Academic journal article British and American Studies

Ruth: An Unusual Prostitute. Elizabeth Gaskell's Speculative Gaze vs. Victorian Masculine Vision of Woman

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Ruth: An Unusual Prostitute. Elizabeth Gaskell's Speculative Gaze vs. Victorian Masculine Vision of Woman

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: The Great Social Evil

Prostitution was a theme long debated by the Victorians. A controversial subject since, on the one hand, it was considered a sort of business in perfect accordance with the new ethics imposed by the Industrial Revolution, as Peter Brooks (1992:144) notes: "the body of the prostitute is clearly the meeting place of eros and commerce"; but, on the other hand, it was in discordance with the Victorian strict moral principles. Prostitutes were considered fallen women and that implied that they were responsible for and not victims of their state. Besides, being a prostitute also meant being involved in illegal activities, as indeed they were often beggars, pickpockets or thieves too. For this reason, their position got even worse and they were doomed and pointed out as sinners by society.

Actually, nobody would explain their loose lives as the result of factors like poverty. However, they were generally desperate women who had no other chance to survive, an unacceptable view to the Victorian mind, which could not tolerate any possible disharmonies in the ideal image of the world it intended to support. Therefore, if the existence of prostitution could not be denied, it was fundamental to drastically split wrong from right. This kind of classification divided women into two categories: madonnas and harlots. This binary opposition was supposed to give a presumably correct orientation to a society which was both obsessed with and terrified by sex. Women were supposed to be confined within the family walls and to deal only with domestic affairs. That was how the rising middle class, always busy with money making and social climbing, expected them to behave and any infringement was harshly blamed. Fallen women were seen as linked to criminality and disease, and were considered a biological danger that society had to fight. As a result, there was an investigation which ended with the publication of the first Contagious Diseases Act in 1864. The commission was made up only of male members, no women were allowed. As rightly remarked by Elsie B. Michie (1993:92):

This kind of invisible masculine surveillance of female sexuality was characteristic of the way the Victorian social authority dealt generally with prostitution, though it tended more frequently to be discussed in terms of overseeing than of overhearing.

Prostitution stimulated the morbid imagination of a society which was constrained between two opposite tensions: voyeurism and prudery. Under the influence of Queen Victoria, in fact, the age turned excessively puritanical and sex became a taboo.

Artists and intellectuals showed much interest in this complicated subject because, unlike the Romantics, the Victorians did not want to be separated from the social context, but felt the urgency to contribute providing different opinions and stimulating new awareness in a society conscious of its own power. Prose writers, especially, were deeply involved in social, political and religious issues, so they became the spokesmen for their time. "Nineteenth-century writers were characteristically melodramtic and encapsulated the concept of a perpetual battle between good and evil, order and anarchy" (Weiner 1990:21).

Novelists showed a sympathetic attitude towards prostitution, which they used in their writings to sensitize their reading public. Charles Dickens, for example, who believed in the so called change of heart, thought that fallen women were capable of redemption if only they were offered the opportunity for useful repentance. For this purpose, prostitutes were taken to rescue homes, which were commonly bleak places, more similar to prisons than to houses where repentance was extorted. Dickens, who was always very active in social services and charities, was also truly engaged in the creation of a hostel located in the west side of London with his friend Angela Burdett-Couts. This hostel was Urania Cottage, Home for homeless women, but actually also for fallen women. …

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