DuringQueen Victoria’s reign, the idea of morality became an important yetquestionable factor in society, with those who deviated from what was deemed’normal’ social behavior being punished for seemingly innocuous crimes in anattempt to restore faith in a corrupt and failing social system. Due to rapidadvances in tools and technology during this time, England’s countryside’s werebeing abandoned as more and more people were flocking to the city to followopportunities involving scientific and socio-philosophical study. This meantthat over half the country’s population resided in London creating a pollutedand dangerous environment where the majority of people lived in a slum-likesituation. Since the Industrial Revolution had developed so quickly, therewasn’t time for labor laws to be put in place, resulting in the working classearning low wages and experiencing terrible working conditions, whilst themiddle-upper class experienced the benefits of the economic change. It was an era where there were two opposingclimates, the stringent and orderly lives of the upper-class, and the deprivedand polluted lifestyle of the working class.Forwomen, it was extremely difficult during this time as they had no rights, andwere restricted to essentially two lifestyles, ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the angelof the house’. The lack of labor laws accompanied by low wages meant that somewomen were forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.
However, thiswas often seen by the upper class as a voluntary choice and lower-class womenwere becoming ostracized, being called ‘fallen women’: women who gave intotheir sexuality and took sexual partners out of wedlock. These women were seenas moral menaces, described by George Watt as spreading “the most frightfulcontagion and immorality”1, and were thereforephysically removed from the view of society (usually through death) due toanxieties that their lack of shame would impact and influence the women inhigher society. In an attempt to handle these deep-seated anxieties, novelswritten about ‘fallen women’ began to emerge as they aimed to reinforce theidea that if a woman’s sexuality was expressed rather than repressed, then shewould be punished.
They were fear-mongering stories created to moralize womenand warn them about what would happen if they were to transgress from the behaviorthat was expected of them. Literature was one of the biggest influencers of thepublics opinion, therefore it was regularly used as platform to either enforceor oppose social wrongdoing depending on the authors personal viewpoint. Thedecision of authors to punish the transgressive woman and the impact it had onthe treatment of these women in reality will be the topic of this paper,focusing primarily on the works of Robert Browning and Charles Dickens.Inthe novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, he attempted to portray charactersthat shocked the audience.
However, his decision to include Nancy- alower-class female who is characterized as being a prostitute-seems relativelycommonplace as it was widely accepted by the Victorian middle-class that thefilthy environment of the slums fostered criminal activity and sexual deviance.Rather than existing for shocking reasons, it seems Nancy’s purpose was toshowcase what life was really like for a working-class woman rather thanromanticizing the idea of a ‘criminal underground’. Despite living in anenvironment that would deem her one of the most socially repugnant members ofsociety, Dickens seems insistent upon showcasing the inner nobility of Nancy,and emphasizing the fact that just because she is a prostitute, it doesn’t meanher personality is any different from that of a middle-class woman.
However,at no point does Dickens directly say that Nancy is a prostitute, it is merelyinsinuated by her saying “I have been in the same trade, and in the sameservice, for twelve years since”2 as well as Sikes askingher if she knows “what” she is. Dickens’ decision to refrain from establishingher character as a “whore” may be because he knew that a Victorian audiencewould be so complacent to the idea that fallen women deserved to die that theywouldn’t feel any sympathy when she inevitably met her demise. However, itsclear that Dickens wanted to evoke compassion from the audience as, despitebeing a prostitute, her life is depicted as one of unrelenting abuse. It waswidely assumed that women in lower classes became prostitutes due to lack ofmorals, however the fact that Nancy was born into that environment suggeststhat she had no choice. As stated by Judith Walkowitz, “poor working womenoften drifted into prostitution because they felt powerless to assertthemselves and alter their lives in any other way”3. Nancy was introduced toFagin as an orphan at the age of 5, and followed a life of crime ever since. Bygiving Nancy no chance at innocence, Dickens provokes the audience to realizethat some women are fallen not because they are promiscuous, but because theyhave no other options.
The fact that Nancy was introduced to Fagin at such ayoung age also prompts the audience to understand that it isn’t her fault sheleads a life of crime, its thanks to Fagin, and later Sykes. George Wattsuggests 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 thatit’s not Nancy who is voluntarily in the wrong here, she is merely a puppet toFagin, living the life he maps out for her.Dickensportrayal of Nancy in this way is an attempt to show the audience that justbecause Nancy was killed, it doesn’t mean she deserved to die. He wasn’tpunishing her for her transgression, but merely showcasing that she died anunwarranted death simply because of the environment she grew up in. Women borninto middle-class families were raised in a way that differs greatly from theway Nancy was raised.
They were taught manners and given a relatively goodeducation, as well as given opportunities for a guaranteed future whether it bethrough money or marriage. They were essentially taught to be an idyllic memberof society and a perfect wife-know as an ‘angel of the house’. ‘The angel ofthe house’ is a term used to describe the ideal Victorian woman. It is derivedfrom a poem written by Coventry Patmore in which he defines his angel-like wifeas 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 idyllictraits, if she were to become sexually deviant, then she was immediatelystigmatized and shunned from society as demonstrated by Nancy in Oliver Twist. Unfortunately,Victorian women were also judged highly on their appearance. The way theylooked could implicate them in the eyes of society, and if they didn’t appearrespectable, they would be immediately shunned.
For example, when firstintroduced, the two characters Nancy and Rose Maylie are offered extremelydifferent descriptions. Nancy is described as having her hair “not very neatlyturned up” and having “rather untidy” shoes and stockings, whereas Rose isdescribed as “Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould, so mild and gentle, sopure and beautiful”5.It’s clear that these descriptions showcase the extreme differences inappearance of both characters, even the language used to describe Rose isdelicate and sweet which further emphasizes her beauty. She is the epitome ofan angel, and the contrasting descriptions reinforce that she is what a womanshould look like, not Nancy. Victorian society didn’t seem to consider the factthat the reason working-class women looked so disheveled and unkempt, was notbecause they lacked the desire to look presentable, but because they lived in asituation where they had no money for nice clothes, and most likely no accessto materials that would offer them good sanitation. An article published inCornhill Magazine in 1866 offered an anonymous writers opinion that “When awoman gets to be utterly careless of her personal appearance—personalcleanliness—you may be sure that she is careful for nothing else that is good.
“6 This suggests that if awoman didn’t care for her appearance, then chances are she didn’t care foranything else, such as the law or her morals. This means that when describingNancy, Dickens immediately presents the idea to the audience that she is aprostitute, simply because of the way she looks.MyLast Duchess by Robert Browning also demonstrates how if a woman is to becometransgressive and, more specifically, stray away from her marriage, then shewill be punished, in this case by death. The poem, which is a dramaticmonologue, is about how a Duke ended up having his wife killed simply becauseshe was smiling at other men, stating, “I gave commands; Then all smilesstopped together.
“7However, Browning’s depiction of the Duke is erratic, suggesting that thetransgressions he noticed in his wife were merely friendly gestures that heexaggerated in his mind. The fact that this was such a commonplace behavior inthe Victorian era is disturbing as it means that women were forced to fear evenacknowledging 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 samejudgment as her working-class counterpart. The patriarchal society meant thatwomen, regardless of their social standing, were still expected to be the’angel of the house’ as when they married, they became an object in thepossession of their husband. The fact that all women seemed to be held to thesame standard, may suggest why Gretchen Huey Barnhill argues that “women wereharsher critics of other women who sexually transgressed than were men.”8 They weren’t judgmental of the working-classbecause they were disgusted by their life choices, but because whenever theylooked at them, they saw a glimpse of what their lives could look like in aninstant. Browning’s poem is an example of a woman who falls from any aspect ofsociety, is destined for death due to their transgressions.
The fact that therewere no repercussions for the Duke after he murdered his wife is equallyterrifying as is implies that sexual transgression was so morally repugnantthat it was worth killing someone over, but the killing of that person wasn’tdeserving of punishment.Similarly,in ‘Porphyria’s Lover” also written by Robert Browning, a woman is killed forher sexual transgressions, while no real punishment immediately occurs for hermurderer. The poem suggests that the woman is visiting her lover against thewill of her parents, and when she begins to mention how she has temporarilyescaped societal pressure, her lover kills her out of fear that she will giveinto her expectations and leave him. Sexual transgression was commonplace inVictorian literature, meaning that in order to shock the reader, Browning hadto murder her provoking a moral reaction. The way the woman is described makesthe reader forget that she is being transgressive as she appears so innocent,but by having her killed, Browning prompts the reader into feeling sympathythat a girl so wholesome didn’t deserve to die. Similar to Nancy, thecharacters had personalities that matched the patriarchal ideals, but theirsexual transgressions led to their unfortunate demise. Thankfully for Nancy,her murderer, Sikes, is killed, which further supports the idea that Dickinsdid not believe women had the right to be killed by men who disagreed withtheir lifestyle.Overall,Victorian Literature, whether it be poetry or novels, was used as a platformfor authors to dictate their opinions on social behaviors and traditions in anattempt to either influence changes in society, or to reinforce the structurethat was already in place.
Charles Dickins used his platform to bring to lightthe 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 moraldeviant, doesn’t mean she deserves to die. However, Robert Browning wrote poemsthat 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 thehouse’ in Dickins’ works isn’t so much praised as it used to emphasize the poortreatment of the working-class women.
The entire concept of being an angeldoesn’t exist to praise women who follow that standard, but instead to scarethem into being complacent in a dangerously patriarchal society.1 George. Watt, TheFallen Woman in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel, (Great Britain:Routledge, 2016), p. 14.2 Charles. Dickins, OliverTwist, (United States of America: Simon and Schuster, 2007)3 Judith. Walkowitz, Prostitutionand Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (NewYork:Cambridge UP, 1980)4 George.
Watt, The Fallen Woman in theNineteenth-Century English Novel, (Great Britain: Routledge, 2016), p. 14.5 Charles.Dickins, Oliver Twist, (United Statesof America: Simon and Schuster, 2007)6 ‘Criminal Women.
‘ CornhillMagazine 14 (1866): p. 152-1607 Robert Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’ in The Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43768/my-last-duchess accessed 12.01.188 Gretchen Huey Barnhill, ‘Fallen Angels: Female Wrongdoing inVictorian Novels’ (unpublished Master Thesis, University of Lethbridge, 2005)