[This essay is Part I of the author's "Poet or Ventriloquist?: Reinterpreting Gender and Voice in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and Victories of Love."]
lthough Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House has become both a centerpiece for twentieth-century feminist criticism and the quintessential paradigm for Victorian femininity, we must be careful of pigeonholing this multi-volume poem into a mere celebration of a cloistered, submissive womanhood. When Carol Christ writes that Patmore vacillates between praising female superiority and male domination in her essay "Victorian Masculinity in The Angel in the House," she points to a very problematic and central paradox within the poem. This paradox is, of course, mostly due to the verse's overall idolization and deification of women, which causes the female characters in the poem simultaneously to become fetishized, distant, cloistered, mystified and inert.
However, the reason behind such a paradoxical femininity appears even clearer once we look more closely at the overall structure of The Angel in the House. The poem is, in fact, arranged into a series of different voices, the first two volumes being rooted entirely in the male perspective and the latter two volumes representing a composition of mostly female voices. Whereas the first half of the poem concentrates primarily on the marriage story between Felix and Honoria as told by a series of Felix's poems addressed to his love, the second half of the poem focuses more on Jane and Frederick's married life and the relationship between the two couples as revealed through a series of letters. Moreover, not only does the poem divide itself along the lines of theme, setting, and poetic format, but the first and second halves of the poem also differ in matters of rhyme scheme, imagery, and stylistics. Once we examine the entire poem, we thus realize that what weaves together these poetic sections is a thematic emphasis that does not simply concentrate on the nature of womanhood but also examines the way marriage transforms the individual and gender identity. In a certain sense, however, these various, conflicting parts of the poem, which represent different voices and gender perspectives, never reconcile on the surface of the text. They are only unified or reconciled in the underlying gesture of the author, a suggestive and hidden form of social commentary that shows Patmore hardly desreves his anti-feminist reputation. Read properly, The Angel in the House less a poem dependent on misogyny than one exemplifying the subtle Victorian poetics of parody and paradox.
Other sections of "Poet or Ventriloquist?"
- Felix: Masculine Sexuality and the Feminine Idol
- Jane and Lady Clitheroe : The Female Voice and the Gender Paradigm
Browning, Robert. Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956.
Christ, Carol. "Victorian Masculinity and The Angel in the House." A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. 146-162.
Harper Collins Study Bible. New Revised Standard ed. Ed. Wayne A. Meeks. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Last updated 12 June 2004