We’re talking about women. One archetype I want to talk about originated in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901). There’s a lot of different things to talk about leading up to the archetype and I’m going to give you the brief summation of events that contributed to this archetype.
Important factors and things to keep in mind:
- When Queen Victoria came into power she set the example of what a good wife should look like and how she should act in public and private. The men and women living during Queen Victoria’s reign took her example and ran away with it. Queen Victoria wasn’t the only factor in the Angel of the House archetype though.
- The Industrial Revolution and urbanization was shifting the way men and women worked and lived.
- It created the notion of the public and private spheres. This meant that men were leaving the house to be out in the public while women were kept at home to take care of private matters. Men were in charge of bringing in money and doing “the hard work” while women were supposed to keep the home running smoothly and to raise the children.
- With Urbanization we have a bunch of people moving into the cities to work and this made those cities unappealing to live in and, hence, not suitable for women to live in.
- The Angel of the House ideal and archetype is also mainly a middle class ideal. It was not the standard that everyone was held up to. (Though this wasn’t always the case with the upper class.)
- The phrase “Angel of the House” was coined by the poet Coventry Patmore when he published his poem The Angel in the House in 1854. In this poem he talks about his wife Emily and how she is the perfect woman. He even suggests that she should be the standard of what a good woman she be and act like.
- Primogeniture. I’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating. This is how England passed it’s land and assets down. They passed things down through the eldest male heirs in the family. Women did not inherit – unless they came from high ranking noble families. The problem with this is that you may not know who the father really is. So this made it a requirement for women to remain virginal and pure until she weds.
- Due to urbanization, industrialization, and several other factors women were not seen as being valuable members of society – other than their baby making abilities. This lead to women being treated like children and coddled by men. Women didn’t have access to what we would traditionally call an education. Their education was in playing the piano or harp, needlework, how to host parties and run a household.
How did this affect literature? Well we had the era of realism get ushered in after the romantic era ended with Queen Victoria’s reign. The emphasis was not on emotion and the fantastic, but on accurately portraying life as it is. The language used was not as idealistic or decorative. You’re using characters that you see in everyday life in your stories.Charles Dickens is a fantastic example of this, especially in his novel Oliver Twist. He was depicting in great, exacting detail what is was like to be an orphaned child in London at the time, which garners sympathy for those kids and hopefully brings about reform and change. He also points out the harsh conditions in the workhouses as well. Realism is still in today’s literary styles as well, but it has gone through a couple of changes over the years.
On top of realism becoming a more popular narrative style, we see a rise in how to manuals for women and we also see a rise of women being instructed on how to act in poetry and literature. This is where the archetype originates from. Women were being instructed to read “Sermons for Young Women” by James Fordyce, a pastor from Scotland who outlines how young women should act in two volumes. Fordyce would often preach these sermons in his church and it eventually was widely adopted throughout England. The sermons were published in 1766 and were criticized widely by female writers, notably Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice and by Mary Wollstonecraft. The sermons focused on making sure women were dutiful, submissive and modest in dress and behavior; women should be sensitive, but at the same time they should be elegant and attractive at all times. This reduced women to being children essentially and as objects top be admired – not human beings. Unfortunately, this was taken up into both the literature and society at the time and women were treated as children.
There were writers who challenged this ideal at the time. Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, I’ve already mentioned. Charlotte Bronte would be another female writer who challenged this ideal. In her novel Jane Eyre we have a modest, but strong and independent female character. Jane does not put up with Mr. Thorncliffe’s behavior and attitudes and she challenges him on his views of the world. Charlotte Bronte definitely plays within the archetype of the Angel of the House as Jane does follow the ideal set out for her at the time, but she also has those extra qualities that separate her from being too close from the ideal. She’s independent and she challenges others on what is right and wrong. In other words, she isn’t submissive. Charlotte Bronte also had a political agenda in the novel as well. Jane was a governess and this isn’t the best occupation for women at the time and was about the only respectable occupation a woman can engage in.
Now what does all of this mean for the women of today and in literature today? A lot of these ideals are still in place. Women are still expected to be the care takers of children and to not be as assertive when around men. These things are slowly changing and there has been a lot of progress made in changing the traditional roles men and women are to act out. A lot of the fiction women write is still about matters pertaining to love, home. and family, though there is a lot of branching out in the last few years. You also see this woman in your everyday life. She’s the goody two-shoes in class, she’s quiet and meek, she’s focused on finding a man only, she is overly concerned with her appearance, etc.
Here’s some ideas on how we can change this:
- Have female characters who don’t follow the rules in stereotypical ways.
- Have a female character who doesn’t want kids or to get married.
- Have a female character who is loud and doesn’t take crap from anybody. She takes risks.
- You have an Angel of the House character who isn’t revered as being the best thing in the world. Have her be pitied.
- Make the Angel of the House humorous.
I don’t think we’ll forever get rid of this archetype completely – it is embedded in women’s history and our society as a whole, but we can always change what it means to us.
Until next week.