ickens's work at Urania Cottage and his novels does show a sympathy to fallen women, unusual in the period. The ultimate ambition he encouraged the inmates of Urania Cottage towards was their own independence; homes and marriage. The fallen women depicted in his novels were victims rather than manipulators, one of them was allowed to marry; another died and was redeemed through the faith of her son; a third was allowed a useful life in the colonies and a fourth was murdered by a villain to whom she had mistakenly, but nobly, devoted her life. Although Dickens does not challenge the overwhelming cultural belief in the shame of the prostitute it is clear that he cannot cohere with a view of her as irredeemable. His work at Urania Cottage is the private proof of that.
And what of those young women themselves? It would be too simple to imagine Sesina and Sarah to be purely grateful and always suitably repentant. Their stories and experiences do not feature in many accounts of the period. We can imagine that they did not always see themselves as a group needing reform, pity and charity. However although we can admire the philanthropic work of Dickens, Miss Burdett-Couttss and others we must also conclude that this may not necessarily have matched the desires, ambitions and motivations of the 'fallen'. Isabella Gordon, the young woman dismissed from the home for concocting charges against the Matron was to regret her expulsion but whilst she waited for the committee's decision, her pride and lack of repentance is apparent. Ordered to her room, Dickens wrote that 'she danced up the stairs before Mrs Morson, holding her skirts like a lady at a ball' (Dickens Connection, p.17) Isabella may have left no written record but her spirited response to her treatment can only suggest that she would have been likely to have an opinion. Miss Coutts and Dickens may have created a radically sympathetic institution but it was built on the concept of prostitution as morally wrong, degrading and shameful. It is just possible that Isabella may have had a different view.
Despite our reservations it is possible to see Dickens as particularly sympathetic to the plight of the fallen woman. His depictions of Nancy, ruined and yet true; of Little Em'ly, the naïve and misguided victim of both a ruthless class system and a particularly cynical and selfish man; Martha Endell, the cause of whose fall is unclear and yet who is allowed to redeem herself and Oliver's mother, whose face we are told is so like her son's, and thus shares in his redemption at the end of the tale, all of these portrayals of fallen women are sympathetic and challenge a simplistic dismissal of women as the cause of, and the irredeemable victims of, prostitution. But it is perhaps in Dickens private world, through his work at Urania Cottage that we can best see his determination and pragmatism at work on behalf of fallen women. It must be true that these women were a source of interest to such a collector of stories as Dickens and yet it is also apparent that he did sympathise deeply for their situation. His exertions on behalf of the inhabitants of Urania Cottage were impressive; he involved himself with every detail of the running of the Home, no mean feat for such a prolific writer and busy man. He did all this because he believed in the possibility of redeeming women who had been shunned by many of his contemporaries. As he wrote in An Appeal to Fallen Women, the Home existed, 'that they may be restored to society — a comfort to themselves and it..'
Last modified May 27, 2003