Victorian interrogations: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh : a dissertation presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English at Massey University
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's two major works, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh, provide a commentary on the structure of Victorian society, particularly in relation to gender roles. This thesis argues that in both works there is a primary concern with the ways in which women are placed within binary structures which are established by patriarchal discourses. These two works examine different structures in androcentric culture: heterosexual (courtly) love in the Sonnets, and patriarchy (the Law of the Father) in Aurora Leigh. Part One focusses on Sonnets from the Portuguese, with the first chapter describing the speaker's tension in responding to conventional love roles: will she submit or rebel? The chapter also notes the speaker's appropriation of the courtly love tradition as a metaphor for the marginalised position in Victorian society of the woman poet. Chapter Two discusses particular roles assumed by the players in this love relationship, particularly the male/ female roles of god and sinner, and the final chapter makes apparent the speaker's growing concern with metaphors as a means of re-presenting her experience. Part Two moves from the personal context (of the Sonnets) to the social with a focus on Aurora Leigh and the laws of society as established by patriarchal systems. Chapter Four considers how the Father's authority dominates and orders female life and desire, and in Chapter Five the dualisms undergirding patriarchy are exposed. Aurora uses her writing to deconstruct the binarisms she is caught in: between woman and artist, personal and universal, material and spiritual. The final chapter of this thesis develops the concern with the Father's law further by offering a more psychoanalytical reading in terms of post-Freudian criticism. This chapter examines Aurora's creation as a gendered consciousness, particularly focussing on the woman as separated from female desire by the early loss of her mother, her induction-into the realm of the Father, and her definition as an 'other', a (self)-alienated woman. Aurora's path beyond this ideological construction of her self involves the death of the Father and the rediscovery of feminine love, leading to a linguistically-constructed, alternative siting within her society that does not depend upon male definition.