Elizabeth Gaskell and the Fallen Women

This time we are going to imagine ourselves in the Victorian Era. Let’s walk through the dirty streets in the big cities like Manchester or London. We can think of Charles Dickens’s novels as Hard Times. Now, let’s imagine a society of double moral standards. Morality was supposed to be strict, but in reality, people were eager to release themselves. Remember Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But what happened with women? Were they always romantic and eager to fall in love?

Elizabeth Gaskell, a Victorian novelist contemporary to Dickens and the Bronte Sisters, deserves more recognition nowadays for giving us some insight on women’s positions in the Victorian Era without being romantic or over idealised. Gaskell created female characters from all social classes presenting their problems and difficulties. One of the themes regarding women’s representation in the Victorian Era that calls my attention is the fallen women.

The fallen women was a reality of numerous women in the Victorian Era. But they were considered scandalous, a character not worth being mentioned. Or they were represented through men’s eyes as an object of pleasure. But the figure of the fallen woman is more complex than that.

The British Library defines the fallen women as:

“A ‘fallen woman’ could be a prostitute (occasional or professional), or a woman who had had sex out of wedlock, whether voluntary or against her will – in short, a woman who transgressed Victorian sexual norms. ‘Fallenness’ was associated with a downward spiral that began with sex and led to the loss of social position, ruin, and death”.

Now, it was scandalous to consider the fallen woman as a relevant character even in literature. It was not acceptable to justify how a woman had become a fallen woman. They were condemned by society as abominable creatures. But Elizabeth Gaskell was brave enough to give her readers some explanations and even compassionated thoughts on such harsh reality many women were living in her times, against or under their wills.

In this post, we will revise the figure of the fallen women in three works by Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton, “The Old Nurse’s Story”, and Ruth. In those three works, Gaskell proves to us that the situation of the fallen women was not limited to a specific social class, but it was a problem of social conventions and injustice towards gender. Being a woman in the Victorian Era was not all corsets and roses.

𝑴𝒂𝒓𝒚 𝑩𝒂𝒓𝒕𝒐𝒏 – 𝐸𝑠𝑡𝘩𝑒𝑟

Mary Barton is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel. It was published in 1848 anonymously. Its protagonist, as the title is Mary Barton. The story focuses on the industrial revolution in Manchester.

Esther is no protagonist in Mary Barton. She is a secondary character who plays a fundamental role in the novel as she serves as a contrast to what might have happened to her niece, Mary, the protagonist. At the beginning of the story, no one knows where Esther is. But the characters regret her absence even though she was always trying to hide her working-class situation and thinking about marrying a rich man. 

Before leaving her family, Esther had encouraged Mary’s idea of marrying a man above her position, a man who would come to rescue her. Mary decides to pursue those ideas after all her female relatives pass away, as her mother dies sometime after Esther’s departure. Mary falls in love with Mr Carson, who is the son of her father’s boss.

While the protagonist is daydreaming about Mr Carson, John Barton is not noticing her daughter’s situation. One day, he was walking home in the filthy streets, someone touches his arm and when he turns around:

saw even by darkness visible of that badly lightened street, that the woman who stood by him was of no doubtful profession. It was told by her faded finery, all unfit to meet the pelting of that pitiless storm; the gauze bonnet, once pink, now dirty white; the muslin gown, all dragged, and soaking wet up the very knees; the grey coloured barege shawl, closely wrapped around the form”.

– Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Return of the prodigal”. Mary Barton.

The description Gaskell is giving is characteristical of the fallen woman as a prostitute. Even John Barton replies after she begs him to listen to her: “I tell thee I’m not the man for thee”. He expects her to offer her sinful services.

But then, he recognises that woman as Esther by her voice. Even though this woman was the beloved Esther, Barton feels no compassion or love towards her because she has fallen. She cannot be respected or loved, not even if she is one of the family who might need help. But, Esther wants to warn Barton about Mary because her niece is following the same steps and might make the same mistakes.

In this case, Gaskell shows us a fallen woman who is eager to help a female relative not become a fallen woman. To not commit the same mistakes as her: focusing on pleasure, beauty and daydreaming. Esther embodies the contemporary feminist idea of women for women. She helps another woman to not end like her. Esther might represent one of the most well-known types of fallen women, the prostitute. But Gaskell did not limit her character to describe her immoral behaviour or her relationship with men. Rather her suffering, her misery and her desire to help a beloved one.

Esther suffers for her condition as Barton didn’t listen, she could not appear in front of Mary, or it would mean disgrace, she has no option other than to trust Jem Wilson. Jem is Mary’s childhood friend who is in love with her. Even though Esther is not the protagonist, she ends up being the one who saves Mary from disgrace.

As I said before, Gaskell focuses on Esther’s sufferings. She reveals them to the reader to understand her. Gaskell reveals Esther’s reason for becoming a fallen woman to reflect in the harsh conditions the unaccepted women of society were facing.

When Esther approaches Jem and touches his arm, he shakes her off, but then, when he recognises her, unlike Barton, he forgets the social norms and is relieved to see her again. He does not want to know all the details of her situation, but Esther insists on telling him the whole story to protect Mary.

Esther reveals that as Mary, she loved someone from a different class than hers, a wealthy man. But, Esther doesn’t blame the man’s position. She begs Jem not to hate the man Mary loves but understand the problem that might arise. She tells the situation that could have happened to any woman in a time where marriage was compulsory and being a single mother was a sin:

“he promised me marriage. They all do. Then came three years of happiness. I suppose I ought not to be happy but I was. I had a girl too”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Jem’s interview with poor Esther”. Mary Barton

Jem insists that he cannot bear any longer that shameful revelation, a behaviour anyone from the Victorian Era should expect, but Esther insists he must know her situation. He must know that she was left penniless and with her child by the man who had sworn her love. There was no law on protecting single mothers as it was a sin in the Victorian Era. The man gave her some money after leaving her, which she confessed wasn’t enough. She ended up in the streets after her daughter got ill. As there was no protection, no kindness, she had no option to earn money through prostitution. Gaskell does a brave job by showing her suffering and cruel reality. Esther has no pleasure in what she does. She is ashamed, hurt and alone:

“It would break my mother’s heart if she knew what I am now… Jem save Mary…it would be murder to kill her, but it would be better for her to die than to lead such a life as I do”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Jem’s interview with poor Esther”. Mary Barton

Esther is conscious of her situation. Gaskell does not show her as an object of pleasure or demon but presents the cruel reality of her times. A woman fell because she was in love with a man who left her. A woman who fell and became a prostitute to survive in that harsh unprotected environment. She has no home and lives in the streets. Now, Jem offers her a home, a possibility of restoring her life and finding peace. But Esther has another problem that was the product of her shameful situation: she is an alcoholic. And in the society she lives in, she could only bring shame and misery to her loved ones.

“𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐎𝐥𝐝 𝐍𝐮𝐫𝐬𝐞’𝐬 𝐒𝐭𝐨𝐫𝐲” – 𝑀𝑖𝑠𝑠 𝑀𝑎𝑢𝑑𝑒

“The Old Nurse’s Story” was published for the first time in 1852 in A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire with other short stories. Charles Dickens provided a frame for all of them. It is a ghost story but has realistic situations. And in contrast to Mary Barton, the figure of the fallen woman is from the upper class, a wealthy family. Again, the fallen woman is no protagonist but one of the secondary characters that might function as a monstrous creature in a ghost story. But Gaskell, far from making her monstrous as her society might have done, makes a call for pity and understanding that horrible position.

If a woman from a wealthy family became a fallen woman, she also became an outcast and was thrown out of the family. She was left alone in her shame. She had to face the cruel reality all by herself.

“The Old Nurse Story” focuses mainly on Miss Rosamund, a small child who lives in an old obscure house with her nurse, Hester, the servants and two old ladies. One day, the little girl describes that she saw a pretty little girl outside in the snow calling her to go with her. Hester believes Miss Rosamund to be telling lies as she saw no footprints in the snow save Rosamund’s. But Rosamund insists that she was led by the little child:

“She took me up the Fell-path, up to the holly trees; and there I saw a lady weeping and crying; but when she saw me, she hushed her weeping, and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Old Nurse’s Story”. Gothic Tales.

But the old ladies became afraid that she might be telling the truth. They call out for mercy, imploring Hester to keep Miss Rosamund away from the child and that lady. Afterwards, both Hester and Miss Rosamund see the little girl out in the snow with unfit clothes for such weather. The little phantom child begs her entrance to the house, but everyone save Miss Rosamund is afraid. A servant tells Hester what she knows.

In contrast to Mary Barton, in “The Old Nurse’s Story”, the old lord, father of two sisters, is wealthy and proud. Both had numerous suitors, but none seemed a perfect match for either sister. One day, both sisters fell in love with the same man, a musician teaching their father to play the organ. The father did not care about her daughters, and the musician started flirting with both of them. In the end, one of the sisters, Miss Maude, was chosen over the other. Miss Maude and the musician got married in secret, unknown to anyone else. They had a daughter in secret and kept her hidden in a farmhouse. Meanwhile, the husband kept flirting with his wife’s sister as if nothing had happened. But then, the man decided to leave them both and:

“Miss Maude who had always meant to have her marriage acknowledge when her father should be dead was left now a deserted wife – whom nobody knew to have been married – with a child she dared not own, although she loved it to distraction; living with a father whom she feared, and a sister whom she hated”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Old Nurse’s Story”. Gothic Tales.

Miss Maude is a fallen woman despite belonging to the upper class. Because her marriage and child were kept unknown and her husband left her. Unlike Esther in Mary Barton, Miss Maude decides to keep her secret by staying in her own house as if nothing had happened. She decides to take her little girl to her home and keeps her hidden. The servant tells Hester that she believes that at some point, the family discovered the truth, but she does not know the details, save that one day:

there was a great and violent noise heard, and the old lord’s voice above all, cursing and swearing awfully – and the cries of a little child – and the proud defiance of a woman – and the sound of a blow – and a dead stillness – and moans and wailings dying away on the hillside!”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Olde Nurse’s Story”. Gothic Tales.

In that paragraph, we can imply what is happening to Miss Maude after her father discovers her secret. Now, later on, it is explicitly said that Miss Maude and her child are cast out of the house to the snow and that they should receive no help or shelter.

Now, Gaskell describes another image of the fallen woman that can be associated with Federick Walker’s painting “The Lost Path” which is popularly known in the Victorian Era as a pictorial representation of the fallen woman:

“on the morrow of that wild fearful night, the shepherds, coming down the Fellside, found Miss Maude sitting all crazy and smiling, under the holly trees, nursing a dead child – with a terrible mark on its right shoulder…But that was not what killed it. It was the frost and the cold; every wild creature was in its hole, and every beast in its fold – while the child and the mother were turned out to wander on the Fells!”.

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “The Old Nurse’s Story”. Gothic Tales.

Miss Maude is left with her child out in the cold chill snow, which causes the death of the infant.

Now, like Esther in Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell allows Miss Maude to show her suffering despite being proud. Miss Maude suffers from the death of her child even after she passes away as when she is a ghost she believes Rosamund to be like her dead little girl. Gaskell might present the ghost as a source of horror, but she does not omit the decadent situation that woman faced after being discovered as a fallen woman. Even Esther finds compassion and hopes that Miss Maude can reach salvation: “I taught Miss Rosamund to pray for one who had done a deadly sin”. Gaskell as well remarks on the innocence of Miss Maude’s child, and the mother’s attempt to save her from the awful situation. Even at the end of the story, the now older Miss Grace, Maude’s sister, instead of being cold towards the child and her sister, implores her father to save the innocent child, but that it is impossible. Did you know that Charles Dickens wanted Gaskell to change the ending? I think the ending evidence Gaskell’s crucial choice for understanding the figure of the fallen woman, instead of criticizing them or showing them as a source of horror.

𝑹𝒖𝒕𝒉 – 𝑅𝑢𝑡𝘩 𝐻𝑖𝑙𝑡𝑜𝑛

Ruth is Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel, first published in 1853, just a year after publishing “The Old Nurse’s Story”. In Ruth, Gaskell makes a relevant change: the fallen woman is no longer a secondary character in the story but rather the protagonist. Now, this abhorrent change, at least for the Victorian Era, had already been done by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter (1850) three years earlier. But, it is very relevant to consider that Elizabeth Gaskell was a woman, a woman talking about a fallen woman and making a call for compassion and understanding, which was not certainly something very well accepted. Plus, Hawthorne was an American novelist, and Gaskell was an English novelist. 

Ruth had different receptions. Some considered it a mistake as it was an immoral novel and even burned the copies (Letters by Elizabeth Gaskell). But it also had good receptions. 

It might be compared with Mary Barton but it does not focus on the problems and situations of the Industrial Revolution. As Rasson notices:

“Nor Ruth is about depravity or harsh physical suffering in a sordid environment. Ruth is no sister to Aunt Esther in Mary Barton, whose prostitution and alcoholism, bedraggled finery and wretched lodging-house retreat, are unblinkingly reported”.

-Easson, Agnus. “Introduction”. Ruth. Penguin Classics.

Easson also notices that this novel is neither about sexual passions that might be present in some novels from the Victorian Era. In Ruth, Gaskell treats the moral redemption of the fallen woman. In Mary Barton, Esther is portrayed as the most popular figure of the fallen woman, the one who becomes a prostitute. In “The Old Nurse’s Story” Miss Maude is a fallen woman in the wealthy class. Whereas in Ruth, Gaskell returns to the fallen woman in the working class who is saved by a middle-class family, but she does not suffer physically but for her shameful position. Gaskell focuses on the moral aspects. 

Like Esther, Ruth fell in love with a wealthy man who after having a child, they are left alone. But unlike Esther, Ruth Hilton is innocent. She did not fall in love with Mr Bellingham because of the dresses and pleasures she might have, but because he seems to be the only nice and compassionate being that might take care of her after she becomes orphaned. Of course, as you might guess, Mr Bellingham would never marry or care about the deserted dressmaker, he just only thinks her beautiful to look at.

Ruth almost commits suicide after Mr Bellingham leaves her, but she is saved by Mr Benson, an unmarried man who lives with her sister, unmarried as well. The Bensons can be read as the other outcast of society. Thurstan Benson is a man with a hunchback who would never marry for that physical defect but represent kindness. Faith Benson is a strong, independent and rational unmarried woman who lives with her brother. The Bensons became an uncle to Ruth. Those people would take care of her and protect her. After discovering that Ruth is pregnant, they decide that it would be better to hide the truth and lie about Ruth’s situation, making her disguise as a widow. Acknowledging the truth would make Ruth a monster in the Victorian Era.

During the whole novel, Ruth prays to God to forgive her for being a sinner. She works hard, learns from the Bensons, and becomes a governess in a wealthy family, the Bradshaw. But then her truth is discovered, and Gaskell insists her reader understand Ruth’s position through Mr Benson, who is aware that Ruth has been trying everything to obtain forgiveness, and defends her even if this action costs him his own reputation.

Now, what calls my attention is that Gaskell allows another woman to defend and understand the fallen woman. That character is Jemima Bradshaw, the daughter of Mr Bradshaw. Jemima is at first jelous of Ruth, whom she believes to be a widow, and because she is far prettier than her, she believes that Ruth has captured the attention of her only possible future husband, Mr Farquar. Gaskell gives as much attention to Ruth’s anxiety to become a correct and pure woman as she focuses on Jemima realisation of her jealousy towards Ruth after she discovers she is a fallen woman. Jemima defends Ruth against her father, unlike Miss Grace in “The Old Nurse’s Story”, Jemima insists that Ruth is innocent as well as Leonard, her child. Jemima realises:

“if after having striven back thus far on the heights, a fellow woman was to throw her down into something terrible depth with her unkind, incontinent tongue, that would be cruel!”

-Gaskell, Elisabeth. Ruth.

Jemima will stand with Ruth, instead of considering her an outcast as any “respectable” member of the Victorian Society would have done. She later confesses to Mr Benson that she reflected about Ruth and realises that the situation of the fallen woman could have even happened to her:

With a father and a mother, and a home and caring friends, I am not likely to be tempted like Ruth…but…if you knew all I have been and feeling this last year, you would see how I would yield to every temptation that was able to come to me; and seeing how I have no goodness or strength in me, and how I might just have been like Ruth, or rather worse than she ever was, for I am more headstrong and passionate by nature, I do so thank you and love you for what you did for her!”

-Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Chapter XXVIII”. Ruth.

And she thanks him for having helped Ruth even if it might have been considered immoral or improper in the Victorian Era. Jemima is aware that the Fallen Woman is not a reality exclusively destined for some women, but any woman can turn into one in such a society. By this realization, Gaskell generates a consciousness that the figure of the fallen woman is not a marginal and outcast or afar creature, but rather, it could have happened to any young woman. And she remarks on the importance of forgiveness, help and understanding, rather than condemning their actions.

𝐅𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐥 𝐓𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭𝐬

We have seen an overview of Elizabeth Gaskell representation of the fallen woman in three of her works: Mary Barton, “The Old Nurse’s Story”, and Ruth. Of all we have seen so far, Elisabeth Gaskell does not focus on the fallen woman as a sinful creature who lures men into sexual practice as the Victorian Era might have made everyone believe. Instead, Gaskell focuses on the suffering and the cruel reality that some women of her own time might have been facing, as well as the horrible situation that leads them to such a state. She aims to generate awareness that the fallen woman is more than an external device of horror and scandal, it is but a reality that could happen to any woman in her times.

Want to know more about the fallen woman in the Victorian Era? Don’t miss the exhibition that was hosted by The Foundling Museum.

✶⋆ 𝐼 𝑑𝑜 𝑛𝑜𝑡 𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑛 𝑎𝑛𝑦 𝑖𝑛𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑒 𝑡𝘩𝑟𝑜𝑢𝑔𝘩 𝑚𝑦 𝑝𝑜𝑠𝑡𝑠, 𝑟𝑒𝑓𝑙𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛𝑠 𝑎𝑟𝑒 𝑜𝑛 𝑚𝑦 𝑜𝑤𝑛. 𝑃𝑙𝑒𝑎𝑠𝑒 𝑔𝑖𝑣𝑒 𝑐𝑟𝑒𝑑𝑖𝑡𝑠 𝑡𝑜 𝑡𝘩𝑖𝑠 𝑝𝑎𝑔𝑒 𝑖𝑓 𝑦𝑜𝑢 𝑤𝑜𝑢𝑙𝑑 𝑙𝑖𝑘𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑐𝑖𝑡𝑒 𝑡𝘩𝑖𝑠 𝑎𝑟𝑡𝑖𝑐𝑙𝑒. 𝐼𝑓 𝑦𝑜𝑢 𝑤𝑜𝑢𝑙𝑑 𝑙𝑖𝑘𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑑𝑜𝑛𝑎𝑡𝑒 𝑎 𝑡𝑒𝑎 𝑜𝑟 𝑐𝘩𝑜𝑐𝑜𝑙𝑎𝑡𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑘𝑒𝑒𝑝 𝑜𝑛 𝑤𝑟𝑖𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔, 𝐼 𝑤𝑜𝑢𝑙𝑑 𝑡𝘩𝑎𝑛𝑘 𝑦𝑜𝑢.

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