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Gender Roles in the Writings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Updated on July 17, 2012

Aurora Leigh

In Aurora Leigh and Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning at once reveals an early feminist bent and molds her speakers into the Victorian ideal of womanhood. This seems especially true of Aurora Leigh, where the main character defies Romney’s idea of a woman’s role merely as “…a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,/A wife to help your ends, —in her no end” (402-403). These lines, which occur further on in the same passage, “I too have my vocation, —work to do,/The heavens and earth have set me since I changed/My father’s face for theirs…” (455-457), assert a woman’s right to an independent calling. Later, however, Aurora “claims that it is precisely because she is not a wife (and therefore is an "imperfect woman") that she is not a perfect artist.” (Farrell).

Aurora Leigh portrays the tension between a woman as an artist, and the part a Victorian woman was expected to play. Even the title of one section, [Woman and Artist], hints at this separation between Aurora’s two roles. And, though Barrett Browning allows Aurora to reject her suitor in favor of literary pursuits and to rebel in some ways against the strictures of Victorian expectations, the other female characters in the tale are not so lucky. Aurora’s mother dies young and is, therefore, never allowed an opinion or influence, as is seen near the beginning of the [Self Portrait] passage (29-35). It is probably also worth noting that Aurora’s aunt is portrayed as a very proper, austere and repressive guardian for the young protagonist, but like the character’s mother, is hardly allowed a voice of her own (384-455).

The very fact that Aurora Leigh is written as a poetic novel also speaks of cross-gender aspirations, since poetry seems to have been considered more appropriate to male writers, whereas the novel was a more acceptable outlet for the Victorian female writer (Farrell). Because Aurora equates love and marriage with losing herself as an artist, she rejects Romney’s offer of marriage and spends much of the tale trying to reconcile her womanly nature with her chosen occupation. Eventually, finding herself continually dissatisfied with a life entirely devoted to her art, she admits to needing love. The fact that Romney eventually acknowledges the validity of Aurora’s poetry doesn’t hurt his case any, and an accident he suffers later in the story also helps to balance out the usual inequalities of a Victorian marriage (Blake). Though parts of Aurora Leigh portray a young woman struggling against Victorian social norms, E.B.B. does eventually bring the heroine around to accepting many of those same ideas.


Sonnets From the Portuguese

In their own way, Sonnets from the Portuguese also defy convention, while at the same time conforming to it. The sonnet was “a primarily masculine poetic tradition” (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1139). William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Francesco Petrarca were some of the most famous authors and originators of sonnets and sonnet forms (Miller). While being somewhat unusual in that they are female-authored sonnets, Sonnets from the Portuguese do fall in line with the Victorian idea that love, and consequently marriage and motherhood, are a woman’s highest callings. However, the speaker in Sonnets from the Portuguese is anything but a love-struck young thing, awed and grateful that a man cares for her. Instead, she demands,

If thou must love me, let it be for naught

Except for love’s sake only. Do not say

“I love her for her smile—her look—her way

Of speaking gently, —for a trick of thought

That falls in well with mine, and certes brought

A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”— (Sonnet 14, 1-6).

The speaker of Sonnets from the Portuguese is adoring and wondering, expressing love for her intended, violently shocked to find herself in such a state, and astonished at being herself loved (Sonnet 1, Sonnet 32). Nowhere in Sonnets from the Portuguese does the speaker evince any desire to be mastered or overshadowed by the object of her affection. Rather, she speaks of a time “When our two souls stand up erect and strong,/Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,” (Sonnet 22, 1-2) The textbook asserts that Sonnets from the Portuguese cast “the male recipient…in the role of sexual object…” and document “the interplay of gifted lovers whose desire is inseparable from their quest for verbal mastery” (Damrosch, and Dettmar 1139).


Works Cited

Blake, Kathleen. "Kathleen Blake on the Woman Question, The Problem of Love, and Aurora Leigh." Victorian Web., 1983. Web.

Farrell, Timothy. "Victorian Constructions of Gender in Aurora Leigh." Victorian Web., 1997. Web.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Aurora’s Education” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1160-1162. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Aurora’s Rejection of Romney” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1167,1168. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Self-Portrait” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1155. Print.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Sonnets from the Portuguese. The Longman Anthology British Literature. Vol. 2B. Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010.1145-1148. Print.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin Dettmar, ed. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning" The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2B. Boston, MA: Longman, 2010. 1139. Print.

Miller, Nelson. "Basic Sonnet Forms." Cayuse Press, n.d. Web.


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