Friday 26 July 2013

'True Action is Impossible': Aurora Leigh and Female Subjectivity

you Aurora, with the large live brow
And steady eyelids, cannot condescend
To play at art, as children play at swords,
To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired
Because true action is impossible.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) is a work which takes on the impossible – combining poetry and the novel in its form and feminising the epic genre. Its narrative has many of the ingredients of your typical Victorian novel – orphan-hood, illegitimacy, frustrated love matches and familial pressure – but its main subject is to prove that its heroine is not an impossibility, that there is scope for a serious female artist. Romney, the cousin of our protagonist, the aspiring poet Aurora, is of a different opinion. For him the female artist or poet can only ever be a weak imitation of the male and admired as such for displaying ‘a pretty spirit’ like a playacting child. While Aurora, for him, is above such juvenile behaviour, this does not mean she can transcend the limitations of her sex – Aurora as an active agent of her story cannot exist.

Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney ('The Tryst'), Arthur Hughes
Romney expresses his views shortly after Aurora has put forth her own poetic manifesto on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. Aurora is crowning herself as a poet in the garden of her home and chooses her plants carefully, symbolically rejecting the more feminine pursuit of love in favour of her artistic ambitions as a writer:

Nor myrtle - which means chiefly love; and love
Is something awful which one dare not touch
So early o' mornings

Aurora’s caution here (‘dare not’) suggests that she too anticipates difficulties in being a woman poet, but it is not until Romney’s entrance to the scene that she struggles to retain her subjectivity  and is converted instantly into an art object, losing all agency as a creator. As she goes to fasten her garland, Romney disturbs her:

And fastening it behind so, turning faced
...My public! - Cousin Romney - with a mouth
Twice graver than his eyes.
I stood there fixed –
My arms up, like the caryatid, sole
Of some abolished temple, helplessly
Persistent in a gesture which derides
A former purpose.

The comparison with a caryatid is telling. Romney’s gaze turns Aurora to stone, not only converting her to a female statue (the ultimate symbol of the man as artist/woman as art object dichotomy in the Pygmalion myth) but to a type of statue whose architectural function and very etymology suggests entrapment and punishment.

This is not the first time Aurora has faced the alignment of the feminine with the passive and objectified in art. From her earliest years, in one of the poem/novel’s most memorable passages, she has viewed her mother’s portrait and the weight of cultural heritage which comes along with the depiction of women in art. Her mother is compared to a list of stereotyped and specified mythic models:

Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa, with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or, anon,
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
Where the Babe sucked; or, Lamia in her first
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked,
And, shuddering, wriggled down to the unclean;
Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile
In her last kiss, upon the baby−mouth

This is not just a list but one in which the women listed are increasingly passive and robbed of all activity themselves. The Muse can only ‘eye’, Psyche cannot see at all, and the powerful Medusa is bereft of her powers, ‘still’ now and so paired with passive verbs (‘curdled’, ‘clothed’). The choice of the Lady of the Passion takes the most famous example of female passivity – Mary who acts as a vessel for God’s will – and chooses to depict her as the object of phallic violence, seeing the stabbing, alarmingly, as a continuation of the passive suffering of motherhood. Lamia isn't even a whole person – ‘wriggled down to the unclean’ suggests the version of the myth where she is a serpent from the waist down and it is this inhuman characteristic, as well as her suffering, which is emphasised, not her own violent actions. The list culminates in Aurora’s mother who, while active here, is in fact painted only after her death – her body an object for the male artist to work from.
It is this burden of cultural inheritance then, not only Romney’s prejudice, which Aurora (and Barrett Browning) must undo in order to establish herself as a true artist.

Michele Gordigiani's portrait of
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1858)
While many have discussed Romney’s blinding at the end of the novel/poem as a symbol for his enlightenment, comparing him with Rochester in Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), few have noted that, while Rochester is blinded attempting to save Bertha, Romney has returned to the burning house in order to save another portrait – that of his ancestor Lady Maud. At this moment the female art object becomes active and exerts revenge on the man who previously described artistic action by a woman such as Aurora as ‘impossible’.

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