Once upon a time, there was a poet with the rather wonderful name of Coventry Patmore, He published a long poem in installments between 1854-1862. This poem, called “The Angel in the House”, laid out an image of womanhood that became the Victorian ideal.
‘The Angel in the House’ ideal was based on the premise that women were superior to men morally and that their role was to provide a stable, serene domestic environment for their husband and their children. The Victorian Era was a time of great social instability, and men of every socio-economic class were in some way affected by the changes of their society. The Angel was to provide a sanctuary from a troublesome world, and to provide moral guidance to men and to children.
Believers in the ‘Angel in the House’ ideal believed that a woman should be intelligent and well-educated enough to converse with her husband and teach her children, but she should not engage in intellectual pursuits. She should not work outside the home and of course her behavior would always be socially proper and sexually pure. In this ideal, a man lucky enough to be married to an Angel should appreciate her and not treat her badly. But if he did, she must patiently guide him towards better behavior, and stoically endure her own suffering.
So, let’s talk about Lucy Westnera and Mina Harker, in Dracula. Lucy Westnera is like that blonde girl in the slasher movie who has (*gasp*) HAD SEX. Although Lucy is, presumably, a virgin, she’s enough of a flirt that you just know poor Lucy isn’t going to make it to the end of the book. She’s sweet, she’s kind, all the men adore her, but they like her a little too much, and she likes them a little too much. She’s not “pure”.
But Mina is the Angel incarnate. She’s smart, she’s well-educated, she has practical skills, but she is content to use them to assist her man – she has no ambition to strike out on her own as one of those “New Women”. The “New Women” was a phrase coined towards the end of the Victorian Era that described women who resisted the Angel in the House ideal – they were self-supporting and independent, and often rejected the idea of monogamy.
Mina Harker is also the heart of the group. When Jonathon is ill, her one thought is to nurse him back to physical and emotional health. She comforts Lucy’s suitors with supreme tact and kindness. She is the moral guide of the story, insisting that one should not hate Dracula, but be thankful that with his death he will be restored to God. Mina is capable with a firearm but chooses to remain in the background both as a matter of strategy (she may be controlled by the Count) and as a matter of temperament. It is the men’s job to protect her and it is her job to emotionally and spiritually guide the men.
I do think that Stoker plays a bit of a double game in Dracula. Mina makes fun of the “new woman” but she seems a little envious of them as well. And in the original manuscript, Lucy says, “I almost envy mother sometimes for her knowledge, when she can talk to people whist I have to sit by like a dumb animal and smile a stereotyped smile till I find myself blushing at being an incarnate lie. And it is so silly and childish to blush and without reason too.” This does not appear in the published manuscript, but it, combined with the ambivalent attitude of Mina towards professional women, suggests that Stoker’s views about the roles of women were not as clear-cut as a quick reading of Dracula suggests.
Should you be interested in the original poem by Coventry Patmore, poemhunter.com has the complete poem, “The Angel in the House”.
Personal Aside: Nathaniel Hawthorne was a huge believer in the ‘Angel in the House’ ideal. I did my senior thesis on Hawthorne and his views on women. Mercifully, I’ve forgotten almost everything I’ve written, although I’m left with a strong impression that Hawthorne was a brilliant writer and a colossal jerk. Hawthorne’s gothic novel House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, has a character, Phoebe, who is a textbook example of the ‘Angel in the House’.