“Madonna or Whore: A Woman’s lot in Victorian England” – A Talk Review by Morgan Clark (GHL Placement Student)

This talk, by Jennifer Toynbee-Holmes, took place on the 28th of June 2016.

As a woman I found this talk highly interesting; Jennifer’s depth of knowledge was incredible. The talk made clear that there were two different representations of women in Victorian society: one the virtuous mother; submissive and powerless, also known as the Angel in the House, and the other the fallen woman; a woman of temptation and prostitution.

Queen Victoria was an influential role model in the Victorian period, as shown by Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s painting ‘The Royal Family” (1846). This presented the family as obedient and well dressed. Jennifer also spoke of the Queen as the mother of the nation, whose devotion to her husband Prince Albert was clear. However, despite this representation of Queen Victoria, we were also told that she was characterised as a woman who hated infants and being pregnant. This enriching talk also spoke about the huge impact the Pre-Raphaelites had on the representation of the ideal woman.

To illustrate her talk, Jennifer showed examples of famous Victorian paintings in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Guildhall Art Gallery, some of which depicted ideal women who were dressed modestly, thus maintaining ideologies of purity and virtue. Juxtaposed with these were paintings of “fallen” women, portrayed as those whose sexual innocence had been lost, and who were depicted in a highly sexualised way for the period, for example, wearing low-cut dresses coupled with short hemlines. This was my favourite section of the talk as it showed how women who were deemed “fallen” were given more of an identity and power by comparison to modest wives. Jennifer spoke proudly of women who were able to redeem their situation, making it clear that not all “fallen” women ended up dying on the streets. Neither was it inevitable that they would commit suicide, despite the prevalence of the Thames in Victorian paintings with its overtones of death by drowning as the outcast woman’s last resort.

This talk was also appealing because it defended women and spoke about the unfair society they lived in. Before the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, a woman’s money and property automatically became her husband’s when she married. Even the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which widened the availability of divorce, showed that the Victorian double standard still operated in favour of men. A husband could divorce his wife solely on the grounds of her adultery, whereas a woman could only obtain a divorce if there was proof of her husband’s incest, cruelty, bigamy or desertion, in addition to adultery. The result was that many women remained trapped in unhappy marriages. An adulteress woman was still a sinner, whereas men were allowed mistresses without recrimination. To me, this was a very powerful section of the talk.

This talk links nicely with others that have taken place at Guildhall Library, including one in March by Bridget O’Donnell http://bridget-odonnell.com/minahan/

Some Pre-Raphaelite paintings which relate to this talk can be seen in Guildhall Art Gallery. Here are some examples:

Madonna 1

http://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/collage/app?service=external/Item&sp=Zdante+rossetti&sp=9423&sp=X

Madonna 2

http://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/collage/app?service=external/Item&sp=ZJohn+Everett+Millais&sp=9379&sp=X

Furthermore, a collection from George Cruikshank’s The drunkard’s children: A sequel to the bottle. In eight plates, also has a bearing on the topic of “fallen” women.

Madonna 3

Madonna 4

Madonna 5

By: Morgan Clark (Lord Mayor’s Cultural Scheme Placement Student)

Images: Guildhall Library Collections

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