic and lecturer on the condition of women, also saw Aurora Leigh as “the gospel of woman” (qtd. Bisignano 197-8, 201-2).[30]

In map iconGermany, although there were no reviews immediately following the publication of Aurora Leigh, Helen Chambers has shown that Aurora Leigh later attracted the attention of the Viennese critic and philosopher Helen Druskowitz. Druskowitz’s book Drei englische Dichterinnen (Three English Poetesses, 1885), on Joanna Baillie, EBB, and George Eliot, placed these authors “in a wider European context” and presented EBB “in the English-speaking world as the greatest female lyric poet of all time” (96). While Druskowitz found a “high degree of subjectivity” in Aurora Leigh, as French critics such as Montégut and Taine did, she found this acceptable because of the author’s “very idiosyncratic and interesting mind” and concluded her treatment of EBB with “a strongly worded expression” of EBB’s “special significance for women readers in Germany as in Britain” (Chambers 96-98).

viii. American Reviews and Religious Debates in Britain and the US

While French and Italian reviews of Aurora Leigh register their distinct national perspectives, the transatlantic English print culture spanning the “pond” (as the Atlantic was sometimes referred to even in the nineteenth century) makes it more difficult to distinguish the poem’s British from its American reception. This is especially true of the daily and weekly press, as section iii above indicates. Nevertheless, a rough comparison of the American to the British periodical reviews does suggest a more favorable reception in the US than in Britain. As Kate Field assumed in her 1861 Atlantic Monthly obituary essay, EBB had particularly “enthusiastic admirers” in America” (373), an observation borne out by Higginson’s 1854 letter to Browning (see above) that her name was a “household word” in Massachusetts. In discovering 23 new American entries on Aurora Leigh from 1856-62 to add to the 68 already identified in Donaldson’s comprehensive bibliography, Cheryl Stiles engaged in a chronologically limited search of Victorian authors’ names in the American Periodicals Series Database. Her search turned up more than 1,500 records for EBB, as compared to 1,800 for Browning, 1,100 for Tennyson, 800 for Christina Rossetti—and almost 17,000 for Dickens, the hands-down winner (243). Nevertheless, like the American reviews of Aurora Leigh annotated by Donaldson, those Stiles adds display considerable “diversity of tone and content” (Stiles 243), much as the British reviews do.

While fewer extended analyses of Aurora Leigh appeared in the US immediately following its publication in 1856, it attracted attention from Boston and New York to the South to the Midwest frontier. Viewed collectively, the American reviews share the British preoccupation with gender and genre issues. They tend, though, to focus more on the importance of Aurora Leigh for women and to approach its author in relation to women’s literary achievement and education—anticipating a trend more comprehensively evident in the obituary essays of the 1860s, and evident in Etienne’s French review (above). They also manifest less preoccupation than the British periodical reviews—either implicitly or explicitly—with class inequities and the mingling of social ranks, though they do express differing opinions of the mixed style of the verse-novel.[31]

The New York Knickerbocker represents one extreme in denouncing the style of Aurora Leigh as “hopelessly obscure” with “turgid and common-place diction”—but then it dismisses the entire work as “chaff”; the Christian Examiner similarly found the poem “turgid, pedantic, affected, obscure” – though not as obscure as Robert Browning’s poetry (qtd. Donaldson 68, 71). The reviewer for New York’s Putnam’s Monthly Magazine objected as Chorley, Patmore, and Aytoun do in England to the intermixture of “flatly and coarsely vernacular” language in the poem. Like Nichol in the Westminster Review, this reviewer also finds the portrayal of the “Christian Socialists” unjust. Nevertheless, the review presents Mrs. Browning as an example of women’s literary achievement in the “first great age of female authorship,” notes like Higginson that her name is a household word in America, and describes Aurora Leigh as “a confession” of EBB’s “artistic creed and a witness of her faithful works” (qtd. Donaldson 66). Similarly mixed responses appeared in The Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review, where Aurora Leigh is described in terms pointing to its affinities with Wordsworth’s The Prelude, as treating “the growth of a woman’s and a poet’s soul.” Yet, despite terming the poem a “woman’s Iliad, a true epic of the nineteenth century,” this critic also judges that it lacks “matured power,” notwithstanding many “lines of concentrated force . . . [and] quiet beauty” (qtd. Stiles 245). The Christian Inquirer found the plot of EBB’s “novel in blank verse” “as good as we can expect of the English”—attributing its defects as a novel to its author’s nationality—but still praised it as the greatest poem written by a woman, and noted its wide-ranging “philosophy of life done in verse” (qtd. Stiles 247).

In contrast to these more mixed or negative characterizations of the language, style, and plot of Aurora Leigh, other American critics praised its style and versification, much as British critics like Vaughan or the Spectator critic did. The critic for The Universalist Quarterly and Generalist Review remarked upon the “command of language” in the poem, describing it as the greatest poem written by a living woman, and observing that it “should be the study of all who would know the flexibility and intensity of the English language”; in The Albion: A Journal of News, Politics and Literature, the poem is similarly praised for the “embodied passionateness” of its style (qtd. Stiles 244-45). In The Independent, which published some of EBB’s poems on Italian liberation, the reviewer lamented the production of pocket-sized editions by C. S. Francis, commenting that “it is easier to associate the magnificent thought, and affluent on-flowing verse of Aurora with the ample page” (qtd. Stiles 247). The Cincinnati Lady’s Repository reviewer found, as George Eliot did, “beauty of the soul” in Aurora Leigh even though the “worst evils of society” it depicts (such as Lady Waldemar’s coarseness) could not be quoted in a lady’s magazine; the reviewer also emphasized its Miltonic elements, noting that Marian’s flight from her mother came near Milton’s “harmonic grandeur” (qtd. Donaldson 78).

Comments by the anonymous female author of the United States Magazine review suggest that the appeal of Aurora Leigh might have varied by age, as well as gender. The work is “far more Young American than English, both in thought and expression,” this reviewer remarks. She also finds that its blank verse does not resemble Milton’s “measured cathedral flow” (as the Lady’s Repository suggests), but the “more human, more familiar . . . cadences and deep passionate utterances of a Shakespeare” (qtd. Stiles 246). The Lady’s Home Magazine, perhaps speaking for “Old America,” was more skeptical of a book likely to be the “sensation” of the season: it was not a “safe guide” for the reader, given its “irreverent flights of bold thought,” “violation of all poetic rules,” and EBB’s “originality of expression.” “One must think in order to reach her meaning,” the reviewer exclaimed (qtd. Stiles 246). Even in more frontier areas, however, Aurora Leigh was read by women happy to “think” to understand its meaning. In the Ohio Farmer, Anna Hope found that the poem moved the “hidden depths of her nature” and described it as “more interesting on the twentieth reading than the first”: “as full of thought as a pomegranate of seeds” and a “mighty Niagara whose voice is heard in every land” (qtd. Stiles 248).

Responses like Anna Hope’s bear out the views of Charles Carroll Everett in his extended essay in the North American Review, noting how Aurora Leigh contributed to EBB’s reputation as one of the “first living British poets” (418) and particularly identified her with “the questions which have been stated with regard to the nature and position of woman” (436). Everett opens his essay with a general discussion of the differences in education and nature between men and women, observing,

The fact that Mrs. Browning has attained to such a height of poetic excellence, not in spite of her woman’s nature, but by means of it shows that the difference which has been hitherto supposed to exist between poets and poetesses is not, so far as it relates to the matter of power, founded upon the nature of things. It explains, also, in some degree, the ardor of admiration with which she is regarded by many of the most cultivated of her own sex. She speaks what is struggling for utterance in their hearts, and they find in her poems the revelation of themselves. (419)

Not surprisingly, religion is one of the many features of Aurora Leigh on which both British and American reviewers expressed decidedly diverse opinions (although it is less addressed in the much smaller number of European reviews). Several object as the Leader critic does to prodigal references to “the name of God,” though without linking this as he does to the manner of the “‘Spasmodic School’” (1168). For instance, Roscoe in the National Review exclaims at the “conscious irreverence” of Aurora Leigh manifested in the thrusting of the “highest things” into similes like the comparison of “the Lord Christ, assuming our flesh” to “‘some wise hunter” creeping into a “‘cave / To face and quell the beast there’” (248, quoting Aurora Leigh VIII. 546-8). The same simile is singled out by Nichol in the Westminster Review, in decrying the “rough treatment of themes we are accustomed to see handled with reverence” (403), while the National Magazine critic similarly exclaims at the “abrupt invocation of sacred names” (314). Other reviewers denounced the “negation of belief” in Aurora Leigh (the Press); irreverent invocations of the Deity as “the Demiurgus of nature, rather than the revealed moral governor” (John Bull and Britannia); and insufficient recognition that the cure for “Social Evils” is only found in “the divine gift of the GOD-MAN” (Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register0 (qtd. Donaldson 59, 62, 69).

In contrast, the Literary Gazette reviewer felt swept along by a poem so inspired one felt as if one were “listening to the voice of Isaiah,” a voice speaking “like a revelation” as in “the Hebrew prophets,” or in “the grandest periods of Milton or Jeremy Taylor” (916). The Boston Christian Review likewise commended the “spiritual and Christian ideas” in Aurora Leigh (qtd. Donaldson 65). The Dublin University Magazine review, possibly reflecting two warring opinions as I note above, first relates EBB’s “eloquent” exploration of the “wrongs wrought upon woman” to the Christian gospel’s teaching of the “God-bestowed equality of women” (461-2), then concludes that “[w]oman must be ever true to her womanly instincts if she would be the meet helper as well as the companion of man” (470). In remarks reflecting the transatlantic scope of religious debates, the reviewer for the Cincinnati Lady’s Repository argues against Patmore’s critique in the North British Review of the elevation of the role of art in Aurora Leigh, contending that EBB’s work embodies “the union of poetry and the Christian religion,” that it is not “against philanthropy,” but against philanthropy without art and religion, and that a work like Milton’s Paradise Lost has been used by preachers “as the staple of theology and metaphysics” (qtd. Donaldson 78).

To date, there has been no systematic investigation of how religious dimensions and debates enter into the mid-nineteenth-century reception of Aurora Leigh, and I do not pretend to offer this here. Yet as scholars have shown, Aurora Leigh engages with numerous religious movements, controversies, institutions, and/or topics. These include Swedenborgianism, biblical higher criticism, transubstantiation, female wisdom figures in the classical, Jewish, and Christian traditions, Congregationalist “religious imaginaries,” and apocalyptic and socialist millennialism.[32] The review in The Rambler: A Catholic Journal and Review suggests the need for more investigation of how such subjects and controversies influenced both reviewers’ responses to Aurora Leigh and the cultures of their respective periodicals. Responding to the Swedenborgian strains of the “love of wedded souls” in Aurora Leigh (IX. 882), the Rambler critic (Richard Simpson) vigorously objects to its presentation of the “religion of matrimony” as the “centre and summum bonum of humanity. And this in an age when society seeks in vain to repress the brutality of husbands, when women are demanding independence, and when the legislature is thinking of repealing the laws of Christian wedlock in favour of a Pagan and Judaical right of divorce. . . . Wedded love, as it becomes rare upon earth, is proclaimed to be the essence of Christianity. This is the key-note of Mrs. Browning’s poem” (151). Such remarks point to the intricate connections linking religious controversies to legal and political developments as well as “the woman question.”

A much more accepting stance on Swedenborgianism is reflected by C. B. Conant in the North American Review in his obituary essay of 1862. Conant, however, cites the “great apostle of the (so-called) New Church” to reassert the “necessary, radical, and most unchangeable” differences between men and women and their “duties” that the Swedish mystic teaches, arguing that Aurora Leigh demonstrates these essential gender distinctions, despite its author’s intentions (343). We also see the importance of religious doctrines and debates to the reception of Aurora Leigh in Samuel B. Holcombe’s obituary essay in December 1862, in the Southern Literary Messsenger. Holcombe affirms that “Mrs. Browning, though no sectarian, is eminently a Christian poetess,” though like Tennyson, “she was perfectly familiar with all that modern science had to teach” and “had gone through all that German speculation had to offer” (415-16). These observations are clearly meant to counteract Kate Field’s earlier obituary in the Atlantic Monthly: especially, Field’s observation that, for Mrs. Browning, “Christianity was not confined to church and rubric – it meant civilization” (373). Holcombe, for his part, rejects this claim “as extremely vague, unsatisfactory, Emersonian kind of talk, quite in the style of the map iconBoston transcendentalists, but conveying an altogether false impression of Mrs. Browning’s religious sentiments. Nothing better, however, could have been expected from the Atlantic Monthly, which is an avowedly pantheistic publication” (415). His riposte reveals how religious beliefs might be as important, or more important, than national and/or regional differences in shaping responses to Aurora Leigh.

Postscript: Obituary and Retrospective Essays in the 1860s

As salvos like Holcombe’s suggest, the debates animating the reviews of Aurora Leigh following its publication continued in the British and American obituary and retrospective essays of the 1860s. At the same time, the environments and the “hot and hot” controversies shaping these debates were rapidly changing in an age that EBB aptly termed an “age of transition” (V. 163), like John Stuart Mill before her. While the practice (including my own) has been to mix the obituary essays together with the reviews of 1856-58, the 1860s brought new patterns and concerns in the continuing discussion of Aurora Leigh. The patterns also follow increasingly differing contours in England and America, despite many areas of overlap. The “social question,” already eclipsed by the “woman question” in 1856, fades as a central issue in the 1860s essays: especially in America, where it did not figure centrally even in the reviews immediately following the publication of Aurora Leigh. EBB’s most ambitious work is also reassessed in the context of her lifetime achievement, and more often discussed both in relation to the achievement of other leading English women writers and as an indicator of woman’s “powers,” potential, and education, as in Gerald Massey’s 1862 North British Review retrospective essay. As the decade progressed, responses to Aurora Leigh were further shaped by the growing culture of fandom analyzed by Eric Eisner, among others, that saw young women especially embrace Aurora as a model (particularly though not only in America). In addition, critical approaches to EBB’s major work reflect 1860s controversies over sensation fiction with its transgressive heroines, by debates over the bold, fast “girl of the period,” and by the consolidation of the verse-novel as a widely employed hybrid genre. Aurora, her creator, and the much debated form of Aurora Leigh itself began to look very different to some readers in the light of these new developments. Nevertheless, some of the key debates of 1856-58 were replayed in altered configurations as, once again, reviewers took opposing positions on the “poem of the age.”

published October 2015

Marjorie Stone, McCulloch Professor of English, Dalhousie University, map iconCanada, is the author of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1995); co-editor of Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship (2006) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems (Broadview, 2009); and Volume Co-Editor for 3 of 5 volumes in The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pickering and Chatto, 2010, Gen, Ed. Sandra Donaldson). She has also published essays and articles on the Brownings, Tennyson, Dickens, Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison, as well as contemporary subjects including gender theory, sex trafficking, Canadian multiculturalism, cultural citizenship, and the corporate university. Her essay on “Joseph Mazzini, English Writers, and the 1844 British Post Office Espionage Scandal” appears elsewhere on BRANCH. Current projects include the digital archive (, and a book project with the working title, The Black Dove’s Mark: The Elizabeth Barrett Browning Archives and Nineteenth-Century Literary History.


Stone, Marjorie. “The ‘Advent’ of Aurora Leigh: Critical Myths and Periodical Debates.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


I. Reviews Cited

[Aidé, Charles Hamilton.] Edinburgh Weekly Review 1 (28 February 1857): 7-9. Print.

Atlas (13 December 1856):794-95. Print.

—. “Mrs. Browning’s New Poems” (24 March 24 1860): 231-33. Print.

[Aytoun, William Edmondstoune]. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 81 (January 1857): 23-41. Print.

—. “Poetic Aberrations,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 87, no. 534 (April 1860): 490-94. Print.

[Challen, J.?] National Quarterly Review (New York) 1:1 (June 1860): 173-201. Print.

[—.?] National Quarterly Review ((New York) 5:9 (June 1862): 134-48. Print.

[Chorley, Henry Fothergill]. The Athenaeum (22 November 1856): 1425-7. Print.

—. The Athenaeum 1690 (17 March 1860): 371-72. Print.

—. The Athenaeum 1758 (6 July 1861): 19-20.  Print.

[Collins, Mortimer.] “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Dublin University Magazine 60 (August 1862): 157-62.  Print.

[Conant. C. B.] North American Review (Boston) 94:195 (April 1862): 228-56. Print.

[Curtis, George William]. “Editor’s Easy Chair.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 23:136 (September 1861): 555-6. Print.

Daily News (London) (26 November 1856): 2. 19th Century British Newspapers. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.

Daily News (London) (29 March 1860): 2. Print.

Dublin University Magazine 49:292 (April 1857): 460-70. Print.

[Eliot, George.] “Belles Lettres.” Westminster Review 67:131 (January 1857): 306-10. Print.

[Everett, Charles Carroll.] North American Review 85:177 (October 1857): 415-41. Print.

Examiner (29 November 1856): 736. Print.

[Field, Kate.] “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Atlantic Monthly (Boston) 8:47 (September 1861): 368-76. Print.

Globe and Traveller (20 November 1856): 1. Print.

Holcombe, Samuel B. “Death of Mrs. Browning.” Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, VA) 33 (December 1861): 412-17. Print.

Leader 7: 349, 350 (29 November 1856, 6 December 1856): 1142-4, 1169-70. Print.

Literary Gazette (22 November 1856): 917-8. Print.

[Massey, Gerald.] North British Review 36:72 (May 1862): 514-34. Print.

Montégut, Émile. “Un poème de la vie moderne en Angleterre.” Revue des Deux Mondes 2:8 (15 March 1857): 322-53. Print.

National Magazine 1 (March 1857): 314-5. Print.

Nichol, John. Westminster Review 68:134 (October 1857): 399-415. Print.

[Patmore, Coventry]. North British Review (Edinburgh) 26:2 (February 1857): 443-62. Print.

[Roscoe, William Caldwell]. National Review 4:8 (April 1857): 239-67. Print.

[Simpson, Richard.] Rambler: A Catholic Journal and Review 7:38 (February 1857): 152-54. Print.

Spectator 29:1482 (22 November 1856): 1239-40. Rpt. “Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh.Littel’s Living Age (Boston) 52 (14 February 1857): 427-430. Print.

Tablet (Dublin) (29 November 1856): 762-3. Print.

[Vaughan, Robert Alfred]. British Quarterly Review 25 (January 1857): 263-7. Print.

[Venables, G. S.] Saturday Review 2:61 (27 December 1856): 776-78. Print.

II. Criticism and Scholarship

Avery, Simon. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Tavistock, Devon: North Cote House Publishers, 2011. Print.

Avery, Simon, and Rebecca Stott. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Longman, 2003. Print.

Arishstein, Leonid M. “A Curse for a Nation: A Controversial Episode in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Political Poetry.” Review of English Studies, ns 20 (1969): 33-42. Print.

Barnes, Warner. A Bibliography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Austin, TX: University of Texas and Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University, 1967. Print.

Bayne, Peter. Two Great Englishwomen: Mrs. Browning & Charlotte Brontë; with an Essay on Poetry, Illustrated from Wordsworth, Burns, and Byron. London: James Clarke & Co., 1881. Print.

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet (New York and London: Harvester, 1990). Print.

Billington, Josie. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: “This is Living Art.” Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Print.

Bisignano, Dominic James. “The Brownings and Their Italian Critics.” Doctoral dissertation. New York University, 1964. Print.

Boos, Florence, ed. Working-Class Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2008. Print.

Bradfield, Thomas. “The Ethical Impulse of Mrs. Browning’s Poetry.” Westminster Review 146 (August 1896): 174-84. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Frederic Kenyon. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1897.  Print.

—. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella. Ed. Scott Lewis. 2 vols. Waco, TX: Wedgestone P, 2002. Print.

—. The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Gen. ed. Sandra Donaldson. Vol. eds. Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone, and Beverly Taylor. 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010). Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Florentine Friends: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning to Isa Blagden 1850-1861. Ed. Philip Kelley, Sandra Donaldson. Associate eds. Scott Lewis, Edward O’Hagan, Rita S. Patteson. Winfield KS & Waco TX: Wedgestone Press and Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University, 2009. Print.

Browning, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Brownings’ Correspondence. Ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, Scott Lewis, et al. 21-vols.- (Winfield: Wedgestone Press, 1984-). Cited parenthetically as BC. Print.

Chambers, Helen. “Reading and Responding to English Women Writers: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and Helen Druskowitz.” Women’s Writing 18:1 (2011): 86-102. Print.

Chapman, Alison. “‘I think I was enchanted’: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Haunting of American Women Poets.” Representations of Death in Nineteenth-century US Writing and Culture. Ed. Lucy Elizabeth Frank (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007): 109-24. Print.

—. “Poetry, Network, Nation: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Expatriate Women’s Poetry.” Victorian Studies 55:2 (2013): 275-285. Print.

Carpenter, Mary Wilson. “Blinding the Hero.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17 (2006): 52-67). Print.

Craig, Hugh and Alexis Antonia. “Six Authors and the Saturday Review: A Quantitative Approach to Style.” Victorian Periodicals Review 48:1 (2015): 67-86. Print.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.

Dieleman, Karen. Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Proctor. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2012. Print.

Donaldson, Sandra. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography of the Commentary and Criticism, 1826-1990. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Print.

—. “Textual Introduction.” Aurora Leigh. Ed. Sandra Donaldson. The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. General Editor: Sandra Donaldson.

Eliot, George. The George Eliot Letters. Ed Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78. Print.

Eisner, Eric. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Energies of Fandom.” Victorian Review 33:2 (Fall 2007): 85-102. Print.

Hayter, Alethea. Mrs. Browning: A Poet’s Work and its Setting. London: Faber and Faber, 1962. Print.

Hudd, L. “The Politics of a Feminist Poetics: ‘Armgart’ and George Eliot’s Critical Response to Aurora Leigh.” Essays and Studies 49 (1996) : 62-83. Print.

Huett, Lorna. “Among the Unknown Public: Household Words, All the Year Round, and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Periodicals Review 38: (2005): 61-82. Print.

Hughes, Linda K. “Annexing the Possibilities: The Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex.” Victorian Institute Journal. Digital Annex 38 (2010). Web. 21 September 2015.

—. “Media by Bakhtin/Bakhtin Mediated.” Book Review Forum. Victorian Periodicals Review 44 (2011): 293-97. Print.

—. “What the Wellesley Index Left Out: Why Poetry Matters to Periodical Studies.” Victorian Periodicals Review 40:2 (2007): 91-25. Print.

Kaplan, Cora. Introduction to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. London: The Women’s Press, 1978; rpt. 1989. 5-36. Print.

Kinser, Brent and David Sorenson. “Thomas Carlyle’s Comments on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.” Web. 2 April 2015.

LaMonaca, Maria. Masked Atheism: Catholicism and the Secular Victorian Home. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. Print.

Laporte, Charles. Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible. Charlottesville & London: U of Virginia P, 2011. Print.

Lewis, Linda M. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Spiritual Progress: Face to Face with God. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998. Print.

—. Germaine de Staël, George Sand, and the Victorian Woman Artist. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003. Print.

Lewis, Michael D. “The Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews in 1848: Allies against French Revolution and British Democracy.” Victorian Periodicals Review 47:2 (2014): 208-33. Print.

Liddle, Dallas. The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain. Charlotteseville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2009. Print.

Lines, Richard. “Swedenborgian Ideas in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning.” In Search of the Absolute—Essays on Swedenborg and Literature. Ed S. McNeilly. Journal of the Swedenborg Society 3 (2004): 23-43. Print.

Loeffelholz, Mary. Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory (Urbana & Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991). Print.

Lootens, Tricia. Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1996. Print.

Machann, Clinton. Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Manarin, Karen. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Canon Formation, and the North American Literary Curriculum.” Victorian Review 33.2 (2007): 119-31. Print.

Markovits, Stefanie. “Adulterated Form: Violet Fane and the Victorian Verse Novel.” ELH 81:2 (2013): 635-61. Print.

Martinez, Michele C. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh: A Reading Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012. Print.

Meredith, Owen. Letters from Owen Meredith to Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Ed. Aurelia Brooks Harlan and J. Lee Harlan, Jr. Baylor U: Browning Institutes Series 10, vol. 39, December 1939. Print.

Mermin, Dorothy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.

Nixon, Jude V. “‘[S]he shall make all new’: Aurora Leigh and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Re-Gendering of the Apocalypse.” Victorian Religious Discourse. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 72-93. Print.

Palmegiano, E. M. Perceptions of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals. Anthem Press, 2012. Web. EBSCO Host.

[Patmore, Coventry.] “The Social Position of Woman.” North British Review 14 (February 1851): 514-40. Print.

P[reston], H[arriet] W[aters], ed. “Biographical Sketch,” headnotes, and notes to The Complete Poetical Works of Mrs. Browning. Cambridge Editions. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1900. xi-xviii. Print.

Reynolds, Margaret, ed. Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992. Print.

—. Aurora Leigh. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.

Rossetti, William Michael, ed. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters. 2 vols. London: Ellis, 1895. Print.

Rudy, Jason. Electric Metres: Victorian Physiological Poetics. Athens: Ohio UP, 2009. Print.

Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-12. Print.

Scheinberg, Cynthia. Women’s Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Stark, Robert. “[Keeping] up the Fire: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Victorian Versification.” The Journal of Browning Studies 1 (2010): 49-69. Print.

Steinmetz, Virginia. “Images of ‘Mother-Want’ in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry 21.4 (1983): 351-67. Print.

Stiles, Cheryl. “‘Different Planes of Sensuous Form’: American Critical and Popular Response to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Last Poems: Annotated Bibliography, American Periodicals, 1852-62.” Victorian Periodicals Review 40.3 (2007): 239-55. Print.

Stone, Marjorie. “Critical Introduction.” Aurora Leigh. Vol. 3. Ed. Sandra Donaldson. The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Gen. ed. Sandra Donaldson. Vol. eds. Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor. Print.

—. “Cursing as One of the Fine Arts: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Political Poetry.” 1986; rpt. Critical Essays on Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Donaldson. 184-201. Print.

—. “Editing Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh, Recent Editions of ‘Selected Poems’ and the Case for a Comprehensive Critical Edition.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (1993-7): 132-52. Print.

—. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995. Print.

—. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Eds. H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Vol. 8. 233-42. Print.

—. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. General Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Associate Eds. Pamela K. Gilbert and Linda K. Hughes. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. Print and Digital.

—. “The Female Breast in Victorian Poetry.” Dalhousie Review 64 (1984-85): 751-68. Print.

—. “Sisters in Art: Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Victorian Poetry 32:3-4 (1994): 339-64. Print.

Stone, Marjorie and Beverly Taylor. “Introduction.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

Stone, Marjorie, Beverly Taylor and Keith Lawson. “Poems” and “Criticism” Sections. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Prefatory note to Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Smith, Elder, 1898. vii-xiv. Print.

—. The Swinburne Letters. Ed. C. Y. Lang. 6 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1859-62. Print.

Swyderski, Ann.  “Dickinson and ‘that Foreign Lady –.’” Symbiois: A Journal of Anglo-American Relations 4 (2000): 51-63. Print.

—. “Dickinson’s Enchantment: The Barrett Browning Fascicles.” Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Relations 7 (2003): 75-98. Print.

Taplin, Gardner B. The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New Haven: Yale UP, 1957. Print.

Taine, H[ippolyte]. Notes on England. Trans. W. F. Rae. New York: Holt & Williams, 1872. Print.

Taylor, Beverly. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 199. Victorian Women Poets. Ed. W. B. Thesing. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. 79-99. Print.

—. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Politics of Childhood.” Victorian Poetry 46 (2008): 405-27. Print.

—. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Transnationalism: People Diplomacy in ‘A Fair-going World.’” Victorian Review 33:2 (2007): 59-83. Print.

Texte, Joseph, Etudes de littérature Européene. Paris: Armand Colin et Cie, 1898. Print.

Tucker, Herbert F. Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790-1910. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “English Poetesses.” Queen (8 December 1888): 742-3. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “Aurora Leigh.” The Second Common Reader. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932. 218-31. Print.

Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 8 (1989): 241-62. Print.


[1] I would like to thank Robin Inboden and another unidentified peer reviewer of this BRANCH essay for their helpful suggestions, and Kenneth Crowell for his thorough copy-editing assistance. This essay draws on reviews and criticism initially investigated with the aid of grant support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[2] Poem 207, “I think I was enchanted” in Franklin; the other two elegies are “Her – ‘last Poems’” (Fr600) and “I went to thank Her–” (Fr637). EBB’s impact on Dickinson has been much discussed. See, e.g., Bennett 14-16, 152-53; Loeffelholz 67-76; Swyderski 2000 and 2003; Chapman, 2007.

[3] See Lootens’s analysis of the displacement of Aurora Leigh by Sonnets from the Portuguese (ch. 4 in Lost Saints); Stone’s tracking of responses to EBB from the 1860s to the 1970s in “The Handmaid’s Tale” (ch. 5 in Elizabeth Barrett Browning); and Avery’s analysis of EBB as the “madwoman in the basement” (riffing on Woolf’s and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s landmarks study The Madwoman in the Attic) in “A Poet Lost and Regained” (ch. 1 in Avery and Stott). See also Manarin, and the overview of EBB’s reception in Stone and Taylor 1-6.

[4] See Donaldson 1993; Taylor 1999 (DLB); Stone 2004 (DNB) and 2015 (Wily-Blackwell Encyclopedia); and Stone and Taylor 2009.

[5] For a comparison of Reynolds’s edition with problems in the texts and annotation of paperback editions still commonly used (Penguin, World’s Classics), see Stone, “Editing Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

[6] Gen. Ed. Sandra Donaldson; Volume Editors: Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor. For associate editors who contributed in other ways, see volume title pages, headnote attributions in some instances, and “The Editorial Team: History, Roles, Responsibilities and Contributions,” vol. 1: xiii-xiv. The annotated WEBB text of Aurora Leigh in vol. 3 (vol. ed. & “Textual Introduction,” Donaldson) includes textual variants in editions published in EBB’s lifetime. The “Critical Introduction” (Stone) treats the genesis, composition, and formative contexts of Aurora Leigh.

[7] The BC editors with Kelley are Ronald Hudson (vols. 1-8), Scott Lewis (vols. 9-14), and, beginning with Volume 15, Lewis and Edward Hagan.

[8] Sections three and five of this entry draw at some points on materials earlier treated more briefly and selectively in the Victorian half of this “Overview,” focused on British periodicals only. On the term “digital annex,” see Hughes 2010.

[9] On the impact of EBB’s Poems (1844), see Donaldson’s annotated bibliography and Stone 1995, 29-31.

[10] “Elizabeth Barrett Barrett” was the authorial name she chose to use before her marriage to Robert Browning in 1846, although her full name was “Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett”; on the complexities of EBB’s family name and her signature practices, see Stone and Taylor, “Introduction,” 9, notes 1 &2.

[11] See, under “Criticism” for a selection of annotated “Tribute Poems” produced by Taylor and Stone to supplement the appendices to their Broadview edition.

[12] The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: C. S. Francis & Co.; Boston: Crosby & Nichol, 1852), inscribed: “Sue H. Gilbert Jan 1st. 53.” Harvard University. Emily Dickinson Family Library, Item 144.

[13] Epigraphs for Chapters 3, 28, 42, and 47.

[14] Annotated texts of Books I, II, and key extracts from Book V of Aurora Leigh can be found at text as edited by Donaldson for WEBB, annotations adapted from Reynolds, 1996 and WEBB, by Stone.

[15] On Marian’s role as Aurora’s muse, see especially Zonana; Stone 1995, 149-51, analyses Marian as muse for both Aurora and Romney.

[16] For analysis of the lava and breast, past and present metaphors in this passage, see Stone, “The Female Breast.” On the recurrent breast images in Aurora Leigh, see Steinmetz, Kaplan 15, and Mermin 190-92.

[17] See LTA 2: 288n; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, ed. William Michael Rossetti, 2:323. Despite DGR’s warnings to Christina, his own poems often echo EBB’s; see Stone, “Sisters in Art.”

[18] On the Saturday Review slashing style and hostility to women’s rights, see Craig and Antonia, esp. 67, 80-82.

[19] Lootens notes (128) that Aytoun’s “Pythoness” image later recurs in Edmund Gosse’s late-century reference to EBB’s “Pythian shriek,” though not Aytoun’s earlier echo of Venables.

[20] In his obituary, Chorley remarks of Aurora Leigh, that “strange, sublime, unequal, prosaic, poetical novel in blank verse,” that no one “can lay down until the end, let him be ever so angry, ever so afraid of the woman in Britomart’s armour going forth to combat for her sex” (1861, 20).

[21] Most notably, Herbert Tucker reads Aurora Leigh as primarily harnessing the “authentic power” of spasmodic epic, although he also notes that it employs a “compendium of epic modes” (377-78); see also Rudy 102.

[22] See, e.g., her comments on extracts from Dobell’s Balder and her amazement in 1854 that Smith’s Poems had gone into a third edition (BC 20: 103, 143).

[23] See WEBB 2: 125-34; in the extended headnote, Stone and Taylor document EBB’s fascination with the cross-dressing Sand and later meetings with her.

[24] L. Lewis notes some of these echoes in Germaine de Staël 195; see also Hudd.

[25] Challen, 1862 140. On modern critical reading of Aurora’s response to her dead mother’s portrait, see, e.g., Mermin 190-1, Martinez, 38-9.

[26] Kaplan, 28, 32; on Romney’s blinding see, e.g., Carpenter.

[27] See, e.g., Arishstein; Mermin 234-6; Lootens 128; Stone, “Cursing” 197-99.

[28] See the BRANCH entry on the reception of Poems before Congress by Denae Dyck and Marjorie Stone, forthcoming.

[29] Qtd. in “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Politics of Childhood” (2008), where Taylor demonstrates how the poet sought to raise the Brownings’ son Pen as a “citizen of the world” (410). On EBB’s transnational identity as expressed in in Casa Guidi Windows (especially the critique of the British imperialism embodied in the 1851 Great Exhibition), in a related unpublished ms, “Our Journey to Sinigaglia,” and in Poems before Congress, see Taylor’s “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Transnationalism” (2007).

[30] Challen is not identified as the author of this review in Donaldson’s bibliography, but he refers back to it as his in a subsequent 1862 review in the same journal that Donaldson tentatively identifies as by him (97).

[31] Zampini-Salazar’s 1896 study Roberto ed Elisabetta Browning (Naples) and her 1898 article on Aurora Leigh in Rassegna nazionale (Florence) are later drawn on for fuller treatment in La vita e le opere de Roberto Browning ed Elisabetta Barrett-Browning con prefazione di Antonio Fogazzaro (Torino, 1907); cited by D. Bisignano, 201-2. Donaldson’s bibliography notes several other Italian studies in this period: 1896:4 Giulio Monti on EBB in Emporium Bergamo Italy 3 (May): 354-63; 1896:6 A[ntonio] Fogazzaro. Naples: A Tocco. “Preface” to Roberto ed Elisabetta Browning; 1898:19 Tullo Massarani, Poesie scelte di Elisabetta Barrett Browning Milan: Fratelli Treves, rpt of 1897:23.

[32] This impression would need to be tested by more systematic analysis than I have engaged in for this essay.

[33] On the Swedenborgian elements in Aurora Leigh, see L. Lewis, Lines, and Laporte; on biblical higher criticism, see Laporte; on transubstantiation, see Lamonaca; on female wisdom figures in the classical, Jewish, and Christian traditions in the verse novel, see L. Lewis, Scheinberg, and Houston; on its Congregationalist “religious imaginaries,” see Dieleman; and on apocalyptic and socialist millennialism, especially in the poem’s ending, see Nixon, Carpenter, and Stone, 1995.