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Gender construction and the Kunstlerroman: David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh.


A nineteenth-century Romantic genre, the Kunstlerroman, as a kind of palimpsest, conceals the material concerns of the writer by asserting that self-making is an art. Indeed, a rewriting and erasure of the self, the Kunstlerroman's conscious project displays a stabilized and authorized reading of the writer, and conceals the eruptive, unstable, and unconscious process of that construction. Furthermore, this generic form makes claims that it is representative of everyman at the same time that it formulates a special and lucrative category for the writer as artistic genius. Kunstlerromane such as Wordsworth's Prelude, Thackeray's Pendennis, Tennyson's In Memoriam and Dickens's David Copperfield exemplify this double vision of the author as typical but also as special creation and creator. These works reveal, too, that the paradigm of the artist as universal and unique is grounded in the notion that the artist is male. This makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, the most famous nineteenth-century English Kunstlerroman by a woman, a natural site for studying how this genre constructs and is constructed by gender. (1) I would suggest that comparing the male and female authored Kunstlerromane (2) David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh provides an important strategy for studying Victorian gender construction vis-a-vis the construction of the self as artist within the constraints of a market system.

To begin with, it is questionable whether the Kunstlerroman could have been written before the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalist economics, for in the nineteenth century to pursue the literary profession the writer literally had to sell himself as the most valuable distillation of the wisdom of his culture. As Catherine Gallagher and Mary Poovey point out, by the nineteenth century no professional writer could assert his independence from the market. Mary Poovey argues that the nineteenth century added a conflicting perspective to the traditional view of the artist as poet-prophet: the writer also came to be viewed as a commercial being deeply embroiled in concerns about profit. (3) Likewise, in her provocative analysis, Gallagher notes that the historical conjunction of the "activities of authoring, of procuring illegitimate income, and of alienating one's self through prostitution" became closely associated in the Victorian period for two reasons: the growth of a mass audience in the 1830s and 1840s and the establishment of cheap serial publication allied to the practice of paying authors by the line. Thus Gallagher asserts that the metaphor of the artist as generative father was not the only paradigm through which the nineteenth century viewed the writer; an equally important and suggestive metaphor was also in place, one which viewed the writer as prostitute. Hence, as Gallagher explains, the author "does not go to market as a respectable producer with an alienable commodity, but with himself or herself as commodity.... This combination puts writers in the marketplace in the position of selling themselves, like whores." (4)

I have chosen to read David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh as a pair for a number of reasons, not least of which being the way they represent the material conditions of writing and the construction of gender: first of all, both Dickens and Barrett Browning were extremely popular writers who reached a large and diverse readership, particularly with the novelistic renditions of their own rise to fame. (5) Drawing on the metaphors of prophet and prostitute, both David Copperfield and Aurora Leigh articulate but also mask the interrelations of gender with material and aesthetic success; but it is also important to note that the conflicting metaphors of prophet and prostitute mean something quite different to the male and female writer. That is, I will argue that where David Copperfield uses the feminine to mask his materialistic motivations, Aurora Leigh pointedly demarcates how in Victorian culture every woman signified prostitution.

Similarly, a paired reading of Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield indicates that both authors question why the self has to be designated as male or female, for part of their recognition of themselves as artists seems to require a breaking of the rigid gender rules of Victorian society. Indeed, both writers struggle to fashion themselves within a unique "gender" category reserved for the author, one that unifies the ostensible qualities of the sexes under the rubric of androgyny. The problem is that the old one-sex model in the guise of androgyny establishes the male as the norm and the female, if not as Other, as inferior. Though Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield both agonize over achieving the virile powers of the artist, neither Dickens nor Barrett Browning is able to resolve the constraints of gender construction, for in their Kunstlerromane the one-sex and two-sex models continually collapse into each other. But here, again, gender makes a difference: I will argue that Dickens's flight into androgyny ends up being a fight with it, for he retains the notion of the special nature of the male creator. In contrast to Dickens's veiled battle of the sexes, Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman does a great deal to subvert gender and genre at the same time that she begrudgingly submits to conventional prescriptions regarding relations between the sexes. What I find most significant is Barrett Browning's insistence on the linkage of the metaphor of the artist as rara avis with the artist as commercial entity and the implications that has for the woman writer.

David Copperfield's display of his pursuit of author-ity as the desire to be "one" with the sex defined as opposite engenders in Dickens's alter-ego the desire to be female. U. C. Knoepflemacher and Margaret Myers suggest that David Copperfield yearns for and tries to achieve a feminine side to himself, and there is much evidence to prove this hypothesis. (6) For example, in the novel preceding David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, and the novel following it, Bleak House, Dickens's alter-egos are female protagonists, who, though threatened with erasure from the texts, end up displacing the would-be male heroes, just as they have displaced David Copperfield as text and hero. Likewise, in the first chapter of Dickens's fictional autobiography the narrative explicitly wrangles over what sex the unborn author will be. Although the reader assumes that the writer is male, the narrator expends a great deal of energy expounding on the expectation that he will be a female. Dickens humorously questions society's imposition of gender in the form of the monolithic Aunt Betsey who demands that Clara Copperfield give birth to a girl. The novel persists in a hagiography regarding David's absent, in fact, non-existent sister. Betsey idolizes this absent female presence, whom it is assumed he should have been and who is viewed as his better self. At one point, Aunt Betsey notes "Be as like your sister as you can," and David muses hopefully that "I might take equal rank in her [Aunt Betsey's] affections with my sister Betsey Trotwood" (pp. 166, 176). Steerforth, too, refers to David with the feminine nickname Daisy, and, wondering if David has a sister, states his desire to meet her. Thus David's initial question, "Whether I shall be the hero of my own life," immediately exhibits Dickens's jouissance, if you will, in his playful disruption of the constraints of gender. (7)

One might well ask, then, why Dickens images his alter-ego as a female manque in his novel about the writer as a self-made man. I would suggest that Dickens's interrogation of gender construction and gender anxiety overwrites, if you will, his portrayal of the battle of the sexes, for ultimately, the author's "favourite child" (his epithet for David Copperfield) is a boy after all, a boy who must assume the pen in order to assume the penis. Indeed, Dickens asserts that only in taking up the pen to write his life can David be assured of being a man, for this novel teems with castrating and castrated women who ominously exclaim, "No boys here." In fact, if the novel begins by expressing the hopes for a heroine and sister, it ends with Traddles overwhelmed by a profusion of sisters-in-law and Copperfield rather forcefully guided by his sometimes sister, now wife, Agnes: furthermore, Dickens's conscious display of Agnes as spiritual icon is underwritten by the suggestion that this queen of the house is a foreboding presence. Indeed, Dickens's rendition of the one-sex model produces engulfment as David appropriates Agnes as his reflection. If David's sense of self as writer relies on his reader viewing him through the stained glass window of his second self--Agnes--the reader must realize that she is really only his amanuensis or copier; in terms of Dickens's one-sex model, David re-presents Agnes as a lesser form of her masculine counterpart, himself.

Agnes's influence, then, is easily erased, and, in fact, David eradicates all of her attempts at self-authorization. For example, in response to David's exclamation, "What I am, you have made me," the puzzled heroine replies, "Made you, Trotwood?" (p. 688). Her question unravels David's romantic and idealistic conception of his Kunstlerroman and hints at the troubling question of who made Agnes--a question Aurora Leigh might answer better than does David Copperfield. By projecting onto Agnes the responsibility of fashioning himself--she made him--David deters the reader from realizing just how self-indulgent Copperfield's love-making really is:

"Agnes! Ever my guide, and best support! If you had been more mindful of yourself, and less of me, when we grew up here together, I think my heedless fancy never would have wandered from you. But you were so much better than I, so necessary to me in every boyish hope and disappointment, that to have you to confide in, and rely upon in everything, became a second nature, supplanting for the time the first and greater one of loving you as I do!" (p. 705)

Clearly, though this passage exhibits the dangers inherent in the Victorian prescription that women are self-sacrificing and men self-centered, it does not stop Dickens's alter-ego at the purported height of his wisdom and maturation--the very subject of the Kunstlerroman--from enjoying the perquisites of self-aggrandizing masculinity.

Furthermore, Dickens deconstructs his own alter-ego's purported pursuit of androgyny as the basis for his Kunstlerroman by including two feminized male writers who act as David Copperfield's foils. One of those writers, of course, is Mr. Dick, whose name incorporates a complex Dickensian text in miniature, revealing the palimpsestic nature of the Kunstlerroman. Trying to decipher the nature of Mr. Dick's writing, David, the future author, asks Aunt Betsey, "Is it a Memorial about his own history that he is writing, aunt?" Betsey's extraordinary response sheds light on Dickens's own uses of the Kunstlerroman: "Yes, child.... He is memorializing the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other--one of those people, at all events, who are paid to be memorialized--about his affairs" (p. 167). Perhaps only the preeminent novelist of the Victorian period could produce such a labyrinthine insider's joke. The punchline, of course, is that Mr. Dick's name (8) is the diminutive of Dickens's own. But there is more than comedy in Charles Dickens's obsessive double inscription of his own name in Mr. Dick's when that minor character manifests his obsession with King Charles, a name he literarily cannot get out of his head. A Dickensian ur-self, King Charles cannot be contained or controlled as he overthrows Mr. Dick and rules his Memorial to a contemporary unnamed renowned Victorian.

Thus like the real author, Mr. Dick's texts will always be about Charles, who establishes his own identity in his brilliant fashioning of his fictive namesake. But unlike the feminized "nobody" Mr. Dick, the king of Victorian popular culture was capable of using his namesake to brilliant effect. Reading between Mr. Dick's garbled lines might suggest that Dickens the author extraordinaire made comic usage of the fact that in writing David Copperfield he would be paid to memorialize himself. Thus this Dickensian set piece is a tour de force showing that a writer who had become so successful he could make a fortune selling the story of his own rise to success could also put to financial use his psychoanalysis of his own persona. Dickens psychoanalyzes Mr. Dick's obsession with King Charles through Aunt Betsey: "That's his allegorical way of expressing it. He connects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that's the figure, or the simile, or whatever it's called, which he chooses to use" (p. 167).

I would suggest, then, that Dickens's brilliant "figure" of Mr. Dick as failed writer illustrates his own mastery of the writing process. Not that there is no more King Charles to interrupt. Rather, Dickens employs the fictive king's intrusions in a kind of shorthand of an array of concealed issues, not least of which is gender. (9) Indeed, Dickens's inclusion of the failed writer Mr. Dick in the story of the successful writer, David, illustrates Dickens's humorous transformation of his own complex psychic conflicts about the interrelations of gender with material and aesthetic success. The following extended passage further reveals that Mr. Dick's name and story call into question Dickens's own construction of himself as androgynous writer. Clearly Dickens admires Mr Dick but his portrait is also ruthless:

Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he laboured, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside, and another one begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First, the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do; he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished.

It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up a great height in the air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might have been a fancy with him sometimes. (p. 176)

In this passage the allusions to the palimpsestic nature of the writing process and the process of self-making inextricably link gender with economics. That is, with Mr. Dick as feminized foil, Dickens then implies that David's efforts at authorship are masculine, therefore masterful. In a later sequence, David enumerates the masculine qualities that ostensibly gave rise to his success: "perseverence," "patient and continuous energy," "punctuality," "order, and diligence" (p. 495). If this list (in contrast to David's description of Mr. Dick's writing habits) can be taken as Dickens's representation of his own keys to success, then clearly the shape and completion of the finished product are central to his aesthetic credo. Likewise, his efforts are not "abortive" because he "disseminates," that is, mass markets, his very self to the reading public, thus mastering rather than being subordinated to the economic system.

On the other hand, Mr. Dick's is "not a businesslike way of speaking" (p. 167). Intuitive, emotional, illogical, and mad, the stereotypically feminized Mr. Dick cannot, like David, skillfully erase the signs of the messy and illogical process of writing and constructing a self. Indeed, Dickens conceals the whole trajectory of the male Kunstlelrroman, which as a fictionalized version of the maturation of the artist is a palimpsestic text: a rewriting and erasure of the self, the Kunstlerroman's conscious project displays a stabilized and authorized reading of the writer, and conceals the eruptive, unstable, and unconscious process of the construction of the writer as a man or woman. Unstable Mr. Dick is a failed and thus economically unsuccessful writer because he becomes the feminized alter-ego Copperfield portends to be in the first chapter of the novel. (10) Ultimately giving up his Memorial to copy legal documents, this Dick is emasculated by his copywork. As he himself says, "Dick's nobody!" which of course cannot be said of Copperfield or Dickens (p. 534). Thus in his own backhanded compliment to androgny, Dickens recognizes the power of his mentor Mr Dick and his muse Agnes, but even more importantly he seems to need to represent them as copies or copiers in order to prove his own originality and author-ity.

Like Mr. Dick, Dr. Strong illustrates the effete self David could have become. In his sham claim to author-ity, Dr. Strong obsessively writes a magnus opus or definitive text--the Dictionary. (11) If the Dictionary gives meaning to words, and the dictionary is the doctor's life's work, this dictionary literally defines Dr. Strong's life. But just as Mr. Dick's Memorial is a travesty, Strong's presumption of an enduring reputation as a man of words is laughable. Like Mr. Dick's Memorial, the Dictionary will never be finished; in reality the project is tantamount to "cumbrous fragments" which the Doctor "always carried in his pockets, and in the lining of his hat" (p. 194). Furthermore, his only audience is an uninstructed, naive young wife, who desires words of love rather than dry dictionary definitions. As a literalist with no feeling for the ambiguous, Dr. Strong copies David's insensitivity to Agnes, defining his wife as a companionable appendage with no inner life of her own. But where ostensibly David is educated in the matters of the female heart, Strong fails the test. At the height of Annie's need for him, when her cousin Jack tries to seduce her, Dr. Strong remains oblivious to the hidden meanings of her lack of words because he is so insistent on expounding his own lists of words to her: thus, while he "read[s] aloud some manuscript explanation or statement of a theory out of that interminable Dictionary," she looks on with "penitence, humiliation, shame, pride, love, and trustfulness" (p. 201). At the moment of crisis, as ineffectual and emasculated as Mr. Dick, Strong belies his name: with no strong sexual desires of his own, he cannot recognize them in his wife.

Here again, the contrast with David is instructive in regards to Dickens's own conflicted rendition of gender: on the one hand, the famous author insists that his alter-ego is as subsumed in his love for his feminine companion as is Dr. Strong. But he also asserts that David achieves a sensibility to the feminine that Strong will never know. The philosophical underpinnings of Dickens's text seem to be that true authorship incorporates the good of both the one-sex and two-sex models: true authorship recognizes and is sensitive to difference while yet seeking unification. Nevertheless, as a man whose own writing habits dictated that he be a patriarch and sometimes tyrant in his own home, Dickens represents Copperfield as achieving the desired status of man of the house only when he achieves the status of author. To transpose Gilbert and Gubar, then, to David the assumption of the penis only takes place after the successful assumption of the pen.

That Dickens figures masterful writing as central to David's assumption to manhood is apparent in another minor palimpsest. When Betsey loses her small fortune, Agnes suggests that David work on the Dictionary as a secretary to Dr. Strong. Before he begins copying, David clears up the confusion caused by Dr. Strong's former amanuensis, none other than Strong's sexual rival, Jack Maldon. David informs the reader: "I found Mr. Jack Maldon's efforts more troublesome to me than I had expected, as he had not confined himself to making numerous mistakes, but had sketched so many soldiers, and ladies' heads, over the Doctor's manuscript, that I often became involved in labyrinths of obscurity" (p. 427). As David reads, erases, and writes over Maldon's text of aspirations, he is already the all-powerful omniscient author, for the future successful writer perceives the copyist Maldon's sexual plot against the would-be writer Strong, who is completely unaware of such extravagant masculine sexual urges. Presumably in taking over the project of writing, David erases Maldon's sexually graphic graffiti and reinscribes the meanings of Dr. Strong's corrupted text. Similarly, David negotiates manhood by mastering the "labyrinth of obscurity" (shorthand for language itself), displacing from himself the effete and feminine sexuality of Strong and the blundering masculinity of Maldon.

Dickens's fictive self-portrait asserts that David will not remain a copyist like Mr. Dick, Dr. Strong, or Jack Maldon because he achieves true masculine author-ity. Thus Dickens's Kunstlerroman portrays Victorian society as one in which most people are just copies or copiers of a few original (male) geniuses. In this context it Is well to remember that Dickens referred to himself as the Inimitable. Hence with every stroke of his pen, Dickens inscribes his own labyrinth of obscurity or shorthand, a tale in which the masculine author-itative, originary self--the Strong Dick that Richard Babley and the Doctor are not!--masters the pen, assumes the penis, and penetrates the meaning of the culture, which, as the Kunstlerroman asserts, is himself. (12) In doing so, King Charles undermines his own queen in the house, Agnes, as signifier. If writing is mastering, that is, constructing, the subject, the implications are at least twofold: as author, David succeeds in constructing himself as male subject/artist by subjecting or feminizing his readers, for if in his Kunstlerroman the rite of reading is figured as passively feminine, the (w)rite of passage is imaged as masculine. Thus the construction of the artist as a gendered self underwrites the subject of this male-authored Kunstlerroman, and Dickens is spectacularly adept in negotiating the transaction. Imposing on but concealing from the reader the role of passive and submissive self, the author-ity figure David embodies a nineteenth-century version of sprezzatura: David genuflects before the feminized self and writer only in order to construct them as blank page upon which to prove his own powers to pen.

I have argued that Dickens's Kunstlerroman assumes that the artist is the touchstone of the highest and most treasured values of the age and that the most important universal truth the author writes about is the process of the making of himself. "Touchstone" is a resonant word, for, of course, the premier Victorian literary critic, Matthew Arnold, subordinated the literal meaning of the touchstone (as an object that tests if a metal is gold or some kind of false copy) to its metaphorical signification of the aesthetic and cultural value of the artwork. Having portrayed himself as a true and originary self, a touchstone, David becomes the hero who establishes himself as the embodiment of the spiritual wealth of his culture. Dickens must conceal the labyrinth of obscurity or shorthand that such logic results in: that is, that the authentic (w)rite of passage imposes economic rights. In other words, the assumption of this Kunstlerroman is that those capable of authentically representing the spiritual and aesthetic wealth of their culture deserve their culture's economic wealth. Thus, not only does the pen equal the penis, but the man with the biggest pension as well.

But if writing is lucrative, Dickens assumes that talk is cheap, for the feminized writers Dr. Strong and Mr. Dick talk so much about their writing projects, they never write them and will never make any money out of them. On the other hand, David makes money at writing because he refuses to describe the practical nature of writing: "It is not my purpose, in this record, though in all other essentials it is my written memory, to pursue the history of my own fictions. They express themselves, and I leave them to themselves. When I refer to them, incidentally, it is only as a part of my progress" (p. 562). If David were to refer to his profession in any further detail, he would erase his representation of himself as prophet inspired by his female muse and expose himself as masculinist, elitist profit-maker. One brief passage indicates the writer's hidden motives:

I have come out in another way. I have taken with fear and trembling to authorship. I wrote a little something, in secret, and sent it to a magazine, and it was published in the magazine. Since then, I have taken heart to write a good many trifling pieces. Now, I am regularly paid for them. Altogether, I am well off; when I tell my income on the fingers of my left hand, I pass the third finger and take in the fourth to the middle joint. (p. 512)

The final line of this passage coyly advertises and downplays the writer's material success in the same way that Dickens downplays David's economic motives and masculine energies by coopting the idealistic nature of the feminine Agnes. Copperfield's longest discussion of his profession starts with the direct statement that "I have been very fortunate in worldly matters; many men have worked much harder, and not succeeded half so well." But he refers all his financial and personal success to Agnes: "How much of the practice I have just reduced to precept, I owe to Agnes, I will not repeat here. My narrative proceeds to Agnes, with a thankful love" (496). (13) I would argue, then, along with Mary Poovey that David conceals the material, elitist, masculinist nature of his profession by explicitly associating all of his successes with a "female" side of himself, Agnes. Thus David Copperfield expresses the two-sex model necessitated by the Industrial Revolution and the market economy. As Mary Poovey points up, in a transaction only a successful writer could perform, while simultaneously selling himself as a secular prophet filtered through the idealistic feminine, Copperfield obtains lucrative profits because he successfully engineers himself as self-made man, thus creating a demand on the part of the public for a representation of himself, which only he can supply. (14) Hence Dickens' self-serving figuration of androgyny equates the feminine with copying and submission, and masculinity with creating and author-ity. Indeed in Dickens's Kunstlerroman the imitative feminine is no competition for the masculine Inimitable.


Aurora Leigh aggressively depicts, analyzes, and refutes the Victorian idea that women writers were just poor imitators of great male authors. And, of course, feminist critics who have recuperated Aurora Leigh as a literary and cultural document argue the same point. But while some readers insist that Aurora moves from male-identified writer who scorns her own sex to one who melds the sexes in a state of true androgyny, others question how radical Barrett Browning's construction of the female writer really is. (15) Mary Eagleton argues that Aurora Leigh is a "radical interrogation of sexual difference." (16) Deborah Byrd focuses on Barrett Browning's depiction of androgyny, suggesting that Aurora Leigh moves to a feminist stance:

at the height of her powers, Barrett Browning came to view her task as that of writing as "a woman & man in one".... She brings into harmony the potentially discordant elements of her dual literary heritage, writing authentically of her own and other women's experiences with the "forthrightness and self confidence" she considered to be more characteristic of male than of female writers. (17)

In contrast, while Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Aurora Leigh is "the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century," Elaine Showalter views Aurora's final acceptance of Romney's marriage proposal as a submission to Victorian ideologies about gender. (18)

Neither an optimist nor skeptic on Aurora's final acceptance of marriage, I find that, wrestling with and never escaping the stifling Victorian impositions of gender, both Dickens and Barrett Browning experimented with androgyny and both authors brilliantly portray the anxiety inherent in "gendered bodies." However, as I have argued, in David Copperfield, in order to conceal the economics of the writing profession, Dickens merely copies androgyny in his representation of the perfect male/ female relationship, ultimately inscribing the feminine as self-erasure and the masculine as touchstone. Like Dickens, Barrett Browning does not resolve the complex of issues surrounding gender, art, and capital. However, though most critics focus on how Aurora negotiates the roles of woman and writer, none, as far as I know, study Barrett Browning's assessment of the material and practical realities of writing, which most male Kunstlerromane--including David Copperfield--avoid acknowledging. Indeed, she boldly questions the representation in the male Kunstlerroman of the writer as prophet as she reveals how difficult it is for the woman writer to transcend the material conditions of her culture, which the male writer seemed to do with ease. Thus as Barrett Browning challenges stereotypes regarding women writers, her Kunstlerroman also uncovers the very manipulations of the feminine so crucial to Dickens's idealistic representation of the writing task.

Unlike David, who only gives brief and idealized glimpses of his profession, leaving the talking for the purportedly effete Mr. Dick and Mr. Strong, Aurora continually talks about and exposes the practical concerns of her craft. What she reveals is that in a market system not only were all Victorians prostitutes, but women as writers and human beings became the signs of market transactions. Furthermore, if together the metaphors imaging the writer as father/prophet or prostitute represent a kind of androgyny, Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman problematizes the whole notion of female authorship vis-a-vis male authorship. Given the Victorian double standard, such metaphors sharply delimit the female writer while enlarging the male writer. For example, keeping in mind the kind of culturally acceptable male braggadocio that magnifies its own sexual prowess, Thackeray need not feel any compunction about his quip defending the French writer Eugene Sue: "He gets half-a-crown a line for this bad stuff, and has, one may say with certainty, a hundred thousand readers every day. Many a man and author has sold himself for far less." (19) Thackeray's jest indicates that the representation of the writer as whore legitimizes the male writer as archetype of man as self-centered subject of extravagant sexual, economic, and political desires and canonizes as visionary (prophetic) touchstones those texts that represent the maturation of such a man.

In contrast, how could the female writer inscribe herself when in Victorian gender ideology woman was constructed as she who is without desire? Furthermore, the insistence on her very lack of desire made her more responsible than men for the culture's ills. Relegated to the private sphere, the angel of the house was expected to purge the taints of the male's own daily prostitution of himself in the public sphere; at the same time, she was also expected to act as the very reward that made such prostitution possible. Thus to the Victorians the distinction between the prostitute and the wife was very tenuous, for the prostitute just made money doing what Victorian angels/queens were expected to do without pay: that is, to fulfill and reflect the desires of their procurers without expressing any desires of their own.

From this attitude toward women one can also extrapolate the Victorian view of women writers. The typical Victorian view of female writers as prolific and usually mediocre or bad copiers of male texts is the underside of Thackeray's masculinist interpretation of the writer as male prostitute. Thus Gilbert and Gubar's assertion that the nineteenth-century image of the author as one who fathers the text needs revision. As Gallagher argues, it was not that women didn't produce, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, but rather, it was argued that they didn't produce anything original. Hence, the gender distinction in literary theory is not, as Gallagher explains, between male "fathers who can multiply and female eunuchs who cannot, not between male language and female silence." Rather, to too many Victorians the distinction was between those originary beings who could author or produce original works and those copiers or whores (usually women) who merely endlessly reproduced or badly imitated what others had written. (20)

One of the insights a paired reading of Aurora Leigh and David Copperfield gives, then, is that the imposition of gender on women was far more burdensome than it was on men. For example, comparing Wordsworth's Prelude with Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, one critic suggests that the male poet "builds his work upon a double bonding with those he loves and with nature," while the female poet "thinks of work and love as mutually exclusive alternatives, with either choice threatening to silence her." (21) Indeed, Aurora Leigh foregrounds what David Copperfield erases: if Agnes had been expected to voice her own desires, she might have written something like Aurora Leigh. Described in detail, Aurora's upbringing manifests what is masked about Agnes's childhood years. Like Agnes, having lost her mother and raised by her father, Aurora is trained by an aunt to fulfill the desires of men; fashioned herself within the ideology of the separate spheres, that aunt attempts to form Aurora in accordance with the constricting two-sex model. Furthermore, if David silences Agnes, Aurora Leigh vehemently voices her questions, when her suitor, like David, asks his beloved to sacrifice herself for him. The gist of Aurora's response highlights what is missing in the Dickensian version of Agnes's story: as Aurora reasons, if the perquisites and privileges of the Victorian family went to fathers, brothers, and sons, how could Aurora--or Agnes--as a woman be expected to provide unending love and nurture to men when women were not nurtured, when they themselves suffered father- and "mother-want." (22) Likewise, she wonders how a woman could offer herself as a valuable gift to a man, when, defined as self-less, she had no authentic self to give? (pp. 49, 174).

Barrett Browning rejects the stereotype of women as self-less, for, of course, the female self is the subject of her Kunstlerroman. Like Dickens, she insists on mystifying the role of the writer, but her palimpsestic notion of the self also foregrounds the material conditions of self-construction:
      Let who says
   'The soul's a clean white paper,' rather say,
   A palimpsest, a prophet's holograph
   Defiled, erased and covered by a monk's,--
   The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
   Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
   Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
   Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
   Expressing the old scripture....

(p. 27)

Though these lines suggest that we are all unchanging Platonic forms or holy texts that have been defiled, they also represent the inability of the prophet/prostitute metaphor to depict self-making as unstable, incoherent, and fluid without also suggesting adulteration. With no adequate metaphorical traditions for describing the woman writer, Barrett Browning, then, is limited by these models, confirming genre theorist Carol Lazzaro-Weis's point that when women write autobiography, because of the conventions of that genre they conform to rather than challenge patriarchal assumptions when they attempt to define an independent, unified self. (23)

Nevertheless, Barrett Browning often overrides the binary nature of such metaphors through her sheer determination to blur the mantles of prophet and prostitute and thereby suggest an ongoing interplay of the conditions of the material and mental involved in the construction of the artist and self. Her portrait suggests, then, that there can be no completion of the self when it is figured as both prophet and whore. Thus Aurora pronounces, "I stood upon the brink of twenty years, / And looked before and after, as I stood / Woman and artist,--either incomplete, / Both credulous of completion ..." (p. 37). Though this determined indeterminate inscription of the woman writer defers integrity, it also allows experimentation and potential.

But, ironically, wearing the mantle of prophet and whore, Barrett Browning is most visionary in her exposure of the intersections of womanhood and prostitution in the Victorian period, for she reveals how such constructions influence all levels of society. In fact, Barrett Browning describes all the major female characters in terms of prostitution. For example, the lower class Marion Erie becomes an unwilling fallen woman when her mother tries to sell her to a member of the local gentry, and later when she flees England, she is raped and thereby conceives a baby out of wedlock. More insidious, Aurora, Romney, and Lady Waldemere all relate to Marian as though she were an item of exchange between them. But neither is the middle class woman free from being the signifier of monetary exchange: Saying "we keep / Our love, to pay our debts with," Aurora darkly notes that "women of my class ... haggle for the small change of our gold, / And so much love, accord, for so much love, / Rialto-prices" (pp. 23, 123). Aurora also vehemently protests the economic implications of Romney's first marriage proposal to her, and in doing so, Aurora's description of his insensitivity focuses on the financial transactions that were inherent in many Victorian lovematches:
      Love, to him, was made
   A simple law-clause. If I married him,
   I would not dare to call my soul my own,
   Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
   And every heart-beat down there in the bill,--
   Not one found honestly deductible
   From any use that pleased him! He might cut
   My body into coins to give away
   Among his other paupers....

(p. 62)

Likewise, Aurora uses the language of the market in her descriptions of Lady Waldemere's relationship with Romney. To these members of the upper class, the words "debt," "owe," and "prize" refer to marital rather than monetary transactions (p. 318). Indeed, Lady Waldemere "gambled as Lucifer" to win Romney, as she "sold that poisonous porridge called [the] soul" for him (pp. 248, 250). Aurora describes Romney's part of the bargain with no less vituperation: "How arrogant men are!--Even philanthropists, / Who try to take a wife up in the way / They put down a subscription-cheque." She ends her litany with a brutal analysis of the role of the feminine in Victorian society: "I suppose / We women should remember what we are, / And not throw back an obolus inscribed / With Caesar's image, lightly" (p. 127).

Hence, starkly contrasting with David Copperfield, Aurora Leigh inscribes the role of Caesar's image in her own evolving construction of herself as poet/prophet. Brazenly, Barrett Browning portrays the way prostitution literally underwrites poetic prophecy. Thus much more probing than her fictive colleague David, Aurora consciously ponders what criteria to use to judge her own success as writer:
   And whosoever writes good poetry,
   Looks just to art. He does not write for you
   Or me,--for London or for Edinburgh;
   He will not suffer the best critic known
   To step into his sunshine of free thought
   And self-absorbed conception, and exact
   An inch-long swerving of the holy lines.
   If virtue done for popularity
   Defiles like vice, can art for praise or hire
   Still keep its splendor, and remain pure art?
   Eschew such serfdom. What the poet writes,
   He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits,
   And that's success: if not, the poem's passed
   From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,
   Until the unborn snatch it, crying out
   In pity on their fathers' being so dull,
   And that's success too....

(p. 165)

Resisting the notion that "holy lines" might be for "hire," at this point in the text Aurora assumes that the qualities of great poetry are innate and unnameable and therefore outside market relations. But what is interesting is that her aesthetic credo, that ultimately a wide readership will recognize--buy--the truly worthwhile work, entangles "success" with "popularity." Indeed, the lines depicting that ultimate "popularity" image the literary work as though it were money moving from "hand to hand" in a kind of market exchange.

And, in fact, Aurora focuses on the trade-offs that a writer must submit to: noting that fledgling writers not only plead for her comments on their work but also beg for money, she deadpans, "From me, who scarce have money for my needs" (p. 79). Barrett Browning also exhibits how the emerging profession of literary criticism makes its demands in the expectation of obtaining powerful bargaining positions with the poet: "My critic Hammond flatters prettily, / And wants another volume like the last. My critic Belfair wants another book / Entirely different, which will sell, (and live?) / A striking book, yet not a startling book, / The public blames originalities" (p. 79). Neither does Barrett Browning shy away from describing how Aurora must prostitute her writing in order to eat:
      there came some vulgar needs:
   I had to live, that therefore I might work
   And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life,
   To work with one hand for the booksellers,
   While working with the other for myself
   And art. You swim with feet as well as hands,
   Or make small way. I apprehended this,--
   In England, no one lives by verse that lives;
   And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
   To make a space to sphere my living verse.
   I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,
   And weekly papers, holding up my name
   To keep it from the mud.... I wrote tales beside,
   Carved many an article on cherry-stones
   To suit light readers....

(p. 87)

Clearly, Aurora Leigh accepts the fact that she must trade writing drivel in order to write what she wants to write. She seems even goodhumored about it as she wryly admits that if great poets are the touchstones of golden verse, economically "poets evermore are scant of gold" (p. 195).

Barrett Browning's descriptions of Aurora's struggles for financial success, then, intermingle with her more traditional romantic evocations of poetic inspiration. Thus her Kunstlerroman identifies the fact that, if her "trade is verse," the author cannot conceive of herself as independent of the market: she acknowledges that what authenticates poetry and author-izes the poet has as much to do with economics as with aesthetic standards (p. 279). For example, in her description of art, Barrett Browning begins in the realm of the prophet but ends in the environs of the prostitute:
      Thus is Art
   Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
   Which, fully recognized, would change the world
   And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
   Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy,
   But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
   The spiritual significance burn through
   The hieroglyphic of material shows,
   Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
   And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
   And even his very body as a man,--
   Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
   Make offal of their daughters for its use
   On summer-nights, when God is sad in heaven
   To think what goes on in his recreant world
   He made quite other; while that moon he made
   To she there, at the first love's covenant,
   Shines still, convictive as a marriage-ring
   Before adulterous eyes....

(p. 266)

This passage reveals that if Barrett Browning manages to be good-humored about the female artists' compromises with the market, she is also capable of angry augery when it comes to female sexuality and market relations. Indeed, Barrett Browning starkly depicts the profession of writing as she inscribes the way Victorian gender ideologies vitiate the purportedly holy activity of self-making and art. Turning the palimpsestic definitions of art and the writer inside out, Barrett Browning uncovers the holy "hieroglyphic," portraying her culture's fall from grace, and the resulting inability of its artists to be visionary, as the logical fallout of a society that identifies women as the ultimate signifiers of economic exchange or prostitution.

Thus it becomes increasingly difficult to read Barrett Browning's graphic rendition of what being woman as economic sign and woman writer as prostitute might really look like. This is where I find Barrett Browning's depiction of the woman writer's androgyny most troubling and most revealing: if David Copperfield needs to find a queen to conceal the economic motivations which underwrite his authorship, Aurora Leigh must be transformed into a queen, and that coronation ceremony must analogize her aesthetic, domestic, and economic impulses. In an initiatory ritual, Aurora Leigh "crowns" herself to establish her identity as female artist, but when the male lover Romney intrudes, quickly she recognizes that this (w)rite of passage requires more tribulations in her fictive self-fashioning (pp. 38-39). What is troubling is that this struggle comes in the form of a glorification of the interpenetration of the two-sex model by the one-sex model. For in asserting that the boundaries between prophet and prostitute, male and female, must be blurred and intermingled, Barrett Browning portrays that merging as a violent sex act in which idealized male potency--the ravisher is always a Greek god--infuses the passive female vessel with the powers of prophecy. Using classical mythology, Barrett Browning pictures the female writer receiving epiphany as the moment of sexual fusion between the male (prophet) and the female (prostitute).

The trope of Danae receiving wisdom by submitting to Zeus' aggressive overtures is bold and shocking:
      Self is put away,
   And calm with abdication. She is Jove,
   And no more Danae--greater thus.... We'll be calm,
   And know that, when indeed our Joves come down,
   We all turn stiller than we have ever been....

(pp. 81-82)

In stark contrast, then, to the traditional image of the passive female muse inspiring the active male writer, Barrett Browning figures Zeus's numerous rapes of mortal women as the act which elevates them to the stance of immortal prophet. A similar image portrays Io's ravishment:
   Truth, so far, in my book! a truth which draws
   From all things upwards. I, Aurora, still
   Have felt it hound me through the wastes of life
   As Jove did Io: and, until that Hand
   Shall overtake me wholly, and, on my head,
   Lay down its large unfluctuating peace,
   The feverish gad-fly pricks me up and down,
   It must he. Art's the witness of what Is
   Behind this show....

(p. 265)

Perhaps most horrifying is the following image: "Think,--the god comes down as fierce / As twenty bloodhounds! shakes you, strangles you, / Until the oracular shriek shall ooze in froth! / At best it's not all ease,--at worst too hard" (p. 187). (24)

One wonders how Barrett Browning could put a Romantic wash on these brutalizing representations of her alter-ego as poet, for such images shock as they feed into the male fantasy of women's desire to be raped as a romantic event. But if Barrett Browning seems to accept the role of violated fallen woman (or the masculinized woman as Mr. Dick is the feminized man), her shocking images also graphically reveal what "is behind this show" and thereby implicate the very Victorian gender ideologies that produced the material version of the woman and woman writer as prostitute. In fact, Barrett Browning's descriptions impel us to be actively resisting readers who question why the holy image of the female as ideal muse to male writer could, transposed, only be inscribed as male rapist forcing truth into the passive female receptacle. Though Barrett Browning's radical interrogation of sexual difference does not go far enough, current analysis of the same classical myths that Barrett Browning studied and was trained to view as the foundational touchstones for her own Victorian culture uncover what Barrett Browning was moving toward. For instance, noting that fifty of the 250 stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses are directly about rape, while many of the other stories implicitly describe such sexual violence, Leo C. Curran argues that rape is the central motif of the Metamorphoses and that it represents patriarchal culture's violent sexism. (25)

Figuring herself as prostitute and prophet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, then, both submits to and battles that sexism in Aurora Leigh. She does so by squarely situating the poet's place in the market place: "Their [the poet's] sole work is to represent the age, / Their age, not Charlemagne's,--this live, throbbing age, / That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires, / And spends more passion, more heroic heat, / Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, / Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles" (p. 163). Barrett Browning's insistence that contemporary poets must produce a body of work that represents the contemporary body politic implicates the material ways women's bodies were inscribed in the Victorian period. Almost immediately after the call to represent this "throbbing age," Barrett Browning bodies forth "the full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age" as a woman deeply immersed in, representative of, and inspirational to the brawling and calculating age. This extraordinary description culminates in a vision of a future age when "the men of that / May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say / "'Behold,--behold the paps we all have sucked! / That bosom seems to beat still, or at least / It sets ours beating. This is living art, / Which thus presents, and thus records true life' " (p. 164). (26) This figuration of art, the woman writer, and the age itself as female body literalizes the notion of touchstone and implicates the queen of England and the queen of the house as far more potent figurations of the feminine. As Aurora pronounces: "I'm a woman, sir, / And use the woman's figures naturally, / As you, the male license" (p. 316). Thus Barrett Browning's Kunstlerroman replaces the phallic gesture of the male-authored Kunstlerroman's assumption of manhood with the abundant, erect, tangible female breast, which, instead of reiterating the old flaccid dead mythologies, engenders a new metaphor for woman as writer.

Likewise, suggesting that modern Quixotes are Donnas (and Dulcineas) rather than Dons, Barrett Browning tilts with the sacred icons of her age (p. 246). Exhorting male poet-prophets like Carlyle and Tennyson for their loss of belief in the culture's vitality (read: virility), this female vates-whore asserts that in order to revive the culture these writers must include the ways a woman's mind and body are inflected by the "brawling," "cheating," "calculating," and "spending" that accompany prophetic "heroic heat." As Barrett Browning shows, Dickens himself, the Jeremiah of his age, was no less influenced by material concerns. Indeed, in another palimpsestic passage, Barrett Browning describes how Romney and Aurora avoid any discussion of their romantic love for each other by conversing about an array of contemporary topics. Aurora's exchange with Romney consists of and insists upon the collusions of the material and ideal: "Can Guizot stand? is London full? is trade / Competitive? has Dickens turned his hinge / A-pinch upon the fingers of the great? / And are potatoes to grow mythical / Like moly?" (p. 130). Thus Barrett Browning herself raps some writerly knuckles, for, as she reveals syntactically and didactically, politics, trade, competition, love, money, and professional writing could not be separated. Though clearly one of the supreme monitory geniuses of his age, Dickens could not own up to the fact, as Barrett Browning does, that the construction of himself as writer was as much the result of economics as aesthetics.

Brigham Young University


(1) Aurora Leigh went through thirteen editions from its first publication in 1857 through 1870, which causes many feminists to wonder why it disappeared from the canon.

(2) Naomi Schor refers to such criticism as "intersextual," while Nancy K. Miller describes it as "overreading" or "reading in pairs"; see Nancy K. Miller, "Men's Reading, Women's Writing: Gender and the Rise of the Novel," Yale French Studies 75 (1988): 48-49.

(3) Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (U. Chicago Press, 1988), 101-16.

(4) Catherine Gallagher, "George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question," in Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1986), 41-44.

(5) In a letter to Robert Browning, Barrett Browning explicitly refers to Aurora Leigh as a "novel-poem." The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner (Harvard U. Press, 1969), 1:31.

(6) U. C. Knoepflmacher, "From Outrage to Rage: Dickens's Bruised Femininity," in Dickens and Other Victorians: Essays in Honor of Philip Collins (London: Macmillan, 1988), 75-96. Margaret Myers, "The Lost Self: Gender in David Copperfield," in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism (Bowling Green State U. Popular Press, 1986) 120-32.

(7) Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ed. Nina Burgis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 1. All other citations will be noted in the text.

(8) Obviously names are an important means of characterization in Dickens's novels: when Forster told Dackens that David Copperfield's initials were his own transposed, the famous, author replied, that that was probably why he couldn't give up that particular name for his hero.

(9) Both Dickens and David Copperfield pride themselves on their taming of the "savage stenographic mystery" (p. 511).

(10) In order for Dick to pursue his career as a copier of court documents without King Charles entering in, two tables are set up, one with his Memorial, the other with the court documents. With a little practice, Mr. Dick is able to postpone the Memorial to "a more convenient time" and make himself useful in a "business-like manner." Thus "he incessantly occupied himself in copying everything he could lay his hands on, and kept King Charles the First at a respectful distance by that semblance of employment" (pp. 431, 682).

(11) Given Dickens's convoluted and often Joycean flair for puns, perhaps the first syllable of Dictionary depicts a connection between Mr. Dick and Strong.

(12) According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Paul Beale, 8th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1984), dick, as a slang term for the penis, had come into use in military circles in England by about 1880.

(13) Heep makes a grotesque conjunction between Agnes's business acumen and domesticity when he replies to Betsey Trotwood's assertion that "Agnes is worth the whole firm [Wickfield and Heep]." Uriah "fully agree[s] ... and should be only too appy if Miss Agnes was a partner" (p. 421). But David sounds not much better in the final chapter when he permanently associates male and female economies, saying, in one breath, "I had advanced in fame and fortune, my domestic joy was perfect" (p. 708).

(14) Poovey, 101-16.

(15) See Marjorie Stone, "Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh," Victorian Poetry 25 (1987): 101-27; Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, "Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet," Victorian Poetry 19 (1981): 35-48. Gelpi notes the radical nature of Barrett Browning's gender blurring. For example, Barrett Browning repeatedly figures herself or the written text as male. Consider lines like, "(And still the artist is intensely a man"), "There's more than passion goes to make a man / Or book, which is a man too," or "Poems are / Men, if true poems" (pp. 169, 263, 80). Responding to Romney's gauche marriage proposal, Aurora asserts: "You face, today, / A man who wants instruction, mark me, not / A woman who wants protection," and in rejecting Romney, she switches gender roles becoming, the independent and empowered male, while she fashions Romney as a 'male Iphigenia" (pp. 71, 62).

(16) Mary Eagleton, "Gender and Genre," in Re-reading the Short Story, ed. Clare Hanson (London: Macmillan, 1989), 57.

(17) Deborah Byrd, "Combating an Alien Tyranny: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Evolution as a Feminist Poet," in Courage and Tools, ed. Joanne Glasgow and Angela Ingrain (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990), 205.

(18) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979; rpt, Yale U. Press, 1984), 575; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton U. Press, 1977) 23.

(19) W.M. Thackeray, "Les Mvsteres de Paris, par Eugene Sue: Thieves' Literature of France," reprint in Helga Grubitzsch, Materialien zur Kritik des Feuilleton-Roman's (Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1977) 247; as cited in Gallagher, 61n.

(20) Gallagher, 41-44.

(21) Kathleen Blake, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman," Victorian Poetry 24 (1986): 397.

(22) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1979; reprint, Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1989), 2. All other quotations will be noted in the text.

(23) Carol Lizzaro-Weis, "Gender and Genre in Italian Feminist Literature in the Seventies," Italica 65, no. 5 (Winter, 1988).

(24) I am indebted to Wendy Jacobs for her initial insights on the imagery of rape in Barrett Browning's poetry. See also pp. 30, 85 of Aurora Leigh.

(25) Leo C. Curran, "Rape and Rape Victims in the Metamorphoses," Arethusa 11, no. 1 (1978): 213-41.

(26) For a provocative discussion of Barrett Browning's repeated use of breast imagery see Marjorie Stone's "Taste, Totems, and Taboos: The Female Breast an Victorian Poetry," Dalhousie Review 64, (1984-85): 748-70. See also pp. 157, 176, 179, 197, 236, 307 in Aurora Leigh.
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Author:Houston, Gail Turley
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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