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.