- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Religion forms the most dominant strain in this year's work on EBB, in keeping with the general resurgence of interest in the subject reflected in Volume 31 (2003) of Victorian Literature and Culture on "Victorian Religion," and the important new collection Victorian Religious Discourse: New Directions in Criticism (2004), edited by Jude Nixon, among other publications. Material under review here includes a special issue of Studies in Browning and His Circle on EBB's religious and philosophical thought, as well as new essays on the importance of EBB's Congregationalist and Swedenborgian contexts (one in Nixon's collection). Other studies focus on the political and aesthetic philosophies expressed in her unjustly neglected juvenilia, her response to French literature (especially George Sand), and the metaphors of the gendered body pervading Victorian criticism of her poetry.
Volume 26 of SBHC (which I read in proofs kindly furnished by the Armstrong Browning Library) brings together eight essays on EBB first presented as papers at an "International Symposium on the Philosophical and Religious Thought of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning" at the Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University, Texas, in October 2001. (The companion volume featuring essays on Robert Browning from the conference appeared more than a year ago.) Religious themes predominate over philosophical ones in the issue, which includes considerations of a range of EBB's works: Aurora Leigh, Sonnets from the Portuguese, A Drama of Exile, "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," "The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus," "Where's Agnes," and EBB's delightfully witty juvenile essay, "A Thought on Thoughts." As one might expect, however, these religious issues prove to be inseparable from EBB's poetics, her aesthetic strategies, and her formal innovations, as well as, in many cases, integrally related to developments in Victorian and present-day cultural and literary history.
Jude Nixon's "[S]he shall make all new: Aurora Leigh and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Re-Gendering of the Apocalypse" (pp. 72-93), for example, adeptly situates EBB's novel-epic within Victorian representations of the apocalypse by Charlotte Brontë, Browning, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and Hopkins, then draws on contemporary theories of apocalyptic writing by Jacques Derrida, Tina Pippin, and others to show how, for "Barrett Browning, the apocalypse is as much political as it is religious," intimately concerned with issues of "power and authority," and therefore of gender (p. 75). As Nixon points out, EBB's interest in rewriting Revelation in the "apocalyptic postures" that proliferate in the end of Aurora Leigh is reflected in her densely woven invocations of [End Page 344] "the Mosaic Cosmogony, 'The Six-day Worker,' the numerological seven, the Noaic flood, 'Art's fiery chariot,' the Egyptian and apocalyptic plagues, the Tower of Babel, Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones, Moses's burning bush and the pillar of white cloud, Lot's wife and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the implosion of the walls of Jericho, the buried city of Atlantis, the prophet Balaam . . . and his oracles, some 'close-approaching' advent, the 'come' motif, the emphasis on writing things down, and the trav ail and resurrection" (pp. 75-76). Demonstrating EBB's deep knowledge of biblical texts and controversies—a point emphasized by several other critics this year—Nixon also considers formal and generic issues, arguing that EBB's choice of epic both contests "what to most Victorians was a waning heroic tradition," and reflects her "recognition that the epic convention is conducive to the apocalyptic." As he amply demonstrates, in Aurora Leigh apocalypse is "not some far off divine event to which the whole creation moves, but is, instead, something far more deeply interfused, containing at once the end and the beginning" (p. 79), in part because Barrett Browning invokes not only John's Revelation, but also "'the eschatology of British socialism'" (p. 87).
Nixon's analysis of Aurora as a figure of the prophet resonates with Corinne Davies' illuminating consideration of the links between the woman poet and Christ in "Aurora, the Morning Star: The Female Poet, Christology and Revelation in Aurora Leigh" elsewhere in the same special issue of SBHC (pp. 53-60). Interpreting EBB's novel-in-verse in...