The phrase "The Angel in the House" was actually the title of a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore, later appropriated satirically by Virginia Woolf. Patmore's poem, written about his wife, represents an ideal of femininity as pure, self-sacrificing, and utterly devoted first to her parents and then to her husband; Patmore states:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; ...
Woolf argues that this ideal of self-sacrificing, innocent, and morally pure femininity was as much an obstacle to women's careers as artists, writers, and professionals as the more obvious forms of patriarchy and discrimination. Women who conform to this sort of ideal of self-sacrifice cannot devote the time and energy to their work necessary for creation of great art, because the angelic ideal always mandates that they put men and family ahead of their own projects. She expands this concept by suggesting "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," something incompatible with the ideal of the angel in the house whose role is to nurture her family and serve as a moral exemplar.
A Question of Identity
Woolf and her fresh opinions about the role of women in society are quite well known. Regarded as an ardent advocate for females’ rights, it is no surprise to find these same undertones in her essay “Professions for Women”. Woolf tackles Coventry Patmore’s ideas behind his poem “The Angel in the House” and addresses a dichotomy between herself and this Angel in the House.
Though we know her so well, let us not take this essay too lightly.
Woolf opens up her essay by faithfully telling her readers that “it is true I am a woman” (2152). However, as she continues her essay into a discussion of Patmore’s poem, her language shifts, and she creates this separation between the woman in Patmore’s poem and herself.
She admits that, if she were to continue her job writing reviews, she needed to “do battle with a certain phantom…and the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House” (2153). Why does Woolf feel so separated from this other woman? Shouldn’t she feel somewhat connected to her, being a woman herself?
“I did my best to kill her…Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”
Obviously, Woolf and the Angel hardly had an amiable relationship—but what a threat to one’s identity! This lack of connection between Woolf and the Angel stems from oppressive nature of the Angel . Perhaps Woolf feels so separated from the Angel because the Angel isn’t truly female. Woolf uses fantastical imagery to describe the Angel, as stated previously, so one could question the humanly qualities of such a phantom. Does the Angel encompass legitimate ideals for women, or is it even possible for a woman to be an Angel of the House? Did Woolf overreact to the Angel, or was Woolf correct in thinking that the Angel is so incredibly idealistic that she strips other females of an identity?