The ruin of women through seduction was a common theme in literature of the 1800’s. I am not aware of many books that grant a happy ending to unchaste women – certainly not a marriage, anyway (perhaps Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice?). In fact, most 19th century narratives about fallen women are heartbreakingly tragic. A comparison of a handful of Victorian novels illustrates this (and reinforces why Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell can be considered so radical).
Clarissa by John Richardson (1748)
Clarissa is Richardson’s follow-up to his best-seller Pamela (1740), which is counted among one of the first English novels ever written. Technically not written in the Victorian era (neither are Jane Austen’s novels), these epistolary novels (like Austen’s), pioneer the way for the themes, topics and culture presented in novels written during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).
The contrast between the fate of a chaste woman and a fallen woman couldn’t be starker than in Pamela and Clarissa. In Pamela, the heroine successfully evades the advances of her seducer and the narrator rewards her with marriage to him; in Clarissa, the heroine is “unsuccessful” at rebuffing (read: raped) and dies of some fever or other debilitating and emotionally brought-on illness.
Of the ending to Clarissa Richardson wrote:
“…if the temporary sufferings of the Virtuous and the Good can be accounted for and justified on Pagan principles, many more and infinitely stronger reasons will occur to a Christian Reader in behalf of what are called unhappy Catastrophes, from a consideration of the doctrine of future rewards; which is every where strongly enforced in the History of Clarissa.”
The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In Hawthorne’s tale, a fallen woman is trialed, jailed and humiliated by her Puritan village while the father, whose identity the village does not know, struggles with his guilty conscience in secret, until one day his body succumbs to the torment of his mind and he dies upon his final confession.
I could not find a good discussion of Hawthorne’s religious beliefs either on the internet or in my anthologies. Apparently he lived fairly reclusively with his wife. Many of his texts clearly critique the Puritan religion he was raised in; that proves little, however. Note that Hawthorne is an American writer, but he would definitely be familiar with Richardson’s novels and the fallen woman narrative in British literature, as The Scarlet Letter shows.
Ruth (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell
Ruth lives a life surprisingly industrious and exemplary for a fallen woman; as a single mother, she works and provides for her fatherless son. The narrator presents her as a model of Christian piety and devotion who exposes the hypocrisy of legalistic believers in her congregation. She performs the acts of Jesus (healing and comforting) and parallels his suffering and sacrifice on the cross by giving her life to save her former persecutor. Ruth is the message of the gospel in Ruth.
Like all other heroines discussed, Ruth must die according to narrative norms of the time (which have social origins, as all narratives do). However, a long spell of industry and Christian living interrupts the period between her fall and her death, unlike in Clarissa, and her death is not meaninglessly tragic, as in Tess.
Elizabeth Gaskell was married to a minister of the Unitarian church (they deny the trinity, and therefore the complete divinity of Christ).
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy
Tess chronicles perhaps the most brutal and tragic tale of a fallen woman. The novel culminates with the trying, convicting and hanging of Tess for murdering the man who caused her ruin.
Thomas Hardy made no secret of his atheism and the novel certainly operates as a critique of societal norms and expectations. Hardy’s last novel, “Jude the Obscure,” makes even clearer his views on what he perceives as the suffocating confines of 19th century marriage laws and norms through its narration of the life of a cohabiting couple.
Note: See also Charles Dickens and George Elliott for more treatments of the fallen woman in Victorian Literature.