Prostitution was rampant in Dickens’s London. According to Bracebridge Hemyng, who wrote the prostitution section of Henry Mayhew’s four-volume, mid-19th century classic, London Labour and the London Poor,* prostitutes were arranged in a hierarchy. At the top were kept women, mistresses of wealthy men, who had their own homes and lived like respectable members of society.

One rung down were prima donnas, fashionable women of beauty and charm, who depended on more than one well-to-do “protector.” These women often resorted to night-houses to replenish their supply.

In these night-houses, what we’d call after-hours clubs, fashionable men and women could drink, gamble, relax, and meet one another. Kate’s, the classiest night-house in London, was the prima donnas’ favorite, since, as Hemyng says, “Kate is careful as to who she admits into her rooms–men who are able to spend, and come with the avowed intention of spending, five or six pounds, or perhaps more if necessary.” About the amount a young maidservant could earn in a year.

Below the level of the kept women and the prima donnas were women who resided, one or two together, in their own apartments.Their landlords knew what they were but didn’t object, just jacked up the rent. Most such lodging houses were near the Haymarket, a section of London not far from Picadilly. These women trolled for business in nearby cafes and clubs, or , as here, on the streets.

On the lowest level were women who lived in brothels and turned over all or most of their earnings to brothel keepers in exchange for board, lodging, and clothes. Like the woman Martha rescues Little Em’ly from in David Copperfield, these brothel keepers, usually women, had a reputation for luring innocent young women just up from the country into their brothels under false pretences.

Although some brothels existed in the fashionable West End, most were located in the poorer districts of the East End or south of the Thames, in neighborhoods such as Lambeth, as shown here. Notice that these young ladies are exposing their ankles, something no respectable woman would do.

* Also see Dover Publication’s The London Underworld in the Victorian Period, an easily accessible reprint of Volume 4 of London Labour and the London Poor.


Victorian art and literature are full of  stories about the fallen woman, defined as any woman who loses her reputation by having sex while unmarried or with a man not her husband. George Eliot’s Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as well as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist, Little Em’ly and Martha Endell in David Copperfield and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House all qualify.

Suicide was the approved means of atonement. “The Bridge of Sighs,” a poem by Thomas Hood published in 1844, features a fallen woman fished out of the Thames after flinging herself in.

Hood’s  poem was so popular  an illustration of it was carved on his tombstone.

George Frederic Watts based his painting Found Drowned (1849-50) on Hood’s poem.

Hablot Knight Brownes’s etching of Martha Endell, the fallen woman in David Copperfield, shows her at the river. We know what she’s contemplating.

The Outcast (1851) Richard Redgrave                                                              “Sisterly/brotherly,/Fatherly, motherly/Feelings had changed;”

The Lost Path (1863) Frederick Walker                                                                                                “O, it was pitiful!/Near a whole city full,/Home she had none.”

The Awakening Conscience by Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt was initially inspired by Mr. Peggoty’s redemption of Little Em’ly’ in David Copperfield. Hunt , however, wanted to show the redemption as coming from within the woman herself. Playing and singing “Oft in the Stilly Night” (see the sheet music on the piano), a song about happier times, the woman in Hunt’s painting is struck by a spiritual revelation. (Or has her lover just indulged in a rude grope. You decide.)

The Awakening Conscience (1853-54) William Holman Hunt (Tate)               Notice the absence of a wedding ring on her finger and the symbolic details scattered about, such as the castoff glove.

Adultery was as bad, if not worse, than simple fornication. A series of paintings by Augustus Leopold Egg, originally untitled but now called Past and Present, I, II, III (1858, Tate), portrays the discovery and dire consequences of a wife’s fall–a stern warning to any woman tempted to infidelity.

The triptych includes a fictional diary entry that reveals and comments on the whole sad story: “August the 4th–have just heard that B–has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been.”

The infidelity is discovered. This painting too is replete with symbols, such as the apple next to the anguished woman’s body and the children’s house of cards.

Five years later, the daughters, older now and alone, struggle to survive in this bare garret room.

On the same night, by the light of the same moon, the fallen woman cowers under an arch near the Thames, the fruit of her sin–dead or dying–clasped in her arms.

But there was a lighter side to all this gloom and doom. Not every fallen woman killed herself or took to the streets. As Thomas Hardy points out in his 1866 (published 1902) poem “The Ruined Maid,” being ruined could have its compensations.

Hardy may have been inspired by this Punch cartoon.

(In the 19th century gay referred to prostitution, not homosexuality.)

Mary Hogarth was much better looking than this only surviving image suggests.





Mary Hogarth was the younger sister and closest companion of Charles Dickens’s wife, Catherine. Her sudden death at seventeen broke Charles’s heart. To him she was an angel who inspired him throughout his life.


Mary died here at 48 Doughty Street.






Catherine and Charles Dickens with newborn Charles, Jr. had moved into 48 Doughty Street in April of 1837. Mary died, suddenly and unexpectedly, one month later. “Thank God,” Charles wrote to a friend, “she died in my arms and the very last words she whispered were of me.”


Today, 48 Doughty Street is home to the Charles Dickens Museum. Now undergoing renovations, the museum will reopen in December 2012.


Charles arranged to have Mary buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery and composed her epitaph.







Charles planned to be buried beside Mary, but five years later her brother died and was buried there instead. Charles wrote that “the thought of being excluded from her dust was like losing her a second time.”

Mary’s tombstone. Her parents were eventually buried here as well.


Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist is the first of many Dickens characters based on Mary. “She was not past seventeen. Cast in so slight and exquisite a mould; so mild and gentle; so pure and beautiful; the earth seemed not her element, nor its rough creatures her fit companions.”

Like Mary, Rose is struck with a sudden deathly illness. Unlike her, she survives.

Charles rejected the illustration George Cruikshank provided for the final scene of Oliver Twist and insisted he replace it.


The canceled plate shows Rose, Oliver, Mrs. Maylie, and Henry, Rose’s fiance.

The scene Charles preferred: Oliver and Rose alone together lit by a heavenly glow.

To exist for men? Not much different from men? Meant to please and praise? Sickly, feeble, and useless? A fountain of self-sacrifice? No better than a slave? These opinions and more swirled through the cultural climate of Dickens’s time.

Image Many Victorians believed what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said in 1762:

“Women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect. to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, correct and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant; these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”

Image In 1847 Charlotte Bronte, who wrote under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, said:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women fell just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

Image In 1854, in a long poem in praise of his wife, Coventry Patmore said:

“Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf

Of his condoled necessities

She casts her best, she flings herself.

How often flings for nought! and yokes

Her heart to an icicle or whim,

Whose each impatient word provokes

Another, not from her, but him;

While she, too gentle even to force

His penitence by kind replies,

Waits by, expecting his remorse,

With pardon in her pitying eyes;

And if he once, by shame oppress’d,

A comfortable word confers,

She leans and weeps against his breast,

And seems to think the sin was hers.”

Image In 1865 John Ruskin said:

“The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle–and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest.”

Image In 1864 Sarah Stickney Ellis, a devout Congregationalist and minister’s wife, said:

“When the cultivation of the mental faculties had so far advanced as to take precedence of the moral, by leaving no time for domestic usefulness, and the practice of personal exertion in the way of promoting general happiness, the character of the women of England assumed a different aspect, which is now beginning to tell upon society in the sickly sensibilities, the feeble frames, and the useless habits of the rising generation.”

Image In 1869 John Stuart Mill, with the help of his wife, Harriet Taylor, said:

“We are constantly told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.”

Image In 1931 Virginia Woolf, whose mother was one, said that the Victorian woman:

“was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”


Queen Victoria, age 26, in 1845. A model of womanhood for the women of her time.