She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty–her blushes, her great grace. In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. 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. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure." And she made as if to guide my pen. I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself, though the credit rightly belongs to some excellent ancestors of mine who left me a certain sum of money–shall we say five hundred pounds a year?–so that it was not necessary for me to depend solely on charm for my living. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her.
From Professions for Women, by Virginia Woolf. She refers to the Victorian—but still existing—conception of woman as Angel in the House (from Coventry Patmore’s Victorian poem of the same name), as she whose purpose is solely and merely to charm. The Angel in the House doesn’t have an individual story or an autonomous purpose, she’s merely representative of an ideal of purity and grace.
I love that line: “If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it…”