The Angel In The House. Virginia Woolf. Reintroduced by P.S.Remesh Chandran.
Editor, Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum.
Virginia Woolf was a British essayist, novelist and critic. The Voyage Out, Night And Day and Jacob’s Room are her famous books. Professions For Women was a lecture she gave before a women’s meeting. A woman can be a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant or a journalist. But in all these professions, the woman has to beat two opponents- the hold of her own womanishness over her and the fear of her opinion of what men would say.
Pianos and visits to Paris, Berlin and Vienna are not at all needed to become a writer.
Virginia Woolf says, becoming a writer was very easy for her. Her road to literature had been laid out clear before her by many woman writers prior to her times such as Jane Austen and George Elliot. Writing had already been made a reputed and harmless occupation for women. Writing no more affected a woman’s family life. Pianos and models, or visits to Paris, Vienna and Berlin were not at all needed to provide varying experiences for writers. Paper alone was needed which was available cheap then. She says availability of cheap writing paper was reason for the success of woman writers in those times. She simply wrote a review for a book, mailed it and received the next month a cheque for more than One Pound from the editor.
She wanted a Persian cat so she wrote a review. Then she wanted a Motor Car and so wrote a novel.
With this money gained from writing a review she bought a beautiful Persian cat for a pet. She got encouraged and grew ambitious. She got thrilled at the prospect of writing things and gaining things she wished for easily. A Persian cat is all very well but a Persian cat is not enough. She decided to have a motor car. So she wrote a novel and became a novelist. It was that simple. Nothing in this world is as delightful as telling stories. In her very early days of career she learned that writing is a very lucrative career. We readers will wonder how it can be so, with the experiences of such famous writers as Dostoevsky and many others before us. But her’s was a time when woman writers were very scarce and including a woman’s writing in a publication was a desirable change and an attraction. In modern times many a talented writer has complained that he could not get published because he could not go to an editor in skirts and rubber projections.
Removing all womanishness from her work is the real challenge for a woman writer.
For decades it was thought that writing detective novels and stories are set apart for men because no woman detective story writer could excel and surpass in devising stories as those written by G.K.Chesterton and Arthur Conan Doyle. Many critics including this writer still believe that there is something significant missing in the writings of women authors. The only exception to this was that respected lady Ethel Lilian Voynich whose immortal novel ‘The Gad Fly’ terrorized the literary world as well as the revolutionary world and still serves as the classic motivation for world revolutionaries and guerilla warfare. Even in this novel the delicate feminine caricature of Arthur, the boyhood image of Rivarus, the relentless revolutionary of later years cries aloud that the novel was written by a lady. Conceiving intricate, finished plots somehow eludes the intellectual and imaginative genius of a woman’s mind. Not that there is universal consensus that Agatha Christies’ novels satisfy us as Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels do, but through her a woman for the first time successfully established herself as a detective novel writer, at least. A professional woman has to remove all womanishness from her work. A good work of literature shall not proclaim that it was written by a woman. All women writers are hindered by the goodness of the womanishness in them. Virginia Woolf calls this phantom idea ‘The Angel in the House’, borrowing from the title of a poem by Coventry Patmore. In those last days of QueenVictoria’s Era, every house inEnglandhad its angel in it so far as the prosperity brought to that island nation from her far out colonies remained undisturbed. In the midst of this immense confiscated prosperity the women did not have to work and could afford servants. Their hands remained uncalloused. This expression, The Angel In The House, denotes the sympathetic, charming, unselfish goodness of womanhood present in all women of those times and in all times. But for a woman writer, it is an obstacle to as freely and openly dealing with a subject as men do in their writings. She cannot write something original if this phantom presence of ‘the Angel in the House’ is not killed. Though it is only an imagination of the mind, it was a great problem to the Victorian era women writers.
It is harder to kill a phantom presence in one’s mind than killing a reality.
Killing the ‘Angel in the House’ was part of the occupation of a woman writer in the old English times. It still is. It is far harder to kill a phantom image that is existing in one’s own mind than killing something which is real and substantial. It has to be done mentally. Virginia Woolf strove hard and got rid of this imaginary presence on her mind finally. Woolf says: ‘It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and who so tormented me that at last I was forced to kill her. Had I not killed her, she would have killed me and destroyed my career as a writer.’ Without getting rid of this imaginary presence, she would never have become a good writer.
Most women writers fear that men would be shocked to see what they have written.
Men and women have similar structure in their minds. A novelist has a peculiar state of mind. He wants to be as unconscious as possible in his inner self and in his inter relations. He is always in a trance. Any change in his immediate environment is unbearable to him. Things should be quiet and regular for him. He is really always in an illusion. Most woman writers find it hard to write freely of their feelings. They fear men would be shocked at what they have written. However, women have entered almost all professions human skill can enter. Woolf tells women: ‘You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. Now they have to be furnished, decorated and shared.” It is said that men in the house will have their favourite seats, and the women in the house have their favourite rooms. It is interesting to note that Woolf’s advice to women also illustrates how womanish an advice can be.
Pictures Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
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Meet the author
Editor of Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum. Author of several books in English and in Malayalam. And also author of ‘Swan, The Intelligent Picture Book’.