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A Response to the TLS Commentary “You Misconceive the Question”
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In the 11 February 2011 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, I was delighted to see Paula Marantz Cohen’s essay “You Misconceive the Question” on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856). As someone working on a new reading guide to that poem, I welcomed the revival of interest. It was nice to see the opening paragraphs recount the critical fortunes of the poem (as well as the poet) and pose a challenge to Virginia Woolf’s catty opinion of them. Cohen quotes Woolf’s characterization of Aurora Leigh as a “masterpiece in embryo” to illustrate the rivalry of the modernist author with her Victorian predecessor and the novel-poem’s generic innovation. She also rightly argues that Woolf portrays EBB as a neglected, dotty bluestocking in order to disguise her debt to the poet’s “monstrous and exquisite” blank verse (qtd. on p. 14).


Yet Cohen’s commentary, though admirable in its promotion of EBB’s masterpiece, slights those critics who have done so much to free it from the prisonhouse to which modernist gatekeepers, such as Woolf, had consigned it: for as much as Cohen vaunts the poem’s “rhetoric of individual sovereignty” she also belittles the feminist argument made not only by EBB but also by scholars of the last twenty years (p. 15). Feminists, Cohen complains, have represented Aurora Leigh solely as “a casualty of patriarchy,” and Margaret Reynolds’ 1996 Norton Critical Edition of Aurora Leigh is a prime example of that single-minded approach. (Cohen also disdains the all-female contributors to that volume. A glance at the 2007 Norton edition of Robert Browning, I notice, includes only male critics). What bothers me most about Cohen’s commentary is that it concludes with the thought that while Wordsworth’s critics have lifted him into a “pantheon of great writers” EBB has been “confined” to a “feminist ghetto.”


Regardless of the question of what might constitute a feminist ghetto, I’d like to address Cohen’s argument about the poem’s “rhetoric of individual sovereignty” (p. 15). First, Cohen does not cite a source for such rhetoric, but I would suggest that someone with EBB’s education could not avoid the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (See Marjorie Stone’s recent essay on EBB, Byron, and Wollstonecraft). Wollstonecraft’s treatise has many intertexts, but the most important one is Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile; or On Education. Rousseau’s essentialist claim about women’s feeble minds sparks Wollstonecraft’s analysis of female education and fuels her argument that women possess a capacity for reason equal to men. Without Wollstonecraft and her Victorian heirs (Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Emily Davies, etc.) it is unlikely Aurora could proclaim in her argument with Romney Leigh that women “stand single in responsible act and thought/As also in birth and death” (II. 338-39). For Aurora individual sovereignty is inseparable from a resistance to female subjection. A decade after the initial publication of Aurora Leigh, John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Woman makes individual sovereignty the basis for women’s legal rights.


The second problem in Cohen’s essay is her use of textual evidence from Aurora Leigh. Rather than examine an aspect of the poem that is not in some way related to gender relations, which is what feminists ostensibly do, the essay concentrates solely on the poem’s courtship plot and interprets it in light of Barrett Browning’s relationship with Robert Browning, a move that while emphasizing the two writers’ creative relationship also limits the poet’s interests to a private rather than social, political, or religious context. For example, when Cohen cites the epigrammatic line “Art is much, but love is more” from Book IX (p. 15), she leaves out the more descriptive ones that follow: “O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!/Art symbolizes heaven, but Love is God/And makes heaven.” These lines may be “a tribute to [EBB’s] husband,” as Cohen surmises, but they also reflect a Swedenborgian strain of sage discourse in the period, which viewed Art as a form of spiritual replenishment in a materialistic age. Scholars have explored these ideas in both feminist and non-feminist contexts in Studies in Browning and His Circle (Sept 2005).


Feminist scholars and those of other stripes, especially in the last two decades, have recognized Aurora Leigh’s wider explorations of cosmopolitan ideals, urban spaces, literary celebrity, religious thought, and political economy. I would direct readers to the bicentenary essay collections in Victorian Poetry (2006) and Victorian Review (2007) as well as the 2010 scholarly edition of Aurora Leigh in The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 3 (Pickering and Chatto). It strikes me that Aurora Leigh has not languished in a feminist ghetto. Rather scholarship on the poem’s sex and gender politics has initiated (and sustained) critical inquiry beyond those topics and restored EBB to her rightful position in a pantheon of great writers.


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