- “Nor in Fading Silks Compose”: Sewing, Walking, and Poetic Labor in Aurora Leigh
The November 1993 conference, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victorian Culture,” opened with readings from a drama based on Aurora Leigh and continued with eleven presentations, in a total of forty-two, on Barrett Browning’s novel-poem. 1 The MLA Bibliography tells a similar story. Of 142 Barrett Browning entries from 1981 through early 1995, thirty-one name Aurora Leigh as a specific object of study, more than any other single Barrett Browning title. 2 Such a concentration of effort may be problematic, but there it is: Aurora Leigh is the text of the moment in Barrett Browning studies. Our primary concern, as revealed by both these conference presentations and other recent scholarship, is to describe Aurora Leigh’s position in the contemporary discussion of women and in our current discussion of gender.
Like Susan Brown and Laura C. Berry at the 1993 conference, readers often approach such a description through genre study, regarding Barrett Browning’s poem as a simultaneous reiteration and explosion of established genres. 3 Marjorie Stone, in her comparative study of Aurora Leigh and Tennyson’s The Princess, articulates the critical rationale for this approach:
assumptions about gender interact in complex ways with the assumptions about genre that structure the creation and reception of literary texts. Analyzing the writing of texts, feminist critics have explored the ways in which women write between existing genres or adapt male-defined genres such as the bildungsroman to their own needs and rhetorical purposes, often creating new hybrid genres. Analyzing the reception of literary works, they have shown how the privileging of certain genres, the use of misleading categorization by genre, and the formulation of generic features in female or male terms have functioned to perpetuate the marginalization of women’s writing. 4
In adopting such methods, we may pursue the questionable course of reading a text in the ways it says it wishes to be read. Certainly Aurora Leigh explicitly sets out a necessary connection between genre revision [End Page 223] and gender revision, so that our work along this line functions conservatively (at least with respect to Aurora Leigh’s aesthetic proposals) rather than otherwise. Nonetheless, in this essay I too follow Aurora Leigh’s suggested methodology, and our current critical bent, to the end of addressing what seems a more immediate problem.
Given Stone’s expression of our general perception that gender and genre “interact in complex ways,” our conclusions about these interactions in Barrett Browning’s poem reduce to the curiously simple dichotomy Stone then implies: subversive hybridization or continuing marginalization. Stone’s own work exemplifies the celebratory argument that Barrett Browning’s hybridization of epic, romance and novel successfully subverts dominant categories: “Setting up a dialogue of genres to reinforce her dialogue of genders, she challenges the ‘violent order’ of gender and genre hierarchies: turning men into compulsive nurturers and women into knights-errant, substituting Aurora for Achilles, bringing plain Miss Smith face to face with Homer’s Helen and Homer’s heroes.” 5 Dierdre David represents what currently seems the only alternative. Pointing to the often-questioned end of the poem, she concludes that “the novel-poem Aurora Leigh becomes a form-giving epithalamium for the essentialist sexual politics formed primarily through Barrett Browning’s very early apprenticeship to male modes of intellectual training and aesthetic practice. In this poem we hear a woman’s voice speaking patriarchal discourse—boldly, passionately, and without rancour.” 6
Nowhere in Barrett Browning studies, whether genre focuses the discussion or not, does there seem to be any way around one of these two resolutions of Aurora Leigh’s conflicted representations of gender. That Aurora Leigh’s constructions of gender are conflicted is well-accepted, and, like most other critics, neither Stone nor David suppresses the poem’s difficulties in the progress of her interpretation. But all finally press for what I regard as unfruitfully restrictive “solutions” to these difficulties. I wish to argue that we cannot, after all, choose either the essentialist endgame, or the revisions of genre/gender most prominent in the early books, as the final disposition of the poem...