The remaining two fallen women in the novels I am looking at are Nancy and Bet, both characters in Oliver Twist. The two are quite clearly prostitutes from their description.
They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. Being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were. [Oliver Twist, p.62]
Dickens is purposely circumspect about their occupation, although in the first edition he writes in the introduction that 'Nancy is a prostitute,' ( Olver Twist). We don't know exactly what has led Nancy and Bet astray but presented as a part of Fagin's gang from an early age we can only surmise that poverty was a major factor. Nancy's poverty is not simply economic, but also spiritual in nature. As Nancy tells Rose Maylie, 'When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse. . . ' (Oliver Twist, p.306).
Many contemporaries may have recognised the portrait of Nancy, driven into prostitution by poverty but retaining her essential feminine compassion. The idea that prostitution may have an economic root was less popular than the idea of seduction or degeneracy but was gaining ground due to writers such as Mayhew and Acton who were more inclined to listen to the views of the working women themselves. William Acton in 1870, in Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, recommended studying the, 'habits, the wants, the tendencies and the careers of these women' (Acton, p.3). Acton blames the fall in wages for the rise in prostitution, 'the wages of working men, wherever they compete with female labour, are lowered by the flood of cheap and agile hands, until marriage and a family are an almost impossible luxury....the famished worker....takes virtue itself to market' (Acton, p.5).
In his Household Words article Dickens shows his sympathy for the poverty stricken young girls he met, they are described as, 'ill-treated', 'deceived', 'afraid', 'ashamed' and 'abandoned' (Dickens Connection, p. 42). One young woman refused back into her lodgings after a night out is excused with, 'The natural consequences of this unjustifiable behaviour followed' (Dickens Connection, p. 42). We can see in his reports of the young women of Urania Cottage the compassion he has for Nancy. By showing Nancy as having a generous nature and a natural sense of justice Dickens encourages us to acknowledge her goodness. Rose Maylie the idealised woman and a moral guide to the other characters in Oliver Twist, is compassionate to Nancy. Nancy herself tells how unusual this is, ' "Lady", cried the girl, sinking on her knees, "dear, sweet, angel lady, you are the first that ever blessed me with such words as these"' (Oliver Twist, p.305).
Last modified May 27, 2003