Image Credits: Yale
In the mid 1900’s, Virginia Woolf published a collection of essays. Among these essays was “The Angel in The House”, an essay where Woolf describes her life as a female writer. During this time period, women were beginning to gain more freedom than what they had in the 19th century, but they were still often viewed as inferior to their male counterparts. Woolf discusses this by using the angel in the house as a metaphor for female purity and wholesomeness. Women during this time period were expected to be modest, innocent, pure, or simply angelic.
In “The Angel In The House”, Woolf describes how she fought hard to kill the Angel in the House. This represents the author’s struggle to break free of society’s expectations of women. She doesn’t want to play the role of the pure, angelic, innocent woman anymore. Woolf also mentions how playing the role of the angel in the house can hinder a woman’s writing. She explains this by stating:
For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel in the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must – to put it bluntly – tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard (Woolf 46).
From this quote we can infer that Woolf wished to speak honestly in her writing about such taboo topics as sex, morality, and human relations and that her honest opinions went against what the majority of women were expected to think or feel. Perhaps Woolf wasn’t the picture portrait of an angelic woman she was supposed to be. However, breaking free of this stereotypical role was no easy task for Woolf as she further elaborated:
She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe (Woolf 46).
Here I think it is important to remember Woolf’s struggle with mental illnesses such as depression (which ultimately lead her to commit suicide years later). I think that Woolf’s struggle to break free of society’s norms and the roles she was expected to play took a toll on her mental health and helped to aid in her depression. It is sad to think that a women just simply couldn’t be free to live her life on her own terms during this time period.
In addition to the expectation of living a pure, modest, angelic lifestyle, women were also viewed as being inferior to men. Men had so much more freedom in their life and especially in their writing than woman had. They could speak or write freely without having to worry about what society would say. On the other hand, there were some topics that were simply off limits for women to speak and to write about. Woolf once again hints at her desire to write about human sexuality, a topic that seems to get squashed by fear of what society, or men in particular, would think reading such work written by a women. Woolf elaborates on this point by saying:
To speak without figure he had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more.
Woolf seems to be hinting that she has strong sexual urges or experiences that she wishes to release in her writing. Perhaps she is using her writing as an outlet to not only tell about her desire, but further explore and examine her own personal sexual feelings. However, the fear of what society and men specifically would say and think about her keep her from writing her true feelings and opinions. Women during this time were viewed with utmost innocent and were not supposed to have any sexual desires. It was a double standard for men, who were free to feel lust, passion, and exhibit sexual longings and desires.
Although Woolf brags about defeating the Angel in the House, she admits that she couldn’t bring herself to overcome the inferiority brought upon her by the opposite sex. No matter how strong her yearning to write about her true feelings were, they were always repealed by the stigmas. She could never truly be her true, open and honest self. The work we read by Woolf offered only small parts of who she really was inside.
Sexuality is something that Woolf struggled with throughout her life. A basic Google mentions that Woolf was sexually abused by her family and was also bisexual and struggling to hide lesbian affairs and her true feelings regarding sexuality. Others suggest that Woolf was actually a lesbian, but felt that she had to pretend to be straight for society’s sake. Woolf was also known to repress her sexual desires, which is something I can see in “The Angel in the House”.
I wonder how Woolf’s writings would have differed if they had been written today. Now we live in a time period where feminists are still fighting for equality, but women have many more rights and are much closer to achieving equality than they were in the mid 1900’s. Also, gay marriage is a hot topic that is becoming more and more accepted within our society. I think that if Woolf was alive today her writing would be much less censored because she wouldn’t feel the need to refrain from speaking her mind as much. I also think Woolf would be less of a feminist and more of a gay rights activist fully embracing her rumored lesbianism and I don’t believe she would have ever gotten married to any men.