killing angels & demons (women & writing)


I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I had 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.

this is from virginia woolf’s killing the angel in the house, from a lecture on professions for women, read at the national society for women’s service in 1931. i would have loved to have been in the audience is all i can say. but, i’ll let you have more of this so you know who is being killed here, and why. 

… you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must – to put it bluntly – tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard.

ok so this is eighty years ago. why can i relate? i wasn’t raised in a home that was built around the image of woman as the angel in the house, – which is a phrase taken from a poem by coventry patmore, written in 1854. here’s patmore’s ideal of womanhood:

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

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;

And if he once, by shame oppress’d,

A comfortable word confers,

She leans and weeps against his breast,

And seems to think the sin was hers;

… be honest. were you able to keep a straight face while reading this?! i know i wasn’t. in all fairness, this poem goes back over a century and these ideas had been around for a while at that time, so patmore didn’t come up with them but rather bundled them up into a neat, readable little package that serves well to illustrate the mindset of the day. 

so. surely with feminism (several waves of it at that) and emancipation and all that, woolf’s struggle with the angel in the house should be over and done with for us. well, i am not so sure. i think feminism isn’t done yet. because feminism is much more than a focus on who earns how much, or who can show how much skin where and when, or who gets to raise a child when partners split up, and such. i believe many people today underestimate the female experience, falling into the trap of “we’re all the same” where really it should be, “we are all equal, of equal worth.” 

i do feel i can relate when woolf speaks of the angel who threatens to “helpfully” guide her pen. how do i write? 

how do i write as a woman, as a mormon woman, as a woman of my generation, as a woman of my nationality, as a woman of my colour? 

there are expectations for each of these aspects of who or what i am, and they are inside me as well as outside. 

how do i deal with these expectations? how do YOU deal with them?

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Bigger Picture: Modernism | Outside of a Cat

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