Aurora Leigh Readalong: The Finishing

Here we are at the end of November, and here you are wondering why I have put you through this experience of reading a Victorian epic poem about a complainy poet and a saintly poor person and a snooty philanthropist and a sneaky posh lady. I don’t really have a moral to tell you. I just like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s writing a lot. I think that underneath all that waffling on about the nobility of poetry, and all that Manichean stuff about virtue and evil (ugh okay it’s not Manichean BUT KINDA), she can be a shockingly modern writer, and she has lots of excellent insights. I mean:

‘Tis our woman’s trade
To suffer torment for another’s ease.
The world’s male chivalry has perished out,
But women are knights-errant to the last;
And, if Cervantes had been greater still,
He had made his Don a Donna.

So Aurora can’t figure out if she should tell Romney was Lady Waldemar did. Y’all, I know we’re in a different time period and it’s not comparable to then because of how easy it is to get a divorce, etc., etc., but if you do ever find out that my spouse organized for someone to be sold into BASICALLY SLAVERY in order to clear their path to marrying me, please let me know. I would rather know, even if it creates problems for me in my marriage. Aurora decides that if Romney’s already married, there’s no point in her telling him, so she writes to Lord Howe (remember him? He was the one throwing that terrible party for rich people where Aurora kept staring at Lady Waldemar’s boobs) to be like “look if Romney isn’t married yet, tell him this thing; but if he is married, don’t worry about it.”

She then writes a super mean letter to Lady Waldemar, and it’s the lengthiest and most thorough shovel speech I’ve ever encountered. And I read fanfiction. Kind of often. The gist is that if Lady Waldemar is ever rude to Romney or makes him feel bad about anything, ever, Aurora and Marian will like SHOW UP AT HER HOUSE and reveal everything. The implication being that if they did this, Romney would put Lady Waldemar aside, no matter the personal cost to himself — which, if that’s the case, it makes Aurora’s decision not to tell him the thing absolutely unaccountable. She knows he’d believe her, is what this letter reveals. But she still doesn’t tell. Aurora. Come on.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to say Aurora totally is in love with Romney. She keeps being like “Am I–nah.” Girl, stick with nah. Romney is terrible. Just have a pleasant life with Marian and her baby. Look at this domestic business:

I, with shut eyes, smile and motion for
The dewy kiss that’s very sure to come
From mouth and cheeks, the whole child’s face at once
Dissolv’d on mine.

Baby kisses! So adorable, yet so wet and gross. And the baby calls her “Alola!” So to recap, she could hang out with a quiet saintly lady with cause to worship her and the quiet saintly lady’s adorable and affectionate child, or she could marry Romney Leigh who like, barely respects her.

Aurora gets a letter from her pal Vincent Carrington that her latest book has been well received, that Vincent is marrying a girl called Kate who Aurora thinks is maybe not smart enough for him (SHUT UP AURORA), and that Romney has been sick and Lady Waldemar has been nursing him back to health. So she’s like “oh I guess they are married now, well this seems like a good opportunity for me to spend a whole lot more time thinking about poetry and nature and stuff.” Oh Aurora.

Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve,
The fierce demanding whistle wailing on

“Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve, the fierce demanding whistle wailing on,” title of her sex tape, nailed it, self five.

Well then Romney comes to visit, and he’s like “I guess you heard the news?” and Aurora’s like “Yes I have definitely heard the news. Vincent Carrington told me the news.” And Romney’s like “Should we…talk about the news? After all, we almost got married that one time,” and Aurora’s like “No, I mean, I would have been a bad wife, so anyway, let’s not talk about the news.”

Cool. Cool cool cool. Seems like you two are 100% talking about the same news and no misunderstandings are occurring here whatsoever.

Romney also says that Aurora’s book is tremendous and has changed his life. I don’t have anything sarcastic to say about this part. It’s nice. He’s sorry that he was such a jerk about her writing when they were younger, and he repeatedly admits he was wrong and gives her a whole bunch of compliments. And he sneers at himself for believing that he could change the world, and Aurora tells him that she admires him for making the effort, and that he shouldn’t under-rate himself for making that effort. The whole thing actually is really sincere and sweet.

Romney tells Aurora that the poors burned down Leigh Hall, which he was trying to make into a refuge for them, and … what else? They talk a bit more and Aurora says something rude about Romney’s wife, Lady Waldemar, and Romney is legitimately like HA HA HA MY WIFE YOU THOUGHT HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. He’s so overcome by Aurora’s wrongness that he can’t even form a coherent sentence, so he just gives her a letter from Lady Waldemar.

(Y’all, I was so excited when I got to this part. Aurora and Lady Waldemar insulting each other has been the absolute best thing about this book.)

Lady Waldemar starts the letter by telling Aurora the sick burn she said about Aurora’s book after reading it to Romney. This isn’t the main point of her letter. It is 97% superfluous to the message she actually wants to relay to Aurora. But not long does she repeat the insult to Aurora’s book that she told Romney several weeks ago, she then describes how that insult was like, her mic drop for walking out of Romney’s life: “I triumphed o’er you both / And left him.”

Then the gist of the letter is that when she got Aurora’s frankly rather blackmailing letter, she told Romney the truth about what had happened with Marian, while strenuously denying that the sold-into-slavery-and-raped thing was her fault. And also that Romney loves Aurora and Aurora loves Romney but Romney’s still going to marry Marian because he feels like he should; and she, Lady Waldemar, not unreasonably washes her hands of all of them. And then this is the end of the letter. It’s so good.

Observe, Aurora Leigh,
Your droop of eyelid is the same as his,
And, but for you, I might have won his love,
And to you, I have shown my naked heart,
For which three things I hate, hate, hate you! …
I hate you from this gulph
And hollow of my soul, which opens out
To what, except for you, had been my heaven,
And is instead, a place to curse by.

In my imagination, the poem ends there. It’s just a set-up for a sequel where Romney Leigh gets kidnapped by pirates and Aurora and Lady Waldemar have to take to the sea in order to rescue him. YES I HAVE A TYPE W/R/T STORIES SO SUE ME.

In actual fact, Romney proposes to Marian because he feels like he should, Marian declines and peaces out, Aurora finds out that Romney is now blind, and Aurora and Romney confess their undying love to each other. And I guess they decide together that they’re going to each do the type of work that matters to them, but it’s going to be richer and more successful because they now also have Love.

Y’all, this has been a privilege. Aurora Leigh is exactly how I remembered it: sometimes awesome and sometimes tedious, with so many lines peppered in there that just blew me away with their clarity and insight. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Thank you to Alice for humoring me.

Aurora Leigh Readalong: Part Two

We commence Book Three with Aurora telling us a little of her career after her aunt’s death. There’s some wonderfully bitchy lines that make me wish EBB had lived in the age of Twitter (or, I mean, at least the age of online criticism, right?).

He’s ‘forced to marry where his heart is not,
Because the purse lacks where he lost his heart.’
Ah!–lost it because no one picked it up!
That’s really loss!


Mostly, though, she’s writing about writing, and it’s a good time to mention that L.M. Montgomery, author most famously of Emily of New Moon and its sequels, obviously drew a ton of inspiration from EBB, which makes me feel extra fond of LM Montgomery. I’ve already spotted one spot where Emily quotes from Aurora Leigh, and I bet if I knew the poem better when reading the Emily books, I’d notice more. It is NICE when authors I like like other authors I like.

We get introduced in this section to LADY WALDEMAR, a character I know must be important because whoever owned my copy of Aurora Leigh before me wrote in the margins LADY WALDEMAR! when she shows up. Because this is the olden days when people came to people’s houses just goddamn willy nilly apparently like damn son give a person a heads-up first cause I know the post in London was supernaturally speedy and convenient. This is your first sign that you’re not going to like Lady Waldemar.

She shows up at Aurora’s place and is like “blah blah blah this and that classical reference I don’t care about your poetry” and Aurora’s all “What?” and Lady Waldemar’s all “Okay, I’ll be straight with you, I love Romney Leigh, you know, your cousin? I’d like to not love him but here we are, I do love him so that’s what’s up, I sure am glad we’re friends Aurora” and Aurora’s all,

She actually says, “Lady Waldemar, the point’s the thing / We never seem to come to” because ahahahaha she’s a bitch and I love her.

(Romney Leigh sucks and I wouldn’t be mad if this became a poem about Lady Waldemar learning to not be a rich jerk and Aurora Leigh learning not to be an intellectual snob and then they fall in love.)

It turns out that Romney is about to marry a POOR GIRL (gasp) called Marian Erle, a disgusting seamstress, and Aurora’s like “So?” and Lady Waldemar says,

Aurora, that most radiant morning name,
You’re dull as any London afternoon.

Obviously, Lady Waldemar wants Aurora to go up to visit Romney Leigh and do the whole “I object!” thing. All I’m saying is that in the gay version of this poem, Lady Waldemar and Aurora would road-trip to wherever Romney Leigh lives, and along the way maybe they’d have to stop at some inns with only one room available and the room only has one bed because of course, and what with one thing and another, by the time they get to the wedding, Lady Waldemar has some new interests in life.

In the real, not-gay version of the poem, Aurora says this:

A love that burns through veils will burn through masks,
And shrivel up treachery. What, love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! Your love’s curable.

Aurora, who is contrary and whom I consequently adore, immediately runs off to meet Marian Erle, a properly Dickensian sort of waif who fled her home when her mother tried to sell her to a man, fell ill while running because of course, and met Romney Leigh at a hospital. She’s dull as dishwater but she does say one of the lines I remember loving best when I first read this poem:

‘Common words, perhaps;
The ministers in church might say the same;
But he, he made the church with what he spoke,–
The difference was the miracle,’ said she.

I just like that so much.

Then Romney Leigh shows up, and he and Aurora like assholes have this whole conversation about Marian in front of Marian. Marian just sits there waiting for Romney to notice her. It’s awful. He’s awful.

On the wedding day, Romney Leigh I guess invites all the rich people he knows, plus everyone in the whole of St. Giles? I am not clear exactly on what happens here, except that Aurora judges the fancy rich people in attendance for being snooty about the poors, but then she compares the poors to snakes and mud and says that remembering that day gives her nightmares. The only person at this wedding I don’t hate is this gentleman Lord Howe, who makes the following very good point:

There’s one true thing on earth;
That’s love! [Romney] takes it up, and dresses it,
And acts a play with it, as Hamlet did,
To show what cruel uncles we have been,
And how we should be uneasy in our minds.

Marian very sensibly leaves Romney at the altar. I expect this setback will do him a world of good. She writes him a letter all pitiful to say that she’s not good enough for him. Aurora Leigh suspects Lady Waldemar had a hand in it, but she’s not sure enough to say anything about it to Romney. And Romney’s like “Aurora, I’m real sad my marriage didn’t work out, and also, poetry’s still a dumb profession.”

Tune in next week for more brutal burns by Elizabeth Barrett Browning characters. I hope Aurora and Lady Waldemar get to hang out again. I enjoy how rude they are to each other.

Aurora Leigh Readalong: Part One

AT LAST I HAVE TRIUMPHED. Many years have I been badgering my good friend Alice to do a readalong of Aurora Leigh; many years has she responded with limited enthusiasm to the prospect of reading a Victorian epic poem about a cranky lady poet. BUT I HAVE WORN HER DOWN.

Thanks, Wonder Woman! I am proud!

So we are duly launching into the Aurora Leigh readalong, and I hope nobody hates it, since the fact that we’re doing it is absolutely my fault.

The first book introduces us to little Aurora, whose mother dies when she is quite young and whose father dies when she is only thirteen. Having spent her childhood in Florence, she goes to live with an aunt in England, about whom Elizabeth Barrett Browning says this:

She had lived we’ll say
A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that, she had not lived enough to know.)

I first read Aurora Leigh when I was trying to figure out my Career, and goddamn did these lines haunt me. But that, she had not lived enough to know. My recollection of this poem is primarily that it contains economically brutal descriptions like this throughout. I love Elizabeth Barrett Browning with all my heart, but I do not want her ever to describe me, please and thank you.

Aurora lives with her aunt and occasionally sees her cousin, Romney Leigh, when he comes home from school. They do not get along super well, but that’s fine because he’s not home very often, and Aurora fairly soon discovers her father’s old books and goes diving into them like Scrooge McDuck into his pile o’ gold.

except the gold is books

And then! She becomes! A poet! EBB goes into pretttttttty lengthy raptures over the art of poetry and how poets can See God and all this stuff that is probably a teeny bit hard to get through unless you grew up reading Emily of New Moon. Which some of us did. So I was fine with this. The downside is that it also caused me to read Romney Leigh, her naysaying cousin, as sliiiiiiightly Dean Priesty? Dean Priest is notably The Worst, so what I’m saying is that there’s nothing from this point onward that EBB could do to get me on board with Dean Romney.

Actually, my main memory of Aurora Leigh overall, aside from that it contained these little diamonds of insight throughout, is that Romney is so awful at the beginning that I absolutely couldn’t get on board with him as a romantic interest later on. Look at this nonsense he says to Aurora when he finds out she writes poetry!

The chances are that, being a woman, young,
And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes,
You write as well and ill upon the whole
As other women….
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you, and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

Apart from being a patronizing asshole, though, Romney seems like he’d be totally fun at parties:

The civiliser’s spade grinds horribly
On dead men’s bones, and cannot turn up soil
That’s otherwise than fetid.

My dude, I agree with you, but you are having this convo with your much-younger cousin at the ass-crack of dawn. Maybe let a girl have her morning coffee before you start going at her about the fetid soil of civilization.

Well guess the ENTIRE FUCK WHAT. This fuckery was prelude to him proposing to her, and when she’s like “Uh, you just super insulted me and my whole plan for my life, and now you want to marry me?” he hits her with this nonsense.

If your sex is weak for art
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.

Y’all, like. I do not know how much gendered nonsense EBB had to put up with w/r/t her career as an author, but if this is the kind of shit people were saying to her, I am surprised she got through her whole life without setting anybody on fire. Anyway, this is how she describes Romney’s proposal:

Come, I have some worthy work for thee below,
Come, sweep my barns and keep my hospitals,–
And I will pay thee with a common coin
Which men give women.

I’m telling you. EBB with these understatedly savage burns. I love her so much. Also:

“Did he ask?” I said;
I think he rather stooped to take me up
For certain uses which he found to do
For something called a wife. He never asked.


Her aunt, the one who OH GOD HAD NOT LIVED ENOUGH TO KNOW, that aunt, is like “Well, fine, you can choose not to marry him, but you’re not going to have any money and you’re going to starve to death in the streets because nobody else will ever look after you.” Being a lady in the olden days sounds fun, y’all. This is Aurora’s final answer:

But certain flowers grow near as deep as trees,
And, cousin, you’ll not move my root, not you,
With all your confluent storms.

Romney tries to give Aurora some money through their aunt, but Aurora figures out what’s happening and turns the cash down. They part, Romney to do Good Works in the countryside, and Aurora to attempt to become a poet in London.

Are you Aurora Leigh-ing along with us? What did you make of the first two books?