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Queen Victoria’s reign, the idea of morality became an important yet
questionable factor in society, with those who deviated from what was deemed
‘normal’ social behavior being punished for seemingly innocuous crimes in an
attempt to restore faith in a corrupt and failing social system. Due to rapid
advances in tools and technology during this time, England’s countryside’s were
being abandoned as more and more people were flocking to the city to follow
opportunities involving scientific and socio-philosophical study. This meant
that over half the country’s population resided in London creating a polluted
and dangerous environment where the majority of people lived in a slum-like
situation. Since the Industrial Revolution had developed so quickly, there
wasn’t time for labor laws to be put in place, resulting in the working class
earning low wages and experiencing terrible working conditions, whilst the
middle-upper class experienced the benefits of the economic change.  It was an era where there were two opposing
climates, the stringent and orderly lives of the upper-class, and the deprived
and polluted lifestyle of the working class.

women, it was extremely difficult during this time as they had no rights, and
were restricted to essentially two lifestyles, ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the angel
of the house’. The lack of labor laws accompanied by low wages meant that some
women were forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive. However, this
was often seen by the upper class as a voluntary choice and lower-class women
were becoming ostracized, being called ‘fallen women’: women who gave into
their sexuality and took sexual partners out of wedlock. These women were seen
as moral menaces, described by George Watt as spreading “the most frightful
contagion and immorality”1, and were therefore
physically removed from the view of society (usually through death) due to
anxieties that their lack of shame would impact and influence the women in
higher society. In an attempt to handle these deep-seated anxieties, novels
written about ‘fallen women’ began to emerge as they aimed to reinforce the
idea that if a woman’s sexuality was expressed rather than repressed, then she
would be punished. They were fear-mongering stories created to moralize women
and warn them about what would happen if they were to transgress from the behavior
that was expected of them. Literature was one of the biggest influencers of the
publics opinion, therefore it was regularly used as platform to either enforce
or oppose social wrongdoing depending on the authors personal viewpoint. The
decision of authors to punish the transgressive woman and the impact it had on
the treatment of these women in reality will be the topic of this paper,
focusing primarily on the works of Robert Browning and Charles Dickens.

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the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, he attempted to portray characters
that shocked the audience. However, his decision to include Nancy- a
lower-class female who is characterized as being a prostitute-seems relatively
commonplace as it was widely accepted by the Victorian middle-class that the
filthy environment of the slums fostered criminal activity and sexual deviance.
Rather than existing for shocking reasons, it seems Nancy’s purpose was to
showcase what life was really like for a working-class woman rather than
romanticizing the idea of a ‘criminal underground’. Despite living in an
environment that would deem her one of the most socially repugnant members of
society, Dickens seems insistent upon showcasing the inner nobility of Nancy,
and emphasizing the fact that just because she is a prostitute, it doesn’t mean
her personality is any different from that of a middle-class woman.

at no point does Dickens directly say that Nancy is a prostitute, it is merely
insinuated by her saying “I have been in the same trade, and in the same
service, for twelve years since”2 as well as Sikes asking
her if she knows “what” she is. Dickens’ decision to refrain from establishing
her character as a “whore” may be because he knew that a Victorian audience
would be so complacent to the idea that fallen women deserved to die that they
wouldn’t feel any sympathy when she inevitably met her demise. However, its
clear that Dickens wanted to evoke compassion from the audience as, despite
being a prostitute, her life is depicted as one of unrelenting abuse. It was
widely assumed that women in lower classes became prostitutes due to lack of
morals, however the fact that Nancy was born into that environment suggests
that she had no choice. As stated by Judith Walkowitz, “poor working women
often drifted into prostitution because they felt powerless to assert
themselves and alter their lives in any other way”3. Nancy was introduced to
Fagin as an orphan at the age of 5, and followed a life of crime ever since. By
giving Nancy no chance at innocence, Dickens provokes the audience to realize
that some women are fallen not because they are promiscuous, but because they
have no other options. The fact that Nancy was introduced to Fagin at such a
young age also prompts the audience to understand that it isn’t her fault she
leads a life of crime, its thanks to Fagin, and later Sykes. George Watt
suggests that “Nancy lives the way she does, not because of innate depravity,
but because Fagin’s craft is too much to withstand”4, supporting the idea that
it’s not Nancy who is voluntarily in the wrong here, she is merely a puppet to
Fagin, living the life he maps out for her.

portrayal of Nancy in this way is an attempt to show the audience that just
because Nancy was killed, it doesn’t mean she deserved to die. He wasn’t
punishing her for her transgression, but merely showcasing that she died an
unwarranted death simply because of the environment she grew up in. Women born
into middle-class families were raised in a way that differs greatly from the
way Nancy was raised. They were taught manners and given a relatively good
education, as well as given opportunities for a guaranteed future whether it be
through money or marriage. They were essentially taught to be an idyllic member
of society and a perfect wife-know as an ‘angel of the house’. ‘The angel of
the house’ is a term used to describe the ideal Victorian woman. It is derived
from a poem written by Coventry Patmore in which he defines his angel-like wife
as the model for what all women should be like: loyal, pure and submissive.
Despite this, regardless of if a woman were to exhibit all of these idyllic
traits, if she were to become sexually deviant, then she was immediately
stigmatized and shunned from society as demonstrated by Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Victorian women were also judged highly on their appearance. The way they
looked could implicate them in the eyes of society, and if they didn’t appear
respectable, they would be immediately shunned. For example, when first
introduced, the two characters Nancy and Rose Maylie are offered extremely
different descriptions. Nancy is described as having her hair “not very neatly
turned up” and having “rather untidy” shoes and stockings, whereas Rose is
described as “Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould, so mild and gentle, so
pure and beautiful”5.
It’s clear that these descriptions showcase the extreme differences in
appearance of both characters, even the language used to describe Rose is
delicate and sweet which further emphasizes her beauty. She is the epitome of
an angel, and the contrasting descriptions reinforce that she is what a woman
should look like, not Nancy. Victorian society didn’t seem to consider the fact
that the reason working-class women looked so disheveled and unkempt, was not
because they lacked the desire to look presentable, but because they lived in a
situation where they had no money for nice clothes, and most likely no access
to materials that would offer them good sanitation. An article published in
Cornhill Magazine in 1866 offered an anonymous writers opinion that “When a
woman gets to be utterly careless of her personal appearance—personal
cleanliness—you may be sure that she is careful for nothing else that is good.”6 This suggests that if a
woman didn’t care for her appearance, then chances are she didn’t care for
anything else, such as the law or her morals. This means that when describing
Nancy, Dickens immediately presents the idea to the audience that she is a
prostitute, simply because of the way she looks.

Last Duchess by Robert Browning also demonstrates how if a woman is to become
transgressive and, more specifically, stray away from her marriage, then she
will be punished, in this case by death. The poem, which is a dramatic
monologue, is about how a Duke ended up having his wife killed simply because
she was smiling at other men, stating, “I gave commands; Then all smiles
stopped together.”7
However, Browning’s depiction of the Duke is erratic, suggesting that the
transgressions he noticed in his wife were merely friendly gestures that he
exaggerated in his mind. The fact that this was such a commonplace behavior in
the Victorian era is disturbing as it means that women were forced to fear even
acknowledging other men at the risk of being accused of adultery. Unlike Nancy,
the Duchess belongs to an upper-class society, yet she still suffers the same
judgment as her working-class counterpart. The patriarchal society meant that
women, regardless of their social standing, were still expected to be the
‘angel of the house’ as when they married, they became an object in the
possession of their husband. The fact that all women seemed to be held to the
same standard, may suggest why Gretchen Huey Barnhill argues that “women were
harsher critics of other women who sexually transgressed than were men.”8  They weren’t judgmental of the working-class
because they were disgusted by their life choices, but because whenever they
looked at them, they saw a glimpse of what their lives could look like in an
instant. Browning’s poem is an example of a woman who falls from any aspect of
society, is destined for death due to their transgressions. The fact that there
were no repercussions for the Duke after he murdered his wife is equally
terrifying as is implies that sexual transgression was so morally repugnant
that it was worth killing someone over, but the killing of that person wasn’t
deserving of punishment.

in ‘Porphyria’s Lover” also written by Robert Browning, a woman is killed for
her sexual transgressions, while no real punishment immediately occurs for her
murderer. The poem suggests that the woman is visiting her lover against the
will of her parents, and when she begins to mention how she has temporarily
escaped societal pressure, her lover kills her out of fear that she will give
into her expectations and leave him. Sexual transgression was commonplace in
Victorian literature, meaning that in order to shock the reader, Browning had
to murder her provoking a moral reaction. The way the woman is described makes
the reader forget that she is being transgressive as she appears so innocent,
but by having her killed, Browning prompts the reader into feeling sympathy
that a girl so wholesome didn’t deserve to die. Similar to Nancy, the
characters had personalities that matched the patriarchal ideals, but their
sexual transgressions led to their unfortunate demise. Thankfully for Nancy,
her murderer, Sikes, is killed, which further supports the idea that Dickins
did not believe women had the right to be killed by men who disagreed with
their lifestyle.

Victorian Literature, whether it be poetry or novels, was used as a platform
for authors to dictate their opinions on social behaviors and traditions in an
attempt to either influence changes in society, or to reinforce the structure
that was already in place. Charles Dickins used his platform to bring to light
the underlying issues surrounding the question of morality in Victorian London,
specifically on the treatment of women who transgressed from societal expectations.
He attempts to show that just because a woman looks and acts like a moral
deviant, doesn’t mean she deserves to die. However, Robert Browning wrote poems
that appear to reinforce the idea that if a wife isn’t ‘the angel of the house’
then she has no reason to be allowed to live. The concept of ‘The Angel in the
house’ in Dickins’ works isn’t so much praised as it used to emphasize the poor
treatment of the working-class women. The entire concept of being an angel
doesn’t exist to praise women who follow that standard, but instead to scare
them into being complacent in a dangerously patriarchal society.

1 George. Watt, The
Fallen Woman in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, (Great Britain:
Routledge, 2016), p. 14.

2 Charles. Dickins, Oliver
Twist, (United States of America: Simon and Schuster, 2007)

3 Judith. Walkowitz, Prostitution
and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (New

Cambridge UP, 1980)

4 George.
Watt, The Fallen Woman in the
Nineteenth-Century English Novel, (Great Britain: Routledge, 2016), p. 14.

5 Charles.
Dickins, Oliver Twist, (United States
of America: Simon and Schuster, 2007)

6 ‘Criminal Women.’ Cornhill
Magazine 14 (1866): p. 152-160

7 Robert Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’ in The Poetry Foundation accessed 12.01.18

8 Gretchen Huey Barnhill, ‘Fallen Angels: Female Wrongdoing in
Victorian Novels’ (unpublished Master Thesis, University of Lethbridge, 2005) 

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