Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph The Angel in the House
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph The Angel in the House

In her keynote talk at Vortext, a weekend of writing workshops put on by Hedgebrook, Ruth Orzeki talked about a poem called “The Angel of the House,” written by Coventry Patmore (what a name!), first published in 1854. The poem exemplified the Victorian ideal of a perfect woman, whose best traits were grounded in her children and home and doting upon her husband while men were best suited for public pursuits outside the home. The term “Angel in the house” came to represent the Victorian female ideal of a gentle woman devoted to her home and children and who acquiesced to all of her husband’s needs without complaint.

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.

Ruth explained that Viginia Wolfe, in a speech that riffed on this poem, questioned the feminine ideal, saying about her angel in the house, “she bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.”

Ah, those voices of judgement. How often do we sit idly by and let them rule us?

Ruth’s overall message was that to write is to be brave, that we must kill our angel in order to tell the absolute truth in the best way we know how, perform an act of ancarchy.

Her words clanged me over the head. I thought about my unfinished memoir that lives in a cloud, disjointed and confused, hiding where it’s safe, just where the Angel of the House thinks it should remain.

In its place, I have taken up a “fun” project writing about a dancer in Bali for no real reason other than she had an interesting life and I’ve always wanted to go to Bali, and what better excuse? A Balinese dancer is safe. There is no death or grieving. Instead there is color and gold headdresses and world travel, love affairs with Indian princes and making movies with Bing Crosby.

But Ruth and her killing of Angels got me thinking.

But there was more. Reiko Rizzuto, who uses Tarot cards readings to help her in her writing did a reading for the entire group asking the question, “What is it about your project that’s important?”

Just that question alone had me questioning everything.

I am sure we all took away our own personal messages from her reading. For me it was about uncovering hidden truths, committment to the truth, having the will/drive, healing, making sacrificies and liberation from guilt.

My memoir in the cloud rumbled, a distant thunder. Suddenly the Balinese dancer seemed like a silly child.

Later, sitting next to Ruth at lunch, I explained my dilemma.

“Write the fun one!” she said. “Write the one you’re excited about.”

I know this too. You have to be excited about a project in order to write. If a project is trudgery, it will never get written. But what about “committment to truth” and “making sacrifices?”

I’m on a teeter-totter of projects. One is fun and easy and for the other, I must kill an angel.

Gift of gifts, I have been offered a short stint in a cottage at Hedgebrook, so I am madly trying to untangle from my life for 4 days in the quiet woods of Whidbey Island where I can teeter-totter to my heart’s content. How lucky am I?


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