Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Textual Bodies and the Rhetoric of Gender in Nineteenth-Century Critical Discourse
Elizabeth Johnston

Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite;
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate;
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love;
A still Medusa with mild milky brows

-- Aurora Leigh (1.154-57)

In the above lines the eponymous heroine of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem, Aurora Leigh, is gazing upon a portrait of her dead mother, trying to make sense of “whatever [she] last read, or heard, or dreamed” about her (1.148). Aurora Leigh’s dilemma mirrors that of her author’s critics, their imaginative representations of Barrett Browning decidedly vexed and contradictory. After Barrett Browning’s death in 1861, Victorian literary critic C.B. Conant claims that the life and feelings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning are “transparently exposed in her creations,” and that in them she has left behind “a perfect statue of herself” for future generations (341). This statue, however, as it materializes from its various sculptors’ hands is anything but “perfect” and Barrett Browning far from “transparently exposed.” Instead, the images of the poet offered up by her critics suggest an anxious inability to define either the poet or her ideological significance. Rendered at once infirm, deformed, and monstrous, both Barrett Browning and her poetry are paradoxically figured by nineteenth-century critical discourse as simultaneously innocuous and dangerous.

No doubt, the contradictory ways in which nineteenth-century critics respond to Barrett Browning and her work reflects an unresolved tension in Victorian critical discourse concerning how to react to the rising number of women writers.[1] Victorian critics, writing from a Romantic tradition preoccupied with a specifically masculine Imagination, are faced with a dilemma: how to credit Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “masculine” ability, how to account for her mass popularity, and perhaps most perplexing of all, how to position her within a masculinist history of poetics.[2] Implicit in Victorian critical discourse is a central struggle for domain, that is, a hegemonic effort to locate and contain female genius by cataloguing its difference, and therein, its inferiority.[3]

Contemporary criticism has amply noted a trenchant anxiety among Victorian reviewers in response to Barrett Browning’s emergence as a successful poet. In turn, many twentieth-century critics have astutely linked her ensuing marginalization to widely circulated myths celebrating her physical and mental suffering.[4] Yet few modern critics have spent sustained time on the metaphors and word choice employed by her nineteenth-century readers. We need to analyze not only what Victorian reviewers are saying, but how they are saying it. In other words, we must recognize the language of Victorian critical discourse as a tool of ideological production in order to identify the means by which female authors are systematically marginalized within, or excluded from, the canon.[5] Gilbert and Gubar suggest of the representation of women in fiction:

As a creation “penned” by man…woman has been “penned up” or “penned in.” As a sort of “sentence” man has spoken, she has herself been “sentenced”: fated, jailed, for he has both “indited” her and “indicted” her. As a thought he has “framed,” she has been both “framed” (enclosed) in his texts, glyphs, graphics, and “framed up” (found guilty, found wanting) in his cosmologies. (13)

The purpose of this paper is to examine Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the author/body, as she is produced by her critics. What does this particular production say of their anxieties? Foucault reminds us, “[T]he author does not precede the works; he is a functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes and chooses... One can say that the author is an ideological product...the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning” (119). Indeed, as nineteenth-century reviewers imagine the writer behind her immensely popular poetry, they rely upon certain rhetorical tropes by which they sculpt a non-threatening figure of female authorship rather than face “a proliferation of meanings” beyond the scope of their patriarchal symbolic system.[6]

A close reading of Victorian critical rhetoric suggests that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s nineteenth-century critics, both male and female,[7] depend upon a strategic discursive practice in which they fetishistically and methodically corporealize Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry. This routine corporealization of her verse is an effort to control a textual body in lieu of the authorial body which has eluded them.[8] Barrett Browning has escaped their control, or rather the confines of their masculinist logic, by producing the kind of text normally associated with masculinity. If, as the Romantic tradition defines it, a poet is a philosopher, women cannot be poets, or at least cannot write the kind of poetry valued by Victorian critics, because their bodies get in the way. Elizabeth Grosz explains: “As a discipline, philosophy has surreptitiously excluded femininity, and ultimately women, from its practices through its usually implicit coding of femininity with the unreason of the body. It could be argued that philosophy as we know it has established itself as a form of knowing… only through the disavowal of the body” (4). Yet, by rivalling male poets like Milton, Shakespeare, and her contemporary, Tennyson, Barrett Browning represents the impossible - a woman’s disavowal of the body to which she is inextricably linked.[9] Thus, I suggest the recurring corporealization of Barrett Browning’s poetry signifies her reviewers’ efforts to locate the body missing from its dis-embodied text. They must find the corporeal in the text in order to maintain the “truth” of their logic; they must prove that Barrett Browning has not actually escaped her body. Hence, her poetry as described by her critics consistently demonstrates evidence of an inexorable and often dangerous materiality.

My argument here significantly departs from that made by critics who suggest Barrett Browning’s mythologization occurs only after the publication of Kenyon’s edition of her love letters and who blame her marginalization on a backlash against Victorianism.[10] Yet, even during her lifetime, even in response to poems not necessarily read as political, and even at her most popular we can see trenchant efforts to frame her within a fragile, wholly “feminine” and debilitated body. Tricia Lootens notes that romantic idealizations of the poet during and shortly after her life tend to center “on E.B.B.’s person—or rather, on her near lack of corporeal presence” (126); in other words, reviewers imagine her as an angelic, ethereal, and disembodied non-presence. Thus, it is especially significant that her textual body emerges in their reviews with so much viscous materiality. I suggest that the discursive slippage made by reviewers as they describe her verse, sliding from images of a vulnerable and disabled body to those of monstrosity, not only discloses the myriad ways in which they tried to pen her in, but also simultaneously exposes the inability of ideology to control and contain its own apparitions.[11]

The Invalid Body

The general mid-nineteenth-century understanding of Barrett Browning’s poetry is perhaps best summed up by critic Sarah Flower Adams, who states, “There is the stamp of being as well as of saying in all Miss Barrett’s poems” (381-82). This “being” that infiltrates Barrett Browning’s poetry is the female body from which ideology claims she cannot escape. If, as suggested by another Victorian critic, Charles Wicksteed, the measure of the true poet is understood as the “victory of the moral and intellectual nature over bodily disease” (446), then the marked intrusion of Barrett Browning’s body on the text would seem to confirm her distance from true poetic genius. Thus, the most noticeable of the tropes employed by her reviewers is their consistent conflation of what they identify as the shortcomings of her verse with those of her “bodily disease.”

Biographical studies vary in their interpretations of both the causes of Barrett Browning’s illness and extent to which she was incapacitated. Most recent speculations about her ailing health blame tuberculosis, but others have attributed it to a spinal injury, a burst blood-vessel in her lung, a battle with anorexia, and a life-long opiate addiction used to treat a nervous condition. During her lifetime, and until recently, criticism has tended to mythologize her invalid status and reclusive lifestyle.[12] She has, in fact, reached a sort of modern iconic stature for the physically challenged.[13] Yet, as several critics have astutely noted, the sentimentalization of the disabled in Victorian discourse worked to mark deviant bodies as abnormal and in need of supervision.[14] The idealization of Barrett Browning as a martyr is testament of her deviance, as well as an attempt to frame a body resisting male control.

Some critics have argued that a cultural preoccupation with Barrett Browning’s invalidism was not necessarily a hindrance. Arguably, writing enables a transcendence of the temporal, spatial, and material. Moreover, as several feminist critics have suggested, Barrett Browning must have certainly recognized the convenience of an illness which permitted her Virginia Woolf’s prescription for the female author: a “room of her own” within which to study and write. Others have suggested that she was able to exploit a Victorian ideology which idolized female suffering and martyrdom.[15] Yet, Barrett Browning specifically rejected romanticized female dependency and male chivalry, and in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford following the 1844 publication of her Poems wrote: “I know that women (many of them) encourage this tendency by parading their weakness, and it is detestable to my eyes, in an equal degree, on both sides of sex” (qtd. in Kenyon Jones 25). It is clear that Barrett Browning, however enabled by her “invalidism,” would have preferred to have been accepted for her poetic merits and, in fact, found her readerships’ sympathies disabling - arguably responsible for “eulogizing” her as a crooner of sorrowful love poems than the author of politically charged and revisionist poetry.

Reviewers habitually identify evidence of the infirm body in the stylistic faults of her poems. On one hand, they use her physical challenges to account for poetic flaws. Sarah Flower Adams suggest, “Miss Barrett is herself an exile; - one secluded from society by long-continued ill health. This, while an excuse for some garrulity of pen, also accounts for faults which, under different circumstances, might have substantiated against her a charge of pedantry” (382). Excusing Barrett Browning’s faults, Adams suggests that reviewers should feel sorry for the writer because her poetry demonstrates not the egotism of a pedant or sophist, but that of someone not socially-skilled, one sadly unfamiliar with the fine art of conversation. Clearly, the distinction Adams draws between garrulousness and pedantry is an act of condescension, rendering Barrett Browning child-like and naïve, rather than over-educated and pushy.

At times, the flaws of Barrett Browning’s verse are more materially linked to those of her body. An 1838 review in the Atlas calls parts of The Seraphim, and Other Poems “feeble” (qtd. in Donaldson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography [hereafter EBB] 15), perhaps referencing the poet’s own infirmity. In an 1857 review of Aurora Leigh, W.E. Aytoun says, “[H]er prose is all the worse because she has been compelled to dislocate its joints in order to make it read like blank verse” (417). The text is given a body, but one which is disjointed—implicitly recalling the poet’s own “disabled” body. Conant, too, writes that Barrett Browning’s “style is…uneven, and often abrupt. A sentence or paragraph occasionally limps a little after the hastening thought. A degree of stiffness is also sometimes given by a pet word” (339). Like Adams, he excuses these faults as the necessary outcome of “the enforced seclusion of her life” (340), yet his sympathy masks his effort to inter her in an inferior body. Her verse materializes as wounded; it “limps” and is “stiff.” As a competitor for poetic laurels, she cannot keep up. In her classic study, Woman and the Demon, Nina Auerbach suggests that “[i]n the Victorian imagination the danger of woman’s special powers produced the foot-binding of her officially approved image” as domestic angel (187). In these reviews Barrett Browning’s feet are imaginatively bound. Anxious about her poetic “powers” to topple gender hierarchies, her reviewers produce an enduring image of her as an invalid.

Significantly, Conant imagines Barrett Browning struggling alongside her male contemporaries: “a form frail as a lily’s...she drags her slight frame through the furrows of toil…How affecting it is to see her striving against physical infirmity!” (338-39). Here, her infirmity is doubly disabling, for the body that emerges is not only partially lame, dragging against the literary landscape, but further mutates into the aesthetic association of the female body with flowers. Conant’s association of Barrett Browning with a lily demonstrates succinctly what Gilbert and Gubar have famously identified as the “aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility” that “obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves…into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead” (25). Indeed, as Bram Dijkstra’s famous study, Idols of Perversity, has suggested, the ubiquitous image in nineteenth-century art of dead or dying women clutching flowers (often lilies), or floating downstream amid water-lilies occurs in response to male anxieties about women’s increasing agency.[16] Conant’s review, written shortly after Barrett Browning’s death, insists upon remembering her when alive as if already deceased. She is a body to be elegized, for which to reserve pity, not praise. Conant’s reference to her physical frailty, couched in commiserative admiration, speaks to a desire to bury insecurities raised by her presence on the literary scene. Penning women who threaten to disrupt gender hierarchies as already dead (or disabled) is simply a way of penning them in - or sticking a pin in them, as Barrett Browning herself suggested.[17]

So inextricably linked in the Victorian imagination are women’s bodies and the cult of fragility/invalidism that reviewers do not even need to reference a biographical illness; her ailing health is merely a convenient addition to the prevailing mythology of women’s inherent inadequacies. She is a woman and, hence, imagined as always, already incapacitated. Charles Everett lucidly articulates this assumption in his definition of the poet. He begins his 1857 North American review of Poems,“There is much in the education of women, in the present state of society, that unfits them for the highest success in literature, or in any of the creative arts. It is not impossible that there is also something in their very nature...” (415). He implicitly counters feminist arguments that women’s poetic incapacities arise from their domestic seclusion and limited access to formal education - an argument posited by Aurora Leigh - by suggesting that women are naturally unequipped for poetic achievement. He explains further:

The work of the artist is to free himself from the direct influence of the objects about him...[T]he artist must hold himself aloof, in some degree from the objects by which he is surrounded...The artist must feel deeply; but he must not be under the dominion of his feelings. The tendency in woman...is not favourable to this artistic freedom. Her affections and emotions are more powerful than those of man, and can thus be less easily untwined from the objects to which they cling.... (417)

According to Everett, woman’s inherent disability is that she cannot distance herself from bodily sensation. She is, in fact, under the dominion of her body, encumbered by its “affections and emotions.” Women, less reasoning creatures by nature, simply do not possess the ability to write the right kind of poetry because their bodies interfere.

Martha Jones, in an 1844 review, having internalized such logic, complains that Barrett Browning “is a close observer of nature,…occasionally it strikes us that she gives a little too much attention to minute details, instead of seizing the leading features of the landscape” (348). She suggests that Barrett Browning cannot disentangle her nature from Nature. An object in the patriarchal symbolic order, she lacks the ability to mediate between object and representation. As a result, she is deficient not only in objectivity, but in perspective—too close to nature, she cannot keep enough distance from it to “seize” its meaning. She is, according to this reviewer, disabled by her own physicality, grounded by her body.[18]

The Contaminated Body

Despite the drive to characterize feminine creativity as innocuous, a contrasting, clearly aberrant body also creeps into reviews of the poet. For example, Jones after praising Barrett Browning’s poetry, sneers, “[T]here is yet the stain of earth” (346). The “stain” which she claims Barrett Browning’s female body imprints on her verse assures readers of the essential difference, and distance, between the sexes. However, the connotations of “stain” imply both spiritual and sexual transgressions. Indeed, the poetic flaws which her reviewers catalogue routinely allude to the dangerous and contaminative nature of women’s writing.

Barrett Browning’s reviewers are, in fact, trapped in a paradox of their own making, for while they desperately need to identify a feminine body by which to naturalize gender difference and male superiority, the body of woman also represents a grave source of fear and anxiety. Grosz explains, “Body is what is not mind, what is distinct from and other than the privileged term. It is what the mind must expel in order to retain its ‘integrity.’ It is implicitly defined as unruly, disruptive, in need of direction and judgment…” (3). Detecting a lack of restraint within Barrett Browning’s poetry, her reviewers evidence the residue of a specifically feminine body which inherently lacks aesthetic integrity and bars her from the title of “poet.”

Thus, her reviewers’ criticisms commonly focus on the texts’ unruliness, “evident” in the poet’s use of obscure expressions, invented language, and tendency towards pedantry.[19] John Forster writes in his 1844 review of A Drama of Exile, “She wants strength to compress these into a poem of any great dimensions. She uses all her thoughts and feelings for whatever she does. The art of knowing what to keep and what to reject, she has not attained” (628). An 1851 review of her Poems similarly complains, “What she still wants is compression…Her fault has been, not only to use all her thoughts and feelings for whatever she does, but to be equally lavish of multitudes of words in depicting them” (Rev. of Poems 552). She lacks the masculine strength to contain her emotion. Without male editorial control, her verse overflows its boundaries.

Her faulty rhyming also consistently comes under fire. Reviewers over and again use the word “inept” to describe her rhyming; according to the OED, nineteenth-century uses of this term connoted her “inability to adapt”; her poetry and its author are “out of place,” “unfit,” and significantly, “of no effect”(905). Her poetry in these cases, like the author herself, references her own exiled state. Like its author, it does not fit in. In her review of Poems Jones says,

[H]er rhymes are distracting to any one with an ear. And this is really inexcusable, rhyming being one of the very lowest elements of the art…There is a sort of hit or miss, slap-dash air, about Miss B.’s rhymes that make one laugh, were it not so provoking to meet, either such carelessness, or obtuseness, as they evince…Truly Miss Barrett is unrivalled and unrivalable in this item of her art--neither eye nor ear can endure it. (345)

To prove that she cannot rival male poets, Jones complains that Barrett Browning is unable to master even the simplest of tasks - rhyming. To be able to rhyme well one must possess an intuitive sense of control and tightness, but according to a masculinist ideology which Jones has apparently internalized, women fall victim to unchecked passion. Yet, Barrett Browning’s poetic attempt invokes both ridicule and provocation, making explicit once more the uneasy tension between the innocuous woman writer reviewers would like to see materialize and the dangerous presence they can’t help but imagine. Although Victorian reviewers corporealize Barrett Browning’s poetry in an attempt to contain it, its materialization is nevertheless a body they have difficulty controlling.

As if staring into a crystal ball to discover the whereabouts of the body which has eluded them, her reviewers often picture the author wandering aimlessly through a gothic wilderness of her own making. An 1838 review of The Seraphim, and Other Poems complains that she “is easily led into the pursuit of fantastic images and overwrought conceits, when the nature of the topic and the solemnity of concomitant thoughts demand a sustained and straightforward simplicity” (qtd. in Harris 112). George Hillard concurs in an 1842 review, “Her great defect is a certain lawless extravagance, which delights in the wild, the mystic, the wonderful” (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 19). Jones complains that her “thoughts…are not clearly conceived, and are expressed in a wilderness of words in which it is sometimes difficult to pick up one distinct, intelligible idea. Her genius is erratic, and runs away with her” (341); her imagination is “absolutely rampant in its unbridledness” (352). Another fears that because Barrett Browning has ventured upon “new and untried paths” in A Drama of Exile, she will be lost forever (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 32). In these reviews, the female writer materializes as a body unable to discriminate, refusing moderation, and dangerously ignoring boundaries. The conflation of her poetic text with the wilderness calls to mind the historic alignment of women’s bodies with uncivilized nature. With no man present to cultivate the wasteland of either the writer’s body or her words, she poses a danger to both herself and others.[20] She elopes with her own imagination into a moral desert, wanders around aimlessly, and like the heroine of gothic fiction, waits for a man to save her from herself.

Barrett Browning’s “wilderness” is regularly contrasted with the domestic garden. Her problem, according to her reviewers, is that in attempting to create a “garden,” she has overstepped the bounds into the wilderness. Sandra Donaldson cites a reviewer who “compares the tangle of some of EBB’s poems with ‘the artificial wilderness of the garden’: it is intended but impenetrable” (EBB 30). The assumption is that women may tend to gardens, but are not capable of creating them; their own aberrant nature gets in the way, and without male guidance what begins as an attempt at a garden soon overgrows itself. Conant, too, imagines Barrett Browning as a woman trampling wildly across both the field of literary production and gender ideology, “careless of the flowerbeds and borders” (339). He clearly indicates that Barrett Browning’s efforts symbolize a destructive attempt to transgress gendered boundaries. No longer the domesticated frail lily he had earlier imagined, she has trampled both the flowerbeds and borders - crushed the blossoming femininity heralded by Victorian domestic ideology and destroyed the ideological fences separating masculinity and femininity, reason and emotion, poets and non-poets. Further, in flattening these boundaries, she threatens to allow the wilderness to creep into the carefully contained and cultivated garden. Other women (and the canon itself!) may be contaminated. Worse, other women may get out, and a plague of feminist aspirations threaten the symbolic order.

A Provocative and Cross-Dressed Body

Bram Dijkstra, who charts the linked representation of women and flowers in nineteenth-century art, notes that from the mid-nineteenth century the image takes on “an ominous quality…the lily-toting virgin came to be replaced by rows of unruly and definitely unvirtuous - yet all-too tempting - dandelions and daisies which seemed to blossom shamelessly…” (233). Barrett Browning, when not a languishing lily is imagined as a “flowery temptress of a hothouse variety” (Dijkstra 233). Certainly the garden metaphor belies anxieties about woman’s fecundity, and therein a sexuality which needs to be controlled, as emblematized by Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1857).[21] But it is not just Barrett Browning who is imagined as sexually transgressive; reviewers recurrently attribute to her textual body the “sins” of its author.

In reference to “Cry of the Children,” Conant identifies “faults [which are] peculiarly feminine…consist[ing] in a strutting gait, a pertness of expression, a consciousness of what she was doing, a somewhat ostentatious estimate of her own powers” (340). He says later of Aurora Leigh, “Nothing can be more womanly than these argumentative passages. Impulsive, inconsistent, illogical; abounding with saucy “sirs,” and with smart sayings; often swaggering, and not infrequently scolding outright…” (346). Rather than assuming a normative feminine modesty, her verse materializes as a sexually excessive and aware female body. No longer a limping body, she struts and swaggers. Like a nagging wife, the female poet is too lucidly cognizant of her seductive powers. No drooping lily, she saucily and impertinently scolds.

Moreover, because the language of this description parallels the writer’s verse with the ways prostitutes are often depicted, Barrett Browning may implicitly be guilty of a certain kind of economic transgression as well. Aurora Leigh was, after all, immensely popular, printed five times in her lifetime. In selling her verse, always already conflated with her body, she sells herself. In other words, Barrett Browning, the recluse spinster, is also a public woman - implicitly aligned with a prostitute. In an 1845 edition of Prospective Review, Charles Wicksteed portrays Barrett Browning’s verses as illicitly inviting male sexual desire:

She does not always gird up the loins of her thought, to make a stalwart journey, without pause or retrogression. Her garments are sometimes seen floating or dragging. She has sometimes given out the idea before she has given up the verse. She requires to know when she has done with her thought. (462)

In particular, Barrett Browning has not girded up her “loins” - he site of her genitalia - so that she errs by inviting a desiring gaze. Wicksteed fixes upon her a decidedly penetrating gaze intended to fasten her into misogynistic notions of female sexuality and excess. In this overtly eroticized review, Barrett Browning’s poetry emerges as a dangerously disheveled, seductively threatening female body - her clothes (and thoughts) slipping off, or having slipped away - because she has immodestly neglected to secure them. She is sexually sloppy, too “easy,” giving up her “ideas” too soon. The suggestion, obviously, is that she should tease the reader further, not satisfy him prematurely. Moreover, she is insatiable; she doesn’t know when to quit, practices no moderation and cannot control her own appetites. She will continue to “give out” until someone, presumably male, intervenes.

However, Wicksteed’s desire is as much about unmasking a “cross-dressed” Barrett Browning as it is about undressing her.After all, Barrett Browning had, in “Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character” demonstrated the desire to “manfully…wade thro the waves of learning” (qtd. in Avery and Stott 29). She suggests, in other words, the need to put off her femininity in order to be accepted in a man’s world. Indeed, reviewers often accused Barrett Browning of stepping outside a woman’s realm of authority when she ventured onto political terrain. In this sense, she was, like other female artists who adopted pseudonyms, cross-dressing.[22] Yet, Barrett Browning’s critic identifies the tell-tale marker of femininity: she flaunts the trousers of masculine ideas, but as she “manfully wades,” her skirts slip out from underneath, drag behind, and disclose her inexorable femininity. Wicksteed is not the only reviewer to “unmask” Barrett Browning; in an 1862 review of Poems another argues that she “held a ‘radical intellectual misconception of the sphere of her sex,’ which can be seen in her abrupt style and which gives her writings ‘a somewhat saucy air.’ This ‘bold or forward deportment’ ‘is the swagger of a woman in man’s apparel,’ showing ‘the fair masquerader is misclad’” (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 105). Both reviewers try desperately to put her back in her place, but the recurrent move to undress/unmask Barrett Browning evidences not an inexorable femininity so much as an anxious desire to affirm an unstable gender mythology.

Clearly, as Wicksteed gazes at the body he has imagined, he is simultaneously titillated and disturbed. Her ungirded loins promise to reveal her sexual difference, but also threaten to expose the myth of that difference, to ungird “truths” of gender as fictions. She may “look” like a woman, but she is “acting” like a man. Even as he attempts to pen her into Victorian definitions of femininity, he cannot control the body he imagines. A similar illustration of the female poet’s unsettling gender ambiguity surfaces in an 1857 review in which the poet is compared to “the Amazon in the midst of battle, hiding not her sex, but demanding no favor for her beardless lip” (Everett 419). The mythic warrior-woman is offered under cover of a compliment. Yet, complicating this seeming praise is the knowledge that the Angel in the House, not the Amazon, is privileged in nineteenth-century discourse. Arguably, the reviewer’s praise masks concerns about the poet’s preference for the poetic battlefield rather than the home.[23] Moreover, if we consider his image of the woman unabashedly revealing her “sex” in the genital sense, his reference to her “beardless lip” arguably doubles to symbolize her position in a sort of fixed and timeless pre-pubescent stage, outside the economy of male desire. The female poet is childlike and simultaneously a monstrous hybrid, neither masculine nor female but a creature of dangerous sexual ambiguity.

A Disfigured and Deformed Body

Reviewers also consistently argue that Barrett Browning’s verse has been marred, “disfigured” or “deformed.” An 1844 review in Blackwoods Magazine suggests, "[W]e are constrained to say, that her compositions are often disfigured by strained or slovenly modes of phraseology, which greatly detract from their impressiveness, and which most materially injure the reputation of this authoress" (Qtd. in Harrison 112). Jones complains of “the faults which [Barrett Browning’s] volumes abound, so serious as almost to repel one from the compositions which they disfigure” (341) and John Wilson says her poems are “disfigured by much imperfect and some bad writing” (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 16). Deformity is used interchangeably with disfigurement. Conant, complaining of her use of argument in Aurora Leigh, says, “[A] consequence, amounting to a deformity, was an assuming egotism, at once as far from feminine as from manly perfection” (346). He later says that A Drama of Exile and Casa Guidi Windows are “deformed by self-importance” (347). Of note here is that both disfigurement and deformity are active forces, not simply passive conditions. The reviewers imply that Barrett Browning’s poetry possesses an original and pure essence which has somehow been irreparably, monstrously altered. Arguably, that which disfigures the poetry is a contaminating femininity materially linked to the poet’s own “disfigured” or “deformed” body.

It is, of course, significant that these descriptors tend to emerge when reviewers are referencing poems outside the traditional domain of female authorship, suggesting Barrett Browning’s refusal to conform to uniform expectations of gender. The female poet’s transgression renders both herself and her creation “undistinguishable,” not clearly marked, locatable or controlled - monstrous. Aytoun, for example, writes that Aurora Leigh is “very hideous or revolting…and produces a sensation of loathing, from which we do not immediately recover” (416). Reviewer John Nichols condemns her use of metaphor, arguing, “By a single ugly phrase, a single hideous word, dragged in, one would think, from the furthest ends of the earth, she every now and then mars the harmony of a whole page of beauty” (427). Its otherworldly hideousness, its alien monstrosity is the poetic genius which the male symbolic order does not (or does not want to) recognize.

A Chastened Body: From disfigurement to transfigurement

It is important to reiterate the conflict surfacing in the reviewers’ work, the tension between their obvious affinity for the poet’s work and the anxiety they feel being rivalled by her. Thus, for all the evidence of the poet’s monstrosity, in many reviews, to more or less of a degree, surfaces an explicit hope for the poet’s redemption through a submissive return to her proper sphere. Barrett Browning’s most threatening transgression has been to trust to her own discretion. As her critics retroactively construct her life, they simultaneously construct a teleological progress towards redemption, recalling epic romances as they figure themselves and Robert Browning as knights who will rescue and reform the distressed “poetess,” a label she deplored.

The remedy for Barrett Browning’s error is a process whereby the transgressive body is saved by spiritual cleansing. Over and again reviews depend upon the descriptors “spoil” or “spoiled” to discuss her verse, implying it is good poetry gone bad, rotted. Jones, for example, recommends “greater chasteness of thought and style,” asking her to “chasten her imagination,” lest her poetry be defined by “bad taste, confused thinking, and…slovenly composition” (352). Clearly the stakes are greater than Barrett Browning had imagined, for her literary transgressions threaten not only her literary reputation, but the fate of her soul. Although this redemption requires a chastening of the mind, Jones can “guarantee…her safety” if she will only learn self-restraint (352). Confined to bodily experience, Barrett Browning is told to fear her body, urged to transfer control of it to the discretion of male editors who can better harness its sexual potential. By depicting the desiring female body as dangerous, patriarchal power maintains its authoritative right to control women.

It is thus no surprise that her poetry receives more favourable responses following her marriage to Robert Browning, mythologized as her knight in white armour. Over and again reviewers note a favourable turn in Barrett Browning’s poetry after her marriage to Browning. They consistently refer to her style as “chastened.” Everett’s review of Poems in 1857, for example, links her marriage to poetic improvement; he condescends, “she does not wander as before” (441).Gone is the wild-haired woman hurtling through the wilderness, trampling lilies and flowerbeds. Gone is the sexless woman resisting proper femininity. Gone are the excesses, disfigurements, and deformities.[24] As Browning’s wife, her poetry, and the poet herself, resume an innocuous presence, safely re-enclosed within her proper sphere.

A Monstrously Maternal Body

If Barrett Browning is imagined as temporarily chastened by marriage, the ideological contradiction she represents is brought to the fore by her role not as wife, but as mother. In 1849, she gives birth to Robert Wiedemann Browning, her only child. Barrett Browning seems to have sometimes felt torn between domestic duties and literary aspiration. Indeed, her poetic heroine, Aurora is tortured by maternal guilt for having chosen work over children. In fact, Aurora’s anguish about her never-born children, displaced onto ripped-up poetic verses which she describes as “an embryo’s heart/Which never yet beat” (3:245-48), arguably represent Barrett Browning’s self-lacerating guilt concerning the four miscarriages she suffered.25 No doubt, Barrett Browning has internalized the masculinist ideas of her culture concerning motherhood. Indeed, her critics clearly suggest that her maternal obligations should supercede her literary aspirations. Yet, Barrett Browning continues to write and in 1857 publishes what feminist critics today tend to view as her most explicitly feminist work, Aurora Leigh, a forceful argument in favour of women’s work, and a striking critique of both marriage and the restraints of motherhood. Her critics’ responses to Aurora Leigh, often less than favourable, evidence their concerns about her maternal transgressions.

Metaphors linking women writers to monstrous maternity have a long literary history, most often functioning to establish the primacy of male procreative authority.[26] We can more fully understand the implications of the monstrous female body by examining in greater detail an 1860 review by Aytoun comparing Barrett Browning to a Pythoness. He imagines her “’foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breasts heaving, her voice indistinguishable and shrill’ and uttering ‘oracular raving.’” (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 83). Such criticism is connotatively loaded. In Greek legend, the Pythoness was the oracle at Delphi in Greece, emblematic of a goddess culture ultimately toppled by patriarchal Christianity. Thus, the image connotes Barrett Browning’s oracle-like powers, yet renders her a monstrous creature in need of male subjection. The image also recalls a Medusa-figure, a woman-turned monster whose “goggling” eyes threaten to turn her male contemporaries to metaphorical stone; like Medusa she must be beheaded.[27] Alternatively, she is a siren, her shrill voice defying masculinist logic, driving men mad with desire.[28] She foams at the mouth, a rabid, diseased beast, threatening to contaminate its master. She is simultaneously a monstrous hybrid conflating the snake in the Garden of Eden and the temptress Eve, who having eaten of the tree of knowledge threatens to offer up its secrets.[29] She is all of these things, and none of them - a monstrous compilation of everything man fears, an aberration for which there is no taxonomy.

Further, the image of Barrett Browning as the hyper-sexualized Pythoness implies a dangerous fecundity; straining, eyes bulging, breasts heaving, she threatens to give birth to more female monsters. In fact, this reviewer’s description of Barrett Browning sounds strikingly similar to Pope’s infamous attack on eighteenth-century writer Eliza Haywood, whom in The Dunciad (1728) he famously described as a monstrous mother, “yon Juno of majestic size/With cow-like udders, and with ox-like eyes”( Bk. 2 ll. 157-166). Juno, a Greek Goddess like the oracle Pythoness, is transformed into a hyper-sexualized monster in order to contain a woman writer transgressing boundaries of literary authority. Both images also call to mind Errour, the beast slain by the red-crosse knight in The Faerie Queene, as well as Sin, the Pythoness guarding the Gates of Hell in Paradise Lost. Significantly, all these monsters, figures of female power, are imagined as giving birth to more hideous monsters which in turn consume them. Says Djikstra of this ideological assumption as represented in nineteenth-century art, “[W]oman had truly become ‘the idol of perversity’…the livid-eyed, snake-encircled, medusa-headed flower of evil, whose aggressively pointed breasts were as threatening as the fangs of a devouring animal. This woman, if she were to breed at all, could only be expected to mother hordes of degenerative temptresses…and countless other terrible, man-eating creatures” (325). According to this misogynistic logic, Barrett Browning, as monstrous mother, reproduces what cannot be productive. Thus, if we return to Jones’s earlier image of Barrett Browning’s “ungirded loins,” perhaps what she threatens to unveil are the misshapen and monstrous genitalia which can give birth to more deformed literary offspring.

Aytoun defends his harsh criticism of Aurora Leigh by arguing that he is merely guarding the world against further monstrous creations: “In dealing with the works of authors of high name and established repute, it is of the utmost importance that the judgment should be clear and calm; for we know by experience that the aberrations or eccentricities of a distinguished artist are immediately copied by a crew of imitators…” (418). Barrett Browning’s critics, then, imagine themselves as knights defending the holy grail of literary authority against poetic monstrosities. Defining female imagination as defective, patriarchal power asserts for masculinity the position of sole literary progenitor, thereby insuring a self-perpetuating likeness of its own fictions. According to her reviewers’ logic, only men can generate meaningful, viable literature; women, whose bodies/minds are at once frail, diseased, sexually excessive, deformed, and monstrous can produce only more of the same.

Yet, a monstrous body is not an easy body to control, as the reviewers suggest. Gilbert and Gubar explain of the paradoxical trope of the monstrous female, she “represents both the author’s power to allay ‘his’ anxieties by calling their source bad names (witch, bitch, fiend, monster) and, simultaneously, the mysterious power of the character who refuses to stay in her textually ordained ‘place’ and thus generates a story that ‘gets away’ from its author” (28). Thus, we see that rather than penning her in, identifying her and her works as monstrous seems to create greater anxieties for her critics. Although her critics need to imagine her as running unbridled through the forest, howling at the moon, so as to disqualify her from poetic accomplishment—that very image testifies to the powers she possesses.

“A Woman and Nothing More”

It is not until after Barrett Browning’s death that reviewers, for the most part, give up their metaphors of disfigurement and monstrosity when referring to her works. A series of reviews were written shortly after her death in 1861 celebrating her life and works. Conant’s is one of these. As he traces, retroactively, her literary development from disfigurement to transfigurement, he suggests of her spiritual chastening, “One of the noblest of the sex was not to be proved by development a monstrosity in God’s creation” (353). He, like others before him, argues that when Robert Browning wed her, she proved to be that which is most natural, a doting wife. Ensuing, “all her attempted philosophy and philanthropy are merged in her nature’s flood. In finding her mate, she found the solution of the life-riddle that had perplexed her...Where is the strong-minded woman, the would-be reasoner, the competitor for bays of fame?” (353). While reviewers writing during Barrett Browning’s lifetime demonstrate troubling uncertainties about how to categorize her, Conant is nonplussed. Finally dead, safely entombed, she no longer threatens carefully maintained, but ever-unstable hierarchies. Thus, Conant closes his highly vexed review of Barrett Brewing with the damning statement: “Nothing can be clearer, however than that she was a woman, and only a woman” (353). In this move he simultaneously rescues her from contempt and forbids her access to grandeur; she is neither a monster, nor an equal, nor even an angel. She is only, merely a woman. And for many years, so was Barrett Browning remembered, as the excessively feminine author of the excessively feminine love ballads, Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Yet, as Avery and Stott note, since the late 1960’s, academic feminism has attempted a recovery of Barrett Browning’s works in their entirety, as well as a re-evaluation of their political contents and feminist implications. However, as this essay has hoped to suggest, we should continue to pay close attention to the body or bodies we create as we “recover” her and her texts from the hands of other critics. We should consistently interrogate our methodology: what sorts of bodies are we raising from the literary “dead” and to what work will we put them? What tools do we use to excavate them? By what means do we piece these bodies together? What anxieties do they elicit? What anxieties might we, in turn, breathe into the bodies we animate? It is perhaps easier to cast a penetrating eye on the rhetoric of nineteenth-century critical discourse, but no doubt just as imperative that we also turn the gaze inward upon ourselves to become aware of the ways in which we are necessarily informed by and implicated within our own cultural and ideological contexts.


1 This is not to say that there were not a significant number of women writers publishing their work before Barrett Browning. In fact, the late eighteenth century literary market was dominated by women writers attracted to and enabled by the Sentimentalist vogue. For a more thorough discussion of the rhetorical production of the eighteenth-century woman writer, see Mary Poovey's The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago: UC Press, 1984. back

2 Wordsworth asks in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, “What is meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men; a man it is true, imbued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind…” (577). Similarly, Percy Bysse Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry: “A Poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and most illustrious of men” (1171). Traditionally, only men are believed to possess the rational capacity to shape the imagination’s forms into poetic content. back

3 For a thorough discussion of prevailing Victorian attitudes towards women and poetry, see the landmark work of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. See also chapter twelve in Isobel Armstrong’s classic study, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics for a concise, but broad-ranging evaluation of strategies by which women writers negotiated their positioning within the epistemology of Victorian poetics.back

4 For recent studies of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett Browning’s critical reception during her lifetime, see the works of Kay Moser, Ina Ferris, Patricia Gillikin, Lynee Lewis Gaillet, and Sandra Donaldson. For analysis of critical commentary during and after the nineteenth-century, see the works of Christine Kenyon Jones, Marjorie Stone, Angela Leighton, Antony H. Harrison, Tricia Lootens, and Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott. back

5 By marginalized, I mean to refer to the ways in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning is judged apart from her male contemporaries. Certainly, of the nineteenth-century poets Barrett Browning is among the most well known. Nevertheless, we must take into account which of Barrett Browning’s poems are canonized, i.e., for what poems we remember her. For the most part she is celebrated for writing Sonnets from the Portuguese, from which originates her most oft cited love poem, “How Do I Love Thee?” These poems are often read as sentimental (and by definition, feminine) ballads, although critics have recently began to explore their more feminist and revisionary drive. Tricia Lootens writes, “By the first decades of the twentieth century…the overall tendency of Barrett Browning’s canonization had become clear. Revered and (sometimes tenderly) mocked as some form of Andromeda in Wimpole Street, E.B.B. had attained canonicity, in great part, at the cost of being reduced to a romantic heroine of literary history.” back

6 In cataloguing the sorts of criticisms made by her reviewers, I do not attempt to gauge the “accuracy” of their aesthetic critiques; rather, my purpose is to locate and explore rhetorical tropes as they relate to the “production” and, in effect, disqualification of the female poet. back

7 I emphasize the fact that the discursive strategies designed to “pen” her in were employed by both men and women as testament to a pervasive masculinist ideology from which neither were immune. back

8 My use of the word “corporealize” refers to the ways in which the textual body is personified by her critics and granted similar physical attributes as its author (or at least the physical attributes conveniently imagined by her reviewers). However, I am also talking about the ways in which the textual body comes to represent the body of the poet, so that the body of the poet is produced as her critics interrogate her text. Elaine Scarry writes, “At particular moments when there is within a society a crisis of belief—that is, when some central idea or ideology or cultural construct has ceased to elicit a population’s belief either because it is manifestly fictitious or because it has for some reason been divested of ordinary forms of substantiation - the sheer material factualness of the human body will be borrowed to lend that cultural construct the aura of ‘realness’ and ‘certainty’” (14). My argument here is about how Barrett Browning’s critics “borrow” a body to lend to their masculinist notions of sexual difference “realness” and “certainty” in the face of an epistemological crisis. back

9 Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s contemporaries often figured her alongside these literary “greats,” calling her “Shakespeare’s daughter” or “the Shakespeare of her Sex,” “successor of Byron” who tread in Milton’s footsteps and, as is famously known, at least one critic in The Athenaeum suggested she take Wordsworth’s place as poet laureate - a position ultimately filled by Tennyson. See Donaldson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography of the Commentary and Criticism, 1826-1990. back

10 Angela Leighton, for example, argues that it was after this publication that “an idealized image of the woman gradually supplants the figure of the poet in the critics’ imagination” the result of which is that “the woman and the poet become inseparable and irreconcilable figures” (4). Marjorie Stone looks to Barrett Browning’s pervasive impact on her contemporary female readership to posit that following her death in 1861, “Mrs. Browning - the wife, the mother, the muse - remained in a variety of supplementary roles. But Elizabeth Barrett Browning the poet was erased…” (193). Similarly, Simon Avery and Rebecca Stott suggest that during her lifetime Barrett Browning was considered a daring poet; she is only “reconstructed as the frail chaise-lounge-bound invalid” as an effect of modernism’s backlash against Victorian poetry (11). back

11 Avery and Stott chart Barrett Browning’s transformation in literary mythology from her image as a “formidable poet” in her lifetime, through her marginalization in the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, and finally across the varied critical approaches to her literary recovery from the 1960’s forward. Lootens, although recognizing the contradictory reception history of Barrett Browning even during her lifetime, nevertheless focuses upon reviews after her death. I intend to confront Avery and Stott’s notion that Barrett Browning was only mythologized as an invalid in the years following her death. Also, I want to suggest that the images Lootens identifies in reviews from the mid-nineteenth century forward also occur much earlier. Thus, I am focusing only on reviews dating to 1862, the year after her death. back

12 Sandra Donaldson’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning: An Annotated Bibliography of the Commentary and Criticism, 1826-1990 provides a concise overview of her reviewer’s responses and demonstrates their consistent linking of her physical condition to her poetry. The most recent critical trend has been to de-mythologize her. See Marjorie Stone’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning and more recently, Avery and Stott’s work by the same title. back

13 For example, she is identified as an inspirational figure in a national Girl Scout Project entitled, “Walk A Mile in Another Girl’s Shoes,” as an answer in the “Women with Disabilities” trivia game on a website dedicated to teenagers struggling with physical and mental challenges, and as part of an educational project at a K-12 school called “Overcoming Adversity.” back

14 Christine Kenyon Jones’s study of Barrett Browning, heavily dependent upon the work of Michel Foucault, offers a lucid overview of the epistemology of disability and invalidism in the nineteenth century and considers the ways in which the poet might have deliberately utilized metaphors of illness and disease to both sustain and revise traditional notions of illness and disease. Also see Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity, chapter three, for an analysis of the pervasive representations of female invalidism in nineteenth-century paintings. back

15 Antony Harrison, for example, argues that “In Victorian England suffering, as a manifestation of emotional and spiritual sensitivity, was accepted as the special province of women and a special mode of female subjectivity in the fallen world” (87). He suggests that Barrett Browning depended upon the idealization of martyrdom and emphasized her own emotional and spiritual suffering in her poetry. Tricia Lootens suggests that Barrett Browning learned to “draw upon the symbolic power of ascetic sanctity” to legitimate her literary ambition (124). More subversively, Christine Kenyon Jones suggests Barrett Browning may have “used the discourses about disability that were available to explore…her own and others’ disabled identity” (21). Kenyon Jones argues that Barrett Browning in fact exploited notions of feminine suffering in order to key into and revise “the chivalrous instincts that her poems aroused in male and traditionally minded readers” (25). back

16 Dijkstra discusses the artistic fascination with Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Elaine, as well as Shakespeare’s Ophelia as evidence of what he terms the “Cult of Invalidism.” In addition to nineteenth-century paintings he examines literature by Tennyson and Coventry Patmore, both contemporaries of Barrett Browning. Significantly, Dijkstra notes the resistance of women writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mrs. E. Lynn Linton, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Abba Goold Woolson to the debilitating ideology of the “consumptive sublime.” back

17 Simon Avery notes that Barrett Browning “wrote to her friend Isa Blagden that she had the ‘greatest horror’ of becoming the subject of biographical speculation, of being ‘caught, stuck through with a pin, and beautifully preserved with other butterflies and beetles’” (Avery and Stott 23).back

18 Of course, the irony is that the reviewer, a woman, possesses the perspective to identify Barrett Browning’s lack of perspective. back

19 A brief examination of Donaldson’s annotated bibliography of Barrett Browning’s criticism reveals as much. See EBB entries 1838.21; 1840.1; 1844.16, 17, 33, 36; 1845.3, 14, 16, 18, 19, 20; 1846.4, 6; 1850.3; 1851.1, 4, 10, 15, 17, 18; 1855.1; 1856.17, 18, 23; 1857.16, 21, 23; 1859.8; 1860.8, 9, 11, 13, 15; 1862.6. back

20 In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning, an act of filial disobedience for which her father disowned her. back

21 See Dijkstra for an extended discussion of the powerful influence of the writer’s misogynistic ideas upon nineteenth-century representations of women. back

22 Of her own acts of “cross-dressing” in using a male pseudonym, nineteenth-century painter Rosa Bonheur once said, “My trousers have been my greatest protectors….Many times I have congratulated myself for having dared to break with traditions which would have forced me to abstain from certain kinds of work, due to the obligation to drag my skirts everywhere” (qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar 65). back

23 Arguably the term could be used to describe women who demonstrated valour. Nineteenth-century feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth is referred to by her biographer, Frances Gage, as an Amazon, but because she is an African-American, she is decidedly “other” in the nineteenth-century imagination; the term “Amazon” also mythologizes her racial origin. Historically, the term “Amazon” would have been used negatively, especially by those satirizing feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft. back

24 See Donaldson’s EBB: An Annotated Bibliography, especially the reviews following her death in 1861, for a sampling of this ubiquitous response. Suggests reviewer Joseph Johnson, the “mere thought of passing through life solitary and alone is congenial to no healthy mind” (qtd. in Donaldson, EBB 106). Concurs another, “The woman’s nature, turned inward too long, was burning up the feeble body; when a new experience came, to make the invalid a strong womanly woman, and to give the world, instead of a learned priestess of Apollo…a poetess of motherhood and wifehood…” (93). back

25 For a discussion of representations of the mother in Aurora Leigh, see Mermin, 190-96. back

26 For further discussion of Victorian representations of monstrous maternity, see Djikstra’s and Auerbach’s works. For an analysis of greater historical breadth, see Marie-Helene Huet, who traces images of monstrous maternity from the Middle-Ages through to the nineteenth-century. back

27 This implicit reference is significant in light of feminist criticism which has argued that Medusa symbolizes the Greco-Roman patriarchal appropriation of earlier matriarchal cultures. In the Greco-Roman tradition, Medusa is a mortal woman turned monstrous by her rival, Athena, who then, in turn, aids the hero Perseus in his quest to kill her and capture her head. In earlier traditions she is argued to have been part of a triple Goddess-head consisting of herself, Athena, and Athena’s mother, Metis. As Djikstra notes, Medusa, like Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott, is an object of fascination for nineteenth-century artists. back

28 The siren is also ubiquitously depicted by Victorian writers and painters. See Djikstra, chapter eight. back

29 See Djikstra, chapter eleven for a discussion of the vexed representation of Eve in nineteenth-century art. back


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