"The least 'Angelical' poem in the language": Political Economy, Gender, and the Heritage of Aurora Leigh
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Victorian Poetry 44.4 (2006) 525-542

"The least 'Angelical' poem in the language":
Political Economy, Gender, and the Heritage of Aurora Leigh

Since its canonical recovery in the 1970s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "novel-poem" Aurora Leigh has been a highly contested text in feminist literary criticism.1 Critics have focused on EBB's tenuous position as a female poet in mid-Victorian England, her fruitless search for literary "grandmothers," and her work in the creation of a "new poetry."2 More recently, critics like Tricia Lootens and Marjorie Stone have demonstrated how the mythologizing of EBB's life has eclipsed critical understanding of and engagement with the "novel-poem" since the late-nineteenth century.3 In the midst of this renewed critical interest, EBB's treatment of political economy in Aurora Leigh is largely unexplored critical terrain. EBB's breadth of scholarly reading is well acknowledged; Deirdre David writes, "Her library was her father's, replete with Classical literature and works of philosophy and political economy."4 The lack of critical attention to liberal economic theory in Aurora Leigh is particularly interesting given the poem's emphasis on women's waged labor, its direct reference to Adam Smith, and its iconic status in nineteenth-century feminist economic writing.5 Writers like Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Bessie Raynor Parkes, Frances Power Cobbe, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and Clara Collet directly cite Aurora Leigh as a key literary expression of their economic vision—a vision that is predicated on the tenets of classical economic theory. Their appropriation of Aurora Leigh provides a telling counter-tradition to the popular mythologies about EBB that began to be formed shortly after her death in 1861 and suggests a new way of reading her "novel-poem" along economic lines.

This essay traces the ways in which liberal economic theory comes to bear on the poetic vision of Aurora Leigh and the manner in which Victorian feminist essayists draw upon the figure of Aurora Leigh to formulate their arguments for women's increased (economic) autonomy; such analysis situates EBB, as a writer, within her cultural milieu and identifies new ways of [End Page 525] understanding the heritage of Aurora Leigh. The fact that Aurora Leigh is so self-consciously a "woman's poem"—written by and about a woman and consciously upholding ideologies of sexual difference—makes it a fruitful site for studying the tensions that arise when writing women into the liberal economic model. Aurora Leigh resists being characterized as purely an economic figure—she aspires to a "higher" purpose through her poetry—although, tellingly, it is her vocation as poet (a vocation that she describes as "Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists'") that uncovers the material dimensions and determinations of her character (2:459-260).6 EBB draws attention to the limitations of the liberal economic paradigm for conceptualizing women's waged labor and sexual difference through the seemingly incongruous union of economics and Christianity at the poem's conclusion. Like the "economists" Aurora alludes to, EBB critiques paternalistic dependence, pauperism, and over-legislation; unlike the economists, she situates women and morality at the center of her critiques.

Women, Property, and Wages

Before exploring Aurora Leigh's engagement with political economy I wish to briefly delineate the relationships between the nineteenth-century women's rights movement and political economy and, more specifically, between EBB and the women's rights agenda. Like many of her contemporaries, she rejected aspects of the formalized women's rights movement, while simultaneously writing literary texts that expose the injustices suffered by women.7 In a letter written in 1856, she writes, "Bessie Parkes is writing very vigorous articles on the woman question, in opposition to Mr. Patmore, poet & husband, who expounds infamous doctrines on the same subject . . .—Oh, if you heard Bessie Parkes!—she & the rest of us militant, foam with rage."8 In this letter EBB aligns herself with Parkes and other "militants" and opposes herself to...