On Killing the Angel

"Woolf by Beresford b" by George Charles Beresford
“Woolf by Beresford b” by George Charles Beresford

First of all, I just want to put this out there: I am in love with Virginia Woolf. Although I had read Mrs. Dalloway (twice) and To the Lighthouse and loved them, I never realised how prolific she was and how fierce and intelligent her essays were. I have recently finished A Room of One’s own and am in the last third of Three Guineas (which, OMG, is so fiercely feminist and scathingly against all the pomp and circumstance of the patriarchy that I cannot believe a copy of this is not given to each young girl as soon as she turns 13. And by the way, the whole essay reads like a big Fuck you to Sheryl Sandberg. But more on that in a later post…)

But the essay that I want to talk about is a tiny little one, one she presented to the Women’s Service League called Professions for Women and in particular the passage about the “Angel in the House”:

“I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely caring. 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. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty – her blushes her great grace…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…”

An angel. A fucking angel. That’s what has been grafted to my back all these years! When I read this passage, I was struck so forcibly with a sense of familiarity I almost gagged. Of course, with all due respect to proportion (I am no Victorian lady, ready to lie down, close my eyes and think of England – and I prefer the leg of the chicken anyways…) I have an angel who hovers over me. For sure, she has grown with the times, and no longer sports a bustle and a corset. But she is there. Sometimes dressed in a business suit, sometimes attired in an old t-shirt and jeans with rubber gloves and a rag, sometimes as the epitome of soccer mom style. She hovers over me and says things like, “you have to stop writing now if you want to make sure the laundry is in, the groceries are done and you are available to help the kids with their homework.” She hovers over me in her business suit, looking at her watch and tapping her sensible wedges loudly on the floor. She tells me that my needs, especially my creative ones, are secondary to my husband’s needs. To my children’s. Hell, even to the need for a clean toilet.

Okay, okay. So I have been using Woolf’s angel to describe a similar but different angel. Woolf is talking about how her angel censures her when she is about to give her own opinion, how she tries to make sure Woolf acts in accordance with the need to always be the soother of egos, the maternal, non-judgmental innocent, who nurtures and never criticizes. But I argue that Woolf’s angel is of the same family. Sisters even. They are still alive and well in our supposedly equal society. I argue that women have so internalized that maternal role and are constantly in fear of being called “aggressive” or “bitchy” or “pushy” that the angel has grown in size and yet has become less visible, more furtive.

I feel the Angel on a deeply personal level, where I am now at a point where my life has somewhat exploded and I have to figure out what it is I want and need, and must confront the fact that it has been almost 20 years since I asked those questions on more than a superficial level (if indeed I ever asked them of myself ).

Don’t get me wrong: I am not especially prone to great acts of self-sacrifice or martyrdom. This angel thing is something I am not responsible for. But I am complicit in not recognizing the voice of a millenia of gender programming and trying to break it down.

So. There is only one thing to do and once again I turn to Ms. Woolf, who so deserves such a ferocious last name:

“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.”

So if you are looking for me, you will find me hacking at my angel. She doesn’t die easily so the business will be lengthy and bloody. Still, I am determined to get her off my back for good.

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