Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Angel in the House (Repost)

This is a slightly revised version of a post that was originally posted in 2008.

Virginia Woolf famously said, "Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer." But this has, I think, often been misunderstood. I have often seen the phrase "The Angel in the House" interpreted to mean something about submission, but this is not a plausible gloss. For one thing, in the original poem by Coventry Patmore, whose title Woolf is adapting, submission plays virtually no role: the word and its cognates only arises twice in the poem, and in both cases is used merely as a secondary image for the headlong character of being in love. Patmore also makes use of the common lover's trope that the beloved woman is to be served, so arguably the image moves both ways. For another, this is not at all the point Woolf herself is actually making:

You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her—you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all—I need not say it—–she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace. In those days—the last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel.

Woolf goes on to describe the experience of a woman writing a review of a book by a man. She takes up the pen to be critical, and the Angel slips in behind her and whispers, "As a woman you should be sympathetic, tender, tactful, gentle, etc.; you should be pure, not saying what you think but always saying what you ought." It's not submission but this ethereal, unreal purity that is the reason the Angel in the House must be killed by the woman writer; it is an image of woman that is inhuman and threatens to rip out the heart from any woman's writing. It's an image of woman so unreal that, if taken as a standard, it is dishonest:

For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.

And this is why 'Angel in the House' is a good label for what Woolf is trying to describe. There really isn't anything dishonest about Patmore's poetry, but the image of woman presented in The Angel in the House is simultaneously real and mythological. It is Patmore's wife, but it is Patmore's wife pitched to cosmic significance, used as a model for a goddess:

But when I look on her and hope
To tell with joy what I admire,
My thoughts lie cramp'd in narrow scope,
Or in the feeble birth expire;
No mystery of well-woven speech,
No simplest phrase of tenderest fall,
No liken'd excellence can reach
Her, thee most excellent of all,
The best half of creation's best,
Its heart to feel, its eye to see,
The crown and complex of the rest,
Its aim and its epitome.
Nay, might I utter my conceit,
'Twere after all a vulgar song,
For she's so simply, subtly sweet,
My deepest rapture does her wrong.
Yet is it now my chosen task
To sing her worth as Maid and Wife;
Nor happier post than this I ask,
To live her laureate all my life.

There is in a sense nothing wrong with this in itself, or, at least, nothing that even Woolf herself would have thought wrong with this on its own: this is literary depiction and trope. The problem arises not with the image, but with an image like this becoming a standard to which women are expected to hold themselves to (and, more than this, a standard to which they hold themselves). For it is a lover's fantasy, a romantic myth, a pretty painting by a man who wants to laud the excellences of his wife; it is not a woman, and it is something no woman can actually be. It's all the difference between serving as a model for a painting of Aphrodite and expecting yourself to be Aphrodite. But Woolf notes that something like this image, not perhaps Patmore's own but something closely analogous, is taken not merely as a picture for which a woman can be a model, but as the standard for what a woman should be. It becomes not merely art that they can inspire but the state to which they are expected to aspire. And no one can hold themselves to such a standard without dissimulation. You should be pure -- more pure by far than any woman can be; and if that's the standard of what a woman is to be, well, what option is there but lies and deceit? It will tear the honest heart out of what you do.

So the woman writer must kill the Angel in the House, this standard of purity whispering in her ear, and be -- what? Woolf doesn't think the answer is easy at all. We'd naturally say that she should just be a human woman. But Woolf thinks this a superficial answer:

I mean, what is a woman? I assure you, I do not know. I do not believe that you know. I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.

After all, we are really talking about a standard for what a woman should be. The Angel in the House can't be that standard. But merely take that away and you don't automatically have a woman who knows what she should be. You either have a woman who doesn't know what it is to which she can aspire, or who finds herself faced with yet another unreal phantom standard which must yet again be slain:

These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first—killing the Angel in the House—I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful—and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.

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