Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Lily Briscoe and Aurora Leigh

When Lily Briscoe finishes her painting at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, she not only proves Charles Tansley wrong when he told her “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” but she also serves as an inspiration for women artists (Woolf 75). Lily Briscoe also follows in the footsteps of many brave female artists that came before her, including Aurora Leigh. She is a character in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem titled “Aurora Leigh” (1857). This very long poem consists of nine books and spans 350 pages and describes Leigh’s life and her love of art and the poems she writes about art. Aurora Leigh begins to find trouble when her cousin Romney Leigh proposes to her on her 20th birthday in Book 2. While he does so, he explains to her how he is skeptical of her poetic ability. He tells her “We want the Best in art now, or no art (Book 2, line 149). Here, Romney undercuts her artistic ability by implying that her poems are decent at best. Similarly, Charles Tansley tells Lily that women can’t write in an attempt to discourage her from pursue her painting. Romney’s misogynistic tone towards Aurora Leigh persists when he says:

Ah, But men, and still less women, happily,
Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,
Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
The clean white morning dress (Book 2, lines 92-96).

Romney not only thinks that women are incapable of producing art, but he says that even dreaming about the material one would use to produce art will give women headaches and will mess up their clean white morning dress. The white morning dress in Victorian society was seen as a dress worn while in the house doing domestic chores. Romney implies that women’s role need only to be contained to domestic affairs and nothing else. Every time Romney spoke, he infuriated me, however, Aurora came to my rescue and formed many rebuttals, including, “Here, if heads/ That hold a rhythmic thought, much ache perforce, / For my part I choose headaches,–and to-day’s My birthday” (Book 2, lines 106-108).  Leigh stands up to Romney and shows him that she is not afraid of the heard work that comes with producing great art. When Lily paints the last stroke on her painting at the end of To The Lighthouse, I am reminded that women prove men like Tansley and Romney wrong everyday. Women prefer the pen, the paintbrush, and the headache to the white morning dress.

If you would like to read “Aurora Leigh” here is the link to all of the books:

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