Growing up at the end of the Victorian era, Virginia Woolf was caught between an age where women were largely expected to be an “Angel in the House” and an era where women were beginning the journey of self-actualization. At the time, women had not yet overcome the societal notion that they were especially equipped to deal with domestic duties. Much of women’s sphere of influence was in the home and women were expected to defer to men and their authority. Based on society’s beliefs about the importance of family and woman’s innate moral goodness, people generally thought that any deviation from this inherent nature would cause overwhelming emotional trauma. As a young child, Woolf learned that there were two choices available to women of her particular class: to nurse people to health, or be the subject of the nurse’s ministrations. Wrestling with her mental and physical frailties, Woolf began to write as early as young adulthood about illness in a realistic way, in order to move beyond the Victorian ideal of “the angel in the house” and freeing herself to become more self-actualized.
Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, was involved in caregiving, raising children, and supporting her husband Leslie’s pursuits. Exemplifying the ideal Victorian wife and mother, Julia sublimated her own desires in order to meet the expectations of the day calling for women to put their own needs last, give comfort to their husbands, run the household efficiently, and be solely responsible for all happenings in the domestic world. Leslie, writing a friend, noted that their wedding date had to be put off for several weeks while Julia went:
to the deathbed of an uncle, who had been almost a father to her… she has been so accustomed to look after sick people that I am always expecting some of her cousins or aunts or uncles to get into trouble & send for her at a moment’s notice… She has at the moment 3 sets of relatives sick: 1 niece with pleurisy; 2 nieces and a nephew with scarlet fever & measles; 1 aunt in need of a surgical operation & all calling for help! (Hussey 37)
Coventry Patmore, a friend of Julia’s, inscribed a copy of “The Angel in the House” to her “with the kind regard of the author,” recognizing her embodiment of the Victorian standard of feminine behavior (Hussey 37). Writing “that hymn for which the whole world longs, / A worthy hymn in woman’s praise… / the nuptial contrasts are the poles / on which the heavenly spheres revolve,” Patmore states that women are worthy of the highest praise based on their conformity to society’s expectations of them (15-16, 63-64). These “angels of the house” were always caring for others at the expense of themselves and intuiting precisely what people in their lives needed before they did. Julia nursed a great many people back to health and wrote Notes from Sick Rooms as a volume centered on making the patient more comfortable, even to the point of needing to “lie freely” when asked questions by sick patients (J. Stephen 57). Having been very involved in the wider community during her life, Julia was honored with a memorial fund after her untimely death; all of these activities, as well as having been nursed back to health by her mother, left an impression on Woolf.
Woolf’s father, Leslie, was a prolific writer who wrote essays and encouraged his daughter’s literary gifts. However, he also possessed a difficult personality and suffered from rapidly changing moods, shifting from being bullying and manipulative at one moment to being encouraging and charming at another. Writing in “An Apology for Plainspeaking,” Stephen notes that “men’s minds must be called back from the present of phantoms and encouraged to follow the only path which tends to enduring results. We cannot afford to make the tacit concession that our opinions, though true, are depressing and debasing. No; they are encouraging and elevating” (L. Stephen n.p.). Writing about him after his death, Woolf recalled “his habit of reading and reciting poetry in such a way that ‘many of the great English poems now seem to me inseparable from my father. I hear in them not only his voice but in some sort his teaching and belief’” (Hyman 206). Woolf was doubtlessly influenced by these concepts in her own work, and incorporated her parents various characteristics into her stories and writing.
After her mother’s death, Woolf experienced the first of what would be a lifelong series of episodes of mental disturbances. These episodes would be triggered by stress, loss of family members, impending publication of a book, or other life events; the cure prescribed by the physicians consulted involved “[refraining] from any physical or mental activity, which could prove strenuous and dangerous, and adopt a healthy, dairy-rich diet,” without sitting up, writing, sewing, or reading (Koutsantoni 4). Julia had advocated the same, writing in “Notes” that it was of importance that sweet fresh milk was procured from the milkman, and that the milk cure was “most valuable” (J. Stephen 91). Woolf had been nursed back to health by Julia, likely with the same skillfulness that Julia showed the rest of her “cases”; Vanessa Bell (Woolf’s sister) wrote, “[after all four of the Stephen children had whooping cough] the rest of us quickly recovered, but it seemed to me that Virginia was different. She… had actually entered into some new consciousness rather abruptly, and was suddenly aware of all sorts of possibilities hitherto closed to her” (Hussey 45). Even at a young age, Woolf was faced with the prescription to “cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters… We float with the sticks on the stream… able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up – to look, for example, at the sky,” Woolf uses her time to observe, facilitating the flights of fancy that Julia advises against in “Notes”, when she writes that “invalids’ fancies seem, and often are, absurd; but arguing will not dissipate them; it will only increase them, as the patient will hide what she feels… if a thing is right, [the patient]… will not worry the nurse with useless questions and suggestions” (J. Stephen 76-77). In her article, “Manic Depression in Literature: The Case of Virginia Woolf,” Koutsantoni writes:
People with hypomania have enhanced access to vocabulary, memory and other cognitive resources, linked in innovative ways, and thus can often be witty and inventive. Moreover, they have an extraordinary and tireless capacity for sustained concentration. It has similarly been suggested that the increased creativity in bipolar disorder might be driven by hypomanic periods with ensuing augmented fluency which is an important aspect of creativity (6).
Without being able to give full expression to her creativity, and frustrated by the doctor’s negation of her personal experiences with her illness, lacking a vocabulary to discuss illness with the doctor (and the doctor wishing to have the patient “healed” enough to return to society), Woolf finds the experience of being ill a way of taking time to stop and notice the minutiae that occurs around her, gaining the capacity of insight and having various concepts that rule the lives of the healthy, such as time, become meaningless.
Woolf’s writings in “Professions for Women,” “Modern Fiction,” and On Being Ill are examples of the internal conflict that she feels when she attempts to overcome her background and upbringing. Writing about her struggles “to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and then I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing… she bothered and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her,” it is clear that she felt ambivalence while taking sides against the representation of her mother Julia, the angel, in order to find her own path (Woolf, “Professions” 2273). Therefore, the battle for authenticity and free expression is of supreme importance, and Woolf argues that the socially accepted roles for women lead to negative psychological effects unless the angel is “killed”. Noting that we “wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as by the mind,” Woolf comments that the method of expression does not matter; the mere fact that the expression occurs is sufficient (“Modern” 2153). Without undertaking the battle, Woolf finds that it becomes impossible to move forward, to write about one’s own experiences or to overcome the obstacles looming in the various professions that women (of the day) are beginning to enter.
In On Being Ill, Woolf discusses the plight that befalls a character in a novel by Augustus Hare. The character, Lady Louisa Waterford, is trapped within the confines of Victorian era domesticity, unable to do other than fulfil “the angel in the house” role that is expected of her, even though she is described as “Titian’s peer and Raphael’s master” based on the sketches that she does (Woolf; On Being Ill 27). While her husband spends his time outside hunting foxes, Louisa is isolated but finds herself fulfilling the role that society has assigned her: “[She was] very lonely… she visited the poor, spoke words of comfort… and sketched and sketched… Her father’s house [was] forever falling into the sea; she must shore it up; must entertain her friends; must fill her days with all sorts of charities [and wait dutifully for her husband to return home at his leisure]” (Woolf, On Being Ill 26-27). When her husband is killed in an accident, Louisa is framed by curtains, “heavy, mid-Victorian, plush perhaps,” which the gentleman observer notes after the funeral “was all crushed together where she had grasped it in her agony” (Woolf, On Being Ill 28). Several hours have passed since Louisa grasped the curtains and her pain is palpable through the visual of the crushed material; Woolf rejects the feminine ideal of the Victorian age in favor of building an independent life, one capable of sustaining one’s self through times of trouble. By rejecting the feminine ideal, Woolf is also rejecting the notion her mother advocated that the nurse or physician knows better than the patient, even though the patient is living the symptoms but lacks the language to express the individuality of their particular case.
Living with the internal dichotomy between the “angel” that society expected her to be (especially considering the tyranny that she likely faced while living with Leslie Stephen due to his cyclical mood swings), and the work that she felt that she was meant to perform as a writer (due to her father’s encouragement of her writing gifts), Woolf was in the precarious position of attempting to find a new path for herself, without appropriate guidance on how to forge that path. Woolf’s journey is one that exemplifies her struggle against the bastion of Victorian ideals; her history and biology positions her perfectly between the two poles between which Patmore’s heavenly spheres revolve. This position allowed her to be torn between those two worlds, and her journey to find a place while in the midst of this turmoil lead her to develop verbiage to describe this silent struggle within, as well as new ways to explain illness and internal processes. Her words continue to reach out to the phantoms and angels within all of us, not to help us with answers but to clarify the struggle that is felt to the present day.
Hussey, Mark. Introduction. “Notes from Sick Rooms”. By Julia Stephen. Published in On Being Ill. Ashfield, MA.: Paris Press, 2012. 33-46. Print.
Hyman, Virginia R. “Reflections in the Looking-Glass: Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.” Journal of Modern Literature. Volume 10 Issue 2 June 1983. Indiana U. P. 197-216. JSTOR. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Koutsantoni, Katerina. “Manic Depression in Literature: The Case of Virginia Woolf.” Medical Humanities 38.1 (June 2012): 1-8. academia.edu, pub. 2 Mar. 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Patmore, Coventry. “The Angel in the House.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, Volume E. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 1613-14. Print.
Stephen, Julia. “Notes from Sick Rooms”. Published in On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf. Ashfield, MA.: Paris Press, 2012. Print.
Stephen, Leslie. “An Apology for Plainspeaking; from Prose Masterpieces from Modern Essayists.” gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 10 July 2006. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After, Volume F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 2150-56. Print.
—. On Being Ill. Ashfield, MA.: Paris Press, 2012. Print.
—. “Professions for Women.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After, Volume F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 2272-76. Print.