In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

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15 thoughts on “In Praise of Fallen Women

  1. I have a few of these books and I know exactly what you are talking about. It all has to do with oppression and double standards. My husband and I were watching Anna Karenina recently and I did not want to watch the whole thing to the conclusion because I know what was going to happen. She would get blamed for having an affair with a man who relentlessly pursued her and then she gets to be a cast out. That poor woman in Coquette.

  2. You are totally correct about the bereft of literature if this profession did not exist. The treatment was not all bad in literature. I recall from James Clavell “Shogun” that the concubine was not necessarily a position of disrepute. I also remember reading about consorts in Italy who were privy to planning conversations about war, etc. and knew what was happening more so than the wives. And, even in the states, in New Orleans, a consort was set up with a house and wielded some power. Plus, I remember from “Gone with the Wind” how Belle was treated so well by Melanie and, of course, Rhett. But. if the evidence is weighed, literature like life, does not rate highly the profession. Fontine in Les Miserables is a good example,as well.

    • Great overview of prostitutes in literature, BTG. However, I didn’t mean to imply that the characters I was discussing were “professionals.” They were just women who ‘slipped” outside of marriage, often just once, and sometimes they were raped. Nonetheless, they might as well have been prostitutes, given the way they were treated.

      • Thanks. I am sorry to have made the digression. To your point, history has been far more acceptable to men having affairs than women, and in some cultures, women can be condemned for it, even if raped. This was a theme in “Half the Sky.”

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