CHARLOTTE'S JANE EYRE AND
ELIZABETH'S AURORA LEIGH
ssential to our understanding of the Victorian era are the novels read and written by women./1 The attitude of most men towards these books could be, however, scornful. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for all her masculine learning in Greek, Hebrew and Chaldean, loved novel reading. She admitted defensively to Robert Browning, clouding her confession in an acceptable archaism: 'I am very fond of romances ; yes! . . . I am one who could have forgotten the plague, listening to Boccaccio's stories; and I am not ashamed of it'./2 In those letters written in her Wimpole Street sickroom days, she and Robert duelled with poetic erudition and Elizabeth, though she declared she was not ashamed, finally confessed to her obsession for novels as if it were a weakness as culpable as her opium addiction. Robert cuttingly did not respond to her enthusiasm for the genre. She particularly admired George Sand - of whom Robert could not approve. He had written scathingly of Sand's Consuelo in the Letters, August 14, 1845: 'I shall tell you frankly that it strikes me as precisely what in conventional language with the customary silliness is styled a woman's book . . . . '
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's childhood at Hope End in Malvern had been filled with erudite classical studies, but also with novel reading. At twenty she was to read Mrs Jameson's Diary of an Ennuyée, which described the adventures of a governess travelling about Italy; she had in childhood read Madame de Staėl's Corinne: ou Italie , in which the heroine, who was half English, half Florentine, quit her austere relatives in Northumberland and returned to her natal Italy, to be crowned poet laureate in the Capitol and to be dishonoured by her cousin, Lord Nevil. Elizabeth wrote her first - and last - prose novel, Julia: or Virtue , its title echoing that of Madame de Staėl's, at the age of ten./3 At about that age she also read Mary Wollstonecraft's The Rights of Woman. Mary Wollstonecraft and Madame de Staėl were to be lasting influences upon Elizabeth's thought. Henceforth, however, she was to write verse, not prose fiction - though her private love of novel reading was to continue unabated and to provide the matter of Aurora Leigh .
Robert Browning did not approve of novel reading, or of novel writing. So Elizabeth was driven to talk of that separate realm, 'women's books', in letters to her female friends. John Kenyon was an exception. In a letter to him from Italy, where the Brownings had fled upon their marriage, Elizabeth mentioned Robert's dislike for her mania for France and novels, discussing the first, then adding: 'When I was a prisoner, my other mania for imaginative literature used to be ministered to through the prison bars by Balzac, George Sand, and the other like immortal improprieties. They kept the colour in my life to some degree and did good service in their time to me, I can assure you, though in dear discreet England women oughtn't to confess to such reading, I believe, or you told me so yourself one day'./4 Plainly, novels, particularly French ones, were not respectable. That non-approval coloured Elizabeth's attitude towards her own reading of novels, making her overly critical, despite her addiction. She was to be harsh to Jane Eyre.
The plot of Jane Eyre was conveyed by letter to Elizabeth Barrett Browning by her great friend, Miss Mitford. The novel clearly disturbed Elizabeth. Perhaps the Pamela-like plot, in which the servant governess marries into the gentry, threatened such a scion of slave-holding gentry as were the Barrett Moulton Barretts of Cinnamon Hill, Jamaica, who feared such marriages into their caste. Or perhaps the male hero being rendered a cripple struck a too vengeful chord in in Elizabeth, who had herself been imprisoned in a Wimpole Street sickroom by her father in his bitterness at his loss of slave wealth. Her letters to England obsessively turned upon the book and its authorship. In Italy books were scarce, Galignani being the lending library for English ex-patriots in Florence and pirated American books being also available - long after their English publication.
The remarks on Jane Eyre first appeared in a letter Elizabeth wrote from Florence, 15 April 1848, to her friend, Miss Mitford: 'What you tell me of "Jane Eyre" makes me long to see the book'. She was unable to obtain a copy in Florence. In August she again wrote to Miss Mitford: 'Since your question, I had in gossip from England that the book "Jane Eyre" was written by a governess in his [Thackerary's] house and that the preface refers to him in some marked way. We have not seen the book at all'. Henry James in William Wetmore Story and His Friends wrote of the remarkable circle of American sculptors and their families that clustered about the Brownings in Florence, Bagni di Lucca and Rome. In the narrative he tells us that in late 1848 or early in 1849 Mrs Story went to the Casa Guidi to lend Mrs Browning her copy of Jane Eyre. He adds that the volume, which was 'almost certainly of the American pirated form, would have been contained in one of the parcels arriving from Boston 'per Nautilus, the blessed little New England sailing-ship of the time before tariffs, which, coming straight to Leghorn', made Florence's Americans feel nearer home./5Oddly enough, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw was himself to pirate that particular governess novel./6And Nathaniel Hawthorne was to place the real Brownings and their great friend Isa Blagden into his romance, The Marble Faun, set in Rome and Bellosguardo, along with the other members of sculptor William Wetmore Story's circle.
On 1 December 1849, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: 'Have you read "Shirley", and is it as good as 'Jane Eyre',? We heard not long since that Mr Chorley had discovered the author, the 'Currer Bell'. A woman most certainly'. On 9 January 1850 she wrote: 'Plainly "Jane Eyre" was by a woman. It used to astound me when sensible people said otherwise'. On 18 February 1850, she wrote: 'I certainly don't think that the qualities, half savage and half freethinking, expressed in "Jane Eyre" are likely to suit a model governess or schoolmistress; and it amuses me to consider them in that particular relation. Your account falls like dew upon the parched curiosity of some of our friends here, to whom (as mere gossip, which did not leave you responsible) I couldn't resist the temptation of communicating it. People are so curious - even here among the Raffaels - about this particular authorship, yet nobody seems to have read "Shirley"; we are slow in getting new books. First Galignani has to pirate them himself, and then to hand us over the spoils . . . .'
Other letters discussed "Currer Bell's" Shirley and Vilette. Miss Mitford had written to say that she preferred Shirley to Jane Eyre. Elizabeth Barrett Browning finally obtained a copy of Shirley and on 2 April 1850 she wrote to Mrs Jameson: 'I have read "Shirley" lately; it is not equal to "Jane Eyre" in spontaneousness and earnestness. I found it heavy, I confess, though in the mechanical part of the writing - the compositional savoir faire - there is an advance . . . . I complain of Florence for the want of books. We have to dig and dig before we can get anything new, and I can read the newspapers only through Robert's eyes, who can only read them at Vieusseux's in a room sacred from the foot of woman.'
Concerning Villette she wrote to Mr Westwood (on the defence as she always was about novels to male correspondents) from Bagni di Lucca in September, 1853: 'If you can read novels, and you have too much good sense not to be fond of them, read "Villete". The scene of the greater part of it is Belgium, and I think it is a strong book . . . . We are behindhand here in books . . . .' She also wrote to Mrs Martin in praise of Villette the following month, mentioning that its authorship was the same as that of Jane Eyre. '"Currer Bell's" Villette, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's eyes, was a French, rather than an English, novel. Elizabeth was attracted to Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette by the mystery of their authorship, by the contemporary gossip that "Currer Bell" was a woman and a governess, and yet she was repelled by the 'savage freethinking' of the first novel. She would have been rather surprised to learn that Jane Eyre's was a country parson's shy daughter. Though she condemned Jane Eyre as coarse and immoral, her own Aurora Leigh which it inspired was to overstep social bounds far more daringly. Her criticism of the other's work was therefore unjust.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had discussed her magnum-opus-to-be as long ago as 27 February 1845, in writing to Robert Browning from Wimpole Street and excitedly stating that: 'My chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem - a poem as completely modern as "Geraldine's Courtship", running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like "where angels fear to tread", and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive it out plainly . . . . I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment'. Two novels with which she was to take such liberties were to be Madame de Staėl's Corinne: ou Italie and Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre; the one consciously, the other, inadvertently. The name of her heroine was likewise borrowed - from improper George Sand's real Christian name, Aurore. Aurora Leigh was published in 1857, twelve years after Elizabeth had first broached it to Robert and ten years after Robert had brought his bride to its Florence. It is the verse tale of three women and a man; its settings are of Malvern, London, Paris and Florence. Though its plot is femininely novelistic - and modern - its style is acceptably male, that of the apocalyptic epic, and thus plays with literary traditions stretching back into the mists of time. Aurora Leigh, like Madame de Staėl's heroine, had a Florentine for mother, an austere Englishman for father. Her cousin, Romney Leigh, wooed her but scorned her Greek studies - lady's Greek, without the accents - as unbecoming in a blushing bride. (Romney's scorn for "lady's Greek" echoes Robert's for "women's books".) Aurora rejected Romney's suit and went to live in London, earning her bread by writing. There she was told Romney's tale by the jealous and unscrupulous Lady Waldemar. Romney, seeking to do good, wooed Marian Erle, of the lower classes. Marian was from Elizabeth's Malvern, had fled from her parents who would have sold her, and had been rescued by Romney from the workhouse. Through Lady Waldemar's machinations Marian failed to arrive at the altar steps where Romney stood waiting. Aurora then found Marian and her baby in Paris. They both travelled to Florence where Romney found them. He still wished to wed Marian and declare the child who was not his his own, Marian preferring the honesty of her unmarried state. Aurora at last knew Romney loved her as she was rather than as he wished her to be. He told how Leigh Hall had been burnt and how Marian's father blinded him. They recited together the Apocalypse's description of the City of God while overlooking Florence at Bellosguardo.
Soon after the poem was published, Mrs Anna Jameson, the authoress of the governess Diary of an Ennuyée , who had become the Brownings' great friend having journeyed with them on their flight from England, wrote to Elizabeth concerned about the likeness of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh in that in both works the heroes - Rochester, Romney - were blinded prior to their unions with their heroines. Elizabeth replied from Florence on 29 December 1856, to speak of her surprise that the book was so well liked by the public, a second edition coming out in a fortnight, when she had thought there would be an outcry against its 'gross indecency'. She added: 'I can't leave the subject without noticing (by the way) what you say of the likeness of the catastrophe of "Jane Eyre" (but haven't got to it yet) in order to refresh my memory on this point; but as far as I do recall the facts, the hero was monstrously disfigured and blinded in a fire the particulars of which escape me, and the circumstance of his being hideously scarred is the thing impressed chiefly on the reader's mind; certainly it remains innermost in mine. Now if you read over again those pages of my poem, you will find that the only injury received by Romney in the fire was a blow and from the emotion produced by the circumstances of the fire. Not only did he not lose his eyes in the fire, but he describes the ruin of his house as no blind man could. He was standing there, a spectator. Afterward he had a fever, and the eyes, the visual nerve, perished, showing no external stain - perished as Milton's did. I believe that a great shock on the nerves might produce such an effect in certain constitutions, and the reader on referring as far back as Marian's letter (when she avoided the marriage) may observe that his eyes had never been strong, that her desire had been to read his notes at night, and save them. For it was necessary, I thought, to the bringing-out of my thought, that Romney should be mulcted of his natural sight . . . . Tell me if, on looking into the book again, you modify your feeling at all'.
Though Elizabeth Barrett Browning was not conscious of a borrowing from Jane Eyre, certainly the reader senses the strong similarity between the two works. In both the women win. In both the men are rendered blind and helpless. Are these plots clues to nineteenth-century women's fantasies concerning men in their own powerlessness? That these books were both best-sellers could be indicative of this. However, Mrs Jameson's remark about the likeness of the catastrophes of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh prompted from Elizabeth Barrett Browning not so much a statement of conscious borrowing by the poet from the novelist as it did a comment concerning the likeness of Romney's blindness to Milton's.
Both Romney Leigh and John Milton had failed to value women as their intellectual equals. Milton before his blindness had visited Florence and at Bellosguardo had looked through Galileo's telescope. He included that scene in the epic Paradise Lost. Elizabeth wrote of Bellosguardo in Aurora Leigh, having blind Romney come there. Milton had compared his blindness to that of Oedipus, who, when sighted, was blind to truth, when blind, saw truth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning read Greek tragedies with blind Hugh Boyd in Malvern. She was capable in her poem of gathering up all these strands: of Jane Eyre's Rochester, of Hugh Boyd's Oedipus; of Milton's Galileo; and of fashioning from them all a blind and chastened Romney Leigh glimpsing the City of God from Bellosguardo, acknowledging at last his scholarly Aurora Leigh as prophet and poet.
Before Milton, Florence had been written of by Dante in the Commedia, while Malvern had been written of by Langland in Piers Plowman, both works fashioned upon the Apocalypse. Elizabeth Barrett Browning borrowed from various 'women's books', such as those written by Anna Jameson, George Sand, Madame de Staėl and Charlotte Brontė, for her web, but she also used male works, notably those of St John, Dante, Langland and Milton in her tapestry. Could she hope, henceforth, that Romney and Robert would no longer scorn 'lady's Greek' and 'women's books'? Writing the novel Aurora Leigh as vengeful yet conciliatory apocalyptic epic could exonerate her from such male scorn. She had wed men's poetry to women's prose, the epic to the novel, the ancient to the modern.
Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh link together also the humble Parsonage in Haworth where the Brontė sisters wrote their novels where they could and the elegant salon at Casa Guidi, Florence, which Elizabeth said was like a room in a novel. (Patrick and Bramwell in the Parsonage and Robert at Casa Guidi had male-only studies in which to write - but not their women folk.) It was in this salon, which Robert furnished with quattrocento paintings of the Apocalypse, with satin from cardinals' beds, with bookcases from convents carved with angels, that the child Pen and the spaniel Flush romped while Elizabeth wrote. It was to this room, Henry James tells us, that Mrs Story brought the American pirated edition of Jane Eyre. Had she not done so, could Elizabeth have carried out her intention of writing Aurora Leigh ?
1 Charles Lemon, Editor of the Brontė Society Transactions, noted that Margaret Wooler in a letter of 14 February 1850 quoted Charlotte Brontė at a dinner party in London saying: 'It seems now very much the custom to admire a certain wordy, intricate, obscure style of poetry - such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes'. While the lines from Aurora Leigh, published 1857:
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