Yesterday, I wrote about women and working, but, really, social and economic debates aren’t what I came for. I’m here, today at least, for the literary criticism.
Virginia’s Woolf’s 1931 lecture Professions for Women, which would later become the book Three Guineas, contains very many savory parts (“What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits?”) but is most considerably spiced by a life-and-death battle between Virginia and The Angel in the House (I guess we have also called it The Feminine Mystique, and today have our endless rounds of Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, and, Is [x] A Feminist?).
But, fighting the angel, killing the angel!
The inclusion of that image is insane, because the only other place in literature I can think of where a human fights an angel is in Genesis–the ur-text of patriarchy–when Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.
Jacob is on his way back home, now a rich man. He is coming to meet his brother Esau, the hirsute twin he’s swindled out of his birthright, and understandably anxious about it.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
Jacob walked out of that fight with 1) a limp & a new Jewish dietary restriction, 2) a new name and identity, and 3) a blessing from God, which, pretty good. Virginia’s fight with the angel looks different:
The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman…” And she made as if to guide my pen.
I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her.
…whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
Actually, if I had to pick an analogous fight from the list of famous-wrasslin’-matches-of-classical-literature, I’d say it looks like Hercules’ fight against Antaeus, the giant who is unkillable so long as he remains in contact with the earth, his mother. He was also always creeping back when thought dispatched.
We, some of us (white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied and -minded), are lucky enough to only have to kill off the Angel in the House, and not have to also contend with the host of distorted, demonized caricatures that illustrate any and every deviance from that ideal. This Virginia v. Angel battle is really just the expo round of a struggle in which each of us will have to personally engage:
If I have laid stress upon these professional experiences of mine, it is because I believe that they are, though in different forms, yours also. Even when the path is nominally open–when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant–there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.
What does it mean to wrestle against an Angel of the Lord, versus the Angel in the House (…versus a pre-human chthonic giant who makes skull-temples)? To win through tenacity, or by liberal use of the inkpot, or by getting an understanding of how the thing works? To hang on, despite the breaking of the day and hip-dislocation, despite it being a waste of time (better spent learning Greek grammar, agreed), despite its eternal recurrence (until, that is, you figure out the trick)?
To say, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me? and to walk out of the fight, fundamentally altered?