Emily Wilce - Presenter Profile

Refashioning the Fallen: The Changing Depiction of the Fallen Woman in Victorian British Visual Culture.

In this article, Emily Wilce describes her research into the changing depiction of fallen women in Victorian Britain.

About My Research

It is, so they say, the oldest profession. Prostitution has been around for thousands of years. Yet, whilst this is nothing new, the question as to how and why, throughout the centuries, artists, authors, and illustrators have chosen to depict the prostitute remains intriguing.

My research explores how the prostitute, the adulterous woman and the single mother were depicted in British visual culture between 1850 and 1900. During this period, these ‘fallen women’ were considered to act beyond of the realms of respectable behaviour, engaging in sexual relationships outside of the confines of marriage. Previous research has tended to focus on how the fallen woman was portrayed in oil paintings and literature but has not considered her representation in the illustrated press and in the leaflets and periodicals produced by charitable organisations.

My thesis encompasses these neglected mediums and aims to establish how the type of publication produced, whether painting or printed illustration, affected how such women were depicted. The intended audience of these images and the number of people who would be able to access them, I argue, greatly influenced how the fallen woman was presented, as portrayals vary between the vulnerable and suicidal social outcast to the sexually aggressive self-promoter. To what extent was an artist’s depiction shaped by social thought at the time? What role did editors and printers play in the mode of portrayal? How accessible and socially acceptable was it to view an image of the fallen woman? Moreover, how true to life were such illustrations of the prostitute, her working conditions, and her fate? These questions form the basis of my research.

My Festival Presentation

My poster focuses on the presentation of the prostitute in the pages of the periodicals which were produced by the Salvation Army between 1883 and 1900.  These periodicals contain hundreds of illustrations which have previously been largely neglected when studying the portrayal of the fallen woman in nineteenth-century culture. Complete copies of The Deliverer, The War Cry, and All the World are held in the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre and provide a detailed insight into the Salvation Army’s work with the rescue of prostitutes in London, the United Kingdom and the rest of the Empire. My research explores the articles and illustrations which were printed in these publications and considers not just how the prostitute was presented, but how these periodicals can be seen as having amalgamated aspects from different mediums over the course of the century so as to have the greatest impact upon their intended readers.

My Research Findings

The Salvation Army was first established by William Booth in 1865 under the title of the Christian Mission.  Renamed in 1879, the charity aimed to secure ‘the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next’ through Christian teaching and philanthropic acts*. Central to these aims were the periodicals which were published by the Army. Filled with reports of the charity’s work, branding, banners and requests for financial aid, the periodicals were produced to accompany the charity’s rescue work, spread awareness of their aims, and advertise for more volunteers.

My research has found that the Salvation Army used the print medium to access a wide and varying audience. Both giving copies of their periodicals away for free and selling them for a low price, the charity mixed traditional styles of philanthropic self-promotion with the commerciality of the popular press. Exploiting branding, the publications helped to increase the Army’s presence in Victorian society and enabled personal interaction to take place between the founding members of the Salvation Army and the prostitute on the street.

My research has also allowed me to identify some of the artists who produced illustrations for the charity’s periodicals. Their identification suggests that rather than being drawn from observation, the illustrations were produced to accompany the articles and reports which were written by both Army officers and the reclaimed women themselves. This also explains the influence which earlier artistic portrayals had the periodicals’ illustrations. Themes such as the importance of family unity in the preservation of female virtue, the corruptive influence of the city, and the role of women in the philanthropic movement can be seen to have been clearly influenced by artists as diverse as Hablot K. Browne, who illustrated many of Dickens’ original works, and George Frederick Watts, who was deemed to be the English Michelangelo.

Despite this influence, my research has found that depictions of the fallen woman in the pages of the Salvation Army publications still vary from other visual portrayals produced earlier in the century as they offer a more positive outlook on female sexuality.  Although often portrayed as contemplating suicide, in line with popular literary and artistic depictions which promoted the view that the fallen women would die in recompense for her sexual deviance, the Salvation Army periodicals rarely show this outcome.  Instead, the prostitute is often shown as having been found by an Army worker, admitted into a rescue home, clothed, cared for and trained in domestic service, before leaving to become a valuable member of society.  Even more, those who fully accepted the help of the charity often became Army workers themselves. Therefore, my research suggests that female sexuality was not as demonised during the late Victorian period as is first thought, providing a new perspective on attitudes towards gender and gender history.

* Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (New York and London: Funk and Wagnal, 1890), p. 4.

About Emily Wilce

Emily Wilce - PhD Student at the University of Leicester (2015)Emily Wilce is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the Department of the History of Art and Film. Emily is supervised by Professor David Ekserdjian and Dr Holly Furneaux.

Emily will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 6 July 2015 - see Emily's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

Contact Emily

Department of the History of Art and Film

University of Leicester

University Road



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