The Angel in the House
The Angel in the House is a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854 and expanded until 1862. Although largely ignored upon publication, it became enormously popular during the later 19th century and its influence continued well into the twentieth. The poem was an idealised account of Patmore's courtship of his first wife, Emily, whom he believed to be the perfect woman.
The poem is in two main parts, but was originally published in four instalments. The first was published with the main title in 1854. It was followed by "The Espousals" (1856), "Faithful for Ever" (1860), and "The Victories of Love" (1862). The latter two instalments are effectively a separate poem, related to the main text.
The first two instalments form a single coherent poem. It begins with a preface in which the poet, called Felix Vaughan in the book, tells his wife that he is going to write a long poem about her. The narrative then begins with an account of the poet's youth when he meets Honoria Churchill, the woman who is to become his wife. It proceeds in a series of short lyrics, representing Felix's reflections on his beloved, and on the nature of ideal femininity. There are also lyrics written from the point of view of Honoria. These reflective and lyrical sections are set into a narrative of the growing relationship between the couple, the emergence of a rival suitor, Honoria's cousin Frederick, who is rejected in favour of Felix, and the couple's eventual marriage.
The final two instalments, known together by the title The Victories of Love, are written mostly from the point of view of Frederick, the rejected suitor, who marries another woman, Jane, after his rejection by Honoria. Unlike the first part, this section is in the form of an epistolary novel. Each poem is presented as a letter from one character to another. The initial letters, between Frederick and his mother, reveal that Frederick admits to feeling dissatisfied with his wife, especially whenever he meets his first love and her husband. The poem describes his struggle to overcome these feelings and to concentrate all his love on his wife, who also expresses her own doubts in letters to her mother. The other characters express their anxieties and hopes about the relationship between Frederick and Jane. Honoria helps Jane by her own example, and in the end Frederick overcomes his doubts and feels complete devotion to his wife.
Following the publication of Patmore's poem, the term angel in the house came to be used in reference to women who embodied the Victorian feminine ideal: a wife and mother who was selflessly devoted to her children and submissive to her husband. Adèle Ratignolle, a character in Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening, is a literary example of the angel in the house.
Another example is in the What Katy Did novels of Susan Coolidge about a pre-pubescent tomboy who becomes a paraplegic. They are based on her own life in 19th Century America. Katy eventually walks again, but not before she learns to become the "angel in the house", that is, the socially acceptable "ideal" of docile womanhood.
In Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, Thomasin Yeobright is also described as 'the angel of the house'. Thomasin is the antithesis to Hardy's main female protagonist, Eustacia Vye, who is the opposite of the Victorian female "ideal".
Images were also created with this name, including Millais' portrait of Patmore's wife Emily, and Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph of an enraptured girl.
Later feminist writers have had a less positive view of the Angel. Virginia Woolf satirized the ideal of femininity depicted in the poem, writing that "She [the perfect wife] was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it ... Above all, she was pure." (Woolf, 1966: 2, 285) She added that she "bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her" (Woolf, 1966: 2, 285). Nel Noddings views her as "infantile, weak and mindless" (1989: 59). Similarly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a short essay entitled The Extinct Angel in which she described the angel in the house as being as dead as the dodo (Gilman, 1891: 200).
- There does, beyond desert, befall
- (May my great fortune make me great!)
- The first of themes, sung last of all.
- In green and undiscover'd ground,
- Yet near where many others sing
- I have the very well-head found
- Whence gushes the Pierian Spring.
- Then she: 'What is it, Dear? The Life
- Of Arthur, or Jerusalem's Fall?'
- 'Neither: your gentle self, my Wife,
- And love, that grows from one to all
The Wife's Tragedy
- 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 nought! 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;
Jane to her mother
- Mother, it's such a weary strain
- The way he has of treating me
- As if 'twas something fine to be
- A woman; and appearing not
- To notice any faults I've got!
- Noddings, 1984. Women and Evil (Berkeley: University of California Press)
- Woolf, 1966. "Professions for Women", Collected Essays (London: Hogarth Press)
- "An Extinct Angel." Kate Field's Washington 23 September 1891:199-200. "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Other Stories. Ed. Robert Shulman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. 48-50.