Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The angel we can't quite kill

In 1854, a man called Coventry Patmore wrote a poem called The Angel in the House. It was about his wife, who apparently fulfilled to the highest possible degree the Victorian ideal of women as submissive, sympathetic and self-sacrificing; women who treated their husbands like kings. About 50 years later, a writer called Charlotte Perkins Gilman took the opposite position. Making half the population economically dependent on the other half, turning them into unpaid house servants and reproduction machines -- with no alternative but contemptible, poverty-stricken spinsterhood -- was a horrible idea, she said. In an 1899 book called Women and Economics, she argued that women's brains are no different than men's, and women need challenging work and interests outside the home just as much as men do.

We can only imagine what Gilman would have thought of  The Angel in the House, but Virginia Woolf leaves no doubt. In a 1931 essay called Professions for Women, she injects a heavy element of satire into her description of Patmore's angel.

"She was intensely sympathetic," wrote Woolf, who brought just such a figure to life in her novel To the Lighthouse. "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 draft, 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."

When I used Woolf's quote in a presentation to my classmates about feminism this week, everyone chortled. But it wasn't long before the group -- mostly women -- were admitting their own sneaky "Angel" behaviours. If there isn't quite enough of something at a meal, said one, she takes a bit less to make sure everyone else gets a full portion. Others had similar confessions, but I think mine beat them all: If my cat's home-cooked free-range chicken breast is getting a few days old in the fridge, I'll eat it myself and cook him up a fresh one.

Woolf described having to kill the hovering angel with an inkpot so she could write freely, without worrying about offending the male authors whose books she often reviewed. But even in 2016, it seems that for many of us, the Angel is still fluttering her wings.

Mr. Darcy and his free-range home-cooked chicken breast. He's condescending to eat this plateful, but when the remainder in the fridge starts getting old, guess who finishes it off?

Here's a little excerpt from Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House: Enjoy!

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for naught, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse, 
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress'd,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers; 
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she's still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Darcy is very spoiled indeed! He looks very entitled in this photo. Ah yes, the angel is still fluttering her wings.