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Thickening our Victorian Sense of Female Sexual Fallenness

Thickening our Victorian Sense of Female Sexual Fallenness
© Photograph by Diana Festa

I outline and critique the two Elizas story not to accuse Austen of omission or insensitivity. Seduced and abandoned women were clearly the subject of many novels before and during Austen’s lifetime. Well beyond Austen, too, the reproductive juggernaut that is the fallen woman narrative persisted throughout the long nineteenth-century, especially in the Victorian novel. Interestingly enough, though certain novelists throughout the century afford more subjectivity and voice — or at least plot centrality — to their fallen heroines, not many significant changes regarding the essential elements of the fallen woman archetype and narrative structure.

The fallen woman is usually young, naive, sometimes orphaned, apparently ignorant or not well-informed about sexuality and biology, and is “romanced,” seduced, or assaulted by a man who in turn leaves her pregnant and alone to deal with the unrelenting social stigma of her noticeable sexual fall while he suffers little or no punishment or embarrassment, like Willoughby or, to some extent, Colonel Brandon. As it is in the case of the two Elizas, the archetypal fallen woman narrative must reproduce itself in order to continue its usefulness and viability, effectively transmitting the important warning to both readers and characters. To disrupt the fallen woman narrative is to kill its effectiveness as a stock fictional trope that readily establishes and reinforces ideological restrictions regarding female desire, female sexual and biological knowledge, justified the public judgment of women’s sexual reputation, and the need for ascetic penance, reform, or even death of the fallen.

The two Elizas have numerous fallen sisters in nineteenth-century English novels, but, unlike the buried-but-essential-to-the-plot two Elizas story, fallen heroines like Ruth Hilton, Tess Durbeyfield, and Esther Waters star in novels directly named for — and focused on — them and their specific stories of falling. Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Ruth’ (1853), Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (1891), and George Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ (1894) each foreground the tale of the fallen woman, and the eponymous titles indicate the narrative weight given to the named central character. Though Ruth, Tess, and Esther retain the basic paper-doll outline of the Elizas, Gaskell, Hardy, and Moore grant more voice and three-dimensional presence to the fallen female archetype in their novels.

However, even if authorial intention soundly resides in the exposure of the harsh, unfair treatment of the fallen, the characters these “progressive” authors create do not, or maybe cannot, challenge the expected narrative trajectory. More significantly, the three-dimensional construction of these characters and their painful experiences merely extends and intensifies the tragic and sadistic stories of the fallen by making them more melodramatic, sensational, and ultimately cruel. Fleshing out the body and mind of the fallen woman in mainstream fiction often provides only that much more physical and emotional female body to shame and punish.

Even the most politically pointed mainstream authors create fallen female characters who serve to reinforce the schadenfreude/sadistic quality of the fallen woman story; therefore, it seems there is no growing challenge to this continuous narrative. Of course, several novels throughout the century centre on strong, educated, sophisticated, and ardently passionate female characters like Elizabeth Bennet (of Jane Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice), Margaret Hale (of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854-55 North and South), and Dorothea Brooke (of George Eliot’s 1874 Middlemarch).

However, as mainstream fiction and public codes of propriety dictate, even their portrayal stops short of their explicit sexuality and sexual desires. While these heroines encounter their unique troubles while manoeuvring the marriage plot, even their portrayals as empowered or outspoken females do not actively disrupt the established constraints of the fallen woman narrative or genre. These non-fallen female characters routinely reinforce the ideal female figure of the time, as they do not enter into the realm of dangerous sexuality or suffer sexual consequences primarily because they remain, complex-but-still-good women, until the danger of out-of-wedlock pregnancy has been removed by their successful, loving marriages or partnerships.

The constraints of both paths — that of the marriage plot/good woman and the fallen/bad woman — construct each other without significant challenge, leaving, of course, the good woman in the privileged position and the fallen woman degraded as the pitiful, necessary warning. Because these two narrative trajectories dominate the Victorian novel, it may seem anachronistic or unrealistic to seek within the period an alternative narrative that challenges the fallen woman archetype beyond merely presenting her privileged good-woman counterpart as ideal. Absent are female characters who come to understand their sexuality not through abusive seduction and false promises, but through sexual education and protective information regarding birth control and human anatomy. In mainstream nineteenth-century English literature in general and the Victorian novel in particular, to find a novel that actively challenges the juggernaut of the fallen woman narrative seems an impossible task.

Current critical scholarship tends to agree. Scholars such as Deborah Logan, Amanda Anderson, Nina Auerbach, and Sally Mitchell each posit specific, compelling, and clear arguments about the fallen woman in Victorian literature and culture, but none offers or investigates an alternative narrative possibility that actively challenges or transcends the narrative trappings of female fallenness.

Each of these scholars’ goal is to carve out her own particular argumentative niche regarding previously overlooked, ignored, or unexplored aspects of the fallen woman literary genre and cultural figure. However different their ultimate arguments, these scholars nonetheless share common ground, especially regarding the separate spheres ideology dominating the social structures and cultural imagination of the Victorian period. Echoes of, and direct references to, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s literary archetypes of the “angel in the house” and her opposite, “the madwoman in the attic,” inform all of these critical approaches to the troubling figure of the sexually fallen woman who disrupts the female ideal.

In fact, to situate the fallen woman in her cultural context, most critical approaches necessarily discuss significant “Woman Question” texts of the Victorian era, such as Coventry Patmore’s and Sarah Stickney Ellis’s — separate, but similar — concepts of the angelic female paragon of Victorian domestic bliss. This stereotype is created by a direct contrast to the problematic prostitutes and redundant women discussed, respectively, in William Acton’s ‘Prostitution’ (1857) and W. R. Greg’s ‘Why Are Women Redundant?’ (1862).

Additionally, though primarily investigating the fallen woman in literature, scholars writing about the fallen woman examine and seriously consider a constellation of texts in order to frame their arguments. In an effort to provide a more complete consideration of the cultural architecture informing Victorian fallenness, texts as varied as paintings, first-person narratives of the sexually fallen, newspaper accounts of sexual or other titillating crimes or scandals, and weekly literature and magazines populate these critical interrogations of the fallen female figure.

For example, in Deborah Logan’s 1998 ‘Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing: Marry, Stitch, Die, or Do Worse’, her main goal is to provide a much-needed monograph dedicated exclusively to women authors and their particular construction of fallenness in their own writing. However, even this explicit goal must extend beyond the literary texts Logan employs. She explicitly states: “This book, then, is a study about Victorian fallen women both real and literary, about the surrounding texts and contexts that branded them criminals and outcasts, and about the cultural dynamics that sought to banish such anomalies by transporting them to real and metaphorical penal colonies.”

In considering texts beyond women’s writing, Logan examines the “Woman Question” debates mentioned above via Acton’s claims in ‘Prostitution’ and ‘The Magdalen’s Friend’. Referring to Acton’s arguments, Logan writes: “Perhaps nowhere is the power differential between Victorian males and females more clearly seen than in the sexual double standard, which demanded female chastity (a ‘moral’ standard) while promoting the tradition of male sexual activity prior to marriage as necessary to men’s health (a ‘scientific’ standard)…. The idea that ‘good’ (middle- and upper-class) women must be kept sexually pure for marriage in order to ensure legitimate issue for inheritance purposes is echoed even in such evangelical tracts as ‘The Magdalen’s Friend’. Despite public outcry against them, prostitutes were clearly integral to the Victorian social structure. Some clergymen even argued that prostitution was necessary and that it was not for humans to question an institution sanctioned by an apparently utilitarian God ‘for the greater good.’ The results of this dynamic are most commonly dramatised by middle- and upper-class males’ seduction of working-class girls, whom they subsequently abandon in poverty and disgrace, usually with a bastard child to raise alone and without means (typically regarded by prostitution theorists as the first step to prostitution). In this way, ideologists claim, the purity of respectable women and the sanctity of the middle-class nuclear family are preserved, the sacrifice of lower-class girls and women being a small price to pay for ensuring the dominant culture’s perpetuation.”

Ultimately, Logan claims that women authors writing about various forms of female fallenness and indecency — prostitution, sexual slavery, alcoholism, infanticide, bigamy, and syphilis — implicitly combat and challenge institutionalized and ingrained forces such as those detailed above by the risks they take as female writers writing beyond the boundaries of sexual and social respectability. Logan concludes her study by pointing toward end-of-the-century fiction focusing on “New Women” who desire “to exercise control over their sexuality and reproduction,” in part because “women’s quest for independence and autonomy beyond the domestic circle itself became a version of fallenness,” especially as the century progressed.

Similarly, Amanda Anderson, in her 1993 ‘Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture’, expands her analysis of fallenness beyond sexual transgression, and focuses on the rhetorical and metaphorical constructions of fallenness to move the argument into the realm of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and agency. Anderson explains: “In criticising a too-exclusive concentration on fallenness as transgressive sexuality, I do not mean to suggest that fallenness had no sexual referent or that no traces of suppressed sexual desire surround representations of fallen women; and of course, one dominant fear behind the perceived contaminating power of the prostitute was the fear of the sexually transmitted disease. This book, however, self-consciously moves beyond a restrictively sexual meaning of fallenness to the cultural self-understanding of Victorians.”

Anderson acknowledges that the term “fallen woman” is fluid enough to contain everything from mistresses to the sexually seduced to adulteresses to unmarried, but sexually active, women, but she sharply notes that one thing remains constant amidst this fluidity: “the attenuated autonomy and fractured identity of the fallen figure”. It is this attenuated autonomy that requires attention, especially regarding agency, subjectivity, and identity intersubjectively “understood as constituted in and through ongoing relations with others”.

As Anderson concludes, this is because of the Victorian “tendency to protect cherished conceptions of moral autonomy and stable identity by creating a category of feminine fallenness. Through depictions of fallenness, the many perceived threats to the self — to its coherence, freedom, and distinct recognizability — could be both exaggerated and displaced, and also eventually diminished and dismissed, ushered off the scene, as were so many fallen figures in Victorian literature.”

In sum, the rhetorical and metaphorical category of female fallenness becomes an anchor that holds other supposedly stable identities in place. Employing literary works by several mainstream Victorian writers like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anderson uses these works to investigate the rhetoric of fallenness and intersubjective gender and identity politics specific to Victorian culture.

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