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85 Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Energies of Fandom Er ic Eisn er • In letters written just after the publication of Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning tracked what these days we would call the poem’s buzz.1 The letters reflect her excitement and apparent mystification about the poem’s reception. In a letter to her sister Arabella dated 10–18 December 1856, she wrote that the poem was “taken up into favour with certain persons, to the amount of a mania” (273); in a letter to Anna Jameson dated 2 February 1857, she reported on the “extravagant” fan mail she had received and jokingly marvelled at “quite decent women taking the part of the book in a sort of effervescence which I hear of with astonishment” (342). Indeed, some of these women wrote directly to Barrett Browning to thank her for“‘help’—for new views of‘love, truth, and purity,’” as she informed Julia Martin in a letter dated 10 March 1857 (346). Influential readers voiced their enthusiasm: John Ruskin wrote to Robert Browning assuring him that “all the best people shout with me, rapturously” in praise of the poem (qtd. in Mermin 220).While reviews in the major periodicals were mixed, the passionate response the poem aroused in many readers is striking—as is Barrett Browning’s surprised, delighted, and sometimes bemused fascination with the “extravagances” of her readers.2 The readerly “extravagance” that fascinated Barrett Browning expressed a developing culture of literary fandom in which she participated both as an object of passionate interest and as a fan herself. Her relationship to the fan’s desire, then, was crucially reflexive. In this essay, I first ask how thinking of Barrett Browning as a participant in this culture of fandom might revise our sense of Barrett Browning as author. Moving from Barrett Browning’s own readerly response to the response she solicits from the readers of Aurora Leigh, I then examine the formal mechanisms—particularly the poem’s idiosyncratic brand of idealism—through which this poem about a literary celebrity and her fans engages with and resists the kinds of passionate reading it describes and in fact produced. Literary criticism has had an ambivalent and until recently largely unexamined relationship to the culture of literary fandom.3 As critics, we set our disciplined habits of reading apart from the fan’s supposedly naive, possibly obsessive, often transferential forms of desire.The relationship between the critic and the fan is especially vexed, however, in the case of Barrett Browning. AsTricia Lootens has shown, the idealizing extravagances of Barrett Browning’s victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 86 early defenders contributed (alongside more hostile critical judgments) to what became a near-total eclipse of her poetry by the legend of her life before the 1970s’ revival of interest in her as a poet.Those engaged in the work of critical recovery have been forced to be acutely self-conscious about their own investments in the poet in order to intervene in these mechanisms of legend and canon formation without becoming enmeshed by them.4Yet , as I will argue below, if the figure of the fan retains a double-edged potency in the critical imaginary, academic discussion of Barrett Browning still needs to come to terms with the way her authorial self-positioning is inextricable from the mid-Victorian culture of literary celebrity in which she read, wrote, and was admired. Barrett Browning may have seen in the enthusiastic response to Aurora Leigh a reflection of what she herself, a confessed“hero-worshipper,” felt for some contemporaries, most famously for George Sand.5 Behind the public stance of her sonnets to Sand are her wonderful, almost hungry, private comments, such as the remark to her friend Mary Russell Mitford, in a letter dated 28 September 1844:“I would give anything to have a letter from her, though it smelt of cigar. And it would, of course!” (EBB–MRM 2:460).6 WilliamWordsworth provoked a similar response: when he wrote in 1842 to commend the younger poet on her sonnet “Wordsworth on Helvellyn,” she confided to Mitford,“A letter from Wordsworth! Don’t tell anybody, but I kissed it” (EBB–MRM...


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