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Representing Prostitution In Victorian London

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5544 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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Nineteenth century England is commonly characterised by the successful expansion of an industrial society. Industrial growth defined the geography, economy and society of Victorian Britain, allowing for further establishment of the British Empire as a controlling and comprehensive Empire. The expansion of the urban society and the migration from rural life to that of the city worked to create a new public, with new social and economical opportunities. From the embers of the Industrial Revolution emerged a new ‘middle-class’. Complied of persons from varying economical heritages the new ‘middle-class’, those who had achieved significant financial success during the revolution placed themselves under a capitalist philosophy but defined themselves by their strict codes of morality. Such importance was placed upon social morality and respectability that was further clarified by domestic ideologies and clearly defined gender roles.

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The population of London was five times greater at the end of the nineteenth century than it was at the beginning ‘and at its most explosive nearly tripled in two generations’ [2] . This influx of people moving from rural England to the urban environment of London had a resounding affect on the establishment of the city, socially, economically, politically and geographically. The industrialisation of the city provided many with new opportunities, which were not previously attainable and resulted in the rose of the new ‘middle-class’, the effects of which were polarized for many. Despite the vast expansion of other British cities as a result of the Industrial Revolution, namely Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham, London was targeted in contemporary literature as the prime example of an immoral urban environment. London was overwhelmed by the increased population, her foundations struggled to uphold the lifestyle migrants expected, and more often than not they were resolved to a life of hard labour, crime, disease and pollution. [3] Images of the lives of the lower and working classes were frequently depicted in the publications of the day, The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, The Saturday Review, The Illustrated Police News and the satirical Punch to name a few. One such image is Houseless and Hungry, 1869 by Samuel Luke Fildes, which, when published in the first edition of The Graphic, depicts a group of poverty stricken Londoners queuing alongside a large brick wall collecting tokens allowing them to stay in the Victorian workhouses overnight. [4] This image is in stark contradiction to MIDDLE CLASS ILLUSTRATION. Whilst these images show a distinct extreme in class identity, one can begin understand the varied social identities that circulated within London City in consideration of the following citation;

‘ruling-class debauchee, masturbating adolescent, frigid middle-class housewife, precocious and depraved slum-child; the factory girl with her easy morals, the prostitute, the violated virgin, the lubricious working-class housewife, the incestuous alcoholic, the mothering pimping for her daughters; and more idealised types: fulfilled wife, attentive husband, chaste and informed student, innocent child.’ [5] 

Barret-Ducrocq’s suggestion of Victorian characters shows how varied Victorian London was, and how class and gender affected the roles, which one could adopt within society. It was scarcely unexpected that representations of socially controversial figures found their way into prominent publications and paintings of the day.

Chapter Two: The Women of London

To understand the anxieties surrounding the figure of the prostitute in Victorian London one must first appreciate how women were regarded during the nineteenth century. Being that nineteenth century society was dominated by the ‘middle-class’, a result of the industrial revolution, one must account for social life before the arrival of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Before the development of the middle classes in the mid-early nineteenth century ideologies surrounding domesticity and moral responsibility were less prolific. It was the development, most prominently, of domestic ideology, which resulted in the significant decline of freedom available to women, ‘Women enjoyed considerable freedom, status and ‘authentic function’ during a golden age’ for women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.’ [6] Mid-nineteenth century society, induced by the industrial revolution, was dominated by the concept of separate spheres. The prevailing ideology of separate spheres placed the man in the public environ among industry and politics, while the woman was resided to the private sphere. Thus women, mainly those of the middle classes, were expected to partake in the activities predominantly designated to domesticity.

George Hicks’s triptych Woman’s Mission, 1863 narrates the concept of the separate spheres in a series, which follows the adult life of a moral and respectable middle-class woman. The use of the triptych form allowed Hicks to portray the varying roles associated with the nineteenth century feminine ideal. As previously stated the feminine ideal was, during the Victorian ear, rooted in the middle-class ideology of domesticity and moral responsibility. Entitled Woman’s Mission: The Guide to Childhood an image of a young woman partaking in the role of the doting mother begins Hicks’s series. As the title projects, ‘The woman is defined as both physical and spiritual guide to childhood.’ [7] Nead’s statement is further encouraged by the symbolism of the woodland pathway along which the mother is tenderly leading her child and the manner in which she protects the child by sheltering him from the brambles. The central, and most well known, image of the triptych reveals a scene of the dedicated wife tending to her grieving husband. This image known as Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood discloses the expected dynamic between husband and wife of the middle-class. His masculinity is represented as prominently within the image as her femininity is. The husband shows his character to be a moral and respectable male as he shields his weeping eyes from both the audience and his wife. Nineteenth century medical studies on the differences between male and female anatomy cited that women, as a result of their finer nerves, were more sensitive than men. Thus the archetypal Victorian man was widely represented as having control over his emotions and sensitivity. [8] The ornaments on the mantelpiece and the silverware on the nearby coffee table coupled with the fine and traditional Victorian middle-class interior support the feminine ideal, of a respectable wife dedicated to the pride of keeping her husband’s house within this painting. The woman herself is portrayed as a figure of the feminine ideal; she is modestly dressed, in neutral and earthy tones, and leans upon her husband signifying the importance of the male figure within the domestic constitution. [9] The final image in the series Woman’s Mission: Comfort of Old Age shows the same woman as in the previous two scenes, this time, tending to an elderly relative. The prominence of this image is to show the continuity of the feminine ideal as it was expected during the period. The concept of the feminine ideal required at every stage of a middle-class women’s life as, a mother, wife and daughter.

Originally a doctrine of the middle-class alone, domesticity and the concept of the separate spheres began to infringe the boundaries of the working class. Hicks again narrates this concept in The Sinews of Old England, 1857. This image is similarly composed to Hicks’s later images Woman’s Mission where the female also stand alongside her husband leaning upon his left shoulder. Whilst this image shows the concept of the separate spheres in working-class circumstances it does not depict the domesticity and feminine ideal. The woman is decidedly different to that depicted in Woman’s Mission, her dress alone shows she is not of the middle-class ideal, the front of which is hitched up at the knee and she wears her sleeves rolled to the elbow suggesting she is ready to partake in the manual work common to those of her class. To support the differences suggested by dress are the physical attributes of the women. The lower-class woman reveals strong muscular arms as she rolls up her sleeves and her complexion suggests someone who partakes in manual, possible outdoor, labour. This is in stark contrast to the petite frame of the middle-class woman who leans upon her husband for support. There are certain similarities between the paintings however. In both images the woman is shown as the keeper of the house, and in both it is the domestic accruements that highlight this ideal, behind the lower-class woman the audience is able to see the interior of the house in front of which she is stood. The similarities between the two images further stretch to the depictions of the men as the stronger gender. While in Woman’s Mission his masculinity it supported by his hiding tears from the public, the lower-class man’s masculinity is show by his facing away from his wife and the domestic sphere and, as critics presumed, towards his source of work. [10] 

With such importance placed upon domesticity, moral responsibility and the feminine ideal by the middle-class it was not surprising that anything or anyone distancing themselves from what was often conceived as the ‘norm’ or ‘expected’ was called in to quested by Victorian moralists. The most questionable figure of nineteenth century urban society was that of the prostitute. The figure of the prostitute was not an uncommon one during the nineteenth century, as Dr Ryan, Campbell and Talbot citied, the number of prostitutes within the city was expected to be somewhere close to 80,000. [11] A wood engraving from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, 1862 entitled ‘The Haymarket-Midnight’ depicts a scene of London, at the Haymarket, where prostitution and deviant behaviour is plentiful. A social investigation by George Augustus Sala commented on the nocturnal activities of London, when among the socially deviant;

‘A new life begins for London at midnight. Strange shapes appear of men and women who have lain a-bed all the day and evening, or have remained torpid in holes and corners. They come out arrayed in strange and fantastic garments, and in glaringly gaslit rooms screech and gabble in wild revelry. The street corners are beset by night prowlers. Phantoms arrayed in satin and lace flit upon the sight. The devil puts a diamond ring on his taloned finger, sticks a pin in his shirt; and takes his walks abroad. It is a stranger sight than even the painter Raffet imagined in his picture of Napoleon’s midnight review, and it is, I think, a much better thing to be at home and in bed, than wandering about and peeping into the mysteries of this unholy London night life.’ [12] 

What must be understood is that not all prostitutes were deviant figures for comparable reasons. The definition of prostitution was vast and varied according to where in society the figure was operating. Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor cites six different categories of prostitute; kept mistresses and prima donnas, convives who were separated into those subject to a mistress and those independent, low lodging house women, sailors’ and soldiers’ women, park women and thieves women. [13] Each of which, whilst remaining a deviant and immoral figure, certified their own social interpretation. Victorian representation of prostitution primarily focused on the lower class women of the city, however certain attention was given to women of the middle-classes who by some form of bad fortune found themselves in the world of prostitution. Known as ‘fallen women’ those who transgressed the conventions of the middle-class, who negated domesticity and whose moral identity was damaged caused particular anxieties for contemporaries. Known to be a society of sexual prudery, in reaction to the foundations laid by the new middle-class, Victorian society had to find a method of understanding and representing this ever developing ‘social evil’.

Abraham Solomon’s representation Drowned! Drowned!, 1860 eloquently epitomises the varying discourses surrounding the figure of the mid-Victorian prostitute. Drowned! Drowned! was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1860, the year of its execution. Having previously painted two social commentaries, which were also exhibited at the Royal Academy, Solomon hoped that this work would finally acclaim his name as a prominent painter of social modernity. [14] The work however received a number of reviews, which frequently shifted between positive and negative. At one end of the scale his work was championed, receiving awards for its contemporary relevance, while at the other it was seriously criticised.

Originally created as an oil painting, Drowned! Drowned! is now only in existence as a wood engraving. The image depicts a woman, whom one immediately associates with prostitution, being pulled from the River Thames. Solomon has provided viewers with an easily interpreted image portraying the devastating effects of social immorality. The environment around the prostitute’s body is laden with symbolic imagery devoted to offering viewers an enveloping narrative of the circumstances in which the woman ‘fell’ to such a degree of demise. The image illustrates the prostitute’s body now settled on the riverbank at Westminster, easily identified by the commonly represented Bridge of Sighs in the background. Her body is laid up against that of a lower-class woman, who in reaction gazes down at the lifeless body, an expression of grief across her face. The prostitutes figure held in the woman’s arms emulates the form of the Pieta [15] . This traditional symbolism is pivotal in representing the prostitute as a victim within the picture. By admitting moral symbolism into the image, Solomon portrays the representation of juxtaposed morals within Victorian society. The prostitute’s social and moral downfall is highlighted prominently in the figures surrounding her dead body, which further act as instruments in this depiction of juxtaposing morals.

To the right of the dead prostitute is a group of lower-class citizens, whilst to the left of the dead figure stand a group from middle-class boasting costumes from a masquerade ball. Here we see two groups of stereotypical Victorian characters, which seen together increase the power of the image by allowing not only a statement of the importance of morality but also providing the scene with a full narrative. The left-handed figures represented aspects of the immorality within society, they stand for indulgence, extravagance, corruptness and disorder. This is contradicted prominently in the morals shown by the group of lower-class characters, whose hard work and responsibility is given as an example of respectability. [16] The left-hand group of figures are understood to be travelling home from a masquerade ball, a popular event among the higher classes. Their clothing suggests such an outing has occurred, they are dressed in seventeenth century attire with aspects of the fantastical added through masks and capes. The use of ‘masqueraders’ as a representation of higher-classed figures encourages the audience to consider their immorality. The word masquerade can be attributed to the concept of deception, to façade ones identity and thus can be applied to the female figures on the left of the image. To contemporaries this symbolic meaning highlighted the immortality of such activities, the true class identity of the figures is hidden from the public, and thus the women featured may be little more than kept mistresses or highly risen prostitutes. This is again polarized against the image of the lower class women, who do not attempt to hide their social identity, these women, despite their lower class, were considered respectable within Victorian society. The immorality of the deviant middle-class is further exhibited in the image portrayed by the most forward male ‘masquerader’ who contemporary audiences interpreted to be the fallen women’s seducer. The narrative surrounding this figure arises from his surprised expression as he stares at the dead prostitute’s body. The placement of the seducer within the picture enhances the idea of the prostitute as a victim of society. VICTIM OF SOCIETY – WHY WAS SHE CONSIDERED SO? The concept of the prostitute as a victim of society at, is promoted in other Victorian imagery, however it remained that as a patriarchal society the promotion or display of male sexuality did not act to destabilise the morality of society.

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Ford Maddox Brown’s painting Take Your Son Sir, 1851-6, has occasionally been referenced with the theme of social immorality, though others believe it to be a purely representation of a wife holding a child out to her husband. The painting uses a traditional Madonna and Child composition, however shows the mother and child within a contemporary Victorian interior, which negates away from the concept of traditionalist imagery. The woman holds the child out in front of her, whilst the image of a male can be seen in the mirror behind the mother and child, a mirror which acting as a nimbus continues the theme of traditional Madonna and Child imagery, on initial viewing the woman appears to hold her child toward the audience. On considering the contemporary environment the figures are situated in, the ‘absence’ of the father and the uncomfortable expression across the woman’s face interpretations emerged that this was in fact the depiction of a kept mistress holding a child out to her seducer. [17] 

Chapter Three: Representation in Paint

Much like Drowned! Drowned! Augustus Leopold Egg’s 1858 painting known as Past and Present provides audiences with a prominent narrative. However in Egg’s work the tale is generally considered indisputable. Accounting for this definite narrative is the triptychs official title;

‘August the 4th. Have just heard that B. has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!’

The language within the title is fundamental in initialising the symbolism within the images. Aside from securing the narrative, the inclusion of such a citation allowed audiences to clearly understand the issue of morality within. The images tell of a man, known to us only as B, who has died and untimely death leaving two orphaned children. As the passage continues it becomes clear that his orphaned children are at the mercy of an immoral mother, who having fallen into the destitute world of prostitution has become a social outcast. The theme of the deviant woman is continued in her reference only as ‘she’ and ‘her’, she has, as a result of her adultery, has forcefully become anonymous loosing both her class identify and social standing. [18] Completed as a triptych Past and Present was not displayed chronologically. When on display the first part of the series, Past and Present No 1 the scene of the husbands ‘discovery’ becomes the central segment flanked either side by scenes years after the central episode. When considered together this imagery allows an insight into a possible, and frequent, reason for a woman’s decent to prostitution.

Adultery, during the nineteenth century was considered the most serious form of female deviancy. Whilst the image of the fallen woman or prostitute was frequently represented as a victim of society that of the adulteress was not permitted sympathy. Whilst is it entirely possible that other women depicted as prostitutes suffered similar experiences to that of the woman in Past and Present there is rarely any symbolism suggesting such disgrace. Naturally the Egg’s image is occupied with symbolism hinting at her adulterous activities. The woman is seen sprawled across her floor, her arms are outstretched, almost reaching the lower right hand corner of the image; her fists are clasped together in a motion to suggest begging, though it is unclear who this is aimed at as her body is forced away form that of her seated husband. The woman’s face is hidden from the viewer, perhaps in tune with the use of pronouns to remove her social and class identity. Above the woman sits her betrayed husband. He is posed, with one hand clenched upon the tabletop the other grasping a single piece of paper. The audience cannot but assume the possibilities of what is on this piece of paper. Beneath his left foot one can just make out the image of a broken photograph frame, perhaps their wedding photograph or an image of ‘her’ lover? From the figure of the betrayed husband the viewer’s eye is encouraged towards the presence of two paintings on the wall behind him. The upper painting is a print of Clarkson’s The Shipwreck, which debuted to a great response in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1856. [19] The lower painting shows the portrait of a man, suspected to be the husband, this mirrors a similar portrait on the left of the painting this time assumed to portray the wife. The individual portraits can be seen to show division within the marriage, a statement of what is to follow this scene of ‘discovery’. The most symbolic painting within the image is that above the portrait of the wife. This frame is representative of Eve’s deviancy and expulsion from Eden. Symbolism reverting to woman’s first incident of violation is again referenced in the half eaten apple next to the women’s strained body. Problematic for the viewer is the depiction of the couple’s two daughters within the scene. Whilst the younger appears oblivious the elder is distracted from the card tower they are structuring resulting in its collapse. The tumbling cards are balanced upon a book by the French novelist Balzac. ‘French society was regarded as unstable and dangerous, its literature was believed to be a source of corruption and immorality and many contemporaries were concerned about the harmful reverberations of French morality in England.’ [20] The inclusion of this work of literature is used as method of anchoring the infidelity to a modern and believable cause.

The second and third sections of Past and Present illustrate the lasting implications the scene of ‘discovery’ had upon the women of the family. Past and Present No 2 shows the hardship the daughters suffer as result of having a deviant and adulteress for a mother, while Past and Present No 3 exemplifies the immoral and sorrowful existence the adulteress has succumbed to. As previously mentioned female deviancy in the form of adultery was considered the most severe, from 1854 this was the only clause in the initial divorce bill taken to Parliament, which entitled a husband to divorce his wife. [21] Though it was possible for women to divorce their husbands from 1854 onwards incest was the only grounds accepted, it was not considered indecent for men to continue seeing prostitutes or to have extramarital sex, partly due to the vast number of years their wives were expected to be with child. As Nead cites a female who commits adultery was condemned so on the grounds that it ‘was seen to have the most serious social consequences not only in relation to their own social position but also, and more critically, in terms of its effects on husband, children and home.’ [22] Past and Present No 2 shows the two daughters, seen in the first image, sitting together gazing out of an open window. From their surroundings one immediately understood that the downfall of their mother had also resulted in their own ‘fall’ from society. They sit in an attic room away from the new middle class and bourgeoisie lifestyle they were born into. Women who were charged with committing adultery were forbidden to claim custody and more extremely to see their children as stated in the Custody of Infants Act, 1839. [23] 

Critics generally understood Past and Present No3 as being set around the same time as the second instalment of the triptych. The third image represents the fate of the adulteress. Again the environment in which she is depicted suggests a lot about her social standing. Sitting beneath the Adelphi arches, an area between the Strand and the River Thames and a well-known dwelling for streetwalking prostitutes. The figure of a woman, the adulteress, is scarcely seen for the vast shadows and poor lighting beneath the arches, again immorality is referenced through the use of darkness, on first glance it would be easy to miss the child she is holding upon her lap. Nevertheless a pair of legs emerge from the confines of her dark shawl. Understood to be an illegitimate child we again see how the actions of the deviant woman can affect the life of her family. Whilst it was common practice to publicly condemn the adulteress, the figure of the prostitutes and very often that of the ‘fallen woman’ was represented to society as a victim of the deviant seducer. As Egg manipulates the way in which his female character is depicted, that being from adulteress to homeless prostitute, he manages to produce imagery, which as in many images of the same topic, particularly Drowned! Drowned!, evokes the ideal of the victim. Where Solomon has applied religious iconography within him image, relating to that of Christ’s dead body so too has Egg. Thomas brings to light the reference to religious imagery by citing that Egg’s image ‘goes as far as to employ iconographical details usually associated with the Virgin Mary to transform this sinful woman into a type of Madonna.’ Thomas continues to note that ‘the adulteress’s change of clothes and environment seen to symbolize not only her tragic fate but a spiritual rebirth.’ [24] This can further be supported by the use of light within the image, potentially acting as a halo to secure her repentance.

While Past and Present highlighted a scenario, which enlightened audiences to why a woman might ‘end up’ working as a prostitute, William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscious, 1853 focused more forcefully on the ideas of regret and remorse. The theme of the regretful prostitute was a common representation during the latter nineteenth century, particularly among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The most prominent of these images are, The Awakening Conscious by Holman Hunt, The Gate of Memory, 1857 by Rossetti and Thoughts of the Past, 1859 by J.R. Spencer Stanhope. These three images congregate contemporary symbolism to tell their respective tales. As previously noted when discussing both Drowned! Drowned! and Past and Present a narrative that was accessibly to the contemporary audience was a primary factor in the painting of socially controversial images. While all three images provide audiences with a depiction of remorseful and regretful women they do so in varying manners. Both Hunt and Stanhope proceed with similar methods of symbolising the women within their images as prostitutes, showing various accoutrements associated with such a profession. Stanhope’s woman’s profession is defined by the details upon her dressing table prominently the money and jewellery, which contradicts her shabby appearance and dockside residency. [25] Her profession is further hinted at in the inclusion of a male’s walking stick and stray glove. Hunt, in The Awakening Conscience, also uses the inclusions of such accessories. The composition of Hunt’s image encourages the audience’s eye toward the clasped hands of the woman where one instantly notices the lack of a wedding band, a roughly discarded gloved and the unravelling of a piece of embroidery advance theories of her profession. The models loosely flowing hair suggests her intimacy with the male as does her close proximity to him, his arms circled around her waist. A stream of light flows through a nearby window, which lights up the lower portion of the painting. It is this stream of light, again as an allegory of Christian morality, which contemporaries understood to have induced the prostitute’s moment of remorse and regret. The remainder of the paintings symbolism is dedicated to the further development of the female as a figure of remorse. Behind the figures we can see a wide-open widow, from which the light entered the darkened environment. The window provides the possibility of escape from this life of immorality; encouraged in the painting of the natural world this could be considered an ode to the morality of rural life. However the possibility of escape is then contradicted in the imagery of a cat toying with a bird just as the male figure has done with his mistress.

Although the issue of morality was extensive in the painting of prostitutes so too was the subject of disease and infection. Dante Gabrielle Rossetti in his 1857 painting The Gate of Memory allows a manifestation of the Victorian Prostitute through association with dirt and physical impurity. Whilst the painting shares compositional similarities with formulaic interpretations of the topic such as the separation from a more innocent and honourable lifestyle and the use of light against dark as an allegory for moral verses immoral, though Hunt and Stanhope refer to the conflict between natural and unnatural light, Rossetti furthers the use of symbolism as a means of defining the prostitutes immorality alongside that of the cities. While there are no si


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