Aurora Leigh's cousin Romney, with whom she is in love, is getting married. A Fourierist, he believed that the seas would turn to lemonade, although that's not relevant here. A dedicated, humorless, social reformer, Romney is marrying a woman from the lumpenproletariat who can help him operate his phalanstery. True to his beliefs, he invites London's lumpen to his wedding:
Of course the people came in uncompelled,
Lame, blind, and worse–sick, sorrowful, and worse,
The humours of the peccant social wound
All pressed out, poured out upon Pimlico. (4.542-5)
That sounds terrbile. Sickening, even.
Exasperating the unaccustomed air
With hideous interfusion: you'd suppose
A finished generation, dead of plague,
Swept outward from their graves into the sun,
The moil of death upon them. (4. 546-50)
What a strange piece of personification, the air becoming exasperated by these stinking poor people. The voice here is Aurora's. This is our heroine, brilliant, successful, thoughtful, reacting to the presence of the impoverished. She could have married Romney and worked side by side with him, helping these horrible people.
Here's my favorite part:
They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream, like blood. To see that sight,
The noble ladies stood up in their pews,
Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate,
Some simply curious , some just insolent,
And some in wondering scorn,–'What next? what next?' (4.553-558)
And it only gets better. The unwashed masses move toward the altar "As bruised snakes crawl" (4.566). They have faces that one does not usually see "in the open day," forgotten babies, beaten children:
Those, faces! 'twas as if you had stirred up hell
To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost
In fiery swirls of slime (4.587-9)
This is, of course, obviously, all about sex, Aurora Leigh's panicky sense of losing the possibility of sex. That's the source of the physicality of her disgust. Aurora is normally not so mean-spirited!
The novel, at its center, is about Aurora Leigh's integrity as a poet, and the sacrifices she has to make. To be a poet, she cannot marry, since to marry would be to subsume her identity under her husband's, and more importantly, perhaps, to give up her time to his causes. But in her social world, there is no other path to a physical relationship. The novel, so dry and abstract in places, becomes sensual, even erotic (although abstractly!) in others. See the amazing numbers of references to and images of breasts, for example - now there is a post I don't want to write. Let me refer the interested reader to the same Novel Readings post I linked yesterday, which contains some fine examples.
Aurora Leigh is a surprisingly weird book.