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Killing the Angel: Anxieties about Motherhood for Women Writers


In her 1942 address to the Women’s Service League, “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf famously instructed her audience that “part of the occupation . . . of a woman writer” was to kill the “Angel in the House” (NALW2 246). Woolf borrows the name of this domestic phantom from Coventry Patmore’s famous nineteenth-century sentimental poem , a paean to his long-suffering wife, Emily, who, as he saw it, epitomized the perfect Victorian wife and mother. Woolf describes the Angel as

intensely sympathetic. . . . immensely charming. . . . utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family like. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft 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. In those days—the last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel. (245)

 While Woolf was not specifically referring to motherhood per se, her injunction to “kill the Angel in the House” serves as an illuminating lens to consider other works by women writers struggling with the mantle of Rousseau’s “cult of true womanhood” that Patmore’s poem expounds on—that of self-sacrificing motherhood. Woolf describes her own “Angel” as “always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her” (245), an image that recalls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper (NALW1 1392). Given its immense popularity, Patmore’s poem was likely known to Gilman, who anticipates Woolf’s essay by almost forty years. After leaving her husband and child, a choice she described as not “between going and staying . . . but between going, insane, and staying, sane” (for which she was demonized as unwomanly by the press), Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a cautionary tale of what would happen if a woman writer fails to kill the Angel in the House. Even though the unnamed narrator experiences some reprieve from the Angel’s typical domestic duties (assumed by her sister-in-law Jenny while she recuperates after the birth of her baby), she ultimately goes mad trying to free the endlessly proliferating women from the wallpaper. In the end, she becomes one herself, a prisoner of her own insanity.

 Tillie Olsen is another writer who was inspired by Woolf’s Angel. A working- class writer who encountered Woolf’s work while educating herself in public libraries, Olsen repurposes Woolf’s decidedly middle-class phantom in her essay “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century”:

There is another angel, so lowly as to be invisible, although without her no art, or any human endeavor, could be carried on for even one day—the essential angel, with whom Virginia Woolf (and most women writers, still in the privileged class) did not have to contend—the angel who must assume the physical responsibilities for daily living, for the maintenance of life. (Silences 34)

Olsen also writes of the essential angel in her widely anthologized short story “I Stand Here Ironing,” a devastating chronicle of one working-class mother’s meditation while ironing, during which she recalls the circumstances in which she raised her daughter Emily—as a nineteen-year-old, Depression-era, unwed mother.

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