Aurora Leigh and “My Last Duchess”: Women’s Rights

Women and men alike in the nineteenth century wanted women to have the same economic and political freedoms as men. Women authors during the Victorian era started to gain positive recognition for their works. For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was seriously considered for the poet laureate (“Overview, R. Browning, and E. B. Browning”). Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856) and “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning (1842) brilliantly showcase the Victorian attitudes toward women as well as the Brownings’ desire for those attitudes to change.

For clarity, when referred to without their first names Browning refers to Robert Browning and Barrett Browning refers to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Additionally, it is worth noting that the sources I had available for the majority of the drafting of this piece did not include the entirety of Aurora Leigh. I have only read what was included in The Norton anthology of English Literature, version 9. This article is adapted from an essay I wrote for a Liberty University English class.

 

During that same period, the Langham Place Circle became the first organized women’s suffrage movement in the UK during the 1850s. According to Esquire, “[In 1940 a]t the World Anti-slavery Convention in London, several male abolitionists stand with women against hypocrisy of segregationist rules barring female participation.” In the late 19th century women were able to secure increased independence and recognition by the state, especially pertaining to parental rights in the event of divorce.

Florence Nightingale is well remembered for her volunteer nursing efforts in the Crimean War. Her work lead to the rise of nurses in the medical field and legitimized the efforts of other women attempting to do medical work.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a “British novelist and social historian. Mrs Gaskell’s novels portray the lives of a cross-section of Victorian society” (Biography Online, Famous Victorians).

Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, and Annie Besant were activists during this time period. Pankhurst and Fawcett were suffragettes, though they took drastically different approaches to secure freedom: Pankhurt chose to be militant while Fawcett chose non-violence. Besant campaigned for the working poor and defied the Victorian expectations of a passive wife with her radicalism and separation from her husband (Biography Online, Annie Besant).

Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë were notable female poets of the Victorian era. Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights is a literary classic.

 

Robert Browning artfully wove word usage and poetic elements in “My Last Duchess” to emphasize the duke’s monstrous nature, practically forcing the reader’s sympathy to rest with the previous duchess. “My Last Duchess” is based on part of the life of Alfonso II, the Italian Duke of Ferrara, and the duke in the poem is living in the sixteenth century (note from the Anthology, p. 2124). It records an imagined one-sided conversation between the duke and an agent for the count, the father of the woman the duke wishes to marry now. The poem consists of iambic pentameter and rhymed couplets, creating structure despite the duke’s impression of attempting to speak casually. Most of the poem’s rhymed couplets are open, or lacking punctuation, pushing the stress to the middle of the next line where the sentences end. In this way, Browning used enjambment to emphasize the terrible things the duke is telling the agent who will be presenting the duke’s marriage request to the count by whom he is employed (Wright, 2015). As Watson (1973) notes, the man with the duke does not speak once, creating the impression that he is not shocked by what he is being told, that is, that the duke is both acting naturally and his behavior was normal for the time period. Browning created a believable sixteenth century duke and included elements that enhanced the duke’s believability.

The duke in “My Last Duchess” is realistic in the ways he refers to and speaks of the late duchess as well as how he treated his wife. The opening lines of “My Last Duchess” read, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive. I call / That piece a wonder, now.” To today’s reader, it will seem that the duke is speaking of the painting, but that is actually not the case. As Crowder (2012) explained in his short article, the duke is referring to the subject of the portrait as the portrait itself, a common practice in the sixteenth century that later came to be seen as rude. Reading the poem in this light, it is clear that the duke likes his late duchess better now that she is dead. The duke viewed his wife as something he owned; he desired to control her, and chose to kill her when he found he could not (lines 45-47). Now that she is dead, the duke has power over who sees the “earnest glance” and smiles that the duchess was too flippant with (lines 5-15, 20-34). It is possible that Browning chose a time period when women were treated worse than they were in his own to make the reader think of how the duke should have treated the duchess and responded to her actions.

 

Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh communicates Barrett Browning’s attitudes concerning women’s rights through the narrator Aurora. In book two of Aurora Leigh, Aurora rejects Romney’s marriage proposal because he does not respect her poetic aspirations, even though he thinks she would be a wonderful wife (lines 90-96, 110-115, 345-349). Aurora accusingly claims that Romney has long been married to his “social theory” when Romney questions her rejection (book 2, lines 408-410). Barrett Browning is telling the reader that women are not just on earth to be men’s wives, but to live their lives also, and women can choose not to marry a man who will not support them in their aspirations. Barrett Browning, a woman herself, made arguments for women’s rights in Aurora Leigh and helped change the misconception that women cannot write poetry as well as or even better than their male contemporaries.

Barrett Browning employed symbolism regarding her characters, in particular Aurora and Romney, to convey their character qualities to the reader and make a statement about women’s rights. As Stone (2011) mentions, Aurora is frequently associated with air or wind throughout the epic, however, Romney is compared with earth until “purified by fire.” This may be symbolic of the freedom inherent in the high view of women Aurora holds versus the more traditional, binding view of women Romney adheres to for the majority of Aurora Leigh. Later in the epic, though not in the specific selections included in the Anthology, Romney proposes again, and this second time, Aurora accepts. After Romney’s view of Aurora’s poetry changes, and his view of her, somewhat as well, Aurora is willing to marry him. Aurora is unwilling to marry Romney until he adopts a higher view of women and their equal ability to be authors or poets. In the same way, Barrett Browning wanted women to be viewed as men’s equals in society and in the field of literature.

 

Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Browning’s “My Last Duchess” fit into the Victorian period ideologically. The Victorian period, delineated by Queen Victoria’s reign, is defined by change and technological advancement. Bristow (2004) mentions in his essay that “[s]eldom, however, has ‘Victorian’ delivered theoretical concepts either for or about the eclecticism of the poetry it is supposed to characterize.” Bristow (2004) also mentions that the Victorian period, and Victorian poetry, was far more Modern than previously recognized. The poets of the age were concerned with women’s rights, equality despite race, universal suffrage, and other similar goals that carried into the Modern period as well. The age was also one of increasing technology and a growing fascination with and dependence on that technology. Barrett Browning and Browning were both concerned with those things, in particular women’s rights, of which Aurora Leigh and “My Last Duchess” are examples. According to Gbogi (2014), Barrett Browning, despite being commonly compared to her male contemporaries and being viewed as the first subversive woman poet, was no such thing, but rather was part of a feminist literary tradition. Also, as Stone (2011) mentions regarding Barrett Browning’s rejection of Medievalism, “she resembled numerous other women writers.” Browning and Barrett Browning, whether consciously or not, wrote Victorian poems, that, while unique, had elements and messages similar to other Victorian writers’ poems.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning embedded their views on women’s rights into “My Last Duchess” and Aurora Leigh. Though Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is far longer and contains much more material than Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” both make important points concerning women and how they are viewed. “My Last Duchess” shows a power-hungry sixteenth century duke sorely mistreating his wife to the point of murdering her for showing some individuality and independence. Aurora Leigh chronicles the life of a women poet who emigrated from Italy to Great Britain who first rejects and later accepts a marriage proposal, the answer dependent upon the man’s attitude toward her and her poetry. Regardless of one’s perspective of Victorian era feminism and gender politics, the Brownings were part of the movement and its ideology affected their works.

 

References

Aronson, A., & Watson, E. “Great Moments in the History of Gender Equality.” Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/news/a9675/gender-equality-history-moments/

Biography Online. “Annie Besant.” https://www.biographyonline.net/women/annie-besant.html

Biography Online. “Famous Victorians.” https://www.biographyonline.net/people/famous/victorians.html

Bristow, Joseph. 2004. “Whether ‘Victorian’ poetry: A genre and its period.” Victorian Poetry, 42(1); 81-109.

Crowder, Ashby Bland. 2012. The piece in “My last duchess.” Notes and Queries, 59(3), 390-391.

Gbogi, Michael Tosin. 2014. Refiguring the subversive in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” Neohelicon, 42(2), 503-516.

Greenblatt, S., Christ, C. T., David, A., Lewalski, B. K., Lipking, L.,Logan, G. M.,…Stillinger, J. (2013). The Norton anthology of English literature, 9.

“Overview, R. Browning, and E. B Browning.” Liberty University, English 216 presentation.

Stone, Marjorie. 2011. Elizabeth Barret Browning. Victorian, 49(3), 357-376, 434-435.

Watson, J. R. 1973. Robert Browning: “My last duchess.” Critical Survey, 6(1/2), 69-75.

Wright, Alyssa. 2015. The duke’s true character in “My last duchess.” Liberty University, ENGL 102.

 

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Impactful Heroines

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved two things: Broadway and books. Why? Because I loved delving into a world and dissecting the different characters to figure out their actions and what makes them tick so I could better understand them. I love stories (true or fictional!) and the ability they have to connect and resonant with different people. As I look back, I realize I’ve always looked up to and connected with strong female characters. These characters were the outliers, girls who were different and dared to think and dream differently than everyone else. What drew me to these different characters was that I saw parts of myself in them. I felt like I could relate to their situations and their thought processes. As I analyzed each character, I learnt from them and what I learnt helped me grow as a person. Below, I have chosen a few of the characters that have had a long lasting impact on me and how old I was when I grew up with them.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder – 8-11
I’m pretty sure Laura was the first female protagonist that I looked up to. She was bold, brave, spunky and wanted to play by her own rules. I admired how loyal she was and how she was more than willing to speak her mind. I think the best part of her character was how she was imperfect. I felt like that made her even more relatable as a character. I like how she constantly pushed the boundaries of convention and how she strove to improve and keep challenging herself.

For one Christmas, I got a huge stack of books about the real Laura which I promptly devored. I even got to see the Little House On The Prairie musical when it came to town. A friend of my mom’s made me a bonnet and I thought it was the coolest thing. I still have it.

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Katniss Everdeen – 11-13
At the end of my Little House on the Prairie obsession, I discovered the Hunger Games and was fascinated by Katniss. Actually, I read the first book when I was nine but wasn’t impressed. For some reason, it wasn’t my cup of tea at the time. The second time around, I was drawn to her strength and tenacity. She was willing to go the distance to protect the people that she cared about. Like me, she didn’t let a lot of people into her inner circle but the ones she allowed in she fiercely loved and protected. She was resilient and refused to let anything or anyone change her. I loved how she didn’t care what anyone thought about her. She had her own set of morals and rules and she refused to compromise no matter how difficult the situation was.

Katniss was the one who initially got me to like the color green. It’s still my favorite color. I also tried archery because of her. My mom, a friend, his mom, and I saw the first movie together and I absolutely loved it… I said every line with each character for the entire film.

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Nina Rosario – 14-17
Nina Rosario is a character from a musical called “In The Heights.” She’s a Latina woman and the first in her family to attend college. To this day, her song “Breathe” still resonates strongly with me because I see so much of myself in her. She and I are so alike. We’re both daughters of parents who immigrated to the states. We both are hard on ourselves and have a huge fear of failure because we don’t want to let our family, friends, and ourselves down. She also struggles with the questions that I do about trying to find our identities and trying to find our place in the world as well as trying to figure out how we fit into our two cultures. Just listening to what she sings throughout the show brings tears to my eyes because I feel like she says what I feel… she understands. Here’s part of another song from the show… Nina’s lyrics are the same things I struggle with. I’m trying to learn more about my culture, I’m trying to learn Chinese, and I still don’t know where I’m supposed to be. At the end of the musical, she’s able to get some answers and choose a path for herself. I’m not quite there yet but I know that I will and everything will be okay.

 

In this post, I chose to focus on the characters that had made a major impact on me. Here are a few characters that deserve honorable mention: Clarisse from Fahrenheit 451, Petra Arkadian from Ender’s Game, Francie Nolan from Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Tris Prior from Divergent, Johanna Mason and Clove from the Hunger Games, Annabeth Chase from Percy Jackson and Campbell Davis from Bring It On:The Musical.

Currently, I don’t have a character that I’m growing up with/ learning from but I can’t wait to find her. Each of these girls left such an impression on me and are a reminder of the importance of human connection and the power of a story.

The End

Panem vs the US: Could Fiction Become Reality?

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is a well-known story about romance, revolution, and resilience. The books and movies follow Katniss Everdeen as she is thrown into a fight to the death against twenty-three other teenagers for the entertainment of the Capitol and her subsequent involvement in a revolution to overthrow the Capitol’s rule over the general population.

Recently, I decided to reread The Hunger Games to compare the book world to the real world.

The country Panem occupies a large part of former North America, the landform of which has been severely altered due to the rise of sea levels. Surrounding the Rocky Mountains are thirteen Districts which have been subjugated by the Capitol located within the mountains. The Capitol uses force via Peacekeepers (armoured soldiers similar to the Stormtroopers in Star Wars), to keep order and ensure that each District produces enough resources to meet the Capitol’s demand. Seventy-four years before the books begin, there was a revolution to overthrow the Capitol which ended in failure. Following the failed revolution, the thirteenth District was supposedly destroyed. At the same time, the governing body in the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games in order to pit the Districts against each other to ensure division and to instill enough fear to quell the thought of any further revolts. For a time, this method worked and peaceful submission was maintained.

In terms of technology, people, for the most part, have access to much of the same items we do. However, there are several instances where technology is more or sometimes less advanced than the world we know. In the Districts, people tend to live slightly more primitively due to their poverty. However, every household, no matter how rich or poor, has Capitol-issued televisions for the sole purpose of disseminating propaganda. In the Capitol, the majority of people tend to have the standard of living close to middle class Americans although there are citizens that live on the two extremes of being either extraordinarily rich or devastatingly poor.

For clothing and fashion, there is both similarity and stark contrast to Western civilization. In District 12, the poorest people who live in the Seam wear plain clothes that often are infused with coal dust while the richer merchants, whose clothes are also relatively simple, tend to be cleaner and have more variety. This is not unlike today. In contrast, among citizens of the Capitol, wild fashion, including “aesthetic” over-the-top body modifications, is common. The people dye their hair unnatural colors or wear wigs in order to stand out. Both men and women wear heavy, extravagant makeup. This is more dissimilar to today, where while some people dye their hair bright colors and men sometimes use makeup, most do not go to the extremes seen in the book.

The books focus mainly on the relationship between the government and its citizens, especially the citizens in the Districts. Both the Capitol overall and President Snow specifically subjugate the Districts. The annual Hunger Games are meant to remind the Districts of their failed revolt and the Capitol’s power over them. The level of control that the government has in the books is greater than that seen in the United States today, however, our government is taking more and more power over citizens. In some countries of the world, there have been governments that control or have controlled their citizens with methods similar to the Capitol. The examples that most closely match Panem are Communist dictatorships of the past and present, or even religious groups that are better termed cults.

Although the state of Panem seems a little absurd at the moment, the US government is gradually becoming increasingly controlling and oppressive. One cannot help but see some parallels between Panem and our own society. Perhaps it is not so far fetched to believe that our own society could one day dissolve into post apocalyptic chaos.

What comparisons or contrasts have you noticed between the real world and Panem? Let us know in the comments!