To understand the mid-Victorian perception of prostitution we must appreciate the scale of the concern. Mayhew tells us that in 1857 there were 8,600 prostitutes in London known to the police but that the true number may have been nearer to 80,000 (Mayhew p. 476). Prostitution was seen as a social nuisance and a moral threat not just in Britain but also elsewhere in the world. Indeed Dickens was of the opinion that, 'more valuable knowledge', was to be got on the subject from Paris than, 'anywhere else' (Letters May 26th 1846). However, the British — or perhaps English — approach to the problem of prostitution is particularly interesting combining as it does social and moral anxiety and intention to reform or eradicate.
Contemporary commentators were divided as to the causes of what was seen as a rise in prostitution. Victorian ideas about separate spheres of influence exemplified in 'the Angel of the House', were deep-rooted and intensified abhorrence of what was seen as completely deviant behaviour. Approaches to the problem tended to identify three main causes of 'falleness'; these were fallenenss instigated by seduction; falleness caused by degeneracy or immorality and falleness caused by poverty. Whilst not exclusive causes these do give an indication of a writer or social commentator's views on related issues such as the relationship between the sexes and the alleviation of poverty. Dickens explores the possible reasons for falleness in his novels, thereby entering fully into the mid-victorian debate and allowing his readers to discuss their own concerns on the subject through the medium of his writing.
Last modified May 27, 2003