Rewriting the Epic Tradition to Reshape the Societal Role of the Woman
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic-novel, she creates a hybrid form. By mixing both the epic as well as the novel, she is mixing a traditionally male genre with a traditionally female genre. Women, traditionally seen as emotional beings meant to be a man’s “helpmate” as well as a caretaker of children are seen in a new light in Aurora Leigh. Men are also given new roles. As Barrett Browning writes of the epic and poetic tradition, “Their sole work is to represent the age, /Their age, not Charlemagne's,–this live, throbbing age…” (Barrett Browning V.202-203). By writing this, Barrett Browning pushed the boundaries. She represented an age of change both with form and content. She not only represented her age, but proposed a new ideal; that women can be and are self-sufficient. Elizabeth Barrett Browning challenged tradition and opened doors for other women to write in experimental form.
Aurora Leigh is a character shoved into self-sufficiency when not only her mother dies, but her father too. She is thirteen when she lands at her aunts; however Aurora just serves as a reminder of her mother. She is then stripped of her identity as her mother’s child,
I broke the copious curls upon my head
In braids, because she liked smooth ordered hair.
I left off saying my sweet Tuscan words
Which still at any stirring of the heart. (Barrett Browning I.390-393)
By doing this she makes Aurora unrecognizable to herself, and more importantly her parents who loved her curls so. She was also taught more of how to be a proper “English woman” than to be an active member of society (Barrett Browning I.448-453). It is this that helps us make sense of why Aurora falls so dearly in love with the art of poetry. It in itself is an escape, which Aurora tells us she has the desire of and reason to (Barrett Browning I.514-515).
Afterwards she meets her elder cousin Romney who seems to be taking a liking to Aurora already with his “sighs” and teasing (Barrett Browning I.514-515). In book two we jump seven years to Aurora at age twenty. It is then Romney proposes and Aurora declines, offended at his dismissal as her desire to write. After her Aunt dies, she goes to London after refusing Romney’s financial assistance. This book provides us with a strong female epic hero who refuses to be subservient. She not only escapes the oppressive Leigh hall, but also the idea of an oppressive domestic life.
After Aurora is having problems writing, we are introduced to Lady Waldemar and are informed of Romney’s love triangle. But not before Lady Waldemar manages to make Aurora that of an entirely different sex than she, “You stand outside, /You artist women, of the common sex; /You share not with us…” (Barrett Browning III. 419-421). This shows that not only are women writers dismissed and made an “other” by males, but they are also not seen as a part of the general population of females. Soon after, we hear about...