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Metacognition: A Modern Perspective On Victorian Womens’ Education As Shown In Aurora Leigh

1727 words - 7 pages

The history of women’s education is long and winding, and it is nearly impossible to overstate the evolution that has taken place in that time. An outdated focus on appealing to men with vapid accomplishments has been replaced by teaching critical thinking and useful skills, and nowhere is this contrast more obvious than in a college classroom, as a predominately female student body analyzes Victorian texts. In that setting, it comes as a pleasant surprise that all literature from the time shows support for the era’s education methods. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, for one, illustrates a keen perspective on the realities of women’s education of the time by carefully structuring a coming-of-age narrative around the difficulties of assimilating to the problematic system. Against a backdrop of tellingly-portrayed settings, Browning uses her characters to highlight the futility and ultimately destructive nature of the Victorian English system of women’s education.
The first character introduced is, arguably, England itself. England is presented with a first glimpse of “frosty cliffs”, and Aurora subsequently despairs over the dismal landscape of her new home (251). Immediately, England is established as an unwelcoming place for the free-spirited and Italian-raised Aurora. She clearly misses her homeland, “as the earth feels the sun at nights,” and this imagery of Italy as the sun contrasts strongly with the gray, grim portrayal of England (475). Italy produced Aurora’s free spirit and individuality, something the very landscape of England seems to reject. Even before education is discussed, Browning uses the settings of the story to underscore the goals country has for its women, and England’s Victorian ideal is already under fire. Dull, lifeless, and empty, England and its rigidity lack the verve and appeal inherent to untempered Italy (and her raw, wild children). In fact, England is not only described prominently as an island, which carries connotations of isolation, but as divided within itself: “The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship / Or verdure, field from field, as man from man;” (260-261). This English trait of division from one another factors into the Victorian ideal and the goal of a Victorian woman’s education. The objective is not genuine connection, true thought, or honest discourse, but to maintain a banal, appealing, and inoffensive status of thoughtlessness, as to be an agreeable companion for an eligible man. Nowhere in Aurora’s education is she instructed to genuinely connect with a man to win his favor, nor do men seem to be encouraged to look for anything of true merit in their wives. This division of society from the individual, and the individual from their feelings, does not seem to be conducive to producing fulfilling marriages, nor does it seem likely to produce women capable of fulfilling their roles as ‘moral compasses’ for their husbands and families, or enabling their daughters to do so.

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