Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not seen truly. I haven’t talked of her at length, and shan’t do it now. But there is a relation between Mrs. Browning and another woman, quite famous, who killed herself in 1941, Virginia Woolf. She is well known. She has been seen as one of the most important contemporary novelists. I think Virginia Woolf was pretty much of a faker. I think every person is to a degree a faker, and should stop it. One of the purposes of Aesthetic Realism is to lessen the amount of fakery in the world, mostly unconscious, very often conscious.
Virginia Woolf is to me a pretty unhandsome, delicate fraud. And one can see that in an essay of hers on Aurora Leigh, the novel in verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mrs. Woolf felt that she herself was the greatest master of the well-formed sentence, the enchased sentence, the sentence that went beyond Henry James because it didn’t flutter off everywhere. She went after those sentences as other people collect butterflies. And she has many of them. I think she lacks life. I think she needs a little more of the Babe Ruth in her novels — Babe Ruth at his best.
She didn’t care for poetry. She wrote on poetry, but she didn’t know much about it really. And because she has a way of writing which is definitely sensitive and knowing and can be keen, people have felt she knew something about poetry. Well, she is exempt from such knowledge. Virginia Woolf could say such things! And when prose can have such a mastery of the conditional, such a delicate use of the subjunctive in relation to the wisp of the unknown in a girl’s mind, why should you write verse — what a waste!
It seems that she was jealous of Mrs. Browning. And in this essay in her 1932 book The Common Reader, she patronizes her. She is quite stupid. She says the only way people know about Mrs. Browning is because there was a play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. It seems that she wanted to see Mrs. Browning only as a personality whom she could patronize. This essay is really pretty vicious. Both of the ladies are dead, but I wouldn’t mind if Mrs. Woolf heard what I was saying. It is unconscious jealousy. This is an early sentence in her essay:
In short, the only place in the mansion of literature that is assigned her is downstairs in the servants’ quarters, where, in company with Mrs. Hemans, Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, Alexander Smith, Edwin Arnold, and Robert Montgomery, she bangs the crockery about and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife.
This is quite glittering, but it is mean. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is definitely a better poet than these other people. Mrs. Woolf is just showing how bright she is: Mrs. Browning belongs downstairs with the awkward servants; she 'bangs the crockery about.... ' How bright!
Was There Scholarship?
Then she says Mrs. Browning was not a scholar, and is Mrs. Woolf stupid on this point! She says the only reason Mrs. Browning read Greek literature was that she couldn’t get out of the house. Now, very often when ladies in the 1830s and ’40s couldn’t get out of the house they would read novels, or they would take up crocheting. They wouldn’t go reading Greek dramas in the original Greek as Elizabeth Barrett did. I say Mrs. Woolf was jealous. I’m sure she doesn’t know Greek. She is no scholar. But Mrs. Browning happens to have been a scholar. She wrote a short history of the English poets called The Book of the Poets, which really was well-informed and had structure. Mrs. Woolf, I think, wanting to see herself as the most sensitive lady who ever wrote, whether prose or verse, has to be mean.
These are some of her sentences: 'A lyrical, a scholarly, a fastidious mind might have used seclusion and solitude to perfect its powers.' But Mrs. Browning, she says, didn’t: 'She was no scholar.'
At a very early age Mrs. Browning translated the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. She didn’t learn Greek only because she couldn’t get out of the house, as Mrs. Woolf says next. She could have read circulating library novels, or studied shellfish.
'Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living. She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass.' There is nothing else to do but race through folios when you can’t scamper on the grass!
'She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women.' It so happens that quite early Mrs. Browning wrote a poem called 'The Cry of the Children, ' about child labor. She wrote other poems that had a political meaning.
'She loved to sit in a café and watch people passing.... The past and its ruins... interested her much less than... the politics of Napoleon.' Mrs. Browning doesn’t have a chance. If she is in solitude, she is bad. If she watches people, she is bad. If she is interested in the politics of Napoleon, she is bad.
Mrs. Woolf, as I said, felt that persons shouldn’t write poetry. She didn’t understand poetry and therefore she was rather amazed at the idea of a whole novel being written in verse. Aurora Leigh, published in 1856, happens to be the one successful novel in verse by anyone. It is unusual; it is powerful stuff. But Mrs. Woolf says you can’t tell a story, really, in verse. How can you have dialogue; how can you deal with the ordinary things? — which are good questions, but the way she presents them shows she didn’t want to see.
'What will the poet do with dialogue? ... Poetry when it tries to follow the words on people’s lips is terribly impeded.' However, there has been poetry in plays, and Theocritus wrote poetry in dialogue.
Condescension and Praise
Then we have Mrs. Woolf taking it all back. She contradicts herself. I don’t believe Mrs. Woolf read the whole of Aurora Leigh. She talks about reading one book and how headlong it was. But she is definitely jealous. After saying how bad it is to choose verse for a novel — because that was her field, the novel, and other women shouldn’t deal with the novel and particularly get poetry into it—she goes on:
And indeed if we compare the prose novel and the novel-poem the triumphs are by no means all to the credit of prose.... We may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.
Still, there is condescension. Why in the world can’t she say plainly that Elizabeth Barrett was an artist? But it wouldn’t be right for her to say that a person in the Victorian age and a woman preceding Virginia Woolf could be an artist.
Aurora Leigh remains, with all its imperfections, a book that still lives.... [Mrs. Browning’s] bad taste, her tortured ingenuity, her floundering, scrambling, and confused impetuosity have space to spend themselves here without inflicting a deadly wound, while her ardour and abundance, her brilliant descriptive powers, her shrewd and caustic humour, infect us with her own enthusiasm. We laugh, we protest, we complain — it is absurd, it is impossible, we cannot tolerate this exaggeration a moment longer — but, nevertheless, we read to the end enthralled.
This essay, then, is written in two moods. One is the scolding of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, condescension, and the other is an unknowing tremendous praise that Mrs. Woolf cannot affirm. No wonder she got to feel so miserable she wanted to kill herself — with this conceit and also this desire at times to see things.
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