- City-Craft as Poetic Process in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh
Before a dress waltzed across a ballroom floor, it took shape under a seamstress’s needle. Mapping the movement of clothing throughout London, Victorian print culture repeatedly illustrated a dress’s mobility across high and low sectors of the city: initially shown being sewn in unsanitary, cramped garrets where seamstresses lodged, the finished product was eventually featured as an embellishment in upper-class ballrooms and boudoirs. A dress’s journey from one environment to another evokes a compelling mental image, and the wide gulf splitting the separate social spheres is an enticing terrain to traverse mentally as one tries to imagine possible forms of direct contact across this great divide. If the distance, in other words, between a garret and ballroom signified the disparity between working and affluent women throughout the nineteenth century, a dress embodied the fragile thread connecting them. While narratives of the Victorian fashion industry tend to emphasize social and spatial distances between the sites of fashion’s production and consumption, this paper focuses on unlikely connections forged between women across these spaces in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh. As Barrett Browning examines the place of female labor in the city, she posits a poetic (rather than philanthropic) view of urban workers and proposes a vision of the metropolis composed, not of distinct female types with prescribed roles (all subject to various social theories) but, rather, of workers who have joined together to carve out a new urban space founded on a common humanity. In the process of crafting a new kind of city, Barrett Browning’s protagonist builds a poetic practice that is shaped and fortified by her increased ability to connect with the disparate social types inhabiting the nineteenth-century metropolis.
Linking the production of art with issues of female labor and urban life, Aurora Leigh maps the professional development of the eponymous female poet across three European cities as Aurora pursues respite from poetic distractions only to find that a deeper engagement with others (notably the urban poor) [End Page 619] perfects her poetic vision. Urban involvement and artistic mastery—initially pitted against each other in arguments between Aurora and her philanthropist cousin Romney—thus become increasingly intertwined, eventually illustrating Barrett Browning’s injunction that poetry must be grounded in the realities of one’s own time and place as poets should “represent the age, / Their age, not Charlemagne’s.”1 Documenting this shifting perspective in a poem preoccupied with sight and blindness, I argue that Aurora Leigh’s seemingly disparate social and artistic storylines in fact comprise a single plot wherein an increased engagement with the Victorian “social question” is the catalyst for better art. Moreover, Aurora’s gaze upon the city is multidirectional, as her seemingly self-serving looking is directed back to the metropolis as she begins creating the foundation for a more socially just city at the end of the poem. Thus while the first books of the verse-novel focus on the early attempts of a young and still-learning poet, the text culminates in the poetic evocation of a perfected social order.
Featuring a female poet who rejects the conventional vocation of Victorian womanhood, Aurora Leigh is frequently read as an invective against labor coded as “woman’s work.” But, while Barrett Browning’s poet adamantly rejects the feminine milieu of domestic craft and fashionable consumption, sewing is used as a metaphor to describe both women’s work and the place of women in Victorian society throughout the verse-novel. Trading her needle for a pen, Aurora finds herself situated in a network of socially diverse women who are connected by metaphors and metonymies of sewing. As a producer of texts, Aurora initially distances herself from the feminine world of textiles—which she identifies with a certain type of frivolous and unproductive woman—in order to consecrate herself to both her art and more lucrative professional prose. Retreating to her ivory tower (or urban third story walk-up) to write poems, she nevertheless finds herself bound to the feminized world of fashion and sewing and the sordid realities of...