The fallen woman: prostitution in literature

Michele Roberts in The Guardian:

ProsIn the past, women whose lives included selling sex were rarely the subjects of their own histories, but were glamorous, vicious or pitiable objects in others’ accounts. One particular alluring figure turns up in the Christian story of sin, redemption and resurrection recounted in the frescoes of medieval western art. Mary Magdalene, the former prostitute, recognisable by her rippling yellow hair and red cloak, kneels at the foot of the cross, weeping. A mythical figure conflated from three different characters in the Gospels, she also turns up in the Apocrypha. Renaissance painters loved her. Their images ostensibly defend Christian notions of chaste female sanctity, but simultaneously celebrate the seductiveness of beauty. They painted her costumed as a temptress in furs and jewels, with luscious breasts exposed, and also as a repentant sinner stripped of her finery, with an animal skin thrown over her, only partly hiding her luminous nakedness. Thirty years ago, similarly inspired, I wrote my novel The Wild Girl, claiming Mary Magdalene as a prophet, the author of a fifth Gospel.

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare underlined the virgin/whore dichotomy by juxtaposing the convent and the brothel, both institutions that contained and controlled women. The novice Isabella is vowed to sexual abstinence; Mistress Overdone, the bawd, to sexual availability. They cannot talk to one another: the official morality of the time fosters mutual distrust. Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, however, nudges the audience to link them in imagination. By the 19th century, in bourgeois culture, the rules had hardened. The individual gets crushed by the weight of the persona of the “fallen woman”. Novels act as etiquette books. In Jane Austen’s strictly ordered world, a young woman who bears an illegitimate child – such as Eliza in Sense and Sensibility – sinks further and vanishes. Euphemisms abound. And much as Dickens sympathised with young women forced into prostitution through poverty and tried to help them, he could not actually name Nancy’s occupation in Oliver Twist.

More here.