Fallen Women

The scheming and ambitious Mrs Clay would not necessarily put a foot wrong with regard to the strategy she had worked out for her advance in life: but therein lies another difference between Mrs Clay and the Eliza Williams and Maria Bertram. She had a plan : the others appear not to have had one at all but have acted as their passions dictated.

So, let’s consider these other “ fallen women.”

What about the lifestyle of women shunned by society: those found guilty of adultery, and consequently shut up in some remote county (as in Maria Rushworth’s case) or left to fend for themselves,all virtue spent, being passed from lover to lover, ending up in destitution ,and dying in reduced circumstances (the fate of Eliza, and the fate that would have been dealt to Lydia had the Meryton gossips had their way and had Darcy not intervened.

First I think we ought properly to consider why such importance was placed on female fidelity and purity in the 18th century.

Falling from this expected code of behaviour had serious repercussions, for women of all classes.

Of course documentary evidence about the lower orders is somewhat scarce (although investigations into the ranks of prostitutes have been made and make for uneasy reading: see The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold and Lascivious Bodies by  Julie Peakman.

Was there a premium placed by 18th century society on a woman’s purity? Wasn’t that a more “Victorian” value.

The evidence would appear to disagree with the assumption that the sexual codes we have associated with the Vicorian era were not applied to females in the 18th century.

Please allow me to quote from Novel Relations by Ruth Perry (Cambridge University press 2004). This is a fascinating book, which examines familial attitudes from 1743-1818.

Ms Perry first refers to the “one love for life formula” which she argues emerged in the mid 18th century. It was of course a formula that appears to have been applied only to women. The infamous double standard and its application is crucial to understanding the fate of the Maria Rushworths of this world.

Among the better known texts dealing with this question Sir Charles Grandison, with its hero’s tolerant pronouncement on his sister Charlotte’s youthful infatuation (and his subsequent desire to marry her to a respectable and devoted man who will protect and care for her even if he does not thrill her) represents Richardson’s resistance to the ideology crystallizing in his day about one-and only ecstatic love, eternal loyalty and the inevitability of a man’s imprimatur on a woman’s impressionable sexual consciousness.

Marianne Dashwood’s ardent belief in a first and only love in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a judgement she revises later in the novel after a little experience of life, was one of the many ways Austen mocked the widely debated question of pre-possession, sexual ownership and men’s propriety in woman’s consciousness.

Anne Elliott’s impassioned defence of woman’s fidelity in Persuasion , her cri de coeur that women love “the longest, when existence or when hope is gone” must also be read in the context of this late 18th century debate about the inalienability of women’s love” 

Women were expected to be faithful, demure and, until marriage, virginal. After marriage they had to be chaste.

This led to women and girls with no sexual experience being prizes on the marriage market.

Like a commodity whose status is changed as soon as the wrapper is torn and it is converted from exchange value to use value( think of the price difference between a new car and one that has been driven for a few months, an eighteenth–century woman who had been engaged in heterosexual intercourse-even once-was devalued, particularly if her only property was her person. Newness constituted her moral capital and was the most significant form of property she possessed .
pp 251-2

Perry points out that this represented a shift in moral values in 18th century England compared with earlier times;

Its overvaluation of virginity, this preference for newness, or females who were sexually tabulae rasae, was, relatively speaking, a new thing in 18th century England. It would have made no sense in earlier periods when both men and women married alter and a third of all marriages were second marriages. In mid sixteenth century England 30% of all marriages were remarriages according to Wrigley and Schofields statistics, calculated by the numbers of widows and widowers marrying in the parish registers. Given this social reality the notion of constructing women as the property of one man and one man only, with a value that diminished with more practical experience, would have been absurd…..Samuel Johnson who in 1735 married Elizabeth Porter a widow of forty with children, remarked to Boswell in 1769 that one of their mutual friends had ”done a very foolish thing ,Sir; he has married a widow, when he might have had a maid”. Boswell also reports that Johnson once almost asked his “Tetty” not to marry again if he died before her, observing that in Johnson’s “fond preserving appropriation of his Tetty, even after her decease, he seems to have totally to have overlooked the prior claim of the honest Birmingham trader- the husband of her youth and the father of her children.” Johnson vehemently opposed the second marriage of his good and loyal friend Mrs Thrale in 1784 even though it promised her real happiness in contrast to her first marriage. Despite Johnsons disapproval..it proved a happy marriage…Such opposition to the second marriage of a respectable woman has hardly existed when Mrs Mary Pendarves Delaney chose to remarry forty years earlier, but the climate had changed.The libidinous desire of older women was becoming less socially tolerable; it confused property relations , including the property a woman had in herself.


JA herself seems to make reference to this attitude towards widows, by the way, in the opening chapters of Persuasion where she is refers to the failure of Lady Russell to re-marry.:

This friend, and Sir Walter, did not marry, whatever might have been anticipated on that head by their acquaintance. Thirteen years had passed away since Lady Elliot’s death, and they were still near neighbours and intimate friends; and one remained a widower, the other a widow.

That Lady Russell, of steady age and character, and extremely well provided for, should have no thought of a second marriage, needs no apology to the public, which is rather apt to be unreasonably discontented when a woman does marry again, than when she does not; but Sir Walter’s continuing in singleness requires explanation.

Chapter 1.

So that sets the situation of females chastity/fidelity in marriage in some context. It was clearly very important for genteelly brought up ladies to conform .

Let us now consider the social fall out for a woman who fell from that accepted standard.

Are there any examples available to us comparable to the situation in which Maria Rushworth found herself?

Well, yes there are. Unfortunately, they are of rather grand ladies. 
However they do give some idea of the problems a woman in this situation would experience.

Henrietta Knight, Lady Luxborough was exiled to a country estate, banned from receiving visitors not pre-approved by her husband, going on the Bath road, or within 20 miles of London, merely because her husband suspected her of having taken a lover. She lived in “exile” for the remainder of her days, constantly worried that her making a garden at the country estate was considered an improper thing for a woman in retirement to do.

Lady Mary Coke, the victim of a violent, dangerous and unfaithful husband was so ashamed of her circumstances that she retired to the country, again to make a garden, but shunned society completely. She retired from public life, unhappily it would seems from her correspondence, but continued to live in a solitary manner despite being assured by many that she bore no blame for the disintegration of her violent marriage. The fact that her family rallied round to support her and arranged a legal separation made no difference. She was tortured by the fact that her private life had become so public, it seems.

Pubicity (which of course followed divorce proceedings as night follows day) was very unpalatable when regarding ladies and their reputations, especially with regard to sexual matters. For example, one of the main objections to the calling of banns in church as required by the Marriage Act of 1753 was that weddings were now (apart from those conducted by special license) were of a very public nature. Horace Walpole was scandalized that people would know that a marriage would be to take place, causing embarrassment to the bride to be (because everyone would assume that she was to engage in sexual relations after the marriage was completed. Indeed Fanny Burney on watching a wedding procession of such a public marriage wrote:

We have just had a public wedding..the walk that leads up to the church was crowded- almost incredibly a great mob indeed-I’m sure I trembled for the bride- oh what a gauntlet for any woman of delicacy to run!….well of all, the things in the world ,I don’t suppose anything can be so dreadful as a public wedding- my stars! I should never be able to support it.

Back to Lady Mary. She was famously quoted as saying “ I see nobody.” It seems seclusion on her part was preferable to be subject to the ribald comments and sneers of her peers.She did maintain a good relationship with her neighbor Lady Caroline Lennox, but did not take any real part in society.

Information regarding these two ladies are from a talk given Professor Stephen Bending at York University in 2004 regarding Retirement and Disgrace: Women and Gardens in the Eighteenth Century. which is not yet published. References are from Julie Wakefield’s notes.

Sarah Lennox, daughter of the second Duke of Richmond also lived in seclusion, for some years. after her divorce from her husband,Charles Bunbury, on the grounds of her adultery..She was never again received at court and in fact left to live in Ireland with her family.It took her 4 years to conivce her family to allow her to marry George Napier,an officer of the 25th regiment,and after that she lived the life not of a daughter of a Duke of Richmond,at court and in sumptuous luxury glory, but the rather more constrained and simple life as the wife of an officer devoting herself to home economy and managing their small income,living in army quarters.

Lady Diana Beauclerk, (nee Spencer) also the daughter of a duke (of Marlborough) was divorced on the grounds of her adultery. She was comparatively lucky. She married her lover,the man who had cuckolded her husband. She had to resign her posts at court (she was a lady of the Bedhchamber to Queen Charlotte) and was shunned by her equals.

She was an accomplished artist, and began to live in rather more bohemian than aristocratic circles. Her new husbands friends , I the main,acccepted her. But she did not retutn to the society of her birthright.

Maria Rushworths fate is in fact cleary set out in the text of MP.

…while she must withdraw with infinitely stronger feelings to a retirement and reproach which could allow no second spring of hope or character.

Where she could be placed became a subject of most melancholy and momentous consultation. Mrs. Norris, whose attachment seemed to augment with the demerits of her niece, would have had her received at home and countenanced by them all. Sir Thomas would not hear of it; and Mrs. Norris’s anger against Fanny was so much the greater, from considering her residence there as the motive. She persisted in placing his scruples to her account, though Sir Thomas very solemnly assured her that, had there been no young woman in question, had there been no young person of either sex belonging to him, to be endangered by the society or hurt by the character of Mrs. Rushworth, he would never have offered so great an insult to the neighbourhood as to expect it to notice her. As a daughter, he hoped a penitent one, she should be protected by him, and secured in every comfort, and supported by every encouragement to do right, which their relative situations admitted; but farther than that he could not go.Maria had destroyed her own character, and he would not, by a vain attempt to restore what never could be restored, by affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man’s family as he had known himself.

It ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.

Chapter 48.

Note that Maria had now reverted to being under the protection of her father.On her marriage she had become Mr Rushworth’s “ property, if you like.By forfeiting that role with her adulterly with Henry Crawford,then compounding her error by becoming his mistress and , living with him openly and most crucially failing to convince him to marry her she made some grave errorswhich sealed her fate

In Mary Crawfrod’s opinion ,the opinion of the fashionable world IMHO,Maria cold have been rehabilitated to a certain extent had her marriage to Henry been arranged 

’We must persuade Henry to marry her,’ said she; ‘and what with honour, and the certainty of having shut himself out for ever from Fanny, I do not despair of it. Fanny he must give up. I do not think that even he could now hope to succeed with one of her stamp, and therefore I hope we may find no insuperable difficulty. My influence, which is not small shall all go that way; and when once married, and properly supported by her own family, people of respectability as they are, she may recover her footing in society to a certain degree. In some circles, we know, she would never be admitted, but with good dinners, and large parties, there will always be those who will be glad of her acquaintance; and there is, undoubtedly, more liberality and candour on those points than formerly. What I advise is, that your father be quiet. Do not let him injure his own cause by interference. Persuade him to let things take their course. If by any officious exertions of his, she is induced to leave Henry’s protection, there will be much less chance of his marrying her than if she remain with him. I know how he is likely to be influenced. Let Sir Thomas trust to his honour and compassion, and it may all end well; but if he get his daughter away, it will be destroying the chief hold.’” 
Chapter 47

What would Maria do?

She would not be allowed to associate with respectable people.as Sir Thomas makes quite clear in his musings from chapter 48 above.

She could not live at Mansfield because of the effect of her presence on Fanny’s reputation, which might be tainted by such a close association with a known adulteress. Certainly Sir Thomas feels it to be so.

He would also not insult the neighborhood by housing her near to Mansfield: it would be inevitable that old friends and neighbors would meet her, causing them embarrassment, or snub her with predictable result. He clearly considers this an impossible situation.

So to a kind of “internal exile” she is sent. She would probably be visited by the local clergyman. And probably lectured depending on his outlook on her situation. I did say in the last MP Group Read , that I rather hoped Maria s”other country” would be Kent, where she might have encountered the sermons of Mr Collins and the scolds of Lady Catherine…;-.)

She would have to live circumspectly and very quietly. No one truly respectable would want to visit her.

So what would she do, not being part of the normal social round in the country?

Lady Luxborough and Lady Mary Coke chose to create gardens and run their small estates. This may not be Maria’s choice, but with the officious Mrs Norris for a companion, she may want for such employments. She would have to live, very quietly, at home. I daresay sewing, netting purses might be the highlight of her day .

As to Lydia, clearly the good citizens of Meryton expected her to become, at worst, a prostitute once she was abandoned by Wickham in town:

The good news quickly spread through the house, and with proportionate speed through the neighbourhood. It was borne in the latter with decent philosophy. To be sure, it would have been more for the advantage of conversation had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house. But there was much to be talked of in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes of her well-doing which had proceeded before from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such an husband her misery was considered certain. 
Chapter 50.P&P

The phase to” Come upon the town” meant to have taken up the “profession” of a prostitute. A “woman of the town” was a phrase used to describe a prostitute (see Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, page 1130).

She also had the alternative of being offered a life in secluison in a remote farm house if she had been found by Mr Bennet.

Life in a brothel, apart from the obvious trials, was often akin to slavery .The brothels were often controlled by bawds who saw their employees in a rather harsh light.

Look at this from The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold:

..Life under a bawd’s roof would not have been a pleasant experience. As any bawd knew ,whores were not to be trusted and had to be observed at all times. Money and gifts should never be placed directly into their care; they should not be permitted to slip away on errands or enjoy the company of visiting friends. Granting liberties had a way of leading to trouble – namely employees cheating their employers rather than the other way around…An effective madam would use all means available in order to keep her women on board, including various forms of punishment and coercion. In the 18th century those in the procuring trade also used the law in order to keep that which they felt belonged to them within their rightful possession. Any girl foolish enough to bolt from her madam’s premises was likely to be hauled before a magistrate and prosecuted for the theft of her clothing. In most cases, the items with which she absconded were those given to her by her procuress, as suitable apparel in which to see clients… 
p 44