‘In a period obsessed with the idealisation of female virginity, the consequences of sexual experience outside wedlock often resulted in ruin’

In the nineteenth century, femininity held an important position. A woman’s social and cultural role was sanctified, and the woman was protected and defended. But what a woman didn’t adhere to the ideal? A woman deviating from the norm, ‘fallen’ from virtue, was both an outcast and a threat, a victim and a scapegoat. 

The ‘fallen woman’ relentlessly troubled the Victorian world. In a period obsessed with the idealisation of female virginity, the consequences of sexual experience outside wedlock often resulted in ruin. A ‘fallen woman’ could be a prostitute or a woman who had had sex out of wedlock, whether voluntary or against her will–in short, a woman who disobeyed Victorian sexual norms.

The Victorians were obsessed with social status, young women and their virtue. If it was found a woman had given into temptation, and lost her innocence, they categorised her as the ‘fallen woman’. These women were placed at the bottom of society and treated as if they were the lowest of the low. Just because they gave into temptation and didn’t follow society’s rules.

The Victorian age created the flawless picture for home life and marriage. It gave us perfect, devoted mothers and wives, hard-working husbands and adorable children. However, it didn’t show the dark side of marriage. And the double standards of men and women within Victorian society. It had been hidden for years but was accepted.

Married men and women were having affairs. The men could escape the scandal of an affair mostly unscathed, the woman however was not. They would banish the wife from the family home and society as a whole, earning the title of the ‘fallen woman’. So why was this? Many of the married men that were in affairs had two houses. One house had his wife and their children, whilst the other house would have his mistress, and their love children if there were any.

They created anatomical museums hoping to warn the public against illicit sex; they showed what genitalia of both sexes would look like once they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Even Mrs Beeton contracted syphilis on her honeymoon! It was though that she had contracted because of her husband having an affair. Dr Joseph Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum in Oxford Street was the 19th century’s best-known museum of anatomy. Founded in 1851, Kahn’s museum was intended to show the wondrous structure of the body and to warn of the harmful consequences to health of abuses that distort or defile its beautiful structure.

Effectively the ‘fallen woman’ is someone that could never be redeemed, this is clear in paintings and literature, as the ‘Fallen Woman’ nearly always dies. Those branded as a ‘Fallen Woman’, were treated in the most shocking ways. Their treatment also emphasised the double standards that were held in Victorian society. It was one rule for men and another rule for women.

In the latter half of the 19th century, many middle-class philanthropists joined the cause to ‘rescue’ women from prostitution. As well as holding ‘meetings’ for women, they provided support as free accommodation, known as penitentiaries. Their aim was to rehabilitate women by providing moral instruction. Many high-profile Victorians including Charles Dickens, Prime Minister William Gladstone and Christina Rossetti, who volunteered at the London Diocesan Penitentiary supported the ‘fallen woman’ cause.

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


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