By Georgia Haire
In Victorian Britain, the fallen woman was a figure of great concern. In a society with strict concepts of female respectability and virtue, a woman who experienced a sex life outside of a marriage faced ruin and rejection. An unmarried woman who fell pregnant had her ‘life chances’ seriously jeopardised. For these women, the Foundling Hospital offered a solution.
Established in 1741, the Foundling Hospital offered a home to children born out of wedlock and at risk of abandonment, admitting any baby into its care, without any question. By the 19th century however, with space at the hospital becoming more limited, a new, rigorous application process was introduced with a focus on the character of the mother. Only the babies of these ‘fallen women’ whose respectability could be ‘restored’ were accepted.
The Fallen Woman exhibition at the Foundling Museum gives a voice to the ‘fallen’ women who, faced with limited choices, were forced to give up their children and were subject to the judgement of Victorian moralisers, society and the male Governors of the Foundling Hospital. Through their written petitions to the hospital, we gain access to the distressing personal circumstances of these women, and their attempts to realign their own narratives with those that society deemed acceptable.
The figure of the fallen woman was mythologised through Victorian art and literature, capturing the imagination of many contemporary artists and writers. The exhibition features a number of notable artworks that explores this subject, depicting the ‘fall’ of respectable women and the seemingly inescapable consequences that followed, such as prostitution and death. These pieces, alongside the firsthand accounts of the ‘fallen’ women, tells a compelling story of both the reality and the myth of the fallen woman; revealing how we define the deserving and undeserving, and make judgements about those in need that extends beyond Victorian society, and into our own.
We delve further into the myth of the fallen woman with the Foundling Museum Director, Caro Howell.
The concept of the ‘fallen woman’ seems to refer to a very particular set of circumstances, so what exactly makes a ‘fallen woman’?
The ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian times was a woman who, as a consequence of having sex outside marriage, had lost her respectability. This moral code applied across the classes and encompassed everything from the consenting mistress and the abandoned fiancée to the rape victim.
The exhibition gives a voice to these previously unheard women through their petitions to the Foundling Hospital; what do these documents and the stories of these women tell us about Victorian standards of female respectability?
A very noticeable absence in the petitions is any articulation of the women’s own sexuality, reflecting society’s view of female respectability as being confined to the roles of faithful wife, dutiful daughter and loving mother. For a mother attempting to get her child accepted into the Foundling Hospital, mention of her own desire was effectively prohibited.
The Foundling Hospital previously accepted any child without preference, but as the places became less available, a new petition based admissions process was introduced; why was the focus of this new admissions system on the mother’s character rather than the needs of the child?
From the very first admission in 1741, the Hospital had faced overwhelming demand for limited places. Initially its response had been to devise a lottery system, leaving a baby’s fate to chance. However, in the nineteenth century and in response to changing attitudes towards illegitimacy, the Hospital felt that it could maximise the benefit of its admissions by focussing on respectable women who as a result of one sexual ‘mistake’ faced absolute ruin. So by taking the child the Hospital effected a ‘double saving’ by enabling the mother to return to her position of respectability.
The artworks in the exhibition seem to sympathise and victimise ‘fallen’ women, but how far do these artistic representations reflect Victorian attitudes to these women?
Society’s attitudes towards women who got pregnant outside marriage were very harsh. The ‘Bastardy Clause’ in the 1834 Poor Law put responsibility for illegitimate children solely on the woman. If her family refused to support her and her child, then the workhouse or prostitution were her only real options. The narrative of the fallen woman attracted artists as it embraced high emotional drama, pathos and scenes from contemporary life. However, while most artists aim to illicit sympathy for the women from viewers, they nevertheless hold back from showing the full horror of her reality – even in prostitution and death the women retain their youth and beauty.
In the women’s petitions to the hospital, we learn a lot about the men involved in the ‘fall’ of these women. Would these men be considered ‘fallen’? What can we discover in Victorian art and literature about attitudes to these men?
There was no such thing as a ‘fallen man’; sex outside marriage was acceptable for a man but prohibited for women. Many social campaigners objected to this double standard, and artists and writers usually depicted fallen women as victims, while the men responsible for their downfall were heartless seducers. Nevertheless, women are often implicated in their own undoing – through vanity, carelessness or a desire for self-determination.
The Fallen Woman exhibition is on at the Foundling Museum until 3 January 2016. More information can be found here.