Reactions to Aurora Leigh’s Christianity in Contemporary Book Reviews

Roscoe, William Caldwell. “Aurora Leigh.” Detached from National Review, vol. 4, no. 8 (Apr. 1857). London: Chapman and Hall: pp. 359-384. Periodical Articles Meynell Collection. Browning Guide #A1721.

Lawrance, Hannah. “Mrs. Browning’s Poetry.” Detached from British Quarterly Review, vol. 42, no. 84 (1865). London: Jackson, Walford, and Hodder: pp. 239-267. ABL Periodicals Rare.

Rare Item Analysis: Reactions to Aurora Leigh’s Christianity in Contemporary Book Reviews

By Shannon McClernon

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).

In addition to being a proto-feminist text, Aurora Leigh details much of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (EBB) religious thought and convictions. Even though later critics have only somewhat recently fully appreciated the poem’s Christianity, contemporary reviewers of Aurora Leigh often referenced its prominent religious dimensions. Indeed, an examination of contemporary reviews shows that there were strong reactions and diverse opinions about EBB’s use of Christianity in Aurora Leigh. William Caldwell Roscoe’s article in the National Review, located in the Armstrong Browning Library’s (ABL) Meynell Collection, expresses extreme discomfort with the way EBB uses divine images and ideas in her poetry. Hannah Lawrance on the other hand, in her review for the British Quarterly Review located in the ABL Periodicals Rare collection, praises EBB’s expression of an interior, individualist Christianity. In this post, I show how examining the religious backgrounds of these reviewers and the periodicals in which they write can give us insight into the ways they react to Christianity in Aurora Leigh. I argue that these reviewers’ religious commitments influence which religious dimensions of the poem they notice and prioritize. For more on the reception of Aurora Leigh, see Nicole Bouchard’s “The Reception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh: A Rare-Item Analysis of Four Letters.”

William Caldwell Roscoe and the National Review

William Caldwell Roscoe was a poet and essayist of the nineteenth century who frequently contributed essays of literary criticism to the National Review, which was edited by his beloved brother-in-law, R. H. Hutton. The National Review was a quarterly periodical founded by Unitarian minister James Martineau. The editors wanted to keep their Unitarian supporters happy while also appealing to a broader audience, thus publishing articles on Unitarian topics as well as topics of more general appeal such as literature, politics, and social affairs (“National Review”). Roscoe was himself a third-generation Unitarian, and though he sometimes expressed doubts about certain items of the faith, Hutton writes that “certainly his judgment was never shaken on the side of the great leading assumption of the church” (lxxxvi-lxxxvii). This is a strong indication that Roscoe affirmed the basic tenets of Unitarianism all his life.

Roscoe’s Unitarian beliefs affected his review of Aurora Leigh for the National Review, particularly in his complaint about EBB’s use of divine images. Roscoe writes,

Mrs. Browning has accustomed herself to so stimulating a diet, that when she has exhausted all earthly elements of intensity, she is fain to resort to divine ones, and the most sacred ideas and associations are used as just material for poetry with a boldness that shocks and startles; and though we are far from saying that she writes with conscious irreverence, it is certain that she has passages that cannot be read without a shrinking sense of undue familiarity with the most awful objects to which our thoughts can aspire. It is as if she did not scruple to light her torch at that burning bush which Moses bowed with unsandalled feet. (248).

Roscoe accuses EBB of using divine images and associations for mere dramatic effect, and chastises her for writing passages that express “undue familiarity” with sacred objects.

As a Victorian Unitarian, Roscoe’s view of God would have been fairly deistic; that is, God would be seen as an entirely transcendent being with little or no interaction with the world He created (Melynk 39). In this view, as Roscoe illustrates in his allusion to Moses bowing and taking off his sandals at the burning bush, the relationship between humanity and God should be one of distant reverence and worship. His own abstract, reserved language for describing divine images reflects this desired distance; he calls them “the most sacred ideas,” “divine ones,” and “the most awful objects.” Conversely, EBB’s language often suggests close, embodied encounters with the divine. For instance, she writes, “God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers / And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face, / A gauntlet with a gift in’t” (2.951-953). In this passage, EBB has the protagonist Aurora claim intimate knowledge of God’s movements and uses colloquial language and phrasing to express her own ideas of them. This colloquial language indicates a familiarity with God that differs from Roscoe’s more abstract, distant language. Additionally, the phrase “thrusts the thing. . .in our face” implies a kind of physical closeness between God and humans and gives embodiment to God. This is likely the kind of presumptive familiarity and intimacy with the divine that offends Roscoe’s sense of God’s physical and spiritual distance from his creatures.

Roscoe goes on with his critique, writing, “And she not only uses things too high to give embodiment to her thoughts; she pulls down the highest things, and thrusts them into her sharply-bounded decisive similes, with a freedom which we cannot designate as less than repulsive” (248). Here Roscoe finds offense in the way EBB uses divine images to express her own human thoughts and in the way she limits the divine by comparing it to immanent, earthly images. He uses the following passage from Aurora Leigh in which Aurora describes God’s creation of humanity to exemplify the latter:

Within whose fluttering nostrils then at last,

Consummating Himself, the Maker sighed,

As some strong winner at the footrace sighs

Touching the goal. (6.158-161)

In this passage, Aurora portrays God as sighing within the nostrils of his creation, the “whose” referring back to “MAN” (6.156). She also likens God the creator to a human runner who wins a race in order to illustrate God’s satisfaction with what He has created. Roscoe characterizes this image as “repulsive.” His discomfort with mixing the transcendent and the immanent, as well as the divine and the human, probably stems from the titular doctrine of Unitarianism: a denial of the Trinitarian view of God. This necessitates a denial of the Incarnation. Hence, for a Unitarian, there is no precedence for binding the transcendent God into limiting comparisons with the human and the immanent, which explains why Roscoe would be uncomfortable with EBB pulling “down the highest things” into embodied, earthly, and mundane images.

 

Hannah Lawrance and the British Quarterly Review

In her article for the British Quarterly Review, Hannah Lawrance was in a perfect position to praise Aurora Leigh. The article, entitled “Mrs. Browning’s Poetry,” was written after EBB’s death and was meant as a tribute to her. Additionally, Lawrance was a proponent for women’s rights, using her profession as historian to illustrate the influence of women in English history. She supported movements for better education and wider employment opportunities for women, particularly in her numerous articles for the British Quarterly Review (Mitchell). She was also a lifelong Congregationalist, sharing similar religious commitments with EBB (Dieleman 24-60). This probably explains why she dedicated so much time to writing for the British Quarterly Review since it was run by Nonconformist evangelicals, primarily moderate Congregationalists (“British Quarterly Review”).

In her review, Lawrance delivers the expected praise of EBB’s Christianity in Aurora Leigh. Her Congregationalist background shapes this praise. Lawrance writes,

It is here [in Aurora Leigh] that we see in its full grandeur Mrs. Browning’s idea of the dignity of the poet’s mission. She believes, as every Christian should, that all change must commence within. When men have been taught to look upon the unseen, to know that the things of most importance are beyond sense, when their hearts have been changed by cultivation of their sympathies and affections, and especially by belief in redemption through Christ, then, and not till then, will they rise to better things, and outward improvement may be expected to follow. . . As Aurora typifies the poet, one of God’s chief agents in reforming the world by raising the mind to lofty ideas. . . (382).

Lawrance’s praise of Aurora Leigh emphasizes the interior and individual nature of change and faith, which was of great import in Congregationalist communities. Congregationalists valued individual conscience and interpretation, affirming no set creed. Additionally, most Congregationalists were evangelical (Melynk 37). Hence, Lawrance naturally affirms a strictly non-sensory faith rooted in interior “sympathies and affections” and “belief in redemption through Christ,” as opposed to more liturgically and sensory-oriented faiths such as Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, her comment that “every Christian should” believe that change comes from within may very well be a denigration of these more form-based faiths. Regardless, Lawrance clearly values interior, individual improvement above anything exterior or communal.

A reader of this review might think that Aurora Leigh affirms only the interior, non-sensual aspects of faith since this is what Lawrance highlights. These sentiments are affirmed by certain passages in Aurora Leigh. For instance, in the Eighth Book, Aurora asserts that “God claims his own” within the “innermost / Of the inmost, more interior of the interne” (8.558-560) and that Christ will “take the soul, / And so possess the whole man, body and soul” (8.549-550). These lines emphasize the interiority of faith and the importance of the soul over the body. Nevertheless, in this same passage, Aurora argues for the necessity of Christ coming down to assume flesh as the “Divine Humanity” who redeems by “renewing nature” (8.560-561). This emphasis on the Incarnation and the renewing rather than transcending of nature indicates that Aurora Leigh’s full Christian vision does place importance on the material and bodily aspects of human experience. Aurora confirms this when she claims that humanity should “reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree, / And even his very body as a man” (7.863-864). In Aurora Leigh, both the interior, spiritual experience and the exterior, sensory experience are necessary for true Christian faith. Lawrance, however, neglects this emphasis on reverencing nature and bodies in Aurora Leigh in order to focus on the more strictly evangelical Congregationalist topic of interiorly focused belief.

Even though Lawrance disregards the value of the exterior, material aspects of Aurora Leigh’s Christianity, Lawrance’s review does share common ground with the poem’s claims about Christian reform. Both Lawrance and EBB characterize the poet as one individual among many called by God to participate in His project of reforming the world. In this vision, elucidated both in Lawrance’s review and in the last book of Aurora Leigh, the poet raises “the mind to lofty ideas” with words, helping create “new hearts in individual growth” that eventually change the whole of society for the better (9.943-944). This emphasis on individuals actively participating in God’s work by sharing words stems from the evangelical stress on sharing the Word of God in the Bible. In sum, Lawrance stresses the most strictly evangelical Congregationalist aspects of Aurora Leigh’s Christianity.

 

Conclusion

As I have illustrated with this brief analysis, knowing the religious contexts and backgrounds of nineteenth century literary critics and the periodicals for which they wrote helps us better understand their reactions to Aurora Leigh’s Christian elements. Their religious beliefs shape what they choose to prioritize and how they interpret the Christian aspects of the poem. Additionally, these reviewers’ concerns with the ways Christianity is expressed in the text remind us that Aurora Leigh has a great deal to say about faith and Christianity, a fact that is often overlooked or minimized. I hope that this analysis will inspire other scholars to take the religious context of contemporary reviews into account when approaching them, particularly when the subject text deals so directly with religion. Perhaps someone might even examine another set of reactions to Aurora Leigh through this religiously focused lens, as there are plenty more to be found at the ABL and elsewhere. Additionally, examining contemporary reviews and explaining the contexts of the periodicals in the classroom could be fruitful for exposing students to the relationships between belief and print culture in the 19th century.

National Review

British Quarterly Review

Works Cited

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Edited by Margaret Reynolds, Norton, 1996.

Dieleman, Karen. Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Processes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Proctor. Ohio UP, 2012.

Garnett, Richard. “Roscoe, William Caldwell (1823-1859).” Revised by Dennis M. Read, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-24085?rskey=MWou3b&result=1. Accessed 9 Nov.2019.

Hutton, Richard Holt. “Memoir of the Author.” Poems and Essays, Vol. 1, by William Caldwell Roscoe, Chapman and Hall, 1860.

Lawrance, Hannah. “Mrs. Browning’s Poems.” British Quarterly Review, vol. 42, no. 84, 1865.

Lawrence, David Haldane. “National Review.” Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, http://c19index.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/fullrec/fullrec.do?id=1020&resultNum=1&entries=3&area=dncj&forward=search&queryId=../session/1573315488_22243. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.

Melynk, Julie. Victorian Religion: Faith and Life in Britain. Praeger, 2008.

Mitchell, Rosemary. “Lawrance, Hannah (1795-1875).” Revised by Dennis M. Read, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-24085?rskey=MWou3b&result=1. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.

MJK. “British Quarterly Review.” Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, http://c19index.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.baylor.edu/fullrec/fullrec.do?id=198&resultNum=1&entries=1&area=dncj&forward=search&queryId=../session/1573353209_29487. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.

Roscoe, William Caldwell. “Aurora Leigh.” National Review, vol. 4, no. 8, 1857.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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