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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 15-Jan-15 10:40:33

The Angel in the House

We hear from author Sophia Tobin on the ideals of female beauty personified in the figure of a Victorian Angel in the House, and the erasure of strong female personality as a desirable quality. Are those docile, pretty, sweet, 'perfect' women much different from what young girls are being asked to become today?

Sophia Tobin

The Angel in the House

Posted on: Thu 15-Jan-15 10:40:33


Lead photo

Elizabeth Siddal modelled for Sir John Everett Millais's Ophelia in 1851.

Last year, in the course of my research for a book, I came face-to-face with the Victorian Angel in the House. I had always known she was there, of course: her hair in ringlets, corseted to within an inch of her life, smiling sweetly, a figure both distant and familiar.

The term 'The Angel in the House' was coined by Coventry Patmore in the poem of the same name, first published in 1854. The Angel was the ideal Victorian woman: docile, decorative, submissive, a virginal figure who had somehow managed to produce children. Unlike her eighteenth-century predecessors - who despite their lack of legal rights, could be powerful chatelaines and businesswomen as well as wives - this Victorian ideal was born out of fear.

In the insecurity of a newly-industrialised society, the spheres of work and home became more sharply divided, and so did the ideas of respectability and ruin. The Angel in the House was a symbol of safety and comfort in a changing world.

For every angel, of course, there is a demon, in this case the Fallen Woman. The art and literature of the period reflects an obsession with prostitutes and mistresses. In the shadows, these relationships were rife, but tolerated as long as appearances were maintained.

The Angel and her attendants may seem a long way from us; figures to be pitied in an age when women are immeasurably stronger legally, politically and financially. But as I look at those passive faces in Victorian paintings I cannot help but consider what is being asked of young women today.

The double standard was played out in the marriage of Charles Dickens. Dickens was fond of the fictional Angel in the House but found reality harder to contend with. His wife Catherine was docile, loyal and the bearer of many children. But in middle age Dickens bemoaned her silliness and her thickening figure, the by-products of the angelic burden. There was no recourse for her when he engineered a humiliating public separation in order to pursue his secret relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan.

The art of the period tells its own tale of an erasing of female personality, hidden beneath the carapace of loving submissiveness or idealised beauty. Coming face-to-face with a portrait of a Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner', it is hard not to be chilled by the empty eyes of a woman painted as a decorative object. Like a Victorian page three girl she looks out at you, undeniably beautiful, her complexities erased. The most famous of the Pre-Raphaelite models, Elizabeth Siddal, was feted for her red-gold hair and delicate features, but her beauty carried with it an air of tragedy. As Rossetti's lover, Elizabeth was one of society's lost women; and she spent years begging him to marry her. When marriage came, she lost two babies, and ended her life with laudanum.

The Angel and her attendants may seem a long way from us; figures to be pitied in an age when women are immeasurably stronger legally, politically and financially. But as I look at those passive faces in Victorian paintings I cannot help but consider what is being asked of young women today. They too are subject to a rampant perfectionism which dictates their weight and appearance.

Like the Angel, they are taught that they have to be perfect (as mothers, partners and career women) - and if they don't have it all, it's their fault. But if the Angel in the House teaches us anything it's that the idea of perfection is the most dangerous thing of all; because it is nothing to do with being human, or being happy.

Sophia's new book The Widow's Confession, an intricate historical thriller, is published by Simon & Schuster and is available from Amazon.

By Sophia Tobin

Twitter: @SophiaTobin1

Elegran Thu 15-Jan-15 11:32:23

"A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light. "

Wordsworth "She Was a Phantom of Delight"

The perfect woman is a phantom. Every man is looking for one, but each has his own specifications . Unfortunately, should he be lucky enough to find his ideal, he can then feel either emasculated and intimidated by the goddess, or exasperated with the vapid doll. Just as well most men end up with a lesser mortal who they can live with in harmony, with each of us being the best they can ourselves, but neither of us expecting too much of our partner.

trisher Fri 16-Jan-15 10:41:18

What an inaccurate and poor depiction of Lizzie Siddal. Yes she was beautiful and she was taken from her job in a hat shop and introduced to the world of the Pre-Raphaelites, but to imply that she was cast out from society and was purely the victim of the actions of men is to so underrate her. She was an artist and poet in her own right and she was fully aware and committed to the aims of the Pre-Raphaelites. Yes she was tragic, yes she died tragically, yes she was not honoured for her work in her lifetime, but the same can be said of many male artists. I recommend this on the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.
By accepting this view of her we are perpetuating the idea that was promoted after her death that women have no value as artists.

janeainsworth Fri 16-Jan-15 11:31:05

There's a paradox in the ideal of perfection, in that the truly wise woman knows that trying to live up to other people's expectations - whether it's the perfert body, the perfect career, the perfect home, is a wasted effort that will lead only to unhappiness.

'God give me the strength to change the things I can
The grace to accept the things I cannot
And the wisdom to know the difference'

You don't have to be religious to appreciate that prayer.

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 16-Jan-15 11:47:04

The pressures on young women come from different sources these days. Celeb culture rather than the husband at home. But you just can't really compare it with those times. Women have far more life chances nowadays.

I always expect these blogs to be something to do with the subject of the book being promoted. It always comes as a surprise when it invariably isn't!

FlicketyB Fri 16-Jan-15 14:20:40

The picture of the perfect Victorian women is drawn by men and has nothing to do with what women were actually like.

I enjoy reading 19th century novels especially those that reflect the contemporary scene. Trollope, Oliphant, the Findlaters. The first on the list is male, the other two are female. Trollope's females do tend to fit the male 19th century stereotype, but when you read the novels of Mrs Oliphant, an unjustly neglected author, you have a whole series of heroines; young, vibrant, attractive and generally achieving their goals in life, including marriages that are clearly based on equality.

If you read almost any book that has come from the Virago press over the last 30 years plus, most of them the works of unjustly neglected 19th and early 20th century women novelist you consistently see a far more realistic picture of what contemporary women were really like. We are in danger here of buying into a modern political correct view of 19th century patriarchy and ignoring all the evidence that stacks up against practice versus theory.

However it should also be remembered that not all 19th century males bought into the stereotype. This is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's description of the eponymous Maud. Hardly a man enamoured of the stereotype

^Perfectly beautiful: let it be granted her: where is the fault?
All that I saw (for her eyes were downcast, not to be seen)
Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,
Dead perfection, no more.^

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 16-Jan-15 15:14:31

And the Elizabeth Gaskell books. Long time since I read them, but I don't think her women fitted the stereotype.

FlicketyB Fri 16-Jan-15 18:01:29

Absolutely! I cannot think how I forgot her.

Correction: I meant 'against theory versus practice', not the other way again.

I can see the analogy between then and now, you have only to look at the young women that you see around you now to see that despite all the obsession with celebrities and perfection and some girls falling for the code of perfection the vast majority clearly ignore them all. We wouldn't have a problem of young women and obesity if they all bought into the celebrity culture.

We shouldn't believe what the media say about the presentation of women.The media is still predominantly male and there is a vast gap between what they want and women are.

Purpledaffodil Fri 16-Jan-15 18:36:27

I was just about to mention Elizabeth Gaskell too jingle. I love her women in Cranford especially. They are so well drawn. The 'gentil economies' always amuse me; eating plain bread and butter because it is more wholesome and walking home, because the starry nights are so beautiful. Certainly not Angels of the Hearth!

FlicketyB Fri 16-Jan-15 20:35:00

Mollie in Wives and Daughters and Margaret in North and South are, again, anything but Angels of the Hearth and both women are admired by their future husbands for their qualities of independence and self decision

As I said I think too many modern researchers are so keen to prove how oppressed women were in the 19th century they choose, judiciously, to ignore the, arguably, more accurate, picture of women found in the works by women authors - and there were a lot of them and many were prolific.

We can add to Mrs Gaskell and Mrs Oliphant, the Brontes and Mary Anne Evans. who may have published under male pen names but do the Brontes themselves and their heroines and George Elliot in her books and in her life support the picture of women as Angels of the Hearth?

Someone should do a study of how modern women are represented in modern literature written by men and women. I think there would still be a gender difference in the way women are represented

trisher Sun 18-Jan-15 12:41:12

I think the fact that The Angel of the Hearth was a male construct can't be disputed, but the two examples given of Dickens and Lizzie Siddal are so wrong. Dickens for example moved his wife out and brought in her sister to run the household. His mistress Ellen Tiernan was in fact a deep dark secret unknown to the public.
There are two views of the Lizzie Siddal painting, one says that she was cowed by Millais and daren't say she was too cold. The other says that she was aware of what was wanted and stayed in the cold water to make sure that the image of Ophelia was as real as possible.

FlicketyB Sun 18-Jan-15 13:47:05

I suspect that an artist's model, male or female, would still be prepared to undergo a certain amount of discomfort for the artist to get his painting right.

I cannot quote publication and date but I am sure I have read interviews with modern artist's models who have talked about the discomfort they have sometimes suffered to enable an artist to have them in the right pose and long enough for the artist to finish their work.