Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Fallen Ladies and Cruel Mothers: Ballad Singers and Ballad Heroines in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Fallen Ladies and Cruel Mothers: Ballad Singers and Ballad Heroines in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

In 1741 William Hogarth completed another of his popular depictions of contemporary London. Like most of Hogarth's pictures, The Enraged Musician (Fig. 1) had a double aim: to show Londoners what was new about their way of life and simultaneously to reveal, in this novel scene, the timeless essence of human character. In this particular picture he focused, above all, on two female figures who were both new and old, individual and universal. One was the milkmaid, an upright girl of youthful vitality who retained the pastoral innocence of the country; the other was the ballad singer, a worn-out street-person in rags with a bawling baby on her arm. (1) The picture hinges on an opposition between these women: the one rural, the other urban, the one clean, the other dirty, the one virginal, the other fallen. The healthy girl cries her trade; the raddled mother sings "The Lady's Fall," an old ballad given new and personal force by its appropriateness to her present circumstances as an unmarried parent.


The ballad of the "The Lady's Fall" was, like the women in the picture, an instance of what London did to the country incomer. Archaic in its diction, traditional in its form, it was a song without a known author that spoke from a former time and from a rustic context, circulating orally in villages, taverns, and fairs. It was as recently as 1711 that Joseph Addison had caused a stir by treating the readers of The Spectator to a detailed appreciation of two similarly rural ballads, "Chevy Chase" and "The Two Children in the Wood," commending them, and the popular tradition from which they came, for their "majestic simplicity." (2) In the city, though, such ballads appeared in a different context: produced on coarse paper by the thousand, they were not just sung from memory in the convivial setting of cottage fireside, but were also sold in the mean streets as the cheap goods of destitute beggars. "The Lady's Fall," for instance, was a London hit in the 1730s, when Cluer Dicey, the main publisher of cheap broadsides, issued it from his warehouse in Bow Church Yard. As usual, Hogarth was right in tune with the times: the old ballad was, when he painted his picture, a pop song on the city streets.

But it was not just a song. In The Enraged Musician, the ballad is both a sound--the ragged woman is singing it--and a commodity--a tatty piece of paper she is hawking to passers-by. As a sound, it belongs to one of the traditional English genres that together drown out the art of the foreign violinist. His music is genteel, aimed at the indoor life of drawing room and salon; they are rough, popular, the sounds of the laboring classes whose habitat is outdoors on the street. Thus Hogarth makes a visual critique along patriotic and class-based lines--attacking the preference of the urban nouveau riche for the effete arts of Europe over traditional English forms of expression. Yet he is also doing something more complex and interesting, as an examination of the words of "The Lady's Fall" makes clean

The ballad begins with a drama that has been enacted countless times in patriarchal cultures that fetishize female "honour':

   Mark well my heavy doleful Tale,
   You loyal Lovers all,
   And heedfully bear in your Breast
     A gallant Ladys Fall.
   Long was she woo'd, ere she was won
     To lead a wedded life,
   But Folly wrought her Overthrow
   Ere she became a wife.

   Too soon, alas! she gave Consent
     To yield unto his will,
   Tho' he protested to be true
     And faithful to her still.
   She felt her Body alter'd quite,
     Her bright hue waxed pale;
   Her fair red Cheeks turn'd Colour white,
     Her Strength began to fail:

   So that with many a sorrowful Sigh,
     This beauteous Maiden mild,
   With grievous Heart, perceiv'd herself
     To be conceiv'd with Child.
   She kept it from her Father's Sight,
     As close as close might be,
   And so put on her silken Gown,
     None might her Swelling see. … 
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