Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837 coincided with the birth of a now notorious gender stereotype—the "Angel in the House." Comparing the position of real women—from the Queen of England to middle-class housewives—with their status as household angels, Elizabeth Langland explores a complex image of femininity in Victorian culture.
Langland offers provocative readings of nineteenth-century fiction as well as a rare glimpse into etiquette guides, home management manuals, and cookbooks. She traces the implications of a profound contradiction: although the home was popularly depicted as a private moral haven, running the middle-class household—which included at least one servant—was in fact an exercise in class management. Drawing on the work of Foucault, Benjamin, and Bourdieu, and of recent feminist theorists, Langland considers novels by Dickens, Gaskell, Oliphant. and Eliot, as well as the memoirs of Hannah Cullwick, a former domestic servant who married a middle-class man.
Langland discovers that the middle-class wife assumed a more complex and important function than has previously been recognized. With her substantial power veiled in myth, the Victorian angel mastered skills that enabled her to support a rigid class system; at the same time, however, her achievements unobtrusively set the stage for a feminist revolution. Nobody's Angels reconstructs a disturbing picture of social change that depended as much on protecting class inequity as on promoting gender equality.
"Langland's account is deeply provocative, and it is elaborated with great intellectual integrity. . . . Her readings are astute, and her dexterity at balancing strong claims about gender and class against her theoretical fidelity to the demands of writing a discontinuous, non-traditional account of cultural politics is impressive and instructive. Nobody's Angels is, without doubt, essential reading for students of nineteenth-century culture, and it will significantly alter the ways we reconcile the ideologies of public and private spheres."—John Kucich, Novel: A Forum on Fiction (Spring 1996)