Fallen Women in Victorian Works
Throughout Victorian literature, there are many reoccurring themes that seem to be significant to the era and genera. One that seems to be most prevalent is that of the poor woman trying to improve her circumstances, as well as that of the fallen woman. These two themes can be seen quite clearly in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Readers are introduced to Tess Durbeyfield, a poor girl whose father has just found out that they may be related to a rich noble family. Tess has both of these themes woven through her life. Similarly, In Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, the idea off the fallen woman and he poor woman trying to improve her circumstances is a huge part of the story. The difference is that the two themes are devoted to two different characters, Fanny and Maria. There is some speculation that Austen’s themes that were published in 1814 paved the way for writers such as Hardy to write his work in 1891, nearly eighty years later.
Upon the untimely death of the family horse, Prince, Tess feels a sort of burden has been placed on her shoulders. Due to the fact that Tess fell asleep while driving the family cart, causing the accident that killed Prince, she feels guilt for the family’s current financial peril. It is them by the suggestion of her mother that she take up residence at a long lost family member’s home. Tess’s mother says, “And never could your high blood have found out at a more called-for moment. You must try your friends. Do ye know that there is a very kind rich Mrs. D’Urberville living on the outskirts o’ The Chase, who must be our relation? You must go to her and claim kin and ask for some help in our trouble” (p.24). Tess had at first been disgusted by such a plan, but riddled with guilt, she agrees.
A very similar situation takes place in Mansfield Park. A family with three sisters starts the story a long while before the actual book begins. One sister marries well and becomes Lady Bertram. The next marries a preacher and becomes Mrs. Norris. The last of the sisters marries a sailor who is injured on duty and becomes a drunk; this is Mrs. Price. Overwhelmed by her number of children and ever depressing circumstance, she writes to her sisters begging for some help. After much deliberation, the sisters agree to take in the oldest daughter, Fanny. Austen writes, “’What if they were among them to undertake the care of her eldest daughter, a girl now nine years old, of an age to require more attention than her poor mother could possibly give? The trouble and expense of it to them would be nothing, compared with the benevolence of the action.’ Lady Bertram agreed with her instantly. ‘I think we cannot do better,’ said she; ‘let us send for the child’” (Chapter 1). This then results in Fanny traveling to the home of her much wealthier relatives to improve her social standing and life as a whole, much like Tess.
The women both strive to live lives of honor and fight off the advances of an unwanted lover. This is, however, where Austen separates the themes by character. Fanny fully encapsulates the idea of moving through society by the good graces of one’s relatives. However, her cousin, Maria, follows the theme of the fallen woman. It is pretty clear that Austen disapproves of Maria’s actions and moves to push her from the novel near the end. Tess holds both of these themes within making her the hybrid of these two well known characters. Nevertheless, Hardy makes Tess a sympathetic character. Not only is Tess taken advantage of, she is also asleep during the entire event. Hardy writes, “why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive” (p. 58). In a roundabout way, Hardy is discussing the rape of Tess by none other than her supposed cousin Alec. She does have a child from this encounter, furthering her dishonor. However, Tess does not do the common thing, she refuses to kill herself. Even after the death of her illegitimate son, she moves on trying to start a new life. It is only when she commits a heinous crime that she eventually pays for her sins.
Maria’s indiscretion is similarly played down, but causes her to lose everything. Upon the arrival of a Mr. and Ms. Crawford at Mansfield Park, many fleeting flirtations take place. One fleet relationship being between Maria, who is engaged to marry one Mr. Rushworth, and Mr. Crawford. The scandal is soon put to rest and Maria quickly marries the silly Mr. Rushworth soon after the return of her father, Mr. Bertram. She soon realizes her folly in marrying him and is trapped. Realizing that he can no longer have Maria, Crawford turns his affection towards Fanny. She turns him down repeatedly due to her affections towards her cousin Edmund. This then, through a terrible string of events, causes Crawford to revert his affections back to Maria. They have a scandalous affair. Mary Crawford quickly writes to Fanny, pleading that she not believe a words she hears about the affair. Austen writes,
“Her eager defence of her brother, her hope of its being hushed up, her evident agitation, were all of a piece with something very bad; and if there was a woman of character in existence, who could treat as a trifle this sin of the first magnitude, who would try to gloss it over, and desire to have it unpunished, she could believe Miss Crawford to be the woman! Now she could see her own mistake as to who were gone, or said to be gone. It was not Mr. and Mrs. Rushworth; it was Mrs. Rushworth and Mr. Crawford” (Chapter 46).
Driven by her intellect, Fanny finds out the real truth. Maria lives with Mr. Crawford for a while, causing Mr. Rushworth to divorce from her. After a few too many fights, Maria and Mr. Crawford separate leaving her with nothing. This causes Maria to be utterly destitute despite her noble upbringing. Her Aunt, Mrs. Norris, who had been newly widowed, decides to take in Maria and leave continental Europe. In this way, Austen removes Maria from the picture and opens the way for a happy ending for Fanny. One that Tess is clearly deprived of.
Throughout both pieces it is clear that the themes are of the utmost importance. However, Hardy makes the move towards having the strong, sympathetic fallen woman. This makes a reader wonder, why was it so important to make her so? Maria is a silly child throughout most of her novel. She makes decisions on whims and then pouts about the outcomes. She takes little responsibility for her actions. Tess is quite the opposite. She blames her entire situation on herself. It is as if she thinks that it was her fault and that she could have changed the situation. Tess’s downfall was not a choice, whereas Maria willingly went into that dark place. Is this a commentary on women who are sexually confident or merely a warning to women when it comes to marrying silly men? Tess tries to move on through her marriage to Angel but ends up falling farther into the reaches where the eye does not see. Both novels strive to make a clear commentary on women of the era. Either through the themes of the fallen woman or poor woman trying to improve her circumstances; both books work to educate the masses on the incredible double standard that women are held to.
Austen, Jane. “Jane Austen | The Republic of Pemberley Mansfield Park E-Text.” Jane Austen | TheRepublic of Pemberley Mansfield Park E-Text. 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.<http://www.pemberley.com/etext/MP/>.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2001. Print.