Killing the Angel of the House

A common theme among women I know is how we are to manage our work, our home lives, our health and beauty routines, our emotional labor, our household work. Men, of course, are seldom asked how they manage–a fact hilariously illustrated by the Man Who Has it All.

Here is another response: Kill the expectations of others. Kill them dead in their tracks, whether they are coming at you in the form of home magazines or Pinterest-induced self-loating or in-laws’ unsolicited advice or an internalized monologue. Kill, kill, kill.

This is the advice of Virginia Woolf, delivered in her speech “Professions for Women,” delivered in 1931 to the National Society for Women’s Service and published later in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. In the speech, she invoked an image from Coventry Patmore’s terrible mid-nineteenth century poem “The Angel in the House,” which includes lines like:

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure;

angel-in-the-house

Above, it’s no problem for DH to keep his dead waterfowl collection on the carpet and ottoman, within reach of the baby. Of course his precious hunting dogs can sit on the furniture. He brought her flowers, didn’t he? Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Home at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England by Edwin Henry Landseer, early 1840s

Here is Woolfe’s alternative:

…The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her…. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. 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 draught 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. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure…. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, 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.” And she made as if to guide my pen. I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself…. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.

Are you killing your Angel today?

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