Fallen women, including the one Charles Dickens didn’t save

Two hundred years ago in Europe, women who misbehaved sexually were referred to as fallen from God’s grace. In mid- and late-19th-century paintings, the fallen woman was portrayed in a physically low position: gazing hopelessly up at the sky, kneeling in shame and sometimes being raised up by a kind person, as in this picture by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

A 1949 photo by Art Shay, also called Fallen Woman,shows the persistence of this iconography: the low, twisted, deviant body.

It is interesting to study the history of a phantom: the phantom of Rescue, of the woman who needs to be Saved, when it turns out she doesn’t want saving because she doesn’t consider what awaits her after being saved to be an improvement.

This week is Charles Dickens’s anniversary, reminding me that he was involved in Urania Cottage, a Rescue home for prostitutes run by an upper-class woman, Angela Burdett-Coutts. I didn’t remember that he once tried to save a woman who didn’t want saving, though (like Nicholas Kristof who bought a girl out of a Cambodian brothel who returned not long after). Here are excerpts from the story of a rescue attempt that was successfully averted.

Do what Dickens didn’t: Price of not reading a letter in full

Ben MacIntyre and Rose Wild, 4 February 2012, The Telegraph (India)

London: A campaign by Charles Dickens to “save” Victorian prostitutes was plunged into embarrassment in 1858 when the novelist became embroiled in the case of a “fallen woman” who did not want to be helped up. . .

In February 1858, The Times ran an article by a self-confessed “Unfortunate” who had taken up prostitution. At that time, there were up to 80,000 sex workers in London and numerous social reformers were campaigning to drive prostitutes from the streets. The article was spotted by the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had financed Dickens in setting up a refuge for “fallen women” in Shepherd’s Bush.

Dickens wrote to the editor of The Times, John Thadeus Delane, saying that Burdett-Coutts had asked him to find out the name of the woman who had written the article “with the view of doing good to some one” — presumably encouraging her to give up street-walking and take up residence in the refuge. Delane said he would ask the writer if she was prepared to reveal her identity“. . .

The problem, however, was that neither Dickens nor Burdett-Coutts had bothered to read to the end of the second column. Had they done so, they would have discovered that, far from being a repentant sinner, the writer was perfectly happy being a prostitute, and her letter was a denunciation of do-gooders — such as Dickens — who were trying to take away her livelihood.

Far from expressing penitence, the anonymous prostitute accused the reformers of rank hypocrisy. “You the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves … why stand you on your eminence shouting that we should be ashamed of ourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who do not know what shame is?”

The writer described how, as the child of drunken parents, she had become a prostitute at the age of 15, and did not regret it. She wrote that she had made a good living, educated herself, supported her family, put her brothers through apprenticeships, always paid her debts and “been charitable to her fellow-creatures”.

When Dickens belatedly realised he was dealing with a prostitute who was not only content with her lot but extremely articulate, he backtracked fast . . .  “Miss Coutts . . .  is immensely staggered and disconcerted . . . and is even troubled by its being seen by the people in her household. Therefore I think the writer had best remain unknown to her

Note that the baroness invested in Rescue could not even bear to hear about a prostitute writer that didn’t want help and refused to allow her writing to be seen by inmates in the home. There is a direct link here to a crazy guessing game to get ‘real’ statistics on how many women are sex-trafficked. It is impossible for most people to accept that large numbers of trafficking victims aren’t discoverable because they don’t exist, at least in big numbers. Now they are called trafficked, then they were called fallen – it’s not a big difference. Here’s a shot of a contemporary staging of Verdi’s La Traviata, about another fallen woman. The clichéd posture is still with us.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

12 thoughts on “Fallen women, including the one Charles Dickens didn’t save

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  2. Sexworker Marc

    Very interesting the parallels and possibly that very little has changed in that regard since centuries about the archetypes.

    100 years ago the situation in NYC is nicely described and analysed in:
    by Emma Goldman 1911
    from “Anarchism and Other Essays”,
    Second Revised Edition. New York & London: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1911. pp. 183-200

    She is giving much reference to Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) and other researchers and also to a Mrs. Warren saying what these girls may feel, “Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?”

  3. Aspasia

    The Rosetti painting also features a lamb in the cart in the middle of the scene. The lamb, of course, represents Christ the Redeemer. I feel as though I’m missing some symbolism concerning the cart.

  4. Aspasia

    Oh, and it’s also probably very intentional that the prostitute was given that bright red hair. Red hair = Judas/Jewish/generally non-Christian in some contexts in various eras. All are people who “require” the saving grace of the Lamb of God, Christ the Redeemer, Christ the Savior, etc. The greenish tint to her skin also represents the disease she is believed to be afflicted with as a prostitute.

    1. Laura Agustín

      this is a much-analysed picture. victorianweb says ‘In Rossetti’s Found, a drover discovers his former beloved, now a prostitute, slumped against a wall. The unfinished painting focuses in on the struggle between them as the man tries to lift her, but she seems both too ashamed and self-determined to go with him. The question of why she should resist him when his face is so contorted in pity and concern, forces the viewer to look at the drover’s calf in the background, trapped and struggling within a web of restraints. It seems that either the woman is too entangled in her life of sin of else she refuses to be caught in the impositions of married life, represented in the net which holds the calf.’

        1. Laura Agustín

          if you have access to jstor, there are many articles about this painting. the pre-raphaelites mixed christian symbolism and folklore and stories at will.

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  8. yewtree

    There’s a great line in one of Michael Palin’s films about “fallen” women: “are they women who have fallen and hurt their knees?”


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