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The fallen woman in the Victorian novel: Dickens, Gaskell, and Eliot

Margaret C Wiley, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Prostitution, an occupation once tolerated in English society, became known as "the great social evil" by the middle of the nineteenth century. This study will examine the way in which three major nineteenth-century novelists--Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot--deployed the figure of the fallen woman to comment on various aspects of Victorian society. My critical stance is eclectic, drawing from Michel Foucault's theories of power and discourse, new historicism, feminism, and autobiographical criticism. Newspaper articles, medical journals, and diaries of the period will support my argument that society's ideas about what constituted a "fallen woman" was intimately related to society's ideas about what constituted the Angel in the House as well as what constituted the gentleman. I will argue in my chapter on Dickens that his intense involvement in overseeing Urania Cottage, a prostitute reclamation house, had a major impact on his attitude toward the fallen woman. Dickens moves from a position of the prostitute as victim in Oliver Twist to a more jaundiced view of sexually transgressive women in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield. I will suggest that in Dombey and Son, Dickens's treatment of Polly Toodles, the wet-nurse, was an effort to relieve his own guilt and anxiety about his own family's dependence on wet-nurses, a profession often associated with fallen women. In my analysis of Gaskell, I will suggest that in Mary Barton Gaskell, far from offering a simplistic solution to life's problems, as most critics have posited, actually allies herself with radical thinkers of the period. I read Mary Barton as Gaskell's attempt to wrest the prostitution debate from the confines of right-wing religious thinkers by redefining it as a political problem. In her short story "Lizzie Leigh" and in her novel Ruth, she continues to voice concern about the plight of unwed mothers but retreats from her criticism of industrialization offering instead maternal love as a panacea for social ills. Finally, I will argue that George Eliot's own position as the mistress of a married man provided a spur for her genius, for not until she moved in with G. H. Lewes did she start to write fiction. Eliot's work displays a trajectory, ranging from self-condemnation in her first novel Adam Bede, to an author willing to criticize society for its refusal to let women aspire beyond a domestic role in The Mill on the Floss, to an outright attack in Daniel Deronda on a society she views as patriarchal venal and materialistic. I will suggest that by the time Eliot was writing this final novel, she had finally made peace with her own transgressive self.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Wiley, Margaret C, "The fallen woman in the Victorian novel: Dickens, Gaskell, and Eliot" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809412.