The phrase "The Angel in the House" was actually the title of a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore, later appropriated satirically by Virginia Woolf. Patmore's poem, written about his wife, represents an ideal of femininity as pure, self-sacrificing, and utterly devoted first to her parents and then to her husband; Patmore states:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; ...
Woolf argues that this ideal of self-sacrificing, innocent, and morally pure femininity was as much an obstacle to women's careers as artists, writers, and professionals as the more obvious forms of patriarchy and discrimination. Women who conform to this sort of ideal of self-sacrifice cannot devote the time and energy to their work necessary for creation of great art, because the angelic ideal always mandates that they put men and family ahead of their own projects. She expands this concept by suggesting "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," something incompatible with the ideal of the angel in the house whose role is to nurture her family and serve as a moral exemplar.
Victorian poet and critic Coventry Patmore was born into a literary household in Essex, England. His father, editor and novelist Peter George Patmore, educated his son, sent him to Paris when he was 16, and encouraged him to publish his first book, Poems (1844). Coventry Patmore’s subsequent collections of poetry include Tamerton Church Tower (1853) and The Angel in the House—composed of four volumes: The Betrothal (1854), The Espousals (1856), Faithful for Ever (1860), and The Victories of Love (1863).
Patmore worked at the British Museum from 1846 to 1865 and was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. His acquaintances included William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alice Meynell, and John Ruskin, and his portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent. Patmore also wrote essays on art, including the collections Principles in Art (1889) and Religio Poetae (1893).
The Angel in the House presented a portrait of married life that became a Victorian ideal of domestic bliss. The work was inspired by Patmore’s first wife, Emily Augusta Andrews. Andrews was an author of children’s stories and the mother of six of Patmore’s children. They were married from 1847 until her death in 1860.
Patmore traveled to Rome and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1864. After Emily Patmore’s death, he was married to Marianne Caroline Byles from 1864 until her death in 1880. In 1865 he left the British Museum to manage his estate, Heron’s Ghyll, in Sussex. Patmore’s third wife was Harriet Robson, his children’s governess.
Poems by Coventry Patmore