It’s an old story. It’s women’s story. To tell it is a feminist act. The fallen woman was seduced, became pregnant and faced the consequences alone. Abandoned by her seducer and by her family many of these women left their babies and committed suicide, often by drowning.
GF Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 © Watts Gallery. Used with permission
The Fallen Woman Exhibition
The inspiration for this post comes from an exhibition The Fallen Woman at the Foundling Museum, London. Established by Thomas Coram, supported by Hogarth and Handel, the Foundling Hospital took in babies from 1741.
The exhibition explores what led mothers to leave their babies at the Foundling Hospital, and draws on the petitions the mothers made to the hospital committee to persuade them to take in their children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson uses the words of women, found in the petitions, in a moving addition to the paintings. The paintings are by men and largely show the shame the women had to endure, the rejection and the suicides.
Fallen Women in Fiction
Fear of becoming a fallen woman has haunted novels since the genre became established. As the term suggests it refers to a woman who had some respectability but lost it through sexual relations – ‘criminal conversations’ as they were referred to in the petitions. The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) says it all. In the Victorian era the prospects for a fallen woman were assumed to be prostitution, disease and death. There was, of course, no such thing as a fallen man.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
A character who seemed destined to fall is Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. So keen is she to get a husband, so enthralled by Wickham that she runs off to London with him. The family’s concern is entirely to get him to marry her, to save the family from public shame. It is Darcy, as a kindness to Elizabeth, who uses his wealth to persuade Wickham to do the right thing. His own sister, Georgiana, was almost seduced by Wickham. Lydia is a wild and silly girl. She has absorbed her mother’s obsession to marry off her daughters, and on her return home, safely married, wastes no time to show off her wedding ring to the neighbours. Elizabeth Bennet comments to Lydia, ’I do not particularly like your method of getting husbands.’
In contrast, Charlotte Lucas accepts the awful Mr Collins’s proposal. Elizabeth is shocked by the prospect of her dear friend marrying such an ass. Charlotte makes it clear that her future depends upon her having an establishment of her own, and this was only possible through marriage.
‘I only ask a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’
Women of a certain class were so entirely dependent upon finding a husband, any husband, that Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins makes some sense. Lydia risked everything by her escapade with Wickham.
A fallen woman, Jane Austen reminds us, can bring social opprobrium not only upon herself but also upon her family. This explains the rejection of the fallen woman by her own parents. I found The Outcast by Richard Redgrave to be the most shocking thing in the exhibition. The father’s dramatic and incontrovertible gesture was echoed by another father who gave evidence to the committee at the Hospital:
He had rather been dead than have to deal with his daughter’s disgrace.
The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Jane Eyre had no family to consider, but she refuses to fall. Mr Rochester and Jane are in the church for their wedding when it is revealed that he already has a wife. To the humiliation of being publically unable to marry him, Mr Rochester adds a proposal: ‘you shall be my wife – both virtually and nominally and I shall keep to you so long as you and I live’. But Jane rejects the status he offers. ‘Mr Rochester, I will not be yours.’ The narrator (Jane herself) makes it clear just how hard it was for her to leave him. Her resolve is strengthened by the apparition of her mother. ‘My daughter, flee temptation.’ And off she goes to other adventures.
When I first read Jane Eyre in the 1960s I could not understand why she did not follow her heart and take Mr Rochester’s suggestion. Being with the one you loved was more important than anything, I believed. Since then I better understand the control exerted by the church and social norms, controls on women.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles: a pure woman faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy (1902)
Tess famously becomes the ‘victim of seduction’ by Alec D’Urbeville. She lives in seclusion through her pregnancy and the baby survives only a short time. She reveals her past when she marries Angel Clare but he finds it unacceptable, despite his own ‘criminal conversation’ and what follows is Tess’s inevitable descent into abandonment and ultimately murder. This novel depends upon a double standard: men can be excused a fling, even rape, but a woman is fatally blighted. As I said, no such thing as a fallen man.
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (1960)
Set in the late 1950s this novel considered the fate of the mother of a child born out of marriage. Jane Graham is cast out by her father when she reveals that she is pregnant and experiences hardship in finding a room and coping with a small child. She is helped by the other boarders in the house she found, misfits themselves. The book was considered shocking perhaps because it did not treat marriage as the conclusion of a woman’s story. An unhappy love affair resulted in a baby instead.
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)
This novel was also very successful and shocking. A one-night stand results in pregnancy. Although advised by her older, married sister to get an abortion (still illegal) or to put the baby up for adoption Rosamund Stacey decides to have the baby. She finds support from a friend who needs accommodation and will provide childcare in exchange. Her difficulties are indicated by the title of the novel.
The fallen woman haunts many other novels: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Adam Bede (1859), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Bowles (1969). Other genres come to mind. The Inspector Called by J B Priestly, a play in which one element in the victim’s abuse is the seduction, exploitation and abandonment by the young man of the family. Traviata (1853) the opera by Verdi, based on La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas. One of the most beautiful arias is sung by Germont’s father who pleads to Violetta to give up his son. Their liaison is damaging his daughter’s chances of marriage. There are more examples.
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie
And then there is Mary Wollstonecraft, not a character in a novel but a writer herself. She refused to fall. Most often remembered as a key figure in feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft should have been a fallen woman. She had two children, both conceived out of wedlock. The first, Fanny Imlay, was the result of her liaison with Gilbert Imlay. When he made it clear that their relationship was over she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames. This was a popular method of suicide, classic behaviour of a fallen woman. Mary, her biographers agree, was in despair at her rejection, not haunted by shame. She was rescued. Painters used the dramatic visual impact of suicide to push home the awful destiny of the fallen woman. Cruikshank blamed drink and one of his etchings shows ‘a destitute woman throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’ (1848).
Mary recovered and went on to meet and fall in love with William Godwin, the renowned philosopher. They married before their child was born. Mary died in childbirth. The press reported her death as an appropriate end for such a dissolute woman.
The baby survived. She was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.
The Fallen Woman continues at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ until 3rd January 2016. It was curated by Professor Lynda Nead, author of social histories of the Victorian period, including Myths of Sexuality, Representation of Women in Victorian Britain. To write this post I used the exhibition guide, including articles by Lynda Nead and Margaret Reynolds. I am also grateful for permission to use the images from the exhibition and to Hannah Thomas at the Museum for assistance with them.
Do you have any examples of the fallen woman to add?
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