Aurora Leigh Readalong, Part Three

I enjoy that the consensus of this Aurora Leigh readalong immediately and spontaneously coalesced into the following:

  1. This is very hard and requires slow, careful reading.
  2. But so many good lines!
  3. Also, Romney is a butthead.

Those three main bullet points do sum up with extreme accuracy the main three things I remember from reading Aurora Leigh for the first time in 2010 or whatever it was. For those reading along at home, I do not remember softening towards Romney as time went on. Maybe this reread will surprise me (but I don’t think so). How can I ever like someone about whom Aurora says this?

[He] likes me very well,
And wishes me a paradise of good,
Good looks, good means, and good digestion!–ay,
But otherwise evades me, puts me off
With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness,–
Too light a book for a grave man’s reading!

Too light a book for a grave man’s reading is exactly why I love this poem. I mean this passage is basically the whole of How to Suppress Women’s Writing condensed into six lines of iambic pentameter.

Then there is a lot more talk about poetry and how it’s the noblest art, much much much more noble than dumb stupid drama but drama’s okay too but not like poetry okay.

If I were EBB’s editor, I would urge her to cut 75% of the talk about how noble poetry is compared to other professions out of this poem. It would be better, and we’d all want to smack Aurora less. Reader, I skimmed.

BUT. It was T O T A L L Y worth it to get to the part where Aurora’s attending a party at the Howes’ place and learns by eavesdropping Romney is fixing to marry none other than Lady Waldemar. GASP. (Lady Waldemar is at the party too. Aurora comments on her “alabaster shoulders and bare breasts” teehee hashtag gal pals.) Aurora seems to like spending time with rich people so she can judge them. I find this to be a terrible mistake. I can judge rich people perfectly happily from a safe and comfortable distance and not use up my valuable Black Sails-watching time attending their dumb parties.

(There’s a young philosophy bro at the Howes’ party, and Aurora describes him as speaking “with just that shade of sneering on the lip / Compensates for the lagging of the beard.” PLUS CA FUCKING CHANGE, you know what I’m saying?)

Lord Howe asks Aurora to marry a dopey friend of his; Aurora has to listen to two bros have opinions about Women and also Art and also Philosophy; and Lady Waldemar pounces on Aurora to tell her all about her betrothal to Romney. Aurora’s like:

The party is so relentlessly horrible — and again, this is really Aurora’s fault for choosing to go to a rich people party — that once it’s over, she litrally leaves the country. I WOULD TOO.

The next bit is hard to read, I’m not going to lie to you. Although I never read anything that makes me interested in living in the Victorian era (it is far preferable to just read about the Victorian era), sometimes I will read something that makes me want to burn the Victorians to the ground. Book six of Aurora Leigh was one of those things.

In Paris, a city Aurora spends kind of a while defending, I guess because people in England still felt a way about Bonaparte? Or something? I don’t really know much about the mid-1800s — was there something other than Bonaparte that made all British people act snotty about France? Or was it just standard-issue England/France hostility?

Anyway, in Paris, Aurora happens across Marian in the street with a (gasp!) baby, and she basically chases Marian down to demand that Marian explain herself. She is an utter shit about everything. She’s like “Marian you allowed yourself to be seduced so your kisses to this baby’s sweet angel cheek are as the touch of rot upon a dewy flower,” and then once Marian explains that no, she wasn’t seduced, she was raped and is now basically dead, Aurora’s like “MARIAN YOU ARE A SAINT A CHASTE SAINT FROM HEAVEN.”

Double fuck you to the Victorian era that this was a progressive stance for Aurora Leigh to take. I was going to say something nice earlier about how Aurora argues for poets to write about Social Issues, but now I am too furious about what a dick she is to Marian. She and Lady Waldemar and Romney should form a dickish self-righteous polyamorous relationship and THEY WOULD ALL DESERVE EACH OTHER.

Marian tells Aurora what happened: how Lady Waldemar came to visit her all throughout her engagement to Romney and slowly, gradually convinced her that she would ruin Romney’s life by marrying him. Then she gave Marian to her maid, and her maid dumped Marian in a gross brothel, where she was raped and impregnated and went insane, and then the brothel threw her out. This is all quite a bit more Gothic than I remembered.

We’re on a break next week for Thanksgiving, so have a pleasant Turkey Day! Tune in on the 30th for the conclusion of Aurora Leigh, in which I can only hope everybody dies miserably. As ever, thanks to the beautiful Alice for hosting!

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!

HARSH.

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,

Despite,
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.

WORD

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?