In the novels David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, Dickens presents us with five fallen women and uses a full range of reasons for their fall. Little Em'ly, David's playmate and the, (almost incestuously) much loved niece of Dan'l Peggotty is seduced by the villain-gentleman, Steerforth. The reader is aware despite 'Daisy's' innocence that Steerforth is a 'cad'. The incident at school in which Steerforth is responsible for the worthy Mr. Mell's dismissal and his amused and patronising stance to Mr Peggotty and Ham have alerted us to his duplicity. We can also see his attraction to the young, friendless David too. 'There was an ease in his manner — a gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering — which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it' (David Copperfield, p.93).

It seems almost inevitable that Em'ly will similarly be ensnared given the open-hearted simplicity she has grown up with. Ham's devotion for Em'ly is pure and na´ve but honest, 'There ain't a gen'lm'n in all the land that can love his lady more than I love her' (David Copperfield, p.270). Ham's words uttered in the presence of David and Steerforth signal both the future for Em'ly and her fate. The fact that she is not, 'a lady' will prohibit her from becoming Steerforth's wife. His mother, Mrs Steerforth refuses to accept Mr Peggotty's plea to, 'Raise her up,' in marriage to her son. 'He would disgrace himself. . . . She is uneducated and ignorant' (David Copperfield, p.400). Dickens obviously feels sympathy for the plight of the seduced Em'ly and allows Dan'l to invoke a higher authority in support of his niece when he says, 'there will be a time when all of us shall be alike in quality afore our God!' (David Copperfield, p.400).

Hunt's Awakening Conscience

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunbt. [Click on thumbnail
for larger image and link below for extended discussion of the painting.]

The seduced woman was a common theme in literature, art and politics. To attribute blame to a particular group of men, in this case the dissolute, landed gentry made a convenient political point and an easily recognisable artistic theme. Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1851-53) depicts the moment in which the seduced woman recognises her crime. Thomas Hood's, 'Bridge of Sighs' was based on a real case of suicide following seduction. Popular music hall was sympathetic to the seduced girl as the victim of the 'worldly' gentleman, the popular song, 'She Was Poor But She Was Honest', being one of many examples. Thomas Archer in 'The Terrible Sights of London' gives a voice to the victims blaming, 'The flashy villain who followed me in the streets nightly as I left my work and at last persuaded me to go with him' (Thomas Archer, p.5).

Little Em'ly's then, is a commonly told story in the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens, as part of his involvement in Urania Cottage, interviewed prospective inmates. In Household Words, April 23rd. 1853 he wrote anonymously of the inmates of a Home for Homeless Women.

Case number fifty-four, a good looking young woman of two and twenty, was seen in prison under remand on a charge of attempting to commit suicide. . . she had stayed out late one night with a 'commissioner'. . . and was afraid or ashamed to go home, and so went wrong. [Household Words in The Dickens Connection, p.43]

Like Little Em'ly, it seems, many young women were deceived. She tells Rosa Dartle, 'I had been brought up as virtuous as you or any lady. . . I believed him, trusted him, and loved him!' (David Copperfield, p.612).

Although Dickens is sympathetic to Little Em'ly we are not left in any doubt as to the enormity of her crime. She will never recover a, 'normal' life. Her guilt is apparent to the reader by her disappearance from the novel, a symbolic disappearance mirroring her status as a social outcast. After her return and the attack by Rosa Dartle, during which she attempts to explain her fall, she doesn't speak again. Her story is told by Mr Peggotty and we see her last, 'beautiful and drooping. . . clinging to him,' as they sail away to Australia. It seems that Dickens feels he can ask his reader to consider the extent of Em'ly's culpability (Steerforth, after all is punished with death), but he does accept the problem we might have as a society in re-integrating women who have strayed in this way. The fact that Em'ly can only continue her thwarted life in the colonies suggests that Dickens is sensitive to his audiences' abhorrence of Em'ly's crime, whilst (by saving her from annihilation) encouraging them to greater sympathy for her.


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Last modified May 27, 2003