Previously: Heaven Is Missing An Angel.
There are some idioms in this great big English language of ours that sound a great deal more exciting than they have any right to be. “The Angel in the House” is one of them. You’ve almost certainly heard of it, even if it’s not a phrase you find occasion to regularly deploy; you’re on a website for excitable and bookish women.
The popular Victorian image of the ideal wife/woman came to be “the Angel in the House”; she was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband. The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all–pure. The phrase “Angel in the House” comes from the title of an immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore, in which he holds his angel-wife up as a model for all women.
Believing that his wife Emily was the perfect Victorian wife, he wrote “The Angel in the House” about her (originally published in 1854, revised through 1862). Though it did not receive much attention when it was first published in 1854, it became increasingly popular through the rest of the nineteenth century and continued to be influential into the twentieth century.
What a disappointment! An Angel in the House is nothing more than a fancy title for a cheerful, industrious housewife who represents then-popular middle-class values (all together now: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”), when by rights it should refer to the localized and deeply strange phenomenon of Victorian gentlemen taking angels of the Hosts of the Lord to wife. Picture this: an average middle-class husband and father of mid-19th-century Britain living in constant fear and awe of the terrifying light-beast that constantly sweeps up and down the stairs, shouting “FEAR NOT” at semi-regular intervals.
(An aside: if we think of angels at all in Our Modern Society, our thoughts tend to drift towards square-jawed-looking dudes with eagle wings, or oddly sexualized tattoos, or that one episode of Dr. Who. This is a real shame, because biblical angels are terrifying and inhuman beasts of fire and wheels and animal-faces that blaze across the sky and wrestle patriarchs almost to death. Age, thou hast lost the breed of noble angel representation.)
Picture the befuddled family man as his wife wafts dreamily through the furniture, her robes trailing flames and glory behind her, spinning endlessly around a fiery wheel that hovers just over the dining room table, chanting HOLY HOLY HOLY with a gaping mouth through all hours of the night, never eating or sleeping.
“I say, chaps, has your wife taken to bursting into flame at the hour of the crucifixion and roaring IT IS FINISHED too?”
The poor things would be exhausted. After a long day of Victorian Business, the last thing a harried dadhusband needs is to coax his spouse into a corporeal form long enough for the children to hug something substantial goodnight. He’d stagger through the door, removing his hat as he crossed the threshold, say, “Oh, Ada, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had at w–” only to be met by a blinding flash of light and a thousand blazing trumpets as she announces, “I BRING YOU TIDINGS OF GREAT JOY.”
“Oh, ah,” he replies weakly. “Splendid. Is there anything for supper?”
“GOD SHALL MAKE HIS COVENANT BETWEEN THOU AND HE, AND HE SHALL MULTIPLY YOUR DESCENDANTS EXCEEDINGLY.”
“Descendants — where are the children, darling?” he would ask hesitatingly, before the four-fold faces of a woman, a lion, an ox and an eagle rotated slowly to fix him with their piercing gaze.
“Do you know,” he’d say, edging slowly toward the door, “I think perhaps I have left the children at work. I had better go look for them there,” and then he became a dot moving fast out toward the horizon.
Very common problem, Victorian house angels. Damned difficult to get rid of them, until Virginia Woolf successfully killed all of them in 1922.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.