From monster to angel

May 9, 1997

Seduced and ruined women are the focus of attention for a Leeds University lecturer who is exploring why they form such an important image in 18th-century literature.

According to Vivien Jones, senior lecturer in English literature at Leeds, images of fallen females, portrayed as seduced victims, repeatedly pop up in all kinds of printed text, most commonly in the context of prostitution.

"At the beginning of the 18th century prostitutes are often portrayed as monstrous and dangerous," says Dr Jones.

"But as reform movements, such as refuges and hospitals, get going, particularly around the middle of the century, prostitutes are represented more and more as redeemable victims."

Dr Jones looks to the writings of reformers like Jonas Hanway and novelists such as Sarah Fielding, who is believed to be behind a collection of stories called Histories of some of the Penitents in Madgalen House, for evidence of the changing face of the prostitute. Here they are described as "fallen angels".

By the end of the century, radical women writers had taken up the prostitutes' narrative in a more proto-feminist way.

"By then she is seen as a victim of gender inequality rather than of predatory men or her own moral weakness," says Dr Jones.

"Writers like Mary Woolstonecraft and Priscilla Wakefield are instead insisting that there are not enough jobs for women. If there were other jobs around, women would not have to be prostitutes."

Dr Jones is seeking links with modern day feminist debates, where prostitution is not seen purely as degrading to women, but also as a legitimate means of work.

"Contemporary feminism considers prostitution as a job, as well as exploitation. I am wondering whether we can look for a version of this in an 18th-century context," she said.

She suggests that in the "scandalous narratives" of the time, written by and about notorious kiss-and-tell courtesans such as Teresia Constantia Phillips, or in records of court trials, there are examples of prostitutes speaking for themselves and refusing the role of victim.

* See research papers

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