The Angel in the House, Coventry Patmore, 1851
When I was in middle school my guiding principle was become someone Benicio del Toro will fall in love with. Preteens have free time. Whenever I found myself with time to kill, I thought “What can I do today that will make me more fascinating so that when I meet Benicio he will think I’m the coolest, smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever encountered.” I was pretty sure I’d meet him one day, but if not, anyone from the cast of Newsies would do. I guided myself by constantly considering how to hypothetically impress a future lover.
The concept of the wife as the moral center of the household existed long before the publication of Coventry Patmore’s long, narrative poem, from which the concept got its name. Basically, Victorians and those who went before them considered the world an evil place. The world of man, that is. Men had to contend with such corrupting stimuli as drink and gambling and commerce. To cleanse your male soul of corruption and save it from damnation required a pure and moral wife. She had to be innocent, which literally meant keeping her in the house, away from the terrible, debasing influence of . . . education, political power and business decisions. This concept is central to The Angel in the House, a very popular poem in its day and fodder for contemporary social scientists and historians and whatever you call a historical social scientists.
The narrator of The Angel in the House, is about as self-actualized as an 11 year-old. He decides to live a moral life in order to be deserving of his future wife. When you think about it, it’s pretty dumb to conceptualize moral behavior as that which earns you the love of a person you don’t even know. I’ve never met Benicio del Toro. I have no idea how to go about being the kind of person he’d want to marry. When I tried to become someone he’d find interesting, I had to determine for myself what he’d probably like. Really, I was trying to become the kind of adult that I would admire. I was striving for my own approval, but when you’re 11 “do this so you can be self-actualized” is not as motivating as “do this so you can make-out with Benicio del Toro one day.”
My middle school aspiration to please Benicio was silly, but a victimless crime. As of yet, I have not encountered Mr. del Toro and expected him to live up to my childhood fantasies of his worthiness. However, the Angel in the House concept did have victims: women who were expected to be angels, who couldn’t participate in society, because society was inherently corrupting and the whole damn thing would fall apart if women didn’t stay at home being childlike, but you know, childlike in a way that you can still have sex with.
The whole thing makes me want to barf. The poem is trash. Weak verse, nauseating theme. I refuse to dignify it with a full post. Here are some quotes with my annotations as I wrote them while reading. Unedited.
“she grows/more infantine, auroral, mild” ewwww
“her simplicity” ugh
“there grew/More form and stateliness/Than heretofore between us two” 30 percent in and he’s gone on forever about how loving her makes him feel, but I don’t know anything about her, because she’s not a person, just an ideal for him to chase.
“Man must be pleased; but him to/please is woman’s pleasure;” gross
“With such a bright cheek’d chastity;” Stop. Not sleeping with people is not an accomplishment.
“Buried [her] face within my breast, Like a/pet fawn by hunters hurt.” So gross.
At one point he considers what would happen to him if she died and says “Small household troubles fall’n to me,/As, ‘What time would I dine to-day?” My annotations: Fantasy about wife dying, whining about how he’ll have to figure out when to eat.
You might like The Angel in the House if:
- you are a Men’s Rights Activist
You might not like The Angel in the House if:
- even a small part of your brain is capable of logical thought
Penultimate thoughts: Pure trash. This is a concept I think about and talk about and encounter in novels, so I figured I should read the poem. It’s just as insipid as I expected it to be.
Final thoughts: Benicio del Toro has some of the most lovable cheekbones. Mmhm, he sure does. But he’s just a dude, another human who deserves the chance to be fallible. Just as women deserved the chance to encounter the world and be fallible. I’ll probably never know if Benicio would like the woman I’ve become, but I think my preteen self would like her. Shit, I’ve got two cats and two X-Files posters. I get paid to talk to other humans about literature. Tweenage me would love adult me!