Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Manuscript draft of Aurora Leigh, I.9-28, 204-207 on a page numbered 7 (Browning Guide D0051)

EBB Proof Corrections for Aurora Leigh, pg 151-154 of the first edition (Browning Guide D0058)

EBB Proof Corrections for Aurora Leigh on page headed “Aurora Leigh–4th edition,” postdating the fourth edition of 1859 (Browning Guide D0061)

Rare Item Analysis: Examination of Aurora Leigh Manuscript and Proof Corrections

by Will Temple

I analyzed several rare items related to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which are held in the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. They include: one of Browning’s rare manuscript fragments of Aurora Leigh on a page numbered seven (Browning Guide D0051), Browning’s corrections for a first edition of her work (Browning Guide D0058), as well as her corrections for a fourth edition of her work (Browning Guide D0061). These items show the careful, significant revisions Browning made over the course of Aurora Leigh’s conception and later editions.

The first item, a manuscript fragment on a page numbered 7, consists of lines 9-28 and 204-207 of the first book of Aurora Leigh. This manuscript was written prior to the manuscript EBB sent to her printer for the first edition of Aurora Leigh. In this post I will compare this manuscript fragment to the 1859 fourth edition of Aurora Leigh as it is reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Aurora Leigh, edited by Margaret Reynolds. One does not know what came before or after the manuscript’s seventh page, as the rest of the manuscript has been lost. Several significant line and punctuation changes were made. For example, “God help me – I am still what men call young,” is changed to “I, writing thus, am still what men call young.” This change seems utterly appropriate, as Browning had every right to immediately invoke the titular character’s “I,” who is of course “Aurora Leigh.” It seems appropriate for this early feminist piece, considering the Victorian hegemonic emphasis on a male ruling class and male God, for Browning to have immediately given Aurora more agency as a woman by taking out the invoking of a higher power without negating her piety whatsoever.

The second item displays author proof corrections for pages 151-154 of a first edition of Aurora Leigh, which corresponds to pages 120-123 in the Norton Critical edition. In these corrections, several similarly meaningful and clarifying changes are made. An important passage in the Fourth Book of Aurora Leigh was changed from “In schemes of . . ‘Here we’ll go’ . . and ‘There we’ll stay,’ / . . And ‘Everywhere we’ll prosper in our love,’ . . / Was scarce my business. Let them order it!” to “In schemes of . . ‘Here we’ll go’, and ‘There we’ll stay,’ / And ‘Everywhere we’ll prosper in our love,’ / Was scarce my business: let them order it;” (Book 4, 461-463). The removal of several ellipses fundamentally changes the rhythm of the lines. Browning extricates some of the pauses that originally inhibited the flow of the message she is trying to communicate.

The third item gives further insight into changes Browning made to a fourth edition of her work. She requests that twelve changes be made in a letter written to her editor. Browning made these changes after the fourth edition was published. These are mostly punctuation, tense changes, or single word substitutions. It shows Browning was a heavy self-critic and cared deeply about her work. Even after a 4th edition of Aurora Leigh had been published, she was revising.

Future literary students could benefit greatly from taking a glimpse into the evolving mind of the poet at work. They could, for instance, conjecture about what they think came before the first rare item, the manuscript with page 7 written on it, and whether or not it was incorporated into a later book in Aurora Leigh, or was extricated from the work all together. They could see the benefit of removing obtrusive, excessive, unnecessary punctuation by analyzing the second rare item, and view the importance of conciseness, succinctness, and clarity in all forms of writing: literary, expository, persuasive. They could similarly look into the corrections made by Browning to her fourth edition, and learn the tenacity, devotion, and dedication required to realize one’s full potential. As all great things must be, it must be nurtured constantly and criticized continually, even after it has been hailed with relative critical success.

For additional analysis of these items see this previous post: https://blogs.baylor.edu/19crs/2016/01/21/artifacts-related-to-ebbs-aurora-leigh/