Both Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative share revolutionary parallels and ideas that are before their time and showcase their strength as writers and an insight into the political and social climate of their era. Both share a desire to be released from oppressive chains and use writing as their outlets. Browning for example, actually comments on the topic in her writing, “Preserved her intellectual. She had lived a sort of cage-bird life, born in cage, accounting that to leap from perch to perch was act and joy enough for any bird” (“Aurora Leigh” Line 304-306). This shows her personal opinions and experience in the realm of her intellect being used in society or her daily life and the affect it has through Aurora Leigh. This also shows, how relatable Aurora Leigh was written to be along with themes of having to prove intelligence, feeling caged and boxed, etc. We can also compare this idea to one of Equino’s where he discusses how he never would betray or leave his master (Interesting Narrative Line P. 22), Browning and Equiano both share an innocence in the sense of their oppression. The expression of these ideas shows how their is a comfort but also innocent nature in “captivity”. Both writers were ahead of their time in expressing these emotions that were extremely uncommon to hear from or even be written by a black man and a woman in this era.
Both Barrett Browning and Equino express the need/love for knowledge, which was revolutionary for the both of them, given the time periods they lived in. “The Interesting Narrative” first portrays Equino as a young boy, ignorant to the new world he’s been forced to live in. The reader first see’s Equino’s curiosity and whenever he states “I had often seen my master Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning.” From this quote alone, one can sense the longing that young Equino has to be knowledgeable. Equino later shows the desire to learn navigational skills. He states, “I determined to make every exertion to obtain my freedom, and return to Old England. For this purpose I thought a knowledge of navigation might be of use to me.” Equino actually does gain this knowledge, which is unheard of for a person of color in this time period. Equino’s ability to learn and eventually buy back his freedom is revolutionary indeed.
Barrett Browning’s desire for knowledge is also portrayed through her epic, Aurora Leigh. The speaker in Aurora Leigh discusses what is considered “lady-like” starting a line 427. She seems to make a mockery of the issues brought up, and she does not speak positively on what a woman “ought to do” for that time period. Here, the reader can gather that these feminine skills are not what grabs her interest. Later on in the poem, the speaker discovers “garrett-room,” or attic, so to speak. There, she discovers her father’s books. This excites the speaker beyond belief! “Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs / Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there / At this or that box, pulling through the gap, / In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy, / The first book first. (838-841) This portrays the speaker’s excitement to read new texts, and discover new stories. The speaker is both nervous and excited to be doing something that her aunt would not approve of. This shows how it was not a common thing at the time for a female to pursue knowledgeable things and books. Her excitement to learn is revolutionary, just like Equino.
Barrett Browning and Equiano have multiple qualities in common, each of which could be discussed and exemplified in their works, but the shared quality between these two revolutionary authors that struck me the most was the way they tactfully worked towards achieving their ambitions. In “The Interesting Narrative…,” Equiano’s primary goal is to gain his freedom. He wants to do more than that, however; Equiano also wants to advance himself in society. Instead of trying to escape and live a life on the run, Equiano works to make himself indispensable to his masters. He notes that, when he worked under Robert King, the man used to say he “… saved him, as [King] used to acknowledge, above a hundred pounds a year.” Equiano also devotes time to learning different trades and skills that will make him more valuable to others, and learns to navigate, hairdress, read, and write; he also gains the skills necessary to work as a clerk, “… delivering cargoes to the ships, in tending stores, and delivering goods…” (220). Eventually, Equiano earns enough money to buy his freedom, and continues to serve under his former master for a time before returning to England. He is free and has gained many skills which allow him to not only work for the abolitionist movement but also establish himself as a respectable aristocrat. Barrett Browning also shows value in patience and tact through her character Aurora Leigh in her work by the same name. Leigh is left motherless at a young age and is made to move from Florence to England in order to live with her rather pedantic and puritanical aunt. Her aunt, who had lived “… A sort of cage-bird life…,” did her best to begin conforming Aurora, “…A wild bird scarcely fledged…,” into her idea of a respectable young lady (lines 305, 310). Aurora learned the tenets of her aunt’s religion, languages, algebra, the sciences, music, the gentlewomanly arts, and books on womanhood. These books, in particular, promoted a “wilting flower” approach to womanhood, which, among other things, encourages women to be subservient and “… never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay;'” Aurora, in speaking of them, shows express contempt for their teachings (line 437). Aurora takes her aunt’s teachings, but never forgets who she is- that wild bird in a world of cages- and chooses, when she is ready, to break free of those cages through writing. Her rebellion is not through action (which would, in reality, gain her nothing but a brand as a shrewish, unrefined woman), but through words, which will reach a far broader audience and make a much more lasting impact. Both Equiano and Barrett Browning, in this, show that revolution can be most powerfully advanced through working with what one is given and twisting it to one’s own advantage. Equiano worked through the ranks of slavery and abided by the law of his time by buying his freedom back. He uses his story and the things he learned throughout his enslavement to bring about change in a more peaceful, rational manner. Barrett Browning, through Aurora, shows a character who uses the lessons she is taught and the skills she learns to overcome the oppression she faced. She, too, does so peacefully. It seems though Barrett Browning and Equiano are making a similar point- that revolution can be achieved peacefully, that perhaps the only revolutions that will succeed are those who are gone about in a peaceful manner. When faced with a society terrified of change and the chaos it may bring (caused by the Terror following the French Revolution), the two authors realize that their tactics will have to be different. They will be subtle, always, but the suggestions for change and progress are always there, lying just behind the obvious.
One revolutionary aspect of both Interesting Narrative, and Aurora Leigh is the perspective each writer comes from. These are not rich, white men of high class. Equiano and Barrett have different perspectives, and they both shed light on the plights of slaves and women respectively. Both writers mention, and delve into descriptions of the perceived childlike innocence of both women and slaves. Equiano talks about how innocent he was about snow, “As I had never seen any thing of the kind before, I thought it was salt” (Equiano 218) and his lack of understanding about the religion of the white people, “([A] great man called God: but here again I was to all intents and purposes at a loss” (Equiano 218). Barrett Browning talks about the innocence men place on women, “I read a score of books on womanhood…that boldly assert Their right of comprehending husband’s talk…With pretty ‘may it please you,’ or ‘so it is,’” (Barrett Browning 1161 lines 426-433). Both stories are made increasingly more popular and well known for their insight into important problems from the perspective of those experiencing them. Interesting Narrative is a story about slavery, told from the perspective of a slave. The other is a story about women and their experiences in the real world, from the perspective of a woman. These ‘insider access’ stories make the reader think more about the issue at hand, than if a white man in a position of power were to have written them, and this allowed these authors and these passages to make a big impact.
A key characteristic of both Barrett Browning and Equiano’s writing on their respective revolutions is the element of innocence and consequent loss of it. Both start out with the freedom of childhood and lose it as they are indoctrinated into a role they are expected to play in society, as Barrett Browning characterizes in Aurora Leigh: “I, alas, / A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage” (Barrett Browning l. 310). She further describes this loss of innocence by using the motif of how her she fixes her hair, “So it was I broke the copious curls upon my head / In braids, because she liked smooth-ordered hair.”(Barrett Browning ll. 384-385). This tangentializes her loss of innocence and by extension, freedom, into words that the audience can understand. Similarly, Equiano describes his first experiences on the ship “these filled me with astonishment, that was soon converted into terror”(Equiano 216). Throughout the entirety of his narrative Equiano colors his life with wonder at new experiences very similar to an eight year old’s perpetual curiosity at the world.
Revolution, it seems, demands that the revolutionaries have a disillusioned perspective of the world. The cruel loss of innocence suffered by both Equiano and Barrett Browning propels them to their respective revolutions. It can be argued that, on broader terms, revolution requires loss in general. That in revolution there is an effective attempt to regain some former, fuller state of glory. The objective of revolt being to break free of the cage and fly free, restored and autonomous.
Both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh contain many important and vital aspects for their time. However, the most revolutionary part of their writings is the perspective from which they are written. Though nowhere near equal to those of white land owning males, the opportunities for African slaves and women began to increase in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These two writings prove that very point by not only gaining a wide readership in their time but impacting the way we view that era from our current perspective. The fact that both works were written by members of each of those two disenfranchised groups shows a distinct change in the perspective that literature could be written from and still be widely published. Equiano’s work comes about as part of the abolition movement, making it both an autobiography and a political track. With statements like “I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land, no man has a right to sell me”, the abolitionist message is rarely missing in a part of the story (220). On the other hand, Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is often linked to the suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This movement would not come to a head until two decades after the narrative poem was published, but like the Interesting Narrative it impacted the politics of emancipation for a respective group. The way this factors into the revolution of perspectives is that both of these works were written by people from those groups that needed emancipation. It was not a minister writing about abolition or a Whig politician writing about helping women, it is a slave writing about abolition and a women writing about educating herself.
Another way that both of these works fit into a revolution of perspectives is that they both fit into the genre of autobiography. Though autobiographies existed prior to these two works (for example Benjamin Franklin’s) the stories that they told were different than most autobiographies before them. Equiano’s narrative is more likely to fit the mold of a regular autobiography with some editing from an unknown (but likely abolitionist) source. It focuses on the aspects of Equiano’s life as a slave and eventually free man, but never really digs into his thoughts during the major events of his life. Aurora Leigh however, contains many aspects from Barrett Browning’s life and the challenges she faced. Aurora learns many things from her aunt, but Barrett Browning also often carries a sarcastic tone when referencing things as sewing or knitting by writing “The works of women are symbolical” (1161). In the same way that Aurora was not always being educated on the subjects she would have enjoyed the most, Barrett Browning always strove to have an education that women were not allowed to have in her time. By making a character face the same challenges she faced when she was younger, Barrett Browning allows us to see how she may have felt inside when she was going through these struggles as well. This gives us two different perspectives of autobiography, the internal thought autobiography with Aurora Leigh and the more outward struggle autobiography with the Interesting Narrative. These changes in perspective can remind us that revolution often produces evolution. The French Revolution though eventually disastrous, coincided and caused other revolutions that would further the emancipation of less fortunate members of society.
One revolutionary characteristic that both Equiano and Barrett Browning share is that they both share a fiercely independent spirit, which I think is a crucial ingridient to the start of a revolution. After Browning’s mother dies when she was 4, her father is left to raise her and he instills in her his passion for learning. This is similar to how Captain Michael Pascal took Equiano under his wing, and taught him how to read, the christian faith, which allowed Equiano along with the other skills he learned to eventually purchase his own freedom, and to become something more than a slave, Equiano even chose to use the knowledge and skills that he had acquired to help improve the world, by going back to the same master who sold him, in the hopes of giving him a better life than he was given. Equiano states, “I often supplied the place of a clerk, in receiving and delivering cargoes to the ships….I used to shave and dress my master, when convenient, and take care of his horse…. I worked likewise on board of his different vessels…. I became very useful to my master, and saved him, as he used to acknowledge, above a hundred pounds a year.” Here Equiano explains the different ways that he was able to exercise the various skills that he learned in a useful manner, where before he was thought of as cargo, now he was beginning to be seen as useful addition to society. “My imagination was all rapture as I flew to the Register office, and in this respect like the apostle Peter…. that he thought he was in a vision.” This quote emphasizes the feelings of immense gratitude that Equiano feels toward Captain Pascal, for granting Equiano his freedom, even though Captain Pascal ended up selling Equiano back into slavery after promising him he wouldn’t previously. In a similar way Browning was able to take the knowledge that she learned from reading the books in her late father’s library, and apply what she learned from her father’s books into her identity as both a writer and a woman Because Browning had read Shakespeare and other famous works, she was able to assert that knowledge and eventually become one of the most famous and well known women writers of the victorian age. As well as to know that women are capable of more than just flower arranging, spinning glass, and sewing. Browning states, “I danced the polka and cellarius, spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax, because she liked accomplishments in girls.” Browning is mocking what was typically viewed as “accomplishments ” for girls. Browning further emphasizes this sarcasm stating, “By the way, the works of women are symbolical. We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, producing what? A pair of slippers…. or a stool to stumble over and vex you….”curse that stool!” Browning is asserting her opinion of women’s accomplishments by saying that all of the work that we do really just reiterates how women are viewed as weak and useless by men. Browning uses the analogy of a stool for men to trip over as a personification of women because they are seen as nagging and annoying, and useless by men like a useless stool that someone trips over. If Browning had never been exposed to her father’s books she would have most likely never acquired an independent spirit, because she wouldn’t know that there was anything to be unsatisfied about, she would have just accepted that the circumstances of women were how they always were, and that there was no need to refute or argue against them. On the same accord, if Equiano had never been taught how to read, or how to navigate a ship, cut hair, etc. he would have just accepted that becoming a slave as his predetermined destiny. Both the stories of Browning and Equiano are examples that when we become empirically informed, that is when we become informed of the facts, then we can use our normative knowledge (our opinions) to make valuable judgements of the facts, and ultimately decide whether to obey them, or disobey them.
What this says about revolution is that to begin a revolution one has to first be informed of what the current circumstances are that create the proper climate for a revolution to occur. In other words, if you have never been informed about the world outside of your current world, situation, or circumstances you will never know that there is a world or life outside of your current situation, and as a result you won’t start a revolution, because you are satisfied, because you don’t know anything outside of your current situation, so you just except it, because you think that is how things have always been and that is how they will always be.