The first half of the nineteenth century had seen colossal change: innovations in industrial and economic practice and wide-scale movement to the towns and cities. These social and economic upheavals had an effect on the lives of private individuals, concentrating the evidence of any problems and making them more visible. The mid nineteenth century saw an increase in anxieties about social deviation and control. Concerns about excessive alcohol, substance abuse and prostitution ran parallel to fears of social breakdown. Poverty and geographical alienation will certainly have had a part to play in any growth of social problems and are often the subject of historical research, but it is the perception and treatment of these problems, particularly that of prostitution that is of interest here. The attitude of the novelist, Charles Dickens is of particular interest to the modern reader, combining as it does, a literary portrayal of falleness in his novels and a rather more pragmatic and practical approach through his work with repentant women at Urania Cottage.
Victorian society had newly acquired the habit of identifying, analysing and dealing with its social problems. The rise in public or charitable concern, followed by an official commission or report, followed in turn by legislation became the pattern. In this way the anti-slavery movement, labour and trade union legislation were all 'dealt with'. Concerns about prostitution would follow a similar route; public outcry followed by a report followed by legislation. However, in some ways the Victorian response to the problem of prostitution gives an insight into not simply social policy but more broadly into the rationale behind those attempts at policy. Commonly known as the 'oldest profession', we must surely question the extreme and duplicitous upper and middle class reaction to prostitution, which, mid-century, was presented as an increasing problem. This reaction appears even more extreme when contrasted with the cultural mores of the Regency period or indeed of the mid-Victorian working class, both of which, if contemporary accounts are to be believed, had a more relaxed approach to sexual relationships. The middle-class Victorian reaction to prostitution as a social evil was accompanied or pre-empted by a re-evaluation of gender roles.
Last modified May 27, 2003