The concept of a “fallen woman” in twenty-first century Britain is so alien as to sound completely absurd, but to our Victorian ancestors it would have seemed completely natural, and homes for fallen women were an accepted part of life.
The term “fallen woman” would have been used to describe any woman who might have been considered to have lost her innocence or her virtue and had thus fallen from God’s grace like the biblical Eve. In nineteenth century Britain the term became associated with any woman considered to have stepped outside the boundaries of what was socially and morally acceptable. It was believed that a woman’s sexual experience should be entirely restricted to marriage and that she should be subordinate to a man; father, husband or other male relative.
There were few employment opportunities for women during the nineteenth century, particularly middle or upper class women who were expected to maintain their social class even in desperate times. Prostitution was rife in various forms but the term “fallen” was not restricted to a woman who had been obliged to support herself in this way. It was widely used to refer to any sexual activity outside matrimony and could as easily be applied to a woman having an extra-marital affair as to a woman who had been raped. In some cases, it was enough for a woman to behave in ways that differed from the social norm; a woman choosing to live alone or to pursue interests not considered suitable for a woman was also likely to be considered to have “fallen” and lost her reputation. Dancers and actresses, for example, were often assumed to be sexually available simply because of the nature of their profession.
The rapid growth of the cities during and after the industrial revolution, particularly London, resulted in a rise in the number of prostitutes working in the cities. This was seen as a problem, and brought about many rescue and rehabilitation schemes, often run by middle-class women. Some were based on religion, some on social principles but the assumption was that it was good for both society as a whole and the women individually if they could be returned to a “moral” life.
Some of the reformers worked on changes in the law, for example Josephine Butler in her opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts. Others served on committees to raise funds for charities. A few worked on the ground in the various homes for fallen women which were set up around the capital and in other cities to try to draw women away from their immoral lifestyles. These homes varied a good deal. Some took a punitive attitude to women who had strayed. Rules could be strict and the staff unsympathetic and critical. Other homes, however, such as Urania Cottage which was set up and run by Charles Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts was considered a well-run place with understanding staff.
The moral code of the time meant that those working with fallen women could find that their motives were viewed with some suspicion. Prime Minister William Gladstone and his wife Catherine worked directly with some of these women, spending both time and money to try to rehabilitate them but Gladstone’s political career was placed in jeopardy when it was suggested that his interest in the cause had a more sinister motive.
The home mentioned in A Respectable Woman, the Lyons Home, is fictional but is based on some of the more sympathetic establishments. It is what we would probably call, in modern terms, a refuge and not all of the women who entered were prostitutes. Some were women fleeing from an abusive husband or partner, some were trying to escape from a pimp, others were just girls who had found themselves destitute for a time, needing somewhere to stay.
Like Prime Minister Gladstone, Dr Marshall in the book finds himself in trouble over his involvement with this particular cause. The men who lived with or employed the women were not always happy at middle-class interference and it was easy to spread rumours that something more sinister was involved. Moral judgements in Victorian England tended to be unsparing although it was usually women who bore the brunt of them.
A Respectable Woman is about a young woman who finds it difficult to conform to the expectations of a middle-class female in the 1850s. Born and raised on a mission station in Africa, Philippa Maclay has to curb her free spirit and hide her intelligence and independence in order to achieve the respectability she needs to survive. While working in London’s East End with “fallen women” or girls who might well become that way, she is very aware that without the ability to support herself in a respectable post she is in constant danger of losing her reputation and finding herself in the same situation. Her friendship with Kit Clevedon, which is essentially platonic for much of the book, would have condemned her in the eyes of respectable society.
Despite everything, Philippa refuses to conform to society’s harsh view of “fallen women” and her own treatment of the women and girls within her care is practical and sympathetic. She understands fully how they came to be in their desperate situations and she is unwilling to judge, knowing that she is as human and fallible as they are and understanding to that the men in their lives are equally responsible for their situation. Since a Respectable Woman is, in the end, a historical romance, Philippa is allowed to have her happy ending. Most women in her precarious situation were not so fortunate and the stigma of being a “fallen woman” too often meant that one step across the line between respectability and so-called “immorality” led to the stark choice between destitution and prostitution.