Joseph Phelan, “‘Quickening Life’: Motherhood and the ‘Unborn Child’ in Aurora Leigh and The Ring and the Book” (pp. 1–31)

Both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868–69) have at their centers women who become mothers as the result of acts of sexual violence, but who are nevertheless moved to feats of self-sacrifice and even heroism in defense of what the Pope, in The Ring and the Book, calls the “unborn child.” This article examines the representation of attitudes towards the “unborn child” in these poems in the context of changing legal, medical, and social attitudes to abortion and infanticide in the mid-nineteenth century, and argues that their emphasis on the importance of motherhood and what Pompilia in The Ring and the Book refers to as the child’s “right of life” should not, as the dominant critical tradition suggests, be read as an endorsement of patriarchal ideology but as the product of an essentialist view of gender identity that represents gestation and motherhood as radical challenges to the prevailing social order rather than acts of acquiescence in it.

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