From Book 1, Aurora Leigh – Excerpt II
She liked a woman to be womanly,
And English women, she thanked God and sighed,
(Some people always sigh in thanking God)
Were models to the universe. And last
I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like
To see me wear the night with empty hands
A-doing nothing. So, my shepherdess
Was something after all, (the pastoral saints
Be praised for’t) leaning lovelorn with pink eyes
To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
Which slew the tragic poet. By the way,
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you’re weary—or a stool
To stumble over and vex you . . “curse that stool!”
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, this—that, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.
… from Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s epic novel in blank verse, which tells the story of the making of a woman poet, exploring ‘the woman question’, art and its relation to politics and social oppression.
Aeschylus – the ‘tragic poet’ referenced in the text … he died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. The eagle thinking his head was something hard so that it would break the tortoise. He is regarded as the father of tragedy – see this Wikipedia link.
These words outline how difficult it was for a woman to take up anything outside of their homely role in the nineteenth century. Men continue to ‘dream of something we are not’. And the product of the homely life is regarded as of little meaning in relation to the need of women to do and be something else – in the case of Aurora Leigh a poet.
‘We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, / Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir, / To put on when you’re weary’ – a cynical response to homely duties. It hurts most that woman are valued by this work which is nothing compared to the woman potential. So after all women are perhaps paid the worth of their work.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a hard life apart from her illness. Her father did not want any of his daughters to marry. And after the secret marriage to Robert and their elopement to France in 1846 her father disowned her and put all her possessions in storage. It was exceptional that she had the ability and the perseverance to develop her poetic voice. And she like Blake and Dickens was a great advocate for social change; especially in regard to the maltreatment of children during the industrial revolution.