Unit 1 – Mid-century women: philosophy and reality
What was the ‘angel in the house’?
The concept was central to Victorian belief about the proper ordering of society. Women’s role was essentially domestic, creating a comfortable and loving home where her husband and children would be supported and protected from the evils of the world outside. The first ‘angel’ was Coventry Patmore wife Emily; believing she was the perfect wife he wrote a poem about her called ‘The Angel in the House’. The implication of his poem is that women’s role is altruistic; she exists to give pleasure and it is in giving pleasure to others she herself is pleased. She must give pleasure to her husband not just in his bed, but in everything she does in his home in creating peace and order for him and his children. If the husband speaks sharply to his wife, or ill-treats her in any way, then she must blame herself even if he regrets what has been said or done. Even though husbands can stop loving their wives, wives must never stop loving their husbands.
Even though the poem didn’t attract much attention when it was published in 1854, it became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century as women’s demands for greater equality with men became increasingly vocal and most men and some women desperately tried to maintain the status quo.
In a source from john Ruskin: she must be enduringly, incorruptibly good, infallibly wise-wise, not for elf development, but for self renunciation, wise; not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fall from his side; wise, not with the narrowness of insolence and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service.
The ‘angel in the house’ here has to maintain the ideal of service to her husband and develop wisdom that will enable her to support him throughout his life. What Ruskin said about womankind was generally believed. Women were gentle, weak and tender. They had to be protected from the cut and thrust of the working world outside the home. The home was a sacred place and women, the guardians of this sacred place, were to be cherished and idealised.
How were women to create a ‘proper’ home?
Many women were far from being the weak, passive creature that the ‘angel in the house’ concept seems to convey. As the next source shows some took a practical and positive approach to the problem of managing a house.
As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house. Having risen early, and given due attention to the bath and made careful the toilet, it will be well at once to see that the children have received their proper ablutions, and are in every way clean and comfortable. After breakfast is over, it will be well for the mistress to make a round…