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You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death
( Aurora Leigh II.434-439,455)
Victorian era was considered as an age of industrialization and machinery. During Victorian period, England was a big and powerful empire which colonized many countries. Besides, in Victorian era there were rapid changes in the area of economy, religion and social life.
The reasons of these changes were scientific, material and intellectual developments. One of the significant change was an Industrial Revolution and also other revolutions which people could not internalize yet. The steam of power and railroads were among sudden scientific and technological developments. During an Early Victorian epoch, England was moving from agriculture and became more industrial and urban as well. These rapidly changes affected almost every aspect of life. Thomas Carlyle in his work Signs of the Time describes this mechanical age as:
It is the Age of Machinery in every outward and inward sense of that
word; the age which…practices the great art of adapting means to ends
…Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery,
But the spiritual also…Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as
well as in hand.
(cited in Ford, 1973:19)
Because of an Industrial Revolution, in England appeared problems like poverty, unemployment, child labour, diseases, lost of products in agriculture, questioning religion and death. As coming to the Mid Victorian period, there was a huge difference between the rich and the poor.
The industrialists were the strongest and rich people in Victorian society. Another aspect of the era, there was a remarkable gap between science and religion. The rapid developments in science changed people’ view and works in astronomy, geology and especially biology with Darwin’s The Origin of Species shattered people’s faith in religion (Ünlü, 2016). The historian David Thompson in his book England and the Nineteenth Century, says the period is “ one of the strenuous activity and dynamic change, of ferment of ideas and reccurent social unrest, of great inventiveness and expansion” (cited in Abrams, 1993: 892). The changes which occured after Industrial Revolution and scientific developments played an important role in challenging old religious belief that had a deep impact on the society for many years. That’s why people in Victorian era started to questioning the God, religion and death.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a Victorian Poetess
During Victorian period, female poets started appearing, before Victorian era, there were female poets, however male poets were considered to be predominantly over female. The reason of the this was that the poems written by female poets considered as weak and uncontrolled, as Dorothy Mermin (cited in Hupf, 1995: 4) argued women could not write good and strong as men because their “ brains were too weak, their emotions too uncontrolled, their reproductive systems inimical to and easily damaged by mental exertion, and their experience of life and the world necessarily, given the social constraints that bound them, inadequate.” In 1755, Monthly Review also maintained the idea that male poets were more professional and strong comparing to female poets. According to the Monthly Review, the poetess in an accomplished young lady and their art is not serious. Their works are like a “flower-piece or landscape”, it is pretty and that’s why better off displayed in a private place than in a public press (cited in Hupf, 1995: 4). In other words, women were regarded as ‘ Others’, so they they are differ from men.
As Melissa Buron (2003) asserts “ Respectable women in Victorian England were either identified by marriage or by spinsterhood” (cited in www.victorianweb.org). Thus, all these aspects show the status and treatment towards women and how men were superior to women in terms of social, human, literary, economical and other rights. Duties of the Victorian women were to be good housewives, mothers or sisters and obey their husband, father or brother. Consequently, women were accepted as having no independent identity. In the same manner, Victorian poet Coventry Patmore also maintained domesticity, purity and innocence which constitute the essence of Victorian society in his work The Angel in the House (cited in ed. Christ and Robson, 2006). Gorham (1982) also draw attention to the women domesticity by saying “The ideal women was willing to be dependent on men and submissive to them, and she would have a preference for a life restricted to the confines of home. She would be innocent, pure, gentle and self-sacrificing. Possessing no ambitious strivings, she would be free of any trace of anger or hostility”. On the other hand, as it was mentioned above the masculine gender was responsible for social realm. As Gorham (1982)
In the era that gave birth to the most famous and significant English poets of all time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning struggled to establish her identity as a female poet. Deirdre David (1996: 484) stated that Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself “declared that before the work of Joanna Baillie, the late eighteenth-century Scottish dramatist and poet, there was no such thing in Britain as a ‘poetess”. Woman in Victorian epoch did not have much rights and liberty to claim their influence in the society, in public sphere. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s struggle of her identity as a female poet was not so easy. The reason was in that period poets and social activists were men and it was their role, not women’s role.
In patriarchal society dominated by men, Elizabeth Barrett Browning strove to establish her identity as a poetess. Kathleen Blake (2010: 387) explains that “Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a poet highly aware of her literary heritage . . . but regretful to find no poetic grandmothers”. She felt about the lack of female poetess and at the same time complained by saying:
…and yet where were the poetessess? The divine breath
which seemed to come and go, and, ere it went, filled the
land with that crowd of true poets whom we call the old
dramatists-why did it never pass, even in the lyrical form,
over the lips of a woman? How strange! And can we deny
that it was so? I look everywhere for grandmothers and see
none. It is not the filial spirit I am deficient, I do assure
you-witness my reverent love of the grandfathers (cited in
Stephenson, 1989: 4)
Having no prior poetess from whom Elizabeth Barrett Browning could take a notable identity as a poetes, so she looked with the admiration to the Romantic poet Wordsworth. On the other hand, she had to deal with realization of her identity as a Victorian woman and poetess which distiguished her from prior male poets. Kathleen Blake (2010: 387) points out that Elizabeth Barrett Browning “could draw much from Wordsworth but was too self-consciously a woman poet to underestimate sexual difference”. That’s why she felt the need to forge her identity as a female poet. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her literary career wanted to reconcile the women with the poet in her character. Such reconcilliation took significant place in her poetry and shaped her poetic progress. Moreover, the poetess discussed these issues in one of the her masterpiece Aurora Leigh. In this work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning presented a female character who manages to be at one and the same time poet and women (Sadun, 1998).
Robert Browning was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband and played significant role in shaping her career literary career, helped and encouraged her to find her identity as a poetess.
Abrams, M.H. (1993). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton&Company
Blake, K. (2010). Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman. Victorian Poetry, 24(4), pp. 387-398
Deirdre,D. (1996). From Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy. Ed. Margaret Reynolds. New York. Norton
Ford, B. (1973). The Pelican Guide to English Literature: Fro Dickens to Hardy. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Hups, P.E. (1995). The Very Critical of Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Re-presentation of the Christian Prophetess- Poet in Her “Novelized” Epic, Aurora Leigh. Unpublished PhD. Dissertation
Mermin, D. (1989). Elizabeth Barrett Browning:The Origins of A New Poetry. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press
Patmore, C. The Angel in the House. The Norton Anthology Volume E:The Victorian Age. 8th ed. Christ, C.T. and Robson, C. (2006) New York: Norton
Sadun, H. (1998). Elizabeth Barrett Browning:The Woman Poet’s Voice. Unpublished PhD. Dissertation
Stephenson, G. (1989). Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press
Ünlü, E. (2016). An Interpretation of Mathew Arnold’s “ The Scholar Gypsy” and T.S. Eliot’s “ The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” as Anti-Pastoral. Karatekin Edebiyat Fakültesi Dergisi, 4(1), pp.45-58s
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