A Feminine Table: Modern Understandings of the Angel in the Home

(Part I of a little series, more posts on this area to follow)

"The treasures of the deep are not so precious
As are the conceal'd comforts of a man
Locked up in woman's love. I scent the air
Of blessings, when I come but near the house...
--Thomas Middleton,
from the preface of Washington Irving's The Wife

Well its another feastday today, Simchat Torah. Blessed feastday!

As for me, its time for some writing. So much kind of "builds up in the brain" when you don't write, at least it does for me, and so now it needs to sort itself out somehow. Whats been floating around inside is all the "angel in the home" stuff. As mentioned in the last post, i think the longing there is not only personal but part of the wound in my motherline. I sure cant help but notice that when i was at a major crossroads almost two years ago and prayed deep for a guiding dream, well i dreamt of my maternal grandmother as an angel in the home (shared here). The dream shook me up because she was ~not~ allowed to be an angel in the home in real life, and the contrast was painful to let sink in. But the message was clear enough, and my path was clear enough. It was this path that even got me blogging to begin with, got me deeper into homemaking and Biblical Womanhood, all of that core stuff. Its what the whole bluebird thing is about for me too, as in the dream where my grandmother was an angel in the home, there was a bluebird on her kitchen windowsill, as she sat at a nearby table peacefully sipping her tea in her kind and comforting and orderly home. So this is key stuff for me. The bluebird (Holy Spirit) leads us to various places, and it seems it leads me, just like it led my grandmother in the dream, to this area of the angel in the home.

The reason i couldnt write about it right away was there are just so many layers there, and also becuase i get emotional about it, it needed to kind of settle and calm. And so now i'm just going to ramble about some of those layers, nothing may make sense yet, this is all still just being slowly understood, i'm sure it has far to go. But the stuff so far...

Well, first off, what is the angel in the home? The phrase itself is inspired by a book from the Victorian Era, but i believe the archetype is far far older and deeper. But to start with the Victorian era phrase, it was a reaction to the industrial revolution of the time, an industrial outlook overload which some folks thought (and i agree!) was horrifically impersonal. Not only for physicial reasons but emotional reasons as well...folks were learning more and more to judge not only a thing's but a person's worth by their "production value". A man named
Coventry Patmore (here) was repelled by that and wrote a long poem in honor of his wife called The Angel in the House, showing that what he loved about her was not this production value stuff but the far deeper value of who she actually was, that by being a feminine and moral woman she was being the "angel of the house" and that that in itself was worthy and precious, "production value" or no. (Personally i use the phrase angel in the home rather than the angel of the house becuase it is more in line with keeper at home, and reflects what i feel are deeper roots).

I've actually never read Coventry's long poem (glanced at it but just couldnt get into it, it was too complex and flowery), but from what i've read about it thats's the gist underneath, and it's that ideal itself (which is far older), not the work the phrase was based on, that has inspired me. At any rate, back to the Victorian era, some Victorians really took this to heart and embraced this sort of ideal as a model of womanhood. Others abused the concept, shamelessly ignoring the moral aspect and letting it be an avenue for simply being a flighty "southern belle" type, which wasnt the real angel in the home at all. The ideal was more like what was expressed in the 1930's play "
When Queens Ride By" (here; LAF's original posts were so wonderful werent they?), which reprinted the play which had, i feel, taken the Victorian angel in the home concept and clearly expressed it more for modern readers. It was also expressed very well in an article by author Taylor Caldwell (see here, another wonderful older post... though the moderator's ending comment was rather anti angel in the home even back then it feels). The article itself though, wonderful. From it:

"My Aunt Pollie and my Uncle Willie lived not far from us. Aunt Pollie was not a feminist. She was a lovely gracious lady with long blonde hair and big blue eyes and a dainty charming manner. She had a Mama, too, but fortunately, a Victorian Mama who believed that a woman's place was in her house, and she a queen in her house, and that gentlemen were born for the cherishing, guarding, loving and pampering of ladies. (Ah, me.) To Aunt Pollie, Ladies were Ladies. Gentlemen earned mysterious livings "at business," and it was none of the Ladies' affair, except when it came to wills. Girl-children were brought up in the graceful womanly arts of cooking, house-managing, children-rearing, sewing, embroidering -- and civilized leisure. It was a woman's place to be an ornament and a comforting presence in her home, adored alike by husband and children, and never was she to be exposed to the harsh elements of competition and outside work, and it was incredible that she should ever be expected to be a "partner' to her husband. She was above such nonsense. She was her husband's queen, presiding beautifully over the table he provided and over the silver-covered dishes, the contents of which she had toothsomely prepared herself. As for holding a job and "helping out," Aunt Pollie would have raised a gilt eyebrow in incredulous amusement. Such things were "below" a woman's existence.

Aunt Pollie, clothed exquisitely and smelling delightfully of perfume, would go with her redoubtable Mama to twice-weekly matinees, then come home to prepare fragrant tea and bake luscious scones to be eaten with homemade strawberry jam. Though she had no modern washing-machine and used flat irons and hung out her laundry and had no vacuum cleaner and other "aids," she managed to look serene and rested at all times, and had many hours of leisure every day. Aunt Pollie, the Queen, a gentle and lovely wife, a "dependent' wife with no ambitions to do a man's work in the world, would been despised by feminists and Liberation Ladies. But Aunt Pollie was truly a woman...

Unlike our brawling household, Aunt Pollie's house was a place of sweet quiet refuge for a tired girl like myself. Even at the cost of having to go with Uncle Willie to his grim Scots Presbyterian Church on Sunday evenings, I would visit Aunt Pollie for the soothing joy of being in a real home, among soft voices and gentle music, among frangrances and graciousness, and topping it off a real British Tea, produced apparently without effort. And I observed that Uncle Willie was masculinely deferential to Auntie's femininity, elaborately courteous to her, and overwhelmingly loving, while she cosseted him in her daintily feminine fashion. . (But for me, with the "progressive" family that i had), life had become a stern business of surviving each day and working and living for the furture. The rage still lives in me that despite the financial comforts of my family I was expected to do a boy's and man's work, and "no nonsense about you being a girl, either." All I wanted to be was a girl, and then a cherished woman!.. To be the soft gentle creature in the house, the soother of exhaustion, the serene person who has nothing to worry about.

While I worked and studied, my dream of being the Cherished Woman -- like Aunt Pollie -- grew stronger in me. But all the hard work I had had to do since I was a child, and the living I had had to earn since I was fifiteen, and all the exhortations I had had to listen to at "home," gave me too much independence of manner, too much self-assurance, too much of an appearance of confidence. This definitely put off men who wanted a Queen for their houses, a soft and yielding gentle sweet creature like Aunt Pollie, a charming hostess pliant soothing and full of musical laughter and kind wit. For such a woman, men were ready to work their poor hearts out, considering themselves blessed. But a girl like myself, who knew hard labor, and knew how to earn a buck, and had a sharp and independent voice and manner, was not atttractive to them. They did not want a "partner," and a fellow wage earner. They did not believe that "a woman can do anything a man can do." They were right, of course.

So, I did not attract the manly men I secretly adored, the masculine, strong men, the cherishers of women, the protectors of women, the admirerers of women, the men who believed it was their duty to provide for wives and children, the men who built nice houses for their women, who guarded them against the evil brutalities of living. I attracted the weak sisters among the men, who subconciously recognized that here was a girl who would earn a living for them, take care of them, protect them, and be the man of the house, while they indulged their "sickly" physiques and their "ailments" and their delicate psyches. They clung to me, the creeps, begging for instant marriage -- while the men I yearned for married helpless little creatures who knew nothing of "business" except it provided them, via men, with the luxuries and comforts of life, and the protection. But, of course, they had not had my own dolorous life, and had not had the parents I had.

At eighteen, I fell desperately in love with a true man, a man of strength and masculine vitality and courage. He was attracted to me, too. But then one night he said to me, "Janet, you aren't the gentle little woman my mother was. My father worshipped her, and no wonder. You are too strong, yourself, and too independent for me. There'd be conflict in the house. You wouldn't be satisfied just to be taken care of; you'd want to do something on your own, and be a 'partner' to me. It's just no use." I was struck dumb at this horrifying statement. I wasn't very articulate then. He gently picked up my hands and shook his head at the old callouses, and as gently put them down. I wanted to cry out to him, " But I want to be like your mother! I want you to take care of me and deliver me from my hateful daily job! I want you to cherish me! I want only to be your wife and have your children and keep your house! I don't want a career or anything else. I just want you." But I couldn't say it. I had no words. My rearing silenced me...

(And now today,) pick up any woman's magazine,...read there the articles by shrewd sly gentlemen who proclaim a woman "has as much 'right' to do any of the world's work as men, as much 'right' to a job or a career, as much 'right' to be head of the household." Those boys know what they're up to: The real enslavement of women. Tragically, such near-men and the Liberation Ladies can never crush the longing of a woman's heart to be cherished, to be protected, to be guarded, to be honored and deferred to, to be loved dearly and devotedly, to be a true helper, to be a complement, in her femininity, to the masculine nature; her longings to be the patroness of beauty and tranquility, to be the dear mother of respectful children, to be, as the Holy Bible says, "a good woman, whose price is far above rubies," the adorner of life, the civilizer, Godly, with beauty of spirit long after her youthful beauty has gone.

It is a woman's nature to make a sanctuary of love and delight in her home. That is the true "career" for women.... (Not this twisted modern ideal of women trying to ) sprint off to work every morning and take care of themselves and (be) as "free as men." ...Deep in their deprived hearts they know how tragic they are...The strongest sign of the decay of a naiton is the feminization of men and the masculinization of women. It is notable that in Communist nations women are exhorted, and compelled, to do what has traditionally been men's work..."

She has also said, elsewhere:

"There is no solid satisfaction in any career for a woman like myself. There is no home, no true freedom, no hope, no joy, no expectation for tomorrow, no contentment. I would rather cook a meal for a man and bring him his slippers and feel myself in the protection of his arms than have all the citations and awards and honors I have received worldwide, including the Ribbon of Legion of Honor and my property and my bank accounts. They mean nothing to me. And I am only one among the millions of sad women like myself."

This was a woman who understood about the angel in the home because deep down she longed for it so much, and it was ever elusive in her life. And its no wonder. She had an unusually strong feminist upbringing for her time, though its eerily familiar to us today. Being an angel in the home is not only misunderstood today but horribly maligned. A quick google search shows that quick enough, not only is there not much there but what is there is dismissive or attacking, and certainly not understood or appreciated. And even here in blogging circles of Christain homemakers this is the case overall. Recently Isabella in the 21st century had this to say in her "woman's work" post (link no longer online):

"(The angel of the home) was born from a need of social status rather than biblical womanhood."... "(What) the angel in the home did was spend money and direct that spending."... "It was no coincidence that feminists somewhat demonised the Victorian "angel", they saw her as passive and idle and she was an easy target. Of course, the ultimate irony is that both the Victorian angel and the 1960s feminist held rather similar views ".

I definitely react emotionally to stuff like this, because i think its just so blatently untrue. This is the angel in the home twisted, not who she really is. Plus, if anything counters the harm of communism/economicism/feminism, and also encourages the true role of headship, its the angel in the home, not the reverse. And deeper still, the angel in the home is i feel quite deeply part of biblical womanhood, but more on that later.

I also have had an emotional reaction to
LAF's similar take (here) on this stuff:

"One major flaw of the Victorian Era was its response to the industrial revolution (which removed much of the family- and home-based work done in previous centuries to the marketplace and factory). As capable, fruitful, productive motherhood and housewifery shrank in the face of outsourcing, a new ideal was held up in its place: the "angel in the home." Instead of being a real, bona fide helper to her husband like our foremothers of Colonial times and earlier, the Victorian woman was idealized as ornamental, "perfuming" her home with the sweetness of her presence. Yes, she still had things to do around the house, but not on the scale her grandmother and great-grandmother had done."

I can't help but think again of Washington Irving's preface qoute:

"I scent the air
Of blessings, when I come but near the house"

Well LAF's moderator will have none of that it seems, just dismisses the lovely and subtle and truly impacting "perfuming her home with the sweetness of her presence" stuff as irrelevent rather than key. She then goes on to defend this article (here), which clearly looks at a woman not for any of the subtlety of who she is as what she offers but instead for her "production value", attacking those who don't fit that mold. In so many places, the angel in the home has been so maligned and misunderstood over time that its hard to even know where to start. All i can say is that this stuff is made all the more heartbreaking when one looks deeper...

Becuase here's the thing: the angel in the home, in its unabused form, was not a new concept at all. It was not merely a Victorian ideal, that Victorian ideal was just a shadow of resurging some deeper roots that had become buried more and more. For the angel in the home, i feel it was, and is, in fact a core part of Biblical womanhood. And that distinction is very important. What folks tend to do is just isolate it as a Victorian ideal (and alongside this, many see headship, provision, and protection as mere Victorian ideals as well, and even marriage as central (and men and women as distinct and also truly needing one another) as a mere Victorian idea as well) rather than admit the deeper and truly sacred roots of these things. Becuase those roots i feel ~are~ indeed Biblical. The angel in the home is nothing new...there is contemplative Mary right alongside her more outwardly "productive" sister Martha, and in Proverbs we have not only the ever qouted woman of Proverbs 31 woman as above rubies but also equally above rubies is the often overlooked Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8. But this will need to be continued, upcoming.

In the meantime, blessed Simchat Torah today, and i hope everyone is well : )

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