"Found Drowned" by George Frederic Watts (1850) - Public Domain
We have discussed the notion in other threads that perhaps our Victorian friends weren’t quite as straight laced or uptight as they have been portrayed. If you look at enough period photos, you will see a smile, and if you read enough books, you will find flirtation and all the rest. However, there does appear to be at least one area where Victorians didn’t waiver. With respect to sexuality, female purity was valued above all else. The emphasis on female purity was simple - women needed to present themselves as marriageable or suffer the consequences of being alienated by a society that valued women primarily for their marriageability. Victorian women were expected to remain virgins until marriage and they were expected to only have sex with their husband. Female sexual desire was seen as non-existent and women who strayed from moral expectations became known as “fallen women”.
The shame of being cast as a “fallen woman” in the 19th century was so extreme that many women committed suicide to escape the ostracism and dishonor. The fate of the "fallen woman" was featured in many Victorian pieces of art and literature. It is likely depicted in the painting above. “Found Drowned” depicts the dead body of a woman found washed up beneath the arch of a bridge with half of her body still immersed in the river. The title given to the painting refers to the legal term that was used in the 19th Century for a coroner’s inquest.
What struck me most about the painting (and led me to create this thread) is that the woman is holding a heart-shaped locket which suggests that the reason for her death and suicide is attributed to a lover. Click on the painting and zoom in to see what I mean. The woman in the painting represents a “fallen woman”. Sadly there weren’t many escapes for women in the Victorian era who society felt had “disgraced” themselves and thus been labeled as “fallen women”. The term “fallen women” was distinct from prostitutes. This label signified a “fall from grace” – adultery or betrayal – and suggested that the woman was of middle or upper class. Prostitution was seen as a phenomenon among lower classes (although that certainly wasn’t always the case). Women and the standard of women's behavior was seen as the foundation of a stable and moral society, so even if they weren't selling themselves for sex women were still judged for any sort of behavior that was deemed amoral by Victorian society.
What do you suppose men who were adulterers were labeled in the 19th century – rogue or scamp? Perhaps nothing at all. Why do you suppose they weren’t ostracized by Victorian society? It seems society has always placed more importance on the virtue of a woman. Why do you think that is?
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