Aurora Leigh Summary

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Aurora Leigh

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Aurora Leigh Summary

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Aurora Leigh is an epic poem by English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Written in blank verse and told over nine books, it is told from the perspective of a woman named Aurora Leigh, and follows her story alongside that of another woman named Marian Erle, a self-taught woman who comes from a hard childhood. Set across Europe in locations including Florence, Malvern, London, and Paris, Aurora Leigh focuses on themes involving the role of women in European society, as well as drawing in elements from Greek and Hebrew literature. Barrett Browning referred to it as a novel in verse, and it is generally considered her most enduring and impressive work. It is still studied widely today as an example of epic poetry, and prominent English art critic John Ruskin called it the greatest long-form poem of the nineteenth century.

As the first book of Aurora Leigh begins, Aurora describes her childhood in Florence, the daughter of a Tuscan mother and an English father. She was raised by her father after her mother died when she was four, and he taught her Greek and Latin, instilling in her a love of learning. After her father died when she was thirteen, she was sent to England to live with her Aunt in the family’s ancestral Leigh Hall. Although her aunt tried to raise her as a proper young lady, Aurora discovered her father’s old library and continued to educate herself, reading Shakespeare and aspiring to be a writer herself.

In the second book, which begins on Aurora’s twentieth birthday, she receives a marriage proposal from her social-worker cousin, Romney Leigh. However, he doubts her ability to be a writer, thinking women have no artistic ability. She rejects his proposal, and her aunt warns her that Romney will inherit everything if she doesn’t marry him. When her aunt dies, Romney tries to give Aurora a share of the inheritance, but she rejects it and moves to London to earn a living as a poet.

Book three starts in Aurora’s London apartment. She has gained some success as a poet, but is still dissatisfied. She hasn’t managed to write anything beyond short poems. She gets a visit from Lady Waldemar, whom she dislikes. Waldemar wishes to marry Romney, but Romney plans to marry Marian Erle, who he has been helping with his social work projects. Lady Waldemar asks Aurora to talk some sense into him and Marian. Aurora meets them, and hears Marian’s hard life story, having been sold into prostitution by her drunken mother before meeting Romney.

In book four, Aurora realizes that Marian and Romney are actually a good couple, and she reluctantly gives her blessing to Romney. However, after their talk, Aurora starts to realize she has feelings for Romney. The wedding is fast approaching, but Marian calls it off, believing she is not good enough for him. The crowd at the wedding turns on Romney, believing he used and disregarded her. Romney tries to find her, but cannot, and he and Aurora bond over their mutual struggles. He can’t make a dent in poverty, while she can’t create a great work of art.

Book five focuses on Aurora’s continued attempts to write, feeling constricted by her role as a woman and seeking inspiration. She calls out to her muses and gods. She hasn’t seen Romney for two years, but hears he’s turned Leigh Hall into a refuge for a poor. She hears Romney is engaged to Lady Waldemar, and is unsure if he ever loved her or Marian. She decides to travel to Italy, selling some of her father’s books and her own unfinished manuscript to fund it.

In book six, she stops in France and enjoys Paris. There, she meets Marian Erle, and is shocked to learn that Marian has a child. She confronts her, thinking Marian was promiscuous, and Marian angrily responds that she was raped and left pregnant. Lady Waldemar convinced her that Romney didn’t love her, and sent her to France with her maid—who then betrayed her and sold her to a brothel. She was raped there and barely escaped.

In book seven, Marian continues her story, and although she had a horrible time, is glad to be a mother. Aurora apologizes and vows to protect Marian and her son. They go to Italy, and Aurora keeps this secret from Romney for now but writes an angry letter to Lady Waldemar, to say she knows the truth. She thinks of Romney, and is surprised when someone congratulates her on her book—the manuscript she sold—and wonders if it was better than she thought. She finds no inspiration in Italy, but only bittersweet memories of her childhood.

Book eight picks up several years later. Aurora, Marian, and the boy live in a villa in Florence. Suddenly, Romney arrives. Aurora believes him to be married to Lady Waldemar and is cold toward him, but he tells her he read her book and thinks it’s brilliant. He admits he was wrong about her, and tells her he’s failed at his attempt to cure poverty. Leigh Hall was burned to the ground when a mob thought his refuge for the poor was a prison. She makes a comment about his wife, and he tells her he’s not married. As the book ends, he gives her a message from Lady Waldemar.

In book nine, the letter tells Aurora that Lady Waldemar didn’t intend for Marian to be harmed, but she soon realized that Romney never loved her anyway. He truly loved Aurora. Romney, out of a sense of duty, plans to marry Marian, but she rejects him, saying she prefers to devote her life to her child. Romney and Aurora talk, forgiving each other for any wrongs. Romney admits he has gone blind. They confess their love for each other, and embrace as Aurora realizes she’s found both love and inspiration. The poem ends with Aurora describing the beautiful environment for her blind love in poetic terms.

Besides her masterpiece,Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barret Browning is well known for her many romantic poems including the iconic How Do I Love Thee? In all, thirteen collections of her poems were published during her lifetime, and an additional fourteen books of her lost poems, writings, and correspondences were published posthumously.