Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : An Analysis of Common Themes in Victorian Poetry : Browning and ArnoldPoem Analysis of “Fra Lippo Lippi” by Robert Browning Gender and Social Critique of Victorian Society in “The Awakening” by Kate ChopinCommon Themes in Romanticism, The Enlightenment, and the RenaissanceAnalysis of Poems by William Butler Yeats

Although the typical and popular interpretation of femininity in Victorian poetry and literature is predictably one that casts women into the role of the passive individual who does not possess agency but who is acted upon, a close examination of two poems by different poets reveals that the images ofstereotypical Victorian women were actually far more diverse than a superficial glance suggests. In Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “Aurora Leigh,” diverse definitions of Victorian femininity are developed. Although the different female characters in these two poems struggle against the roles that society was determined to assign to them, their strategies for doing so were quite different, pointing to the diverse opportunities women crafted for themselves in this era.

In Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” the main female figure is the mysterious woman who occupies a tower in the island of Shalott. She is portrayed as a woman who is beautiful yet inaccessible, who is not only trapped in the highest level of the tower, but who cannot even look outside of the tower’s window, lest she cause the full power of the curse that is upon her to be unleashed. At first, the Lady of Shalott appears to be almost entirely passive. No one “hath seen her wave her hand” in this tower on the “silent isle,” and none of her own personality attributes are identified. She is a blank slate upon which the anxieties, desires, and fears of Shalott are projected, but as such she appears to have no personal agency at all. The lady keeps herself occupied by steadily weaving “A magic web with colours gay.” The purpose of the web is not clear, nor is the intended recipient, but the woman still appears to delight in her craft.

The lady of Shallot is compared to the other women of the town, damsels who are portrayed as giddy and even frivolous. These women have suitors, they are gay and “glad,” but the narrator specifically points out that the lady “hath no loyal Knight and true.” It is somewhat surprising, then, when the Lady of Shalott suddenly becomes bored with her task and decides to break her routine. Not surprisingly, because she is convinced that the curse has now been activated, she soon dies. Although she exercised self-authority, she was convinced that destiny had already been written for her, either by society or an unearthly force, and did not get to enjoy her freedom.

In the Robert Browning poem, in contrast, the female characters are clearly constrained by social norms, roles, and expectations, but they are constantly seeking and experimenting with strategies intended to circumvent or subvert the constraints of those roles. In fact, “Aurora Leigh” can be read on multiple levels and interpreted not only according to the female characters encountered in the poem, but also in the poet herself, as well as her narrative/poetic strategies. The fact that Browning alluded to so many varied references outside of the poem indicates the subtle yet subversive strategies the poet used to demonstrate her intelligence and wit. This attribute is underscored by the experiences of Aurora Leigh, who at the tender age of 20 rejects her suitor, who also happens to be her cousin, because he is a misogynist. Furthermore, she finds him repulsive because he openly rejects the notion that a woman can be an artist, a poet, or an intellectual.

As this poem analysis of Aurora Leigh by Robert Browning is suggesting, the main figure in the poem is wholly dedicated to her craft, and throughout the epic poem she reflects thoughtfully and openly on her development as a poet and as a woman. This display of candor and insight affirms Aurora Leigh’s commitment to self-actualization, and her fearlessness in opening herself to sharing the realizations at which she arrives with her reader. In the end, Aurora’s situation foreshadows the modern woman’s dilemma: Is it possible to have it all? In Aurora’s case, the answer is yes. Although there are other female characters in the poem who provide a counterpoint to the character of Aurora Leigh, condition, and feminine role, it is Aurora who is the most exciting and most promising of the characters in this poem.

It is common to read Victorian poetry and novels narrowly, viewing women as passive creatures who have no choice but to accept the roles that are assigned to them. While this role certainly was a common one–and one which was embodied by Lady Shalott–there were also many other manifestations of Victorian femininity that are evident upon a close and careful reading of Victorian poems. One of the best examples of alternate femininity can be viewed in Browning’s ambitious epic poem, “Aurora Leigh.” The revelation of these diverse forms offemininity requires that readers reconsider Victorian poetry and acknowledge that not all women were passive individuals who were acted upon based on the dominant social norms of the epoch.