Earlier this year, as I walked around the house grumbling about never finding time to work on my writing anymore, Michael responded by saying, “You need the kill the angel in the house.” That got my attention. What angel did we harbor, I wondered, who was interfering with my writing? What was he talking about?
In answer, Michael referred me to published remarks made by Virginia Woolf in 1931 in a lecture titled “Professions for Women” to the Women’s Service League, a group concerned with female employment issues. Then he handed me his textbook, “The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present,” with a yellow sticky marking the spot.
I set the book aside for a less hectic moment and got around to reading it several weeks later. I wish I hadn’t waited because it turned out that I really needed her ideas. The concept of the “Angel in the House” originated with a poem by Coventry Patmore written in 1854. Glorifying the self-sacrificing, pure woman, his poem found such an eager audience among the Victorians several decades after he wrote it that for Virginia Woolf’s contemporaries it became a cultural icon they would immediately understand.
Aside: No modern woman will want to wade through Patmore’s epic poem entire (he published it as a book), but even reading short passages will make you struggle to control your gag reflex and your funny bone simultaneously. We sometimes speak of damning someone with faint praise; Patmore profoundly demeans women with his effusive praise. If you have the stomach to read the passage most associated with Woolf’s essay, click here for a link: YUCK!
Speaking to her audience about the poem, Woolf said, “You who come from a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know who I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can.”
Rather than quote the entire essay, let me paraphrase Woolf succinctly. This Angel who plagues women writers (and by extension creative women of every stripe) is ourselves. I can’t help recalling cartoonist Walt Kelley’s famous quote, inscribed on an Earth Day poster in 1970: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Even from my twenty-first century viewpoint, the concept quickly became clear. Who was it that made sure our family’s laundry was done? The Angel in the House. Who was it that got dinner on our table? The Angel in the House. Who was it that stopped what she was doing to pick up our child when she missed the bus or had to attend an extracurricular event? The Angel in the House. Who clipped coupons, made grocery lists, and shopped? The Angel in the House. I could go on, but it is too depressing.
I have met the enemy and she is me. I am the Angel in my House and the Angel has to die if my creative life is going to go forward. Even more depressing than being the Angel in my House is the fact that, after a lifetime of feminism and a deep commitment to a woman’s right to choice in all aspects of her life, it took my husband to point my Angel out to me. (On the upside of this, I did at least marry a man who would notice it and tell me so at the risk of his own comfort.)
Besides introducing the need to kill the Angel, Woolf addressed two important areas where the Angel in the House particularly harms the creative woman. One is through deference to men and the other is through the avoidance of physicality in the artist’s work. Here is how Woolf begins her argument about the Angel’s interference with her writing:
Directly ... I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered, “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own, Above all, be pure.
Let’s see, simper; act dumb; play up to men; use everything in your trick bag; but through it all, don’t be a “bad” girl. It seems to me this Angelic advice is very similar to the standard expectations of my generation and even, try though we did to liberate them, our daughters’ generation as well.
When I attended the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest last July, I signed up to have a 15 minute interview with a literary agent. Fortunately for me, I did not have the first appointment because the woman who did was treated by the male agent with inexcusable condescension and disparagement. Because she returned and told the rest of the women in our group about it, I was able to gird my loins, get into warrior mode, and incapacitate my Angel (even though I didn’t know about her at the time) in preparation for my own interview.
They say the best defense is a good offense and I needed a good one that day. I succeeded in taking control of the interview from the beginning and I did not allow the agent to blow me off like he did my associate. But the process of preparing myself, planning what to say and how to say it, created an afternoon of anxiety for me. Looking back, I think my Angel was whispering the same things in my ear that Virginia Woolf’s whispered to her eight decades ago.
About the physicality issue, Woolf invited her audience to imagine a girl at her writing table, absorbed on a creative trance, exploring her unconscious self like a fisherman (Woolf’s word) would explore a deep lake. The girl’s fishing line begins racing through her fingers.
Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion ... The girl was roused from her dream ... To speak without figure, she had thought of something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked.
My friends will tell you that I am not a prude. There lurks in the back of my head, though, a censor who keeps tabs on my work, a personal content-rating board that I always blamed on my childhood Catholicism. But many of my friends who have the same kind of censor did not grow up Catholic. I remember taking a writing class not so many years ago in which the students were assigned to write an explicit, one-paragraph sex scene. The instructor’s stated purpose was to help us break through the barriers that inhibited our writing.
In this class of women, including a female teacher, the results opened my eyes. I couldn’t do it: my paragraph fell far short of explicit, focusing instead on the emotional content of the scene. Another classmate confined her paragraph to the description of a dog licking his own genitals. A few people managed to write something explicit and actually read it aloud to the class, but not many. Most of the work presented was hedged and hesitant.
I think now that my constant critic is the Angel in the House and that she remains as potent in the 21st century as she was in the 19th. Perhaps she is more subtle in her approach, has adapted herself to modern attitudes enough that she doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, as her original incarnation certainly would have, but she is there, riding our shoulders, chiding us, influencing us, pushing us away from our creative endeavors.
Woolf’s commented at length at the problems created for creative women by the Angel in the House. Her ideas were pithily summed up by this comment:
Though I flatter myself I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was found to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
I would really like to get some dialogue started on this topic because I think it is a very significant issue for women. I cannot understand why Woolf’s essay didn’t make its way into my liberal arts education, particularly since my undergraduate degree is in English literature. My friends in the Friday Morning Writers Group (all women) had virtually the same reaction. They immediately identified with Woolf and wondered where her essay had been all their lives.
Do you, dear reader, agree with Woolf that there is an Angel in the House interfering with women writers (and artists, etc.)? If so, how have you been affected by your Angel? If not, how do you explain choosing the laundry over your writing, painting, dancing, and so on? (You can’t fool me, there is not an artistic woman out there who is not, at sometime in her normal creative life, picking housework over her creative work.) Have you been able to kill – or even maim – your Angel? How? What works, what doesn’t?