Excerpts from Aurora Leigh
Capsule Introduction to Aurora Leigh
The novel-epic Aurora Leigh is the most extended work written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 – 1861), the most internationally influential English woman poet of the nineteenth century. One of the first full-length portraits of the woman writer in English literature, Aurora Leigh is a generically complex work, mixing the conventions of the novel with those of the epic. It engaged with many of the key controversies of the mid-nineteenth century, including the “social question” arising from class conflicts, the “woman question” engendered by the push for women’s rights, and debates over aesthetic form as well as appropriate subjects for poetry. Appearing in more than twenty editions by the end of the 19th century in England and nearly as often in the United States, it was also read in France and Italy. Aurora Leigh was highly praised by figures as diverse as the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, the novelist George Eliot, the American poet Emily Dickinson, and the American women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. It was vigorously attacked by others, especially reviewers in more conservative Victorian periodicals. Hotly debated over dinner tables, it divided opinions in England and North America at the time of its publication. After a period of erasure from the canonical literary tradition between the early 1900s and 1970, Aurora Leigh began to attract renewed attention, particularly following its reappearance in Cora Kaplan’s 1978 Women’s Press edition. In 1996, it appeared in a Norton Critical Edition edited by Margaret Reynolds, based on Reynolds’ earlier award-winning scholarly, annotated edition of the novel-poem published by Ohio University Press (1992).
Texts and Manuscripts
These annotated extracts from Aurora Leigh supplement the poems included in Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems, ed. Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor (Broadview Press, 2009). The text of the poem is based upon the 4th edition (1859), as verified and amended by Sandra Donaldson and collaborating editors in Volume 3 of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hereafter WEBB).
More About the Texts and Manuscripts of Aurora Leigh
The 1859 edition of Aurora Leigh, the copy-text for these extracts, incorporates corrections made by EBB before her death in 1861. For a complete authoritative text of all nine books of Aurora Leigh with scholarly annotation and complete textual variants, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson; Volume Editors Sandra Donaldson, Rita Patteson, Marjorie Stone & Beverly Taylor, 5 volumes (Pickering and Chatto Press, 2010). The WEBB text of Aurora Leigh builds upon and extends Margaret Reynolds' textual editing work. For detailed discussion of the poem's textual history, see Sandra Donaldson, "Textual Introduction," WEBB, vol. 3, pp. xxxi-xxxix. For further information on the manuscripts and annotation of selected manuscript variants, see Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992). The principal draft manuscript of Aurora Leigh is now in the English Poetry Collection of Wellesley College Library. Like many of EBB's other working manuscripts, the draft is densely worked over, teeming with textual revisions; see Manuscript Images.