Monday, February 22, 2010

Fallen Women

In Victorian art. (Via Hermes.) What father would throw his daughter and her baby out into the snow? I suppose it did happen. In fact, my great-grandmother was treated thus by her family just for marrying against her father's wishes. When she was left a widow with a small child and went to her family for help they slammed the door in her face, although she was by no means a "fallen woman."

According to Victorian Web:
Women who had given in to seduction, living a life in sin, received the name "fallen women" during the Victorian period. Though both a recognizable and sizable segment of the female population, it took some time before the fallen woman could be accepted as an allowable subject in art.

Richard Redgrave first broached the topic with his Royal Academy exhibition of The Outcast in 1851. A melodramatic painting, it showed a father casting out his daughter and her illegitimate infant while the rest of the family weeps, pleads, or beats the wall with excessive emotion. The depiction of the girl, pretty and naive though she may be, serves to warn other young ladies to avoid temptation and ruin....

However, not every fallen woman was painted with such harsh criticism. The Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Ford Madox Brown all recognized the complex emotions within the fallen woman and her situation. 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. At any rate, Rossetti problematizes the all-too-easy instant condemnation of the fallen woman and her motives.
(Artwork: "The Outcast" by Richard Redgrave) Share


Archduchess Maria Carollton said...

Fascinating. What agonies women have endured throughout time. What options would a woman have had during the Victorian era? Regarding your great-grandmother's case, how very harsh. In those days, the only honorable single mother, was a widowed single mother. She certainly wouldn't have been considered dishonorable by anyone.

What became of her and the child?

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks for asking, Archduchess. My great-grandmother, Mamerta, was kidnapped and forced to marry her kidnapper. The man was abusive; he was beating Mamerta's small daughter, my grandmother Magdalena. So Mamerta was forced to leave Magdalena at an Anglican orphanage for mixed race children. I am going to write a novel about it.

Julygirl said...

They were following the letter of the law and not the spirit....they did not consider Christian Charity. Also it boiled down to power...."If you do not do it my way then you will be disowned." What did that accomplish in the long run? My mother was not overjoyed with my decision to marry a Roman Catholic, but she did not want to jeopardize her relationship with me and her forthcoming grandchildren....also ended up loving my RC husband....would take up for him over me!!

Enbrethiliel said...


What fascinating paintings! I know there was some sympathy for the Fallen Woman in Victorian novels, too, though I can't cite the exact Charles Dickens novel with that theme.

Portraying the Fallen Woman alone is one thing, but painting her as a mother evokes all the power of the Madonna and Child in art. Countless Fallen Women have found redemption in learning to love their children, and the artists could see that.

Interestingly enough, a different sort of fallen lover, Oscar Wilde, saw it, too, and he wrote that twist into his play Lady Windermere's Fan. It doesn't easily fit in the same time frame as these paintings and Dickens' novels, but it's clearly the same tradition.

Speaking of traditions . . . I have to go over the 80s movie Mermaids for a review I'm supposed to write. Its the story of another Fallen Woman, played by Cher, who realises she has to clean up her act if she doesn't want her two daughters to keep suffering from her mistakes--or worse, to repeat them. It's not the best movie in the world, but I recall that it gets more right than it gets wrong.

elena maria vidal said...

E. I am looking forward to you reflections on Mermaids.