Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiery swirls of slime - erotic disgust in Aurora Leigh

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.


  1. See the amazing numbers of references to and images of breasts, for example - now there is a post I don't want to write.

    Methinks the Reader doth protest too much.

    Okay, sorry, couldn't help it.

  2. I saw you were reading this and was looking forward to your comments. It is really weird, isn't it? I particularly enjoy the poetic 'double vision' sections ("Earth's crammed with heaven, / and every common bush afire with God!"), and then the Marian story is quite remarkable as a treatment of the 'fallen woman'--her insistence that she would only really be fallen if she married without love, for instance. The poetry is such an uneven blend of unbelievably prosaic dulness and transcendent brilliance. The parts that are usually excerpted in anthologies are far from the most interesting parts--though it's fun to juxtapose the parts about epic poetry in Book V with Tennyson's "The Epic" and then any part of Idylls of the King.

  3. nicole - a sample of the post I'm not writing:

    "Some red colossal cow, with mighty paps" (8.849)

    My 1986 Norton anthology seems to excerpt similar pieces, Rohan - a chunk of Part I, on Aurora's education, and a bit of Part V, on the Epic.

    That would be a good post, on AL's hilarious education, on "the royal genealogies \ Of Oviedo, the internal laws \ Of the Burmese Empire," and her French "Kept pure of Balzac."

  4. I love this post! It is a weird book, yes, but I actually want to read it again. I think I'd get more out of it now than I did some years ago. Also, I read it with a class, and while that was great in some ways, it did steer my reading of it in a particular direction. For example, I failed to notice the erotic imagery, and now I'm curious about that.

  5. I think that it's interesting, though, that you point out her image of the poor - as an oozing, steaming sort of sentient fecundity - but DON'T point that she contrasts them with the nobility, who are drawn as cold, sharp, and sterile throughout, except when they descend from their 'place' - After all, Romney's 'sin' if there is one with Marian isn't that he's marrying below him. It's that he's using her, that he's sacrificing her vital force to a sterile, high class sort of symbolism. I think the comparison is more interesting with, like, William Blakes Heaven and Hell. The upper class is a sort of angel-set, high untouched, sterile, filled with the law, the lower class is wild, but it's also the source of creativity, of the fiery energy of the world. I won't even PRETEND Ms Barret (or Ms Leigh) don't have their class biases. But I think it's too easy to just say they thought the poor classes were nasty. There's more layers than that, you know?

  6. But I think it's too easy to just say they thought the poor classes were nasty.

    Not only too easy, but inaccurate. Did I say that?

    Aurora Leigh's disgusted response to the huddled masses on Romney's wedding day is not her normal response, but a bizarre and extreme one, something spilling out of her unconscious. Or so she claims, since it's something she writes at a later date in expert blank verse - set that aside.

    So, more layers, yes. Nymeth, Jason's right, your guess is right - it's a rich book.

  7. Sorry, reading back, I hope it doesn't sound like I was contradicting you! I actually thought what you said was very insightful, just I've heard a lot of people lately talking about how Browning was just a typical 19th century poor little rich girl, and I LOVE the way she thinks about class in Leigh, I love the character of Marianne particularly. Class society, in essence, makes monsters of everyone, even well meaning people. I'm glad you're reading Aurora Leigh, she's one of my favorites :).

  8. Jason, people are going after EBB for being too class-bound? Isn't that amazing? Not that Aurora Leigh's downtrodden Marian should make EBB immune to criticism, but you're exactly right, she's a surprisingly complete and complicated character. Nor is the upper class Lady Waldemar is as simple as she seems.