'Falleness' — that is, female pre-marital sexual experience — was seen as a precursor to ruin and prostitution. The ideal, asexual and domesticated woman was revered whilst the sexual activity of men was seen as an inevitable result of their different natures This difference was not simply a sexual one, but echoed the active and passive roles they assumed in every sphere of life, Dinah Craik in 1858 explains this approach in 'A Woman's Thoughts About Women', 'The difference between man's vocation and woman's seems naturally to be this — one is abroad, the other at home: one external, the other internal: one active, the other passive. He has to go and seek out his path; hers usually lies close under her feet' (Craik, p.7).

For many contemporaries this simple understanding of sexual roles underpinned their treatment of prostitution. If women were passive sexually then prostitutes must be deviant, corrupted either by their own waywardness or by the immoral advances of men, either way they deserved to be spurned and derided if only to discourage others. Dickens did not avoid the subject of the fallen woman in his own writing, he explored the problem in his novels, his letters and his prose work illustrating a diverse and complex approach to both its causes and treatment. In this article I will concentrate on Charles Dickens' approach to prostitution and falleness, mainly in David Copperfield but also in Oliver Twist. Dickens' interest in the problem of falleness is doubly fascinating when we consider his active involvement in the home for fallen women, Urania Cottage in Lime Grove, Shepherd's Bush, funded by Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts. By examining his letters to Miss Coutts on the subject of Urania Cottage and its inmates we can see a clear difference between Dickens' practical response to the problem of falleness and his use of it as a motif in his novels. Alongside this we will look at other contemporary accounts and opinions on the matter including Felicia Skene's, 'Penitentiaries and Reformatories', Josephine Butler's, 'Some Thoughts on the Present Aspect of the Crusade Against the State Regulation of Vice', Henry Mayhew's accounts of prostitution and Thomas Archer's, 'The Terrible Sights of London'. An examination of all these sources will establish Dickens' literary treatment of the fallen as a particularly ambiguous and yet sympathetic strand of a more general contemporary debate.


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Last modified May 27, 2003