A Question of Breathing

John Bayley

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 400 pp, £14.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3018 0
  • Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 330 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3311 2
  • The Poetical Works of Robert Browning: Vol. III edited by Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler
    Oxford, 542 pp, £60.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 812762 6
  • The Complete Works of Robert Browning: Vol. VIII edited by Roma King and Susan Crowl
    Ohio/Baylor University, 379 pp, £47.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 8214 0380 X

The Romantic era produced in abundance both self-dramatisers and self-esteemers. Despite their obvious relation, they are, and remain, two distinct species. In our own literature Byron is the prototype of the first, Wordsworth of the second. The great Goethe was, in his time, king and emperor of both, and highly revered for it. In love with their fates, condemned by these to some suitable agony, the dramatisers had a more spectacular but more painful time of it than those whom Keats rather unfairly refers to as ‘large self-worshippers’. They did not exactly worship but explored themselves: in a sense, they became themselves. A process especially important for women writers.

Emily Brontë was in her own way a self-dramatiser, Charlotte a self-esteemer. Her example was easier to follow, much more influential. When Aurora Leigh was published in 1857, reviewers pointed out a striking resemblance to much in the plot of Jane Eyre. Romney Leigh, her cousin, whom the half-English half-Italian Aurora eventually marries, is blinded in a fire like Mr Rochester. But instead of being a powerful Gothic figure, he is a copybook prig with socialist principles. Self-esteemers with a need to write and a gift for it are good at having things both ways. Jane Eyre can become the happy slave in love because her demon lover is now helpless and belongs to her. When she falls into the arms of Romney, Aurora can be at once a woman, a writer, and a person with the right progressive ideas. So could the author of the poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

It is only fair to say, though, that this kind of wish-fulfilment is not only an accurate portrayal of the kind of selves that Charlotte and Elizabeth became, and wished to become: it is also a truthful discovery of what is possible for a woman, a possibility which Victorian patriarchal society was very doubtful about, but which we now take for granted. Self-esteem is the best possible foundation for self-liberation; even though the process is bound to be a contradictious one. The plots both of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh present, in their contrived and melodramatic ways, a deep home truth: that there is nothing demeaning in a woman’s dependence if it involves the equal dependence of her man. When her sister Henrietta finally managed to marry her soldier lover Surtees Cook, in the teeth of their father’s antagonism, Elizabeth Barrett was dubious about the results: but as well as being rich, Surtees proved himself a genial and doting husband and father. In a letter to her sister Elizabeth admitted that she had come to feel a real sisterly fondness for him: ‘Tell him so – tell him that I rejoice to know that you belong to him! And that’s the fullest of compliments as it is the tenderest of truths.’

As a record of Elizabeth’s own deep instinctual feelings, Aurora Leigh still has great interest today; as a contrived tale about womens’ sufferings, and the Victorian Woman Problem, it is completely unconvincing, and boring, because the reader soon sees that the poet is bored with her story, interested only in herself. The reader of any period, I suspect: my own copy of the complete poems has most of the pages of Aurora Leigh still uncut, though the rest of the book has been well thumbed. Even when just published as a verse novel, Aurora Leigh was clearly more acclaimed and reviewed than read. But it caught exactly the tone and the fashion for radical chic, as we know it today, and gratified bien-pensants for the same reason. There are a lot of novels like it now, which have a brief vogue, and make people think they are getting new stylish stuff with a social message.

There is all the difference between such a novel and a real novel, like Dickens’s and Charlotte Brontë’s, in which self-absorption is a natural part of their authors’ absorption in the social world around them. Elizabeth Barrett was fascinated by that world, but as a book-reader and rich recluse. It is significant that her puppet figure, Marian Erle, the girl who is sensationally and quite realistically wronged in the story, and saved and succoured by Aurora, rejects Romney, who has wanted to marry her for ideological reasons, and retires into domestic obscurity with the child she bore as a result of rape. It is the narrator and well-known writer Aurora, who lives à côté de la vie by being this narrator, who gets the man, and devotion, and love, at the end.

By the end Elizabeth is obviously fed up with everything in her story except this dénouement: but the first three books in which she is shamelessly talking about herself and her life are full of go, the opening especially apt.

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