I bought the book at a used book store in Edmonton with my independent and feminist sister. I describe her in this way because when I finished reading Three Day Road I was left with some heavy ideas, one being about the “Angel in the House,” hence my excitement that I bought the book with my sister.
As always, there is a connection. I promise!
I finished reading the novel earlier this week and I also happened to watch the film The Hours directed by Stephen Daldry the next day (a film that follows the lives of three women in different time periods). There is a lot you could say and write about Three Day Road (like what exactly is the significance of the fat German cat that sleeps with Elijah in No-Man’s Land after Elijah brutally kills some German Officers and hears his Aunt’s voice), yet, after watching The Hours, I am left with thoughts about the Angel in the House.
In her essay “Professions for Women,” Virginia Woolf writes about this very idea of the Angel in the House:
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–her blushes, her great grace. In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every house had its Angel.
In both Three Day Road and in The Hours the Angel in the House showed up!
In Three Day Road, Xavier Bird is a Cree man off fighting for the Canadians during WWI with his Cree friend/brother Elijah Whiskeyjack. While in France, the men are on a leave from the front lines and they end up at a pub run by a local farmer. Xavier immediately notices the daughter (Lisette) of the bar keeper and can’t stop thinking about her: “She’s shy like me and is thin with long hair that she wears on the top of her head. Elijah notices her too, and I feel a sharp sting when he sees me notice her and then boldly approaches her” (155). Elijah notices his friend’s interest in the young French woman and arranges (using money) to have her befriend and seduce Xavier. After their seemingly genuine encounter, Xavier cannot stop thinking about Lisette. Lisette becomes Xavier’s angel. He uses his thoughts about her to contrast the horrors of war: “I miss the girl called Lisette, the one with hair blonde like I’ve not seen hair before. I fight the urge to begin walking north the thirty-five miles or so to see her. I’ve actually worked it out over and over in my head. I can walk the distance overnight, spend the day with her, and walk back the next. I would probably not be missed if I were to do it” (241). In the end Xavier finds out that Lisette is not as good and pure as he thought (252), so his image of his angel is shattered.
This idea of women being thought of as angels during times of war was also present in The Hours. One of the story lines in the film shows the lives of Dan, a war veteran, and Laura, a house wife, in 1949. Dan was in the army and used memories of Laura from high school to help him cope with his experiences during the war. At dinner one night after the war, Dan explains to his son how thoughts about the ideal Laura helped him in the war: “The thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea of our happiness.” Just as Lisette in Three Day Road, Laura is not an angel. She is an independent, intelligent woman who realizes that if she stays in her ideal life with Dan she will kill herself. In fact, at the end of the film, when she is an older woman and is at the funeral of her adult son, she tells her son’s friend why she left her family: “It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.”
In both stories, the Angel of the House turned out to be human. Or in the case of Three Day Road a woman willing to sell her body to survive a war and in The Hours a woman willing to give up her family in order to save her own life. In either case, neither women are pure. Just as Virgina Woolf had to “kill” the Angel of the House in order to become a successful writer, so too did these women have to kill the Angel in order to be independent and fully themselves. In her essay, Woolf writes, “Had I not killed her [the Angel] she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must–to put it bluntly–tell lies if they are to succeed.” In Three Day Road and in The Hours both Lisette and Laura decide not to become a lie and do what is best for them, even though they do end up challenging society’s ideals in a very real way (especially for the men they leave behind).
So now back to my sister. My sister has always been her own person. She does not want to fit in society’s ideals or stereotypes. That being said, I didn’t mention one of the most powerful characters in Three Day Road: Niska, Xavier’s Auntie. I think that while reading this book I was in good company. I had the stories of two independent women–my sister and the character Niska– to challenge and inspire me.
Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. (Galatians 5:1)