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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