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The fallen woman

Last updated on 12.07.2020

Women restriction

As Suzanne Cooper points out, the attempt to limit women to certain roles as part of the much larger Victorian obsession with respectability and its definition. (Cooper) To be respectable meant everything as a member of the Victorian middle class and those who had lost their respectability were shunned, such as fallen women, who were ostracised from society and left with few other options but to either go to the workhouse or work as prostitutes.

The 19th century the term ‘prostitute’, however, encompassed not just street whores, but everything from unmarried women who were in relationships with men, unmarried mothers, unfaithful wives and mistresses to artists’ models and certain kinds of actresses. (Royston, 1970) ‘Respectable femininity was womanhood in its normal, healthy and (many argued) asexual state of married motherhood. The prostitute, on the other hand, was deviant femininity, the negation of the womanly norm. Sexually depraved and mentally and physically diseased, the prostitute was the bearer of contagion into the sanctuary of the middle-class home.

Proper use of character

Anne Brontë uses the character of Helen Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to critique the ideals of the fallen woman meaning this critique of wifely obedience goes against the grain of social expectation of motherhood, which was meant to only operate within the bounds of a paternalistic and hierarchical marriage: ‘paternalist ideology help that English society operated most efficiently and justly when those who help power in its hierarchical structure responsibly ruled… for its operative social metaphor of governance was the benevolent yet controlling relationship of a father to his wife and children’ (Harsh, 41).

Therefore, when Helen decides to no longer live with her husband she has no financial support and presents him with a choice of a separate life in order to get out of his grasp; she asks for whatever is left of her fortune and custody over Arthur which he refuses. This is when Helen decides to become an outlaw and therefore, becoming a fallen woman by first denying her husband her body; “We are husband and wife only in name…I will exact no more heartless caresses from you – nor offer – nor endure them either’ (Brontë 306), something which under the laws she has no right to do.

Violation and Consequence

Helen’s defiance of social constructs extends to her attitude about the combination of mothering and waged labour. In the 19th century the notion of ‘separate spheres’ was dominant meaning that the women were expected to stay at home and perform homely duties while the men went out to work. This was a way of securing full-time unpaid domestic help in the home (Abrams, 12-15)Helen makes the point to her husband that as long as she functions as his ‘steward and housekeeper, so conscientiously and well, without pay and without thanks, you cannot afford to part with me.

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However, Brontë subverts the false dichotomy between mothering and paid employment by showing that in fact working for pay, even for upper-class Helen, was part of mothering. Helen says of her decision to work ‘oh, how I longed to take my child and leave them now, without an hour’s delay! But it could not be: there was work before me – hard work, that must be done’ (Brontë 361) However, it was more of a taboo for a woman of Helen’s class to work than that of a working-class woman, because she, unlike most of the working-class women, had the option of allowing her husband to support her financially. Helen resists this dominant ideology of separate spheres and embraces the prospects of both employment and ownership:

‘I shall have so much more pleasure in my labour, my earnings, my frugal fare, and household economy, when I know that I am paying my way honestly, and that what little I possess is legitimately all my own’ (Brontë 393)

Helen considers her earning as legitimately hers, while under British law, they are not. She states that her family must not know of her escape plan because even if she told ‘all her grievances… [her brother] would be sure to disapprove of the step’ (Brontë 393). This disapproval that her family would voice comes from the Victorian taboos against breaking the marriage bond and moreover Helen’s actions, though morally justifiable, are illegal. Although, an Infants and Child Custody Act had been passed, that allowed women to ask for custody of children, the courts still favoured paternal over maternal custody.

Divorce from husband

However, this would not have applied to Helen because she separates from her husband illegally. Helen realises she must break the law in order to get away from her husband with her child and so begins to save her money in order to make a secret escape. Thereby marking the second phase of her rebellion; the attempt to move out of domestic incarceration and into the role of a single mother which marks her as a fallen woman in the eyes of her new neighbours. Reverend Millard can hardly conceal his glee as he reports his findings to his neighbours:

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” Hardened, I fear – hardened!” He [Rev. Millard] replied with a despondent shake of his head; “and at the same time, there is a strong display of unchastened, misdirected passions. She turned white in the face, and drew her breath through her teeth in a savage sort of way; – but she offered no extenuation or defence; and with a kind of shameless calmness – shocking indeed to witness in one so young – as good as told me that my remonstrance was unavailing”.

It is assumed by most people that a secluded and secretive single mother must be a fallen woman. Lynn Abrams writes that ‘in the nineteenth-century religious, moral and legal discourse, the single mother was represented as deviant, irresponsible and dangerous. Envisaged either as a fallen woman or a prostitute, the unmarried mother was held up as the archetype of the sexual woman; a woman who was not subject to a man within marriage.

The theme of a fallen woman through hidden marriages

Aurora Floyd also explored the theme of the fallen woman through hidden marriages as ‘for an upper-class woman in this venue, it was important to marry a man not that she found physically appealing but one that would play a central role in mobilizing wealth and power’ (perkin, 52). This idea of marriage played a big role in Victorian society and it was taken with a lot of seriousness. Thus, when it is revealed that Aurora had married a man of a lower status in Paris from an impulse of desire and physical attraction to his ‘dark-blue eyes, and long eyelashes, and white teeth and brown hair.

He has insinuated himself into a kind of intimacy’ (Braddon pg 138) with her she begins to be seen as a fallen woman who is no longer pure. This is because ‘in general, the aristocracy disapproved of divorces because the marital repercussions were very inconvenient. Their concern to secure their property overrode all other considerations’ (Perkins, 123). You see this portrayed through Bulstrode who states that his name ‘would never be tarnished by an unworthy race or dragged through the mire of a divorce court by a guilty woman’ (Braddon, pg 33) showing his Victorian ideal against women who had previously been in a relationship. As ‘at the time when Bulstrode first met aurora (15th Sept 1857 her 19th birthday) the divorced court, brought into existence by the matrimonial causes act 1857, had not yet commenced its operations.

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Public information

Once it did, its scandals were luridly reported in the newspapers and became a fruitful source of inspiration for sensation novelists like Braddon.’ (Braddon Introduction to Aurora Floyd). Furthermore, it is a defining characteristic of the sensation heroine that she has not been ‘educated to that end [of the good wife] by a careful mother’ (Aurora Floyd pg41?) As in many nineteenth-century novels, the motherless heroine is more vulnerable and more assertive than was the norm for the properly socialised woman.

‘Socially sanctioned mothering, as an extended horticultural metaphor in Aurora Floyd, has it, is required to ‘train and prune’ the ‘exuberant branches’ sometimes found in women in their natural state, so that they may be ‘trimmed and clipped and fastened primly to the stone wall of society with cruel nails’’ (The improper feminine pg 87) Also, ‘despite having been born with that allegorical silver spoon in her mouth, she was poorer than other girls, inasmuch as she was motherless’ (Braddon pg 45), Auroras motherless upbringing is thought to be the cause of her inexcusable marriage and fall from the ladder of acceptable behaviour.


Since ‘most Victorians rejected such notions as degrees of fallenness or a hierarchy of fallen behaviours’ (Logan 7) it meant that the fallen woman was marked for life, regardless of the situation, then the potential for redemption would only be in death. However, Aurora challenges this as it demonstrates possibilities for redemption, unlike Lady Audley’s Secret. John Mellish rejects the values that his friend Bulstrode holds, and instead becomes Aurora’s redeemer from the scandalous business of her entanglement and possible guilt in the murder of her abusive first husband.

Their remarriage proves Aurora’s innocence which allows her to become a dutiful wife and mother, and safely within the sexual morals of her society, thereby redeeming her status as an ideal woman instead of a fallen woman. On the other hand, scholars have argued that Aurora may keep her position, but she is ‘imprisoned in the domestic sphere, a sort of exile’ (Tatum 133). The idea that Aurora could fall, and still become the angel in the house and the ideal woman was, at the time, unsettling to contemporary readers who saw a woman who had sinned by violating the laws of marriage and of the domestic space, and still found to be fit to remain in respectability. Braddon deviates from the usual path of female chastity; fallenness does not bar Aurora from her pre-fall social position.

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