I feel at every page, as I read your book, the deep truth of that assertion of Strabo’s … “To be a good poet one must first be a good man.”1
Edward Bulwer Lytton’s words of praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh demonstrate the confusion of categorization that her “novel-poem” presented for its first readers.2 Lytton elects not to paraphrase his translation of Strabo’s aphorism so as to acknowledge Barrett Browning’s gender; he includes her, instead, within the ostensibly universal category of the male poet. At the same time, the quotation directly aligns the quality of the poem with its author’s identity. It seemed that Victorian critics like Lytton could neither avoid defining the aesthetic value of Aurora Leigh in gendered terms nor yet decide to which gender its hybrid form belonged.
Admirers of Aurora Leigh tended to see it as a harmonious marriage of the masculine domain of poetry and the feminine domain of the domestic novel. Alongside the encomia of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin, Leigh Hunt praised the poem for its “combination of masculine power with feminine tenderness.”3 Some reviewers, however, expressed their discomfort with Browning’s appropriation of “Milton’s organ … to play polkas in May-Fair drawing-rooms.”4 Writing in the Westminster Review, George Eliot applauded “Mrs. Browning [for being], perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex.”5 A review in the very next issue countered, “Mrs. Browning seems at once proud and ashamed of her womanhood. She protests, not unjustly, against the practice of judging artists by their sex; but she takes the wrong means to prove her manhood.”6 Evidently some readers still saw Barrett Browning’s attempt to transcend the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” through their aesthetic union as a female author’s usurpation of the universal position of the male subject.7 [End Page 277]
Aurora Leigh illuminates the vexed relation in Victorian criticism between the deployment of conventionally masculine styles or subject matter by women authors and the comparatively fluid identification across gender lines expected of women as readers.8 Barrett Browning’s heroine is a reader of literature who seeks inspiration for her own writing through identification with male authors and male subjects. In our own time, critics such as Helen Cooper, Angela Leighton, and Beverly Taylor have argued that Aurora’s masculine sources of identification and inspiration are temporary obstacles to her self-affirmation as a female artist.9 This essay will argue, to the contrary, that Aurora’s deliberate fluctuations across the boundaries of gender identification, both as reader and as writer, maintain the integrity of her female subjectivity. It will do so by situating Aurora’s fluidity of gender identification within the Victorian discourse of feminine readerly sympathy. Women readers were exhorted from girlhood to prepare for the experience of subsuming themselves in their husbands—their legal and political representatives—by imagining themselves amid or even within male characters engaged in masculine activities. Femininity itself was conceptualized as the ability to identify with men. Aurora, however, far from effacing herself, undertakes an active, “elective affinity” with her father through his literary legacy as well as with her male muses of poetry. This strategy of masculine identification as an active aesthetic choice enables rather than represses Aurora’s poetic self-expression.
Written during the debates surrounding the reform of marriage law that would continue through the end of the century and published a year before the passing of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, Aurora Leigh narrates the development of a female subject which culminates in her prospective marriage. Nevertheless, the work promotes an emphatically literary rather than marital or relational mode of female identification with masculinity. Despite its hybrid status as a novel-poem, Aurora Leigh abhors the idea of fusion, especially one in which the female self is absorbed into wifely influence. Using the trope of the nosegay, Barrett Browning represents art as an ideal of productive combination without the dissolution of individual elements—such as the dissolution of female identity within legal marriage.