Saturday, 22 November 2014

Reframing the Victorians- The Mistress/ Fallen Woman

In the Victorian period society was very conservative with respect to sexuality and female purity was valued highly.  The emphasis on female purity was directly related to the primary goal for middle-class women: marriage. Women needed to present themselves as marriageable or suffer the consequences of being alienated by a society that valued women primarily for their marriageability. Women were expected to remain virgins until marriage and were expected to only have sex with their husband. Female sexual desire were seen as non-existent. Women who strayed from moral expectations became known as 'fallen women'. 

The fate of the 'fallen woman' is often depicted in many Victorian pieces of art and literature. For example in Richard Redgrave's 'The Outcast' (1851). 

Richard Regrave's 'The Outcast' (1851)

The painting by Richard Redgrave depicts a stern patriarch casting out a 'fallen woman' and her illegitimate baby. It is possible that they are related to the patriarch, perhaps his daughter and grandchild. Despite the visible snow and cold outside he seems to be gesturing angrily at her to leave his 'respectable' house. Another young woman, possibly another daughter kneels and begs the patriarch to relent whilst the mother of the family comforts a weeping son. On the floor there seems to be an incriminating letter. There is a biblical painting hanging on the wall, it is arguably a painting of Christ and the woman taken in Adultery. Redgrave's painting seems to be ambiguous, it is possible that it could be meant as a warning to other women to avoid a similar fate. However it could also be argued that it was intended to evoke empathy for the plight of the  fallen woman abandoned by her family and left out in the cold. The painting of Christ and the woman taken in Adultery certainly seems to embody forgiveness and it could be argued that through including this painting Redgrave seems to think that the 'fallen woman' should be forgiven as Christ forgave the adulterer.  

Such is the shame of being a 'fallen woman' in Victorian society that many women committed suicide to escape the ostracism and dishonour. This is depicted in George Frederic Watts' 'Found Drowned' painting (1850). 
'Found Drowned' by George Frederic Watts (1850)

Watts' 'Found Drowned' painting depicts the dead body of a woman  found washed up beneath the arch of the Waterloo Bridge with half of her body still immersed in the River Thames below. The title given to the painting refers to the legal term that was used in the 19th Century for a coroners inquest. The woman is very simply dressed which could indicate her wealth and status suggesting that she has very little money. The woman is also seen to be holding a heart-shaped locket which can be seen more clearly in the close-up below.

A close up of the image reveals the woman is holding a heart shaped locket.

The fact that she is holding a heart-shaped locket suggests that the reason for her death and suicide is attributed to a lover. Her position in death is also interesting, she is positioned with her arms outstretched which evokes the image of Christ on the cross. Her face seems to be illuminated despite her dark surroundings which draws attention to her serene expression that consequently implies she is peaceful in death. The woman in the painting represents a 'fallen woman' who was most probably ostracised and found her only solution in suicide. Unfortunately there were not many escapes for women of the time period who had 'disgraced' themselves and had become known as a 'fallen woman'. For this woman society left her no option but to commit suicide. 

Literature also depicts the fate of the 'fallen woman' and a very famous example of this is Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urberville.
Eddie Redmayne (left) as Angel, Gemma Arterton as Tess (centre) and Hans Matheson (right) as Alec in the BBC adaptation of Hardy's novel.

The novel details the life and downfall of a young countrywoman called Tess Durbeyfield who is raped/seduced, falls pregnant and eventually dies.  Readers first meet Tess who is participating in the annual May-Day dance in the second chapter of Phase the First: The Maiden. The May-Day dance epitomises Tess' initial virtue and maidenhead, it also emphasises the importance of virginity and purity in the time period. The Victorians celebrated May-Day to welcome the arrival of spring as well as the general purity of the season. Hardy's construction of Tess is as the ultimate innocent which is emphasised through the title of the book, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman. At the end of Phase the first Tess is raped/ seduced by Alec d'Urberville and this is seen when Hardy writes 'Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such as  a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive.."( Hardy, pg.65).  Hardy describes Tess at her purest just as she is about to be raped and lose her virginity. Hardy's account of the rape/seduction is ambiguous probably because of the time period in which the novel was written. As stated above Victorians were very conservative where sexuality was concerned therefore writing a blatantly sexually explicit passage would have been seen as improper. Readers are not entirely sure of what has happened until Phase the Second: Maiden No More. The title of the second phase indicates without a shadow of doubt that Tess has lost her virginity and purity and as such is now known as a 'fallen woman'. Alec d'Urberville is well aware of how Tess will be perceived in society and offers her money and stability in exchange for her being his official mistress. Tess initially refuses, 'I should be your creature to go on doing that…" (pg.68). Hardy's use of the noun 'creature' is interesting as it suggests that should she become his mistress not only would she would be living in carnal sin but she would also be like an animal, distinct from a human being.
As a result of her encounter with Alec, Tess falls pregnant and gives birth to a baby who she names Sorrow. However, the child doesn't live long and eventually dies. Tess manages to baptise the child before he dies but Sorrow is denied a christian burial on account of his illegitimate birth. Instead he is laid to rest 'in that shabby corner of God's allotment where He lets the nettles grow and where all unbaptised infants, notorious drunkards, suicides and others of the conjecturally damned are laid'. (pg.86) As an innocent child who's only 'crime' was to be born, contemporary readers feel empathy for him due to his unfair treatment by the church and society. It could be argued that through his description of Sorrow's burial Hardy is being critical of the harsh treatment suffered by 'fallen women' and their illegitimate children. 

In Phase the third: The Rally readers are initially given an optimistic view of Tess' future when she finds happiness and love in Talbothays and eventually going on to marry Angel Clare, suggesting that despite her past trauma Tess can recover and rejoin society. However Tess and readers' hopes are dashed when Angel eventually finds out about her past encounter with Alec and rejects her as his wife despite her forgiving him for the same offence he committed in his youth. Through Angel's rejection of Tess Hardy illustrates the harsh double standard that existed in Victorian society. There are many instances in the novel where Hardy evokes empathy for Tess, the 'fallen woman' and seems to be critical of the society's treatment of her, however it could also be argued that he abides by the status quo that the 'fallen woman' will be ruined and cannot ever be forgiven for their sin when he eventually kills her off in Phase the seventh: The fulfilment. Hardy writes "It was a black flag. 'Justice' was done…" (pg. 350), the raising of the black flag signals Tess' death by hanging as a result of killing Alec d'Urberville. It is interesting that Hardy uses inverted commas when he writes that justice was done as it expresses irony suggesting that Tess's death was not justice at all. Ultimately Hardy seems to be critical of Victorian society's views on the fallen woman despite Tess' death at the end of the novel. Furthermore the full title of the novel is Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman thus ultimately presenting her as pure and innocent despite the fact that she is a 'fallen woman'. When the novel was first published in 1891 there was considerable controversy because of the fact that Hardy had named Tess as a 'pure' woman in the title. According to conventional Victorian morality no one who had engaged in pre-marital sex could be seen as 'pure'. Furthermore, Tess commits murder towards the end of the novel which further contradicted Hardy's presentation of her a 'pure' woman. With his subtitle Hardy suggests that there is far more to being pure than just whether or not someone has had sex outside of wedlock, in Tess' case her character and personality make her pure regardless of what society thinks of her.


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