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REVIEWS Marjorie Stone. Women Writers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York: St. Martin's P, 1995, vü + 254. $24.95 US (cloth). "Aurora Leigh is perhaps the least 'Angelical' poem in the language. . . . The very hardness of its rhythm, its sturdy wrestlings and grapplings, one after another, with all the sternest problems of our social life — its forked-lightning revelation of character — and finally die storms of glorified passion with which it closes in darkness ... all this takes us miles from the received notion of women's poetry", according to Frances Power Cobbe, writing in 1862. With Aurora Leigh (1857), then, Elizabeth Barrett Browning changed perceptions of the woman poet — at least for many of her readers and for several years. In her concentrated and convincing book, Marjorie Stone discusses why and how Barrett Browning's work had this powerful effect She also traces the long eclipse of Barrett Browning the poet by Elizabeth the woman — the oppressed daughter, the romantic lover, Flush's anxious owner and Pen's doting mother — as well as the rapid re-emergence of the woman poet after Cora Kaplan's edition ofAurora Leigh in 1978. Since that date numerous studies of Barrett Browning have appeared. Stone engages botii widi this recent work and with Victorian assessments of the poet and her work, stressing the contrast between nineteenth and twentieth century assumptions about genre and literary traditions. This contextualized poetics allows Stone to re-situate Barrett Browning in terms both of her contemporaries and of die traditions of Romantic poetry — not Anne Mellor's "feminine Romanticism" but the "masculine Romanticism" of Shelley, Byron, and Wordsworth. Barrett Browning shares not only the energy, effrontery and personal ambitions of these writers, but also their metaphors of quest, conquest, and power. As Stone points out, Barrett Browning is "remarkable for highly self-conscious and overt poetic aspirations" (53). Like Shelley, she makes bold claims for the authority of poets, "the only truth-tellers now left to God" (Aurora Leigh 1. 859). Perhaps because of the force of her 80Victorian Review own ambitions and concepts, she shares die Romantic attraction to die Titanic aspirants, Prometheus and Satan. But she also shares the Romantics' re-visionary daring, so diat if her Eve and Satan in A Drama ofExile both resist and respond to Paradise Lost, diey also resist and respond to Byron's Cain. Stone's discussion is telling both in relation to Byron and to Barrett Browning. Perhaps she even underplays the courage evinced by Barrett Browning's Byronism. Significantly Power Cobbe thought of the end of Aurora Leigh as "like nothing else we ever read since the mountain tempest in Childe Harold". It is remarkable diat a young and sheltered woman (as Barrett Browning was when she first read Cain) should share die intense admiration felt by botii Shelleys for Byron's speculative drama at a time when it was generally condemned as blasphemous. Barrett Browning herself notes diat young poets tend "in a flush of individual life" to pour themselves "along die veins of odiers" (Aurora Leigh 1. 971-73). If her own early poems were indeed imitative, intellectually she soon demonstrated die vitality of her "individual life". Stone's emphasis on tradition might suggest diat she shares Deirdre David's view of Barrett Browning as essentially conservative and opposed to the women's movement (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987). However, Stone, while acknowledging the force of David's arguments, shows the contradictions and changes in Barrett Browning's position. Her views on women's issues were certainly changing in die mid-1850s, as she became increasingly sympathetic widi such contemporary feminists as Barbara Leigh Smith and Frances Power Cobbe. These sympadiies are apparent in Aurora Leigh's concern with women's education and especially women's work — "I too have my vocation — work to do", asserts the young Aurora (2.455). It is perhaps partly this emphasis on women's work diat has led most critics to read Barrett Browning's novel-epic as primarily die portrait of a woman writer; it is obviously tempting to read as autobiography Barrett Browning's story of a woman poet who eventually finds love as well...


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