Monday 22 February 2021

Brian Holland: ‘Angel in the House … or Angel in Heaven?’

In the first member’s presentation ever given to our group by Zoom, Brian Holland entertained us with a lively talk on 18 February 2021 entitled ‘Angel in the House … or Angel in Heaven? How the patriarchy operated in Victorian England with illustrations from the visual and verbal culture of the period.’

Brian recently completed a Master’s in Studies in Literature and Arts at Kellogg College, Oxford, and his talk was based on his Master’s dissertation (‘Fallen women and fearful men in English visual and verbal culture — 1850-70’). In a richly illustrated talk, Brian explored the double standards of the patriarchy in a period in which women tended to be categorised in binary fashion as either ‘respectable’ or transgressive.

Guided by him, we examined paintings by such artists as G.F. Watts, Richard Redgrave and G. Elgar Hicks, looking at their moral purpose, how they reflected the attitudes of the time and in some cases their ambivalence, with more than one interpretation possible. Brian drew our attention to the symbolism and telling details in pictures such as Redgrave’s ‘The outcast’ and the triptychs ‘Past and Present’ by Augustus Leopold Egg and ‘Woman’s Mission’ by G. Elgar Hicks.

'Past and Present' by Augustus Leopold Egg

Two of the pictures discussed by Brian are often referred to in the context of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and her time in Brussels. These are Fanny Geefs’ ‘La Vie d’une Femme’ (reflecting the ‘angel in the house’ view of woman) and Edouard De Biefve’s ‘Une almée’ — a picture of a voluptuous, reclining Eastern dancing girl thought to have inspired the ‘Cleopatra’ picture Lucy Snowe describes in Villette. Both pictures were displayed in an exhibition Charlotte must have seen in Brussels in 1842. Lucy Snowe reflects on them and discusses them with Monsieur Paul, touching on some of the themes explored by Brian in his talk.

Since 2012, when we first had the idea of organising presentations by members, many of them have entertained and informed us with talks on widely varying subjects.

You can find a list of past talks on the Events page of our website:


Helen MacEwan

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