Discuss the 'Fallen Woman' as a Familiar Feature of Victorian Writing

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Discuss the 'Fallen Woman' as a Familiar Feature of Victorian Writing

Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton may be characterised as a 'social problem' novel. Basch (1974: 263) states, 'Mrs Gaskell's impure women came from ... the work and exploitation which she knew, relatively speaking, better than other novelists.' Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian clergyman in Manchester. She devoted her time to setting up homes for fallen women, and after Mary Barton women became her central characters, her novels primarily seen through women's eyes. Thomas Hardy, since his career began, has been notably associated with his portrayal of female characters. Erving Howe even writes about 'Hardy's gift for creeping intuitively into the emotional life of women.' (Boumelha 1982: 3) From this point of view, I intend this essay to establish a comparison between Gaskell's 'fallen woman' in Mary Barton and the way in which Thomas Hardy frames his central female character in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

In the context of the nineteenth century, there emerged an increasingly ideological 'rethinking' of sexuality, particularly of the female. Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man later in 1871 argued that men and women were somehow mentally different. Darwinian sociology led to sexual stereotypes such as Clement Scott's 'men are born "animals" and women "angels" so it is in effect only natural for men to indulge their sexual appetites and, hence, perverse, "unnatural" for women to act in the same way.' (Quotation from Boumelha 1982: 18). The centrality of the female characters in both novels brings into question the problems concerning the female nature.

The first time we are introduced to the 'fallen woman' character - Esther - in Mary Barton is on learning of her disappearance. John Barton and George Wilson, two mill workers in the industrial town of Manchester, are discussing the last time they saw her.

'"Say's I, Esther, I see what you'll end up at with your artificials ... stopping out when honest women are in their beds, you'll be a streetwalker, Esther ... don't you go to think I'll have you darken my door."' (1998: 6) John Barton's language creates an immediate comparison between Esther and an 'honest' woman; she exists either in one paradigm or the other. This also becomes evident in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles: upon being told of Tess's rape, Angel states, '"You were one person: now you are another."' (1998: 228). Ingham (1993: 82) writes that this is an erasure of Tess's identity, which Hardy has replaced with a deceitful 'Magdalen' figure. This is more prominent in Mary Barton, in Gaskell's contrasting figures of Mary and 'plain little sensible Margaret, so prim and demure.' (180) Mary is wooed by Henry Carson, son of a wealthy mill owner, and rejects the attentions of her faithful childhood sweetheart. Esther is also wooed at a young age, and the parallel Gaskell makes between the two is their good looks. '"She was as pretty a creature as ever the sun shone on"' (Wilson on Esther: 5), and (concerning Mary: 32) 'Margaret could hardly take her eyes off her.' Similarly, it is Tess's appearance which first attracts Alec D'Urberville to her, and her husband Angel, who describes her stay at Talbothays: 'He had never before seen lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow.' (151)

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Beauty, for Elizabeth Gaskell, seems to constitute much of Esther's (and Mary's) potential downfall. This might also seem the case for the narrator's perception of Tess, yet he evokes sympathy for her too: 'Inside this exterior ... there was the record of a pulsing life which had learned too well, for its years, of the dust and ashes of things, of the cruelty of lust and the fragility of love.' (280-1) It is nor the looks of the other women, Marian and Retty, which lead them to drinking excessively, and Retty trying to drown herself (221), but the fact that ...

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