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Penguins on Parade: Aurora Leigh!

By (August 11, 2015) No Comment

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penguin aurora leighSome Penguin Classics preach a doomed gospel to the masses, and one of them that does this most self-consciously is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh, here presented in the lovely 1995 black-spine Classic edited by John Robert Glorney Bolton and his daughter Julia Bolton Holloway with a picture on the cover of a figure from Michelangelo’s Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Aurora figure, much beloved by our author). The editors indulge in very little throat-clearing; the book has no general introduction, merely a two-page preface between the reader and Browning’s almost indefinably odd decision to an Aurora Flood-style contemporary romance in a sometimes-abominable/sometimes-admirable slurry of “free verse” (the volume contains other Browning poems too, but the star billing goes to Aurora Leigh).

It’s the story of an impetuous young autodidact named Aurora, whose parents die while she’s still very young but not before imparting both a willful disposition and a love of learning. When she’s barely out of her teens, he handsome, virtuous cousin Romney Leigh, the heir to her family’s Leigh Hall, proposes marriage, but she’s already dreaming of dedicating herself to Art (concepts with uppercased first letters flock in dangerous numbers throughout Browning’s poetry, so the reader should beware), so she turns him down – opting instead to go to London and earn her living by her pen.

This has always been my favorite part of this weird, heartfelt, slightly silly, infallibly gripping work. Browning may not be the only poet to try capturing the life of a wretched freelance hack in verse, but she does by far the best job of it that I know, with the daringly quotidian subject matter only made more daring by the fact that Aurora is both a woman and obviously better than the world she’s using to pay her bills:

I worked on, on.

Through all the bristling fence of nights and days

Which hedges time in from the eternities;

I struggled, … never stopped to note the stakes

Which hurt me in my course. The midnight oil

Would stink sometimes; there came some vulgar needs:

I had to live, that therefore I might work,

And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life

To work with one hand for the booksellers,

While working with the other for myself

And art. You swim with feet as well as hands,

Or make small way. I apprehended this, –

In England, no one lives by verse that lives;

And, apprehending, I resolved by prose

To make a space to sphere my living verse.

I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,

And weekly papers, holding up my name

To keep it from the mud. I learned the use

Of the editorial ‘we’ in a review,

As courtly ladies the fine trick of trains,

And swept it grandly through the open doors

As if one could not pass through doors at all

Save so encumbered.

There’s a matter-of-factness to all this that will strike a chord in any day-job writer, and a verisimilitude that serves to remind the reader that Browning knew in intimate detail the world she was describing, having been herself a hack freelancer for years in the 1840s, turning down no kind of paying job but always trying to work in at least a note here and there of the true, hard brilliant mettle of her non-summing mind. As a reconstruction of those days, this part of Aurora Leigh can certainly double as the autobiography she never wrote:

I wrote tales beside,

Carved many an article on cherry-stones

To suit light readers, – something in the lines

Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand,

But that, I’ll never vouch for. What you do

For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes,

Although you have no vineyard in Champagne …

Naturally, the poem moves beyond such grubby preoccupations, changing its setting first to France and then to Italy and extrapolating into a bathetic plot involving a poor young woman Romney Leigh wants to marry and a smart, vicious noblewoman – quite the poem’s best character, and its most maligned – who wants to marry him. And through all of it and all the lucy reads aurora leighother poems included, our editing duo stays discreetly out of our way, reserving the bulk of their attentions for the volume’s 50 pages of End Notes, which are magnificent and which have never to my knowledge been surpassed as a running commentary on these works.

The ‘doomed gospel’ part comes not in the execution of Aurora Leigh, which is it self almost febrile in its readability (Virginia Woolf was far from the only reader to find herself both frequently appalled by the thing and yet completely hooked), but in another problem altogether, one that Aurora herself recognizes at various points in the poem’s early sections: the reading public have lost the taste for epics, even verse epics about the kinds of people they know. An author insisting on generating one will be working mostly for the thin solace of art (sorry, Art) – and for the eventual reward of a Penguin Classic.