"YOU WHO COME of a younger and happier generation . . . may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House," wrote Virginia Woolf. "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 draft, she sat in it--in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others."
Sounds like an ideal housemate to me. Woolf, though, went on to issue the Angel's death warrant, advising aspiring writers to sacrifice her to the muse. Many have, notably Sylvia Plath (a 1993 biography of her is subtitled "Killing the Angel in the House").
Considering the end both writers met (suicide), one might conclude that theirs was not exactly the path to utopia. Still, many women continue to follow in their footsteps.
Ah, but once the Angel is gone, someone else steps in. We meet her, in several incarnations, in "The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage." Dish they do--redundantly at times, since everyone, including editor Cathi Hanauer, seems to be a harried writer or editor living in New York or California. I'm not sure whether it's a compliment or an oversight that my cohort, full-time moms, was ignored here. It is we, after all, who are in the house most; we seem to be at least as likely to morph into Mr. Hyde as our employed sisters.
In fact, when I picked up the book, I was looking for some reassurance that I was not the only mother sometimes to find herself hoarse by dinnertime, and not from a chest cold. I found it in a few of the essays. Elissa Schappell's "Crossing the Line in the Sand" is a gem. She describes her own family's approach to anger: "We drowned it in cocktails, or ate it with chocolate frosting, or left the room and let it starve." As a parent, she wishes for a bracelet that says "WWMBD" (What Would Mrs. Brady Do?).
For some, anger is a way of life. Self-described crank Natalie Angier writes that her four-year-old daughter, after listening to her tirade about President Bush refusing to fund international abortions, drew a picture of Mom crying with a thought balloon containing a dead person. The figure in the balloon was Bush: "You're wishing that he was dead." Mom's reaction was to give the girl a hug "after laughing with surprise, not to mention maternal pride in an offspring's cleverness." Yikes.
LOCKSTEP FEMINISM rears its head more than once. Marriage as a tool of the patriarchy? Does anyone who isn't a Womyn's Studies major really believe that one anymore, when brides hold on to their surnames, careers, and separate bank accounts?
Often, though, the writers are surprisingly clear-eyed about what the mindset has cost them. "Sometimes it seemed that feminism was the only thing that mattered to me in my life," writes Angier, echoing a recurring theme. "And to be honest, it wasn't making my life very happy."
The book stands as an unwitting testimony to traditional courtship and marriage. Sharing an address with a series of underemployed strangers is not, as it turns out, all that fulfilling. Sex columnist Sarah Miller admits that although her articles made her sex/love life sound like "some wild amusement park ride," it was actually "the source of pain and endless disappointment." She has never had the kind of boyfriend who would pick her up at the airport, not even the one she moved in with two weeks after their first date.
Another woman has such a liberating, grown-up sex life with a married man (among other genders) that she ends up living at home with her parents and her biracial baby. I mention race because the author does. Repeatedly.
THE ESSAYISTS, for the most part, sneer at their apron-wearing, Stroganoff-making, housewife moms (although one piece is grudgingly titled, in part, "Why I Hate That My Mother Was Right"). But depictions of their own lives, littered as they are with broken, confused, temporary, and dissolved relationships (not to mention the stratospheric stress levels in a double-income family with small children), make June Cleaver's lot look very good indeed.
Many contradict themselves, like the woman who celebrates having an open marriage . . . but uses a pseudonym and, on her husband's tryst nights, waits up all night watching B movies in his dirty socks until he returns. Or another, also using a pen name, who admiringly lists her full-time mom's endless, varied job description . . . then belittles her for fulfilling it without question.
When did we get the idea that for men and women to be equal, they had to be interchangeable? I, too, was a magazine writer in my past life, the one before I could recite "Goodnight Moon." But my new career always seemed to me at least as important as my husband's. Paying the bills is a necessary evil, but molding the next generation of ballerinas and firemen is an awesome responsibility--and privilege.
Ellen Gilchrist's piece recalls introducing her three young sons to one of her Millsaps College professors, Eudora Welty, during a chance meeting on campus. "Why would you need anything else?" asked the single, childless, renowned Welty. "Why would you need to be a writer?"
Of course, it's hard to embrace motherhood when you resent your gender. One essayist remembers realizing at a tender age that the fairer sex was actually considered "inferior to boys and men in nearly every way that counted." Another credits feminism with "deepening [her] understanding of [herself] as a person born into the wrong sex."
Huh? This sounds like masculinism. True feminism, to my mind, is one that celebrates what Pope John Paul II calls the "feminine genius," and this extends (but is not limited) to biology.
Someone once said that the husband is the head of the household, but the wife is the neck. Or at least she used to be. Now, she wants to be another head, and in so assimilating the masculine virtues, she discards the feminine ones that are necessary for family and society.
Aristotle's definition of love is to will the good of another. That, of course, is what the Angel is all about. Was it really that she never had a mind or wish of her own, or that she had the self-mastery to realize that what she wanted to do was not necessarily what she ought to do? It's being a bitch that's easy.
Hanauer and her sisters are part of the younger generation Woolf was addressing, and they've followed her advice, weeding charm, selflessness, and sacrifice out of their lives at every turn. But happier? No.
Susie Currie is a writer living in Hyattsville, Maryland.