Monday, June 1, 2015

The Angel in the House

The man of the hour, Mr. Coventry Patmore
In my last two posts, I have referred to the phrase "the angel in the house" which captures not only the Victorian ideal of a woman, but also the social expectation on women in the 19th century concerning their domestic roles of wife and mother. This phrase is now so commonly used in Victorian and literary studies, that I wanted to go back to its original source: a poem first published in 1854 by Coventry Patmore. 

Now, while the poem seems like a beautiful homage to love and women, most particularly his wife for whom it was written, what I am looking at with scrutiny is this: the uniquely Victorian perspective that women are inherently pure and wholesome, without even the hint of a fallen nature. Women may love to be complimented and flattered for being beautiful and wonderful and all of that (though certainly not all of us - it makes me cringe sometimes), but the danger in such thinking that we see among the Victorians is the expectation that comes from such high praise.  That is why I think this poem, from which we get the very phrase "angel in the house" has been so damaging to women in its time. Who can measure against the perception of Virgin Mary? Who can conform to such expectations of perfect submission and all comeliness in manner? Women are not given permission to be real human beings at the hands of such Victorian men and ideals. Men, they accept as flawed by human nature, yet they cannot bear the thought of a fallen woman. 
Patmore's wife Emily, the model for the Angel in the House, portrayed by John Everett Millais.

Okay so here's a brief breakdown of the very long poem (consisting of two books, with twelve cantos each):

The poem begins with an ode to love, in which the speaker praises Love for granting him the ability to express things that can only come from the heart, and thanks Love for his reward, which is of course (what else?) Love itself. Then the speaker tells of a visit to his home that he has not been back to in six years since going to university in Cambridge. During this visit,  he sees three girls, all sisters, whom he hasn't seen since childhood. He also sees their father, lately widowed, and recalls their deceased mother as one who "seem'd expressly sent below" (as if from heaven); furthermore, he adds,

   Her life, all honour, observed, with awe
 Which cross experience could not mar,
The fiction of the Christian law
     That all men honourable are;
And so her smile at once conferr'd
     High flattery and benign reproof

So, let's just break this down a bit for our more colloquial-prone ears. Her life was honorable, we get that, right? And no cross experience (no bad day, in other words) could change that. Great! What a fantastic lady! I would LOVE to remain perfectly unaffected by my circumstances, bad days, and um, "cross experiences." But that is not all. What does it mean that the speaker now writes that the fiction of the Christian law (we know what fiction is right? the part in the library where we go to find stories that are made-up, not true, and sometimes far-fetched? yeah, that fiction) is that MEN are honorable? I'm sorry, were we confused on that point? No. The Victorians can spout man's failures till they are blue in the face. But, what I find interesting is that this revealing account of man's honor as fiction is smack dab in the middle of a whole freaking long poem about how great and honorable women are. As if that is more believable, as if that were nonfiction, as in absolutely true? So, the deceased lady (we haven't even gotten to the main lady yet) is imbued with such heavenly characteristics that her very smile can bestow either the highest flattery in her approval, or reproof in that she sees through your fictitious honor and can make you feel guilty before you even know you have something to feel guilty about.

Not ironically at all, our inspired poet now looks upon this fine lady's oldest daughter, whose very name is Honor. In his first descriptions of this girl he remarks that she is, "Venus; milder than the dove; / Her mother's air" (I love how she is both Venus - sex goddess? - AND milder than a dove, as if that makes sense). Of course the effect on him is instant - he is smitten by "her Norman face; / Her large sweet eyes" (she must be a predecessor of the Disney princess). In the third Canto, titled "Honoria," the poet furthers his descriptions of her with the lines:

She was all mildness; yet 'twas writ
     In all her grace, most legibly,
'He that's for heaven itself unfit,
     Let him not hope to merit me.'

Now here again we see the complete inequality between the sexes. In the former lines I quoted about the mother, the poet writes that the honor of man is but a fiction compared to woman. Now, he writes that the man who is not fit for heaven (as in, all men) is not worthy of the young lady's affections. In other words, she seems doomed to a life of loneliness and celibacy because she is too inherently pure and good that no man could actually deserve her. Is this girl human? Do we not "all fall short of the glory of God?" Apparently not. I pity her, for the expectation of such perfection can be impossible to maintain.  Yet, as we will see further in some novel studies of the Victorian woman in fiction, this is exactly the kind of characters we see - women struggling and pushing against the pressures of such expectations on them.

I'd like to use this as a transition into future posts that look at the major Victorian novels of the time period and examine just how the characters deal with this notion of expected female perfection and what they do to fight the pressures of their society.
Book II, The Prologue

Patmore, Coventry. "The Angel in the House." The Victorian Web. 2004. Web. 1 Jun 2015.