Sara Paretsky Admires EBB

Here’s a heartfelt, if somewhat unexpected, tribute from one writer to another:

Victorian writers tackled the Angel more creatively. A number, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Isabella Bird, took to their beds, but it was Barrett Browning who also first confronted the Angel head on in her 1856 poem, Aurora Leigh. Women may be educated, Aurora scornfully says, “As long as they keep quiet by the fire /. . . their angelic reach / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn”.

A few cantos later, her cousin proposes marriage, telling her to give up her dreams of poetry and support him in his work. Aurora turns him down. Like Aurora, Barrett Browning dedicated her life to her art, but she also had a passion for social justice. When Robert Browning convinced her of his love, she finally rose from her sickbed and ran off with him to Italy, where she devoted the remaining 12 years of her life to her art, to writing and working on behalf of Italian independence and an end to slavery in America — and to her lover.

Perhaps if I’d known of Barrett Browning’s life and work when I was young, I might have pushed aside the Angel’s wings more easily. Like her, I’ve been fortunate in love, but in her courage, her poetry and her dedication to social justice, she sets the bar for me.

I agree that EBB sets a remarkable example, though I have often thought that Aurora Leigh is more equivocal about ‘having it all’ than is often acknowledged: “Art is much but love is more,” Aurora says at one point, though she does go on to love and write.Aurora Leigh is an odd, boring, thrilling, pedantic, erotic poem (yes, all at once) and doesn’t seem to have much in common with Paretsky’s contemporary private eye novels–but on further reflection, both writers are accutely aware that patriarchy (if you’ll forgive an old-fashioned polemical term) is not an individual problem alone but also a systemic one, and both emphasize the need for women to form allegiances with each other (“come with me, sweetest sister,” as Aurora says to Marian Erle). So maybe it’s not that unlikely a pairing after all!

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