Although Dickens was happy to question and even challenge the reasons for falleneness in his novels he avoided suggesting radical methods of dealing with its victims, preferring instead to lead the reader to the best conclusion. Oliver's mother conveniently fades away in resignation with the words, 'Let me see the child and die. . . .' Her drunken nurse, possibly meaning to be encouraging says, 'Lor' bless her dear heart, when she has lives as long as I have, and thirteen children of her own, and all on 'em dead except two, and them in the wurkys with me, she'll know better than to take on in that way, bless her dear heart!' (Oliver Twist, p.2). In this rather bleak, way Dickens suggests the dearth of alternatives available to Oliver's mother.
Nancy, as we know, meets a bloody end at the hands of Bill Sikes. The description of Nancy's death is particularly vivid, perhaps as a reprimand to any reader still unsympathetic to Nancy, '. . . .he had struck and struck again. . . there was the body — mere flesh and blood, no more — but such flesh and so much blood!' (Oliver Twist, p.353).
Before Nancy's death she was offered a sanctuary by Rose Maylie and Mr Brown, '..a quiet asylum, either in England, or, if you fear to remain here, in some foreign country. . . ' (Oliver Twist, p.353). Nancy's refusal to accept salvation reflects the difficulty experienced by many; to be 'saved' so often meant separation from every known thing, from, 'such a home as I have raised myself with the work of my whole life. . . ' (Oliver Twist, p.354). Dickens appears to be accepting the reader's view of her life as irredeemable, the fallen woman in fiction in the mid-nineteenth century would commonly die, often at her own hand, as a result of her crime. Nancy appeals to Rose Maylie's sympathy, asking, 'Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide. . . '(Oliver Twist, p.354). This scene is echoed in David Copperfield when Martha is on the brink of the Thames, 'I know it's like me!" she exclaimed. "I know that I belong to it. I know that it's the natural company of such as I am! It comes from the country places, where there was once no harm in it — and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable — and it goes away' like my life to a great sea, that is always troubled — and I feel that I must go with it!"'(David Copperfield, p.582).
Martha is, despite her own wish to die, saved at the end of the novel, joining other mid-nineteenth century heroines saved from certain death. Martha, through her own admittance of guilt and her active role in finding Little Em'ly is accepted back into the fold of the Peggotty family and accompanies Mr Peggotty, Mrs Gummidge and Little Em'ly to Australia and leaves them to marry and set up her own household, albeit, 'four hunded mile away from any voices but their own' (David Copperfield, p. 738).This was the ideal end Dickens hoped for the Urania Cottage women. In a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, the benefactoress of the Home he wrote, '. . . the Government would assist you to the extent of informing you from time to time into what distant parts of the world women could be sent for marriage, with the greatest hope for their future families' (Letters, p.29).
Miss Coutts disagreed with Dickens on the need for marriage, feeling that it was quite possible to, 'be single and saved' (Healey, p.118). This was the fate for Little Em'ly who lives a quiet and useful life alongside her uncle in Australia, 'liked by young and old; sowt out by all that has any trouble.' (David Copperfield, p.738).
The fate of the fallen women in these two novels then, with the exception of Martha, is in keeping with the stereotypical fallen woman the Victorians expected. Abandoned, shunned and painfully aware of her own culpability; Victorians expected such a woman to behave as if ashamed and deeply unhappy. The deep-rooted abhorrence of such deviant behaviour, especially in a culture which idealised sexually passive female behaviour, was widely felt. Dickens may not have allowed his fallen women to escape censure despite depicting them as characters worthy of our sympathy. Peter Ackroyd, Dickens most recent biographer tells us, 'Dickens sympathised most readily with prostitutes. He is reported to have said that, "he was sure God looked leniently on all vice that proceeded from human tenderness and natural passion"' (Ackroyd, p. 537). It seems then that Dickens suppressed his sympathies a little when dealing with the fallen women in his novels and that it was in a more practical, pragmatic way that he exercised this sympathy — towards the inhabitants of Urania Cottage.
Last modified May 27, 2003