Monday, October 30, 2006

Angels in the home

This article by echo of the green hills caught my attention :

When I was in my first year of university I was taught about "the Angel in the Home". The pious Victorian woman, the epitome of female grace and beauty, managing her household with calm efficiency, the adored helpmeet of her husband, the gentle mother of many happy and healthy children. I was taught that this was a myth, that women were mistreated, sexually abused, legally inferior, beaten and forced by these miserable circumstances into mental breakdown. To a certain extent my lecturers, and the books they used to teach from, were correct. There were many women who were abused in the Victorian era, many women who were legally inferior (in the UK at least) to their rich, male, masters, many women whose lives were tainted by mental illness. I was then taught that the fight for freedom which occurred in the 1960s/1970s freed women from such degradation, that the differences between male and female were down to cultural conditioning and not biological difference...that the appropriate gender was neuter, like in some German nouns.
However, on this point, my very bright and efficient teachers were wrong. The whole of my course was wrong. I remember reading Jane Eyre and being told that an appropriate reading of the text was as Bronte's treaty on sexual repression and the confinement of Victorian female gender roles to "Angel in the Home", passionless, pallid, good (Jane) and "Madwoman in the Attic" a repressed female sexuality, full of passion and yearning for freedom, downtrodden by the evil patriarchy. I read it differently, Jane was good and brave, yes, but I never doubted that when the lights went out after "reader, I married him" her marriage to Rochester was both passionate and loving. As for Bertha, in the novel she was just plain old mad...there were hints of inbreeding, but as for a sexually repressed victim of the patriarchy, it's not in the text of Jane Eyre, you'll find it in Jean Rhys's prequel A Wide Sargasso Sea, written in the 1960s. We project onto literature what we want to see, and feminists are just as guilty at this as an old-fashioned romantic as myself.
So, why do I believe "the Angel in the Home" to be a myth? Simply because it is an ideal, there are very few of us who come close to such perfection and to assume every Victorian housewife was indeed such an "angel" is just as revisionist as the feminists believing she was terribly downtrodden. I truly believe that there was just as much degradation, abuse, murder, intolerance and metal illness in the Victorian times as there is today. The only difference between them and us is that they *tried* to make a difference. The Victorian middle classes had a strong moral centre, a high moral standard which most tried to live up to. Yes, they failed, and often they failed miserably at upholding these standards, and perhaps it turned them into hypocrites. It is such hypocrisy that the generations that followed were so disgusted by, which made them want to change things. But the modern rejection of Victorian moral standards means that instead of trying to make the world a better place we flounder like beached sea life on the shores of moral relativism, not bothering with bettering "society" because we don't want to offend, and it's none of our business anyway, and who knows what is right and wrong.
So what are we left with? Confusion, finding solace in excessive materialism, our young people ignored and our elderly forgotten, excessive violence and people who will never know what is right and what is wrong. I think it is time for this to stop and I think it is we women who have the answer, but unlike the feminist answer, it should not based upon us aping the worst traits of men, but on us returning to our true femaleness - our ability to nurture. If the "womb is the seat of compassion" then let us be compassionate, let us nurture. We have more resources and information at our fingertips than any Victorian "angel" and our children are the new tomorrow. If we bring them up with kindness and respect and knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, then surely they will grow into balanced and compassionate adults, adults who take their responsibilities seriously.
If we, as adults of the 21st century try to create a new moral centre, one which is based upon the way we live now, then at least our children have a watermark, something to aim for because to achieve anything you must have aims, and to achieve a better society you need to aim high. What we need is for all adults (both secular, Christian and peoples of all faiths) to realise that to be a good and fully functioning grown-up takes sacrifice and an understanding of the meaning of responsibility. If we women have to give up our well paid, enjoyable jobs so we can actually "mother" the babies we gave birth to, then so be it. If our men need to give up the sports car and the golf so that they have the money and time to be sufficient role models and fathers, then so be it. We may never get to be "angels" in our homes, but perhaps we should at least try to be adults.

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