Aurora Leigh Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 9 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Social Justice and The “Woman Question”.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s poem-novel Aurora Leigh, first published in 1856, divided critics, causing a stir in its stance on contemporary debates regarding class and gender. Aurora Leigh is the first feature-length poem in English to place a female artist at the center of the plot, and catapulted its equally atypical female author to near poet laureate status, and transatlantic fame, in a time in which misogyny was the norm. It did so by ingeniously and controversially tapping into the 18th-century zeitgeist, touching on subjects such as social class, the Industrial Revolution, aesthetics and religion. It was in part due to this singularity of form and content that Aurora Leigh was described by the eminent Victorian critic John Ruskin as “the greatest poem in the English language.”
The epic poem is written in blank verse and takes place over the course of nine books. The first book opens with a description of the Florentine childhood of the protagonist, Aurora Leigh. This is followed by the revelation of her mother’s death when she is 4 and her father’s death when she is 13. In the intervening years, her English father instilled in Aurora a love of literature. She is sent to England to live with her Aunt at Leigh Hall, the family’s homestead, where her aspirations to become a writer prevail over the typical woman’s education her aunt provides.
The second book begins on Aurora’s twentieth birthday, with a marriage proposal from her cousin, Romney Leigh. Romney tries to dissuade her from writing, asserting that women’s artistic ability is inferior to that of men’s. Aurora retorts by saying he is preoccupied with social work, and rejects him. Aurora’s aunt reminds her that she will inherit nothing if she doesn’t marry Romney. After her aunt dies, Romney offers Aurora a share of the inheritance, which she rejects and instead moves to London, to become a poet.
At the opening of Book 3, Aurora is living in an apartment in London where she has earned some poetic renown, though she remains unsatisfied. She receives a visit from Lady Waldemar, who asks Aurora to help her dissuade Romney from marrying Marian Erle, whom he has met through his social work. Unimpressed with Lady Waldemar, Aurora sends her on her way. She visits Marian, and hears the story of her difficult upbringing, which includes evading being sold into prostitution.
In Book 4, Aurora gives her blessing to Romney and Marian. After the cousins talk, however, Aurora begins to realize that she has feelings for her cousin. Marian stands Romney up at the wedding, apologizing in a letter in which she says she believes she is not worthy of him. Romney and Aurora discuss their struggles with social work and art.
Aurora continues to be creatively frustrated in Book 5, and longs for inspiration and love. It has been almost two years since she saw Romney, but hears news of him at a party. It transpires that Romney has transformed Leigh Hall into a poor house, and is engaged to Lady Waldemar. Questioning whether Romney could have loved her or Marian, she departs for Italy.
Pausing in Paris at the opening of Book 6, Aurora chances upon Marian Erle, who has a child. Rather than becoming pregnant through promiscuity, Marian was raped. Marian tells Aurora that Lady Waldemar made her believe that Romney didn’t love her. Lady Waldemar’s maid accompanied her to France, where she sold her to a brothel. Marian was raped before escaping.
Marian continues her painful tale in Book 7, which concludes with the birth of her son, whom she loves dearly. The trio depart together for Italy, and Aurora writes an angry letter to Lady Waldemar, but says nothing to Romney, whom she believes to be happy. Aurora feels lonely in Italy, and thinks of Romney and her own childhood in Italy.
Some years elapse, and Aurora, Marian and her son are living outside Florence in Book 8. Romney arrives all of a sudden, complimenting Aurora on her book. Believing him to have married Lady Waldemar, Aurora is curt with him. Romney tells Aurora that his social work has failed, and Leigh Hall has been torched by an angry mob. Romney laughingly reveals that he did not marry Lady Waldemar, and hands Aurora a letter from her.
In the final book, Lady Waldemar defends herself by saying that she never intended to harm Marian, and that she realized that Romney loves Aurora instead. Dutifully, Romney plans to marry Marian, who rejects him, saying she only loves her child. Romney and Aurora forgive each other, and Romney reveals he has gone blind. The couple profess love for each other, and the poem concludes with a celestial vision of a new age.