Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, is a novel of historical fiction that takes place in London at the turn of the century and a few subsequent years following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The novel centers largely around the ever-strengthening Suffragette Movement in England. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between this novel, especially the implications of the title, and an essay by Virginia Woolf that discusses the idea of ‘The Angel in the House’.
Woolf’s essay ‘Professions for Women’ is primarily concerned with the idea of the ‘angel’. In this text, the angel embodies the epitome of what society has constructed as the perfect woman. These societal constraints have such a long history that instead of the unwritten rules simply imposing themselves on unwilling women, women are also imposing these ideals on themselves. This is because the ideals are taught and deeply entrenched in the mentality of women from infancy. From reading Woolf’s essay, one gets the sense that the woman who is confronting the angel is essentially confronting a sense of guilt and inferiority, a feeling of duty, a desire to be something society sees as ‘perfect’, an inner demon of sorts. Woolf describes the angel: “I will describe her as shortly as I can. 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.”
By juxtaposing this essay with Falling Angels one can see some interesting implications. The novel has a literal falling angel in the cemetery, in which the angel falls as if to foreshadow Kitty Coleman’s upcoming extra-marital indiscretion, her eventual abortion, and her involvement in the suffragette movement, which would absolutely be considered a degradation of the “purity” of the angel.
Kitty as a character was never afraid to speak her mind, even in polite society, but when she becomes involved in the Suffragette Movement she is able to voice her opinions on a national scale. The scandal was that these were her opinions, not her husbands. This is another way in which she spits in the face of the angel who, in Woolf’s essay, says, “Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.” Through her actions, Kitty kills her personal angel just as Woolf recommended. Throwing off the constraints of proper social conduct, Kitty creates scandal by riding a bike through the city and showing her bare legs in public, something she deems liberating. “For most of the march I felt as if I were walking through a dream… What I did feel sharply was the sun and air on my legs. After a lifetime of heavy dresses, with their swathes of cloth wrapping my legs like bandages, it was an incredible sensation.”
Interesting though, in this novel, that with Kitty’s liberation comes her downfall. Falling Angels is packed with subtext and I can’t imagine that Kitty’s deterioration as a marginally good mother and wife is just there for literary intrigue. The inverse relationship between her ability to be a good mother and wife and her increasing involvement in the suffragette movement suggests that perhaps some of the qualities of the angel should be kept. The angel as a source of doubt, limitation, and the smothering of creativity and individual thought should be destroyed, certainly, as Woolf implores us to do. However, in light of Kitty’s position as a mother, a level of self-sacrifice, such as that the angel embodies, is desired. This at least is my interpretation of Falling Angels in regards to the angel in the house.