[This essay is Part III of the author's "Poet or Ventriloquist?: Reinterpreting Gender and Voice in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and Victories of Love."]
he Victories of Love, the second volume of The Angel in the House, also emphasizes marriage as the union of two individuals. It does, however, have a significantly different poetic form. Here, the rhyme scheme changes from hymnal measure to that of heroic couplets, and the story is no longer told in a series of love poems written in the single voice of Felix, but is rather relayed by a variety of speakers in various dramatic monologues presented in the form of letters. Ironically, some of the female voices that surface throughout this second half of the poem seem to formulate and bolster the image of the angel, an image that has come to embody stereotypical feminine docility, submissiveness, and domesticity of the Victorian age. It is, in fact, Jane who proves to be the iconic angel of the poem and whose perspective on womanhood is fitting with a weaker, more needful, kind of feminine nature. Not only does other characters' monologues describe Jane as childlike but she also sees herself as inept and submissive. It is Jane who tells her husband that he should have scolded her more, and it is she d who buys into a gender hierarchy that calls for masculine mastery over women when she states: "Women like men to be like men" in part VII of Book II. In Jane's notion of marriage and womanhood the woman finds salvation and rest in the man, not the man who is saved by the woman as is thr case in Felix's poems to Honoria. For example, in a letter to her mother Jane writes of her husband in "Victories of Love":
And in his strength have I such rest
As when the baby on my breast
Finds what it knows not how to seek,
And, very happy, very weak,
Lies, only knowing all is well,
Pillow'd on kindness palpable. ["From Jane to Her Mother." Book II, Part I, lines 107-112; closing lines.]
Jane naively belived that in marriage the woman lives through the man. Jane, in fact, sees herself mostly through the stereotypical male gaze. In the passage above, for example, she describes herself as being childlike in relation to her husband, a perspective which recalls the Dickensian notion of motherhood in which the incompetent mother appears more childish than nurturing. Thus Felix's resolution of gender equality in the marital union dissipates with the introduction of Jane, who only partially understands Felix's sentiments when she asks of Frederick and herself, "are we not one flesh?" ("Victories of Love," Book II, Part VII, line 97). In her vision of the angels Jane sees marital union as the woman's absorption into the male form:
But the glad maiden grew and grew
Such that the rest no longer knew
Their sister, who was now to sight
The young man's self, yet opposite,
As the outer rainbow is the first,
But weaker, and the hues reversed. ["Jane to Frederick" . Book II, Part IX, lines 101-106; Patmore cut this section in later versions.]
Here, of course, she inverts Felix's idolatry of Honoria according to which the woman lifts the man into her own higher moral sphere. For Jane, it is rather the woman who in courtship and marriage must take on the form of the man, and Jane, of course, does not even see this metamorphosis or union as involving equality, for she states in her metaphor of the rainbow that the woman still becomes a weaker version of the man.
Nevertheless, Jane's reverence for an angelic and naïve womanhood that so describes her character is counterbalanced by another feminine voice in the poem, that of Lady Clitheroe. Thus, once again, through a series of irreconcilable monologues, Patmore complicates any definitive gender hierarchy or conception of ideal womanhood. In a letter to Mary Churchill, Lady Clitheroe negates Jane's contradicts Jane's conception of feminine nature by portraying the woman as the true strength behind any good marriage:
So if you wed, as soon you should,
Be selfish for your husband's good.
Happy the men who relegate
Their pleasures, vanities, and state
To us. Their nature seems to be
To enjoy themselves by deputy,
For seeking their own benefit,
Dear what mess they make of it! . . .
It's hard to manage men, we hear!
Believe me, nothing's easier, Dear. [Victories of Love, "From Lady Clitheroe to Mary Churchill." Book I, Part XIII, lines 43-58]
Lady Clitheroe turns the tables on Jane's conception of marital and gender hierarchies by insisting that men are incompetent, and it is women who, in fact, must manage both men and their financial and social affairs. Lady Clitheroe reshapes on the old clichéd that woman makes the man by suggesting that behind the masculine façade, the women control the men, for they are more competent. In fact, the voice of Lady Clitheroe comes to embody a silent kind of feminism in The Victories of Love, for she advocates the possibility of working within a society of unjust ideas of femininity without absorbing or believing them (as does, for example, Jane). In a letter to the newly married Emily Graham, Lady Clitheroe advises her to distinguish between gender stereotypes and reality. Moreover, she urges Emily to use such stereotypes to her own advantage:
We know, however wise by rule,
Woman is still by nature a fool;
And men have sense to like her all
The more when she is natural.
'Tis true that, if we choose, we can
Mock to a miracle the man;
But iron in the fire red hot,
Though 'tis the heat, the fire's not;
And who, for such a gain, would pledge
The babe's a woman's privilege,
No duties and a thousand rights? [Victories of Love. "From Lady Clitheroe to Emily Graham." Book II, Part XIII, lines 13-23]
In the first lines of this passage, Lady Clitheroe ironically reveals the truth behind the assumption that women are supposedly foolish, a notion derived from Genesis 3. Wise and intelligent, Lady Clitheroe, who states that women must nonetheless suffer the social injustice, mocks man's blatant fetishization of childish and foolish women, suggesting that woman's "nature" may very well be a mere extension of the perverted masculine sexual desires. Despite this jibe at male sexuality, however, Lady Clitheroe still cautions Emily against openly attacking such crude gender stereotypes of women, for she argues that women have an advantage when they accept, or work within, society's relegation of women to a protected, domestic, and childlike social sphere. Society offers women, like children, "no duties and a thousand rights" asserts Lady Clitheroe. Hence, changing the manner in which we view femininity in society would not only result in the dissolution of certain gendered disadvantages but would also deprive women of their subtle social advantages. Nevertheless, because this warning assumes that women live idyll domestic lives, it counters her earlier claim in her letter to Mary Churchill that women are the only ones who can really handle all of the social and financial affairs ordained to men. Thus Patmore once again entangles his readers in a web of gender-significant paradox and contradiction. Nevertheless, Lady Clitheroe's monologues reveal a variety of feminist attitudes, and we can come to see her character as an embodiment of the socio-political nuances of the feminist project. In fact, despite Patmore's modern reputation for perpetuating antiquated notions of gender types and hierarchies, he may have anticipated twentieth-century feminisms far more than we have previously recognized.
With the character of Lady Clitheroe, it soon becomes clear, however, that Patmore is creating a kind of gender inversion in which Mrs. Clitheroe begins to take on certain stereotypically masculine qualities. In a sense, Lady Clitheroe's character, therefore, becomes a parody of sorts, but not a parody devoid of moral significance and social commentary. Her most masculine quality is, in fact, her attitude towards other women. She, perhaps more than any character in The Victories of Love, is quicker to fetishize Jane in light of her childish and pet-like appearances. If we look at yet another letter from Lady Clitheroe to Mary Churchill, a letter describing a social event that takes place at Honoria and Felix's estate, we note that in the poem women more than men are the ones who actually perpetuate such notions of a docile and childlike femininity. In fact, it is Lady Clitheroe who describes Jane as being "the oddest little Pet" and Honoria who is noted for praising Jane's childishness as a sign of originality:
Honor's enchanted. 'Tis her view
That people, if they're good and true . . .
Will kindly take to what's their own
And always be original,
Like children . . . [Victories of Love, "From Lady Clitheroe to Mary Churchill." Book II, Part II, lines 67-72]
Thus Lady Clitheroe actually comes to occupy the very male gaze which she herself denounces. We must of course note that Lady Clitheroe's and Honoria's reasons for characterizing and praising Jane so much within the socially stereotypical notions of womanhood do not simply have to do with Jane's femininity, but perhaps more significantly they point to an issue of Jane's social class. Lady Clitheroe's comments on Jane are, for example, all precluded by an allusion to Jane's lower class status:
And some one wrote to us and said
Her mother was a kitchen-maid.
Dear Mary, you'll be charm'd to know
It must be all a fib. But, oh,
She is the oddest little Pet
On which my eyes were ever set!" [Victories of Love, "From Lady Clitheroe to Mary Churchill." Book II, Part II, lines 37-42]
Lady Clitheroe's italicized emphasis on the word "is" thus allows us to see that this description of Jane as "pet-like" is linked to a suspicion of her servant-class heritage. In fact, we realize that the this characterization of Jane is simply a criticism disguised as a compliment, and where women appear to be praising Jane within the socially accepted language of femininity, they are in fact reconfiguring such a gendered vocabulary in order to demean Jane for her class status. It is here that we thus see Lady Clitheroe at the pinnacle of her own moralizing hypocrisy.
Most likely, Patmore's generally parodic treatment of his only feminist character along with his choice to make the women the perpetuators of their own engendered prison might incite many modern feminist critics to anger. Nevertheless, we must explore Patmore's reasons for creating such a subtly complicated paradoxical web of gender constructions. After all, if women inscribe themselves in negative gender paradigms, then could Patmore actually be trying to move women towards social change with his poetic commentaries on gender and society? This kind of reading not only seems to be a viable one for Patmore's four volume poem, but it also allows us to resolve the utterly paradoxical nature of Patmore's verse. Furthermore, if we begin to see the characters of The Angel in the House as types who at times develop morally but who often remain static or are constantly parodied, then we can look at this poem in an entirely new light in lieu of its significance to Victorian gender theory. How exactly should we emphasize the fact that Jane, the angelic and innocent mother, the docile and weak wife, dies at the end of the poem? Does this death highlight Jane's mere earthly insignificance and point to her esteemed femininity as something only rewarded in the heavenly realm? Perhaps this conclusion is, in fact, too simple for a poem that incorporates so many different voices and perspectives. Moreover, such a resolution would never explain why Jane becomes ill and dies at the end of the poem whereas Honoria, whose name signifies anything but humility, undergoes a similar stage of sickness and yet survives.
Let us take as a parallel to this plot choice Dickens' David Copperfield in which Dickens' character Dora proves too weak for David's world. Here, Dickens seems to underhandedly suggest that it is David himself who perpetuates and coddles his wife's weaknesses, pushing her to her death (an act which proves to be reminiscent of another negative relationship in the novel, that of David's childlike mother and her husband Mr. Murdstone). Could we then read Jane's death in a less literal light and see it as both part and parcel to Frederic's moral development and as a result of the social pressures and stigmas that characters such as Lady Clitheroe, Honoria, and Frederic adopt and place upon her? Given Patmore's literary choices concerning both plot and style, this kind of a reading seems more conducive to a poetic resolution in which all of the characters voices are taken into account. Moreover, the flatness of Patmore's characters, their paradoxical viewpoints on gender and society, their exaggerated and perhaps parodied behaviors all seem to suggest that Patmore is writing within the tradition of the caricature, a device which authors such as Dickens and Thackeray use to create underlying and often comic or ironic social commentaries.
In conclusion, if we read The Angel in the House and The Victories of Love as a poem compiled from various character voices, as a work rooted in the stylistics of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, then we must become sensitive to the double-voiced nature of the poem. Although we can make many straightforward conclusions from Patmore's The Angel in the House about marriage and its relation to religious and natural law, or even divine transcendence (as seen in E.B. Browning's Aurora Leigh), it is much more difficult to pinpoint a singular conception of gender roles within a work so littered with paradox and so removed from any kind of direct authorial voice or style. Perhaps, we have underestimated Coventry Patmore's subtlety, voice, parody and poetic irony, misjudging The Angel in the House's place within both gender theory and Victorian studies.
Other sections of "Poet or Ventriloquist?: Reinterpreting Gender and Voice in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and Victories of Love
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.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Ed. Jerome H. Buckley. New York: Norton, 1990.
Harper Collins Study Bible. New Revised Standard ed. Ed. Wayne A. Meeks. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Homerica. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. New and Revised ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Innes, Mary M. Trans. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. London: Penguin, 1955.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Last updated 15 September 2004