Book Report Essay: Women in the Literary Works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” and John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women”

Significant place in the literary heritage of any country is taken by works about women, their role and possibilities, about unequal political and social rights of men and women and about women’s desire to achieve the equality and possess the same rights as men do. The followers of such concepts, who are mostly women, have organized a movement, which later received the name “feminism”. The protests against restriction of female inheritance and participation in state affairs became constant concomitants of the development of feminist concepts. By the 19th century an organized feminist movement appeared as women started to realize that they were treated unfairly in comparison with men. Some men also joined the movement as they recognized that women should have possessed the same rights as men. They were Charles Fourier, John Stuart Mill and others. The concept of inequality between men and women has been widely discussed by many writers, who have devoted their poems, novels, essays and other literary works to this problem.

The main goal of the current study is to analyze the status and possibilities of women as described in “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and “On the Subjection of Women” by John Stuart Mill.

Women in “Aurora Leigh” and “On the Subjection of Women”

Being one of the longest poems in English literature, “Aurora Leigh” was published in 1857, when the author of it Elizabeth Barrett Browning was at the very top of her literary career. The poem, which became very popular with the readers, touched several major issues of Victorian England combined with the facts from author’s personal life. Nowadays “Aurora Leigh” is being widely used as a resource for citation as it is one of the fundamental feminist literary works addressing gender inequality, women’s nature and role in the Victorian society. Barrett Browning portrays an image of young female poet Aurora Leigh, who is witty and rather independent when taking in consideration the historic period, during which she lived. The main heroine of the poem has to overcome various difficulties and obstacles, which take the road towards Aurora’s goals. It is necessary to admit, that Aurora Leigh is an unusual character for the given period of time as opposed to her Aunt, who possessed only “taming accidental thoughts” [1]. In contrast to her Aunt, Aurora is an educated young lady, whose main goal in life is far beyond getting married, serving her husband and making cushions as the only possible role for women. Aurora’s personality is strong enough to resist the existing stereotypes, so when she receives proposal from her cousin, she refuses, underling the fact that woman’s basic role in Victorian society is to be a sort of “helper” or even a slave to a man. She states: “You misconceive the question like a man, who sees a woman as the complement of his sex merely” [1]. By creating such a character as Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning was certainly hoping to imbue women with optimism and belief in themselves and their strength. Seeing the example of Aurora, women should understand that they are not obliged to do everything what the society tells them to; she underlines the fact that all stereotypes can be broken and standards can be changed. Romney Leigh rejects the idea that a woman can be a poet, stating that it is not a good job for women and women are not really smart enough to understand real art. However, Aurora disproves his statements not only by her words but also by her deeds as she managed to become a poet despite of all difficulties she had to face. Some autobiographical features can be seen in the main character, as she embodies an “ideal” picture of what a woman should be for the author.

Despite of the fact that the majority of followers of feminist movement are women, there are some men, who also devoted their thoughts and literary works to the problems of women. Famous philosopher and economist, the author of the works “Principles of Political Economy” and “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill was among them. The most significant of his works devoted to the role of women and gender inequality is “On the Subjection of Women”, which appeared in 1869. Women’s suffrage and limited access to education and jobs are the main issues depicted in the Mill’s work, which was written in the form of essay to describe the real life of women durian Victorian Age in England. Mill writes: “After marriage, the man had anciently (but this was anterior to Christianity) the power of life and death over his wife. She could invoke no law against him; he was her sole tribunal and law” [2]. Indeed, after getting married to a man, a woman became his property, with which he could do whatever he wished. Inequality between men and women could be seen not only in relationships between husbands and wives, but also between fathers and daughters, where the latter could be sold to a man upon father’s desire. In his essay the author emphasises the importance of certain social changes, which should be developed and implemented by the government, however, he does not really speak about any significant possibilities for women. In reality, women did not have a choice at that period of time. The only choice for women was to get married or not to get married, however, very often such a choice was made by somebody else (father, brother, uncle) rather than by a woman herself. If a woman decided to leave her husband, she had also to leave her children and everything she owned. Also, a husband could make a wife to return “by law, or by physical force; or he may content himself with seizing for his own use anything which she may earn, or which may be given to her by her relations” [2].

Both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Stuart Mill spoke about status of women during Victorian age in England, however, the authors put the main emphasis on different matters. Barrett Browning in her poem “Aurora Leigh” depicted a young, smart and very ambitious girl, who despite of all obstacles reached her goal and became a poet. Thus, the author wants the readers, especially women of that historical period, to understand that it is possible to have personal life for women rather than devote it to husband; it is possible to choose the profession and way of life, and not be dependent on somebody the whole life. In contrast, John Stuart Mill in his essay “On the Subjection of Women” described all difficulties women had to face during their lives. However, he is known as a prominent right-defender of women, so in his work the author showed how much he was concerned with the contemporary role of women. Mill was against discrimination of women, thus, he passionately spoke about the necessity of possessing equal social and political rights for men and women. Mill was especially concerned with women’s suffrage, as it would give women an ability to have their own opinion and express it equally with men.


Having spoken about two literary works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Stuart Mill and their views on the role of women, it is necessary to make a conclusion. It is clear that women did not have many possibilities during Victorian Age in England. They had limited access to social and political affairs in the country; they could not find jobs as their only duty was to take care of husbands and children. Besides, women often faced unequal treatment just because they were women and not men.


1. Browning, Elizabeth B. “Aurora Leigh”. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
2. Mill, John Stuart. “On the Subjection of Women”. Stanton Coit; Longmans, Green, 1909.

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