1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (2024)

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Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1930

Sos Eltis




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Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1930

Sos Eltis


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    March 2013


Eltis, Sos, '1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids', Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage 1800-1930 (Oxford, 2013; online edn, Oxford Academic, 23 May 2013), https://doi-org.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199691357.003.0002, accessed 19 May 2024.





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This chapter identifies the common tropes, plots, and character types that run through the popular early nineteenth-century theatrical genre of seduction melodrama. It demonstrates the remarkably close affinity between seduction melodramas and contemporary sociological texts on prostitution, sharing underlying assumptions about female sexual desire. It also reveals more disruptive narratives and implications which run alongside the plays’ primary warnings about women's vulnerability, vanity, and passivity; the resourceful maids who accompany the fallen heroines offer an alternative narrative of resourcefulness and knowledge. This chapter also discusses the relation between nineteenth-century melodrama and narrative art, revealing a more complex relation than previously assumed between familiar Victorian plots and the ambiguities and multiple implications of theatrical tableaux in performance

Keywords: seduction, melodrama, prostitution, tableau, realization, narrative painting, magdalen, theatre, fallen woman, regulation


Literary Studies (19th Century) Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights) Literary Studies (Gender Studies)

Collection: Oxford Scholarship Online

‘’Tis true I have a woman's arm, but you know not how firm a woman's arm can be in defence of all that is dearer to her than her life.’1 So speaks Orynthe in Edward Fitzball's The Earthquake; or, the Spectre of the Nile (1829), in brave defiance of Orchus's attempts on her virtue, and her declaration could stand as a motto for generations of Victorian stage heroines. Melodrama grew steadily in popularity from the early 1800s to become the dominant theatrical genre by the 1840s and 50s. Melodramas were commonly characterized by sensational events, spectacular effects, liberal deployment of music and mute dumb-show, and a central struggle between clearly defined forces of good and evil, embodied in heroes, heroines, and villains. The pure heroine was, as Michael Booth has noted, ‘the emotional core of melodrama and very often the storm centre of its action’.2 An unimpeachable sexual history was virtually a sine qua non for a heroine, whose trials, suffering, and eventual relief formed the central spectacle of the vast majority of melodramas. Though the eventual defeat of the villain is traditionally the hero's prerogative, the virtuous heroine is often energetic in defence of her virtue; she can leap from ships and buildings, jump across frozen ice-floes, and endure any degree of hardship and penury to preserve her purity—the pursuit and ruin of which is one of the primary aims of the villain. This is a constant of melodrama, and cuts across the three categories of Gothic, nautical, and domestic, into which Booth roughly divides the progress of the genre through the nineteenth century.3 The hero may be press-ganged, tempted into alcoholism or gambling, wrongfully imprisoned, or lured into the clutches of loose women, in order to clear the way for the villain's evil desires, but the heroine's virtue is unassailable, and her cries for help invariably answered in the nick of time.4

The sexually fallen woman was consequently a problematic inhabitant of the morally binary world of melodramatic vice and virtue. Heroines had to be as pure as possible in order to secure an audience's sympathies, a requirement which could occasion some hasty whitewashing on her behalf. When Douglas Jerrold made a heroine of Nell Gwynne he allowed her no more than witty banter with Charles II before she outwits an old lecher who has designs on her virtue.5 Similarly a dramatization of the infamous murder of Maria Marten excised her sexual past, illegitimate children, and almost certain infanticide to render her a more suitable subject for sympathetic thrills.6 If the occasional woman did succumb to sexual temptation, she was likely to be recast as an agent of chaos: in Isaac Poco*ck's The Miller and His Men (1813), the bandit-chief's cast-off mistress avenges herself by attempting to poison her rival; and in J. B. Buckstone's The Green Bushes (Adelphi, 1845), the Indian huntress Miami extracts payment for her lost innocence by shooting her faithless lover.7

There was, however, one popular strain of melodrama which centred on female sexual guilt: the seduction drama. W. T. Moncrieff 's The Lear of Private Life; or, Father and Daughter (1820), John Payne's Clari, the Maid of Milan (1823), John Stafford's Love's Frailties; or, Passion and Repentance (1827), H. M. Milner and J. B. Buckstone's versions of Victorine (1831), Buckstone's Henriette the Forsaken (1832), William Travers's A Poor Girl's Temptations; or, A Voice from the Streets (1858), and Watts Phillips's Lost in London (1867) are a few of the many plays in this genre. In all these dramas, the heroine is tempted away from home and hearth, exchanging her demure muslin dress of the first act for rich silks and an agonized conscience in the second act. Self-reproaching and ‘much changed by grief  ’ in her tear-stained finery, the heroine demonstrates that sexual crime, no matter how sartorially rewarding, does not pay.8 This obligatory scene of silk-clad repentance, in which the heroine bemoans her fall amid the rich rewards of her sin, neatly combines education with entertainment, dramatizing the precept that crime does not pay while treating the audience to a luxurious display of conspicuous consumption. An interesting variation on this theme is provided by H. M. Milner, in his Victorine: the Maid of Paris, in which a Parisian seamstress exchanges virtue and a garret for vice and an elegant boudoir. Having shopped extensively, Victorine is now suffering from retail fatigue; she complains there is nothing new for her to purchase from Paris's deluxe warehouses, and comes dangerously near to repentance, until she cheers herself with the happy thought that she has not replaced her furniture for fully six months.9

The conventions of the genre dictate that, having flown her gilded and guilty cage, the melodramatic fallen maiden rapidly becomes destitute. In John Stafford's Love's Frailties; or, Passion and Repentance, for example, Squire Belgrade goes in search of Susan, who has absconded from his luxurious London lodgings on learning that their marriage was a sham. Belgrade tracks her down in her native village, but finds she has been driven insane by her loss of virtue and the suffering she has brought on her aged father; happily, a belated proposal of marriage from the repentant Belgrade rapidly restores Susan's sanity and her father's health. Their suffering is minor, however, when compared to W. T. Moncrieff 's The Lear of Private Life, an adaptation of Amelia Opie's novel Father and Daughter (1801). Moncrieff declared Opie's novel to be a ‘modern tragedy’ and its author a ‘genius’ who ‘could we convert tears of pity into pearls, would deserve the richest coronet’.10 His dramatization makes the most of the novel's pathetic opportunities; in what was to become an archetypal scene of melodramatic suffering, Moncrieff 's heroine struggles through freezing snow, her illegitimate child frozen in her arms, only to meet her father, driven insane by his daughter's fall and just escaped from an asylum (which he founded in the first act with admirable foresight). ‘Horrible sight!’ the errant daughter exclaims, ‘Can a whole life of tears wash out the deep remembrance of this hour?’11 The moral message is explicit: sexual sin is punished by torments of body and soul.

Tormented by guilt and shame, the fallen heroine frequently attempts suicide, most commonly by throwing herself from a bridge—as is the case in Love's Frailties, Victorine, and T. H. Reynoldson's The Drunkard's Children (Surrey, 1848), a dramatization of George Cruikshank's pictorial series—though as often as not the heroine is fortuitously rescued.12 The function of such plays as a moral warning to potentially errant women is most clearly demonstrated by Victorine, subtitled in Buckstone's version ‘I’ll sleep on it’.13 Choosing between an honourable proposal from her upholsterer fiancé, who offers a life of honest labour and respectable poverty, or sinful ease as another man's kept mistress, Victorine prays to her dead mother for guidance. Three acts follow in which Victorine chooses guilty splendour, resulting in an ineluctable slide into poverty and a despairing leap into the Seine. In the play's final scene, she wakes in her humble garret, the intervening acts having been no more than a terrifying dream, which promptly inspires her to accept the upholsterer's hand in marriage.

Having suffered sufficiently, the more fortunate seduced maiden may finally be rewarded by a proposal of marriage from her betrayer. In Payne's Clari the eponymous heroine is held a tearful but silk-clad prisoner by Duke Vivaldi, who tempted her from her parents with a false promise of marriage (though he is not enough of a villain to have violated her as yet). When she escapes the ducal palace to seek her father's forgiveness, he rejects his daughter in outrage, refusing to believe in her innocence until it is confirmed by a repentant Vivaldi, upon which the father, Rolamo, blesses the penitent lovers: ‘Rolamo takes her hand, and unites it to the Duke's—they both kneel—Rolamo extends his hands over them, his eyes turned upward, and streaming with tears, and with a choked voice exclaims— Heaven bless ye.’14

The popularity of such scenes extends beyond a picturesque opportunity for tearful joy. They are as old as melodrama itself and embody its essential moral dynamics. René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773–1844) is generally accepted as the father of melodrama, and his La Femme à deux maris (1801) was one of the first plays to style itself, as its title page declared, ‘Mélo-drame, en trois actes, en prose et à spectacle.’15 Eliza, the unfortunate wife of the title, offended her father as a young girl by eloping with the villainous Fritz. Having foiled Fritz's basest designs by holding out until he married her, Eliza endured her husband's vicious and debauched habits and her father's rejection. The play opens with Eliza widowed and remarried to a noble and wealthy man, only to be confronted by the reappearance of Fritz, who faked his own death in order to blackmail his unintentionally bigamous wife. Eliza's problems are solved when Fritz is accidentally shot by the assassin he hired to murder Edouard. Papers are then discovered which prove Eliza to have been the blameless victim of Fritz's wicked machinations, and her father finally grants her pardon, holding out his arms to embrace her. Her generous second husband, Edouard, delivers the last line of the play, elucidating the iconography of the final tableau: ‘Un père offensé qui pardonne, est la plus parfaite image de la divinité’ [An offended father who forgives is the most perfect image of God].16 Eliza's reconciliation with her father is thus more than a private family reunion: it is the heroine's symbolic return to her proper place in a religiously validated patriarchal system, a system she had offended by disobeying her father and eloping with Fritz, thereby placing individual ambition, physical desire, and personal feeling before filial duty.

Peter Brooks has argued that melodrama developed after the French Revolution in response to the shattering of the traditionally ‘Sacred’ and its institutions—the Church and the Monarchy—and the dissolution of an organic and hierarchically cohesive society. Romanticism celebrated the myth-making individual, whose ethical imperatives emerged from an individual act of self-understanding. Melodrama subsequently developed, by contrast, as an essentially democratic form, a communal event with its characters, message, and language clearly accessible and legible for literate and illiterate spectators alike. Melodrama's power, according to Brooks, lay in uncovering the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era where good and evil could only be seen in personal terms, strongly characterized as hero and villain.17

In a less radical rupture than that posited by Brooks, these early nineteenth-century seduction melodramas can be seen to enact a transition and reconciliation between the traditional sacred institutions of Church and Monarchy in a society based on deferential hierarchy, and a rapidly emerging capitalist society in which ‘family’ is understood less as aristocratic lineage than as a private social unit of domestic virtue and affection. The erring daughter is an offence to the values of both systems, choosing her lover without her father's sanction and in disobedience to her role as a unit of social exchange within a kinship system, letting her sexual desires draw her from her proper place at the family hearth. The offended father, the most perfect image of God on earth in the words of Pixérécourt's Edouard, simultaneously represents sacred values of piety and religious precept—especially when as in Love's Frailties and J. T. Haines's The Life of a Woman: or, The Curate's Daughter (Surrey, 1840) he is also a clergyman. Social and familial duties override individual (especially female) desires. The father's blessing of his repentant daughter and son-in-law-to-be thus represents the sinners’ reabsorption within a larger system of social responsibility. The popularity of seduction narratives in the eighteenth century has been explained as a response to the increased emotional and social independence of women and the threat that that posed to the patriarchal family. As Susan Staves explains,

In the sentimental novels we have not ruined castles, emblems of a ruined aristocracy, or ruined monasteries or churches, emblems of the waning power of religion, but ruined daughters and ruined families. The novels at once acknowledge the ruin and its irreversibility and lament the loss of an idealized older family undisturbed by the free exercise of wills of its inferior members.18

By the end of the eighteenth century the notion of a father's ‘ownership’ was sufficiently weakened to render unfashionable the practice of fathers suing seducers for financial compensation for the loss of a daughter's services; but on stage the tableau of reconciliation and paternal blessing nonetheless reinstated paternal, religious, and familial authority, resisting the corrosive forces of individualism.

The relation between seduction and social irresponsibility is further reflected in the remarkable frequency with which gambling is linked to sexual immorality; in A. C. Campbell's The London Banker; or, The Profligate (1844), the delinquent son of the subtitle abandons his ruined lover and child and is blackmailed over gambling debts he cannot pay.19 The aspiration to wealth without industry is akin to the desire for sex without responsibility. The father's blessing of the repentant seducer includes in its iconography the young man's acceptance of his role in a social system of contract, exchange, and accountability. The final tableau of forgiving father can thus be read as resolution in both sacred and secular terms, letting the family stand as both private domestic unit and as part of a wider network of social interconnection.

In Melodramatic Tactics (1995), Elaine Hadley has interpreted dramas of women falling, repenting, and seeking male forgiveness as affirming the family as a last bastion of deferential community, where men could continue to regulate their relationships with women according to natural law, while relationships outside the home were increasingly dominated by commercial relationships of contract and exchange.20 Dramas such as The London Banker where gambling and seduction are equated, and where both seducer and his victim must seek paternal forgiveness, however, imply an essential tension not between deferential and commercial structures, but rather a tension between a socially responsible acceptance of contract and exchange and an individualistic (often aristocratic) flouting of its rules. While such melodramas reflect the shifting values and relationship structures of nineteenth-century society, seduction and its ills are, in line with the moral dynamics of melodrama, to be blamed on the character of the individual, not on wider social forces.

In seduction melodramas the maiden's imminent fall is first signalled by moral flaws, which distinguish her clearly from her enduringly chaste counterparts. Buckstone's Henriette confirms that she is destined for a sexual fall when she throws aside her rustic admirer's simple nosegay to rifle through a basket of fine clothes.21 Victorine's fate is similarly presaged by her delight in male admiration, fine clothes and carriages, and her preference for romantic fiction and indolence over honest labour.22 Notably, the payment for lost virtue is always made in silks and jewels, never in hard cash; tempted into sin by vanity and frivolity, rather than financial hardship, fallen women are paid in finery and luxury goods. The exchange of sexual services for rent or food lies outside the melodramatic framework. It took a particularly dastardly villain even to hint at the direct sale of sex for money, as in this unusually frank discussion between felon and accomplice in Campbell's The London Banker:


  Progressing towards our rendezvous, I encountered the brilliancy of a pair of as beautiful black eyes as ever fixed their captivating glance upon an admirer of the sex. Judge of my surprise when I heard a voice proceeding from the mouth beneath them, asking for charity, in hollow, supplicating tones.


  You relieved her?


  I should have done so, but she objected to the terms.


  I guess them.


  Precisely. Her eye flashed fire, and she turned upon me a look of ineffable and most decided contempt.23

Such a blunt equation of economic and sexual vulnerability was rare. Poverty and necessity did not drive heroines to sell their virtue. Indeed, melodramatic virtue is impregnable to the most adverse of social and economic circ*mstances. Abandoned on the streets at the age of eight, with prison her only refuge from hunger and cold, the lost heroine of Charles Dillon's The Mysteries of Paris (1844) is still chaste at sixteen, thanks to ‘an expression so pure, so virginal, that e’en the robbers—the assassins among whom she lived, pitied and protected her’.24 True female virtue is unassailable. In Dion Boucicault's The Poor of New York (first performed in New York in 1857, and subsequently retitled for performance in Dublin, Liverpool, London or any other suitable location), both the heroine and her mother, starving and unable to find work, attempt suicide in order to relieve their family of their upkeep. The villain's spoilt daughter, by contrast, deprived of her father's ill-gotten wealth, ridicules the idea of working honestly for her bread, preferring the primrose path to ruin: ‘I am fit for the same fate as yours—infamy’, she declares to her father, who is generously spared a jail sentence so that he may follow her on to the streets and save her from a fate apparently worse than death.25

The city and its streets were commonly figured as a site of sexual danger and temptation, in contrast to the safety and seclusion of the heroine's (often rural) home. In Haines's The Life of a Woman; or, The Curate's Daughter the rustic maiden learns too late that leaving the domestic sphere for the dangers of the metropolis invariably spells disaster; foreseeing her doom, Fanny asks, ‘[S]hall I perish in the streets of this very London, which, in the lightness of my heart, I longed so to behold—die, a starving outcast and degraded wretch in the very place I, in my folly, deemed a heaven of happiness?’26 Watts Phillips's Lost in London is a classic of the genre, in which Nelly Armroyd, the young wife of a miner, having been seduced away from her moorland cottage, mourns her lost virtue in the resplendent surroundings of her lover's London residence. She is found by her faithful friend Giddy Dragglethorpe, who attributes Nelly's unhappiness to her transplantation from her native soil, for ‘where the tree was first planted theer th’ roots mun be’.27 The tag of the title is stated so often that ‘lost’ and ‘London’ begin to sound like synonyms. They close the play when Job finally pronounces them over the freshly expired corpse of his adulterous wife:


  She ha’ left us. But not for ever. Not for ever! Though lost in London. I shall find her there (points upwards with a bright hopeful look)

Tableau. 28

The unwelcoming streets of the capital thus stand in antithesis to the kinder refuge of heaven. The appeal of such narratives to London theatre audiences may have been dual: scenes of rural tranquillity and the innocent pleasures of dancing on the village green could feed the nostalgia of city audiences, of which a considerable proportion would have recently moved from the country; while the trials and confusions of country innocents naively attempting to negotiate a hostile urban landscape offered metropolitan audiences both humorous entertainment and a comparative sense of sophisticated savviness.29

Initiative and resourcefulness were the very last attributes allowed to the seduced heroine, who was called upon to display an extraordinary degree of passivity. Her vulnerability and helplessness frequently bordered on the semi-conscious. The crisis in which Lost in London's Nelly Armroyd leaves her domestic hearth provides a model of such behaviour. Cursing her own vanity and resolving to reject her tempter, the accidental entry of her lover Gilbert rather than her husband determines Nelly's fate:


  Leave him! leave him for ever! I cannot! No—I cannot do it! (Footsteps heard—latch moved ) It is Job! he has returned! Job! Job! my husband! (Rushes up stage but recoils with a cry of terror as Gilbert Featherstone appears) Gilbert Featherstone!


  Nelly! (He advances—she retreats)


No! No! Not a step further! I implore! I entreat! (She staggers—is about to swoon—Gilbert springs forward and catches her in his arms)


  Nelly! Dear Nelly! (He places her in chair. Scene closes.)30

Next discovered on dreary moorland, wrapped in a shawl, Nelly wishes to return home but Gilbert declares it too late, picks her up and forces her off to a waiting chaise, just as her friend Giddy Dragglethorpe rushes breathlessly into view.

Nelly's physical helplessness and the repeated failure of a last-minute rescue combine not only to blur the lines between abduction and seduction, but also imply that the responsibility for safeguarding a tempted woman lies outside her own inadequate hands. Agnes learns this lesson explicitly in The Lear of Private Life. Crushing her doubts about attending a moonlit assignation with her lover, she asks herself, ‘Am I then so weak in resolution, that I fear to trust myself?’31 To which the answer is a resounding affirmative, as she yields to her lover's persuasion and begs in advance for divine clemency: ‘Great heaven, that gave me all a woman's weakness, if I have erred, oh, judge me as a woman, nor blame me for the absence of that strength which thou hast not bestowed upon me.’32 Whereupon she faints into the wicked squire's arms and is borne away to London.

The fallen maiden plays out an exemplary progress to abject ruin, propelled by an ineluctable logic from first fall to degradation and poverty on the hostile streets of the metropolis. Bereft of inner resources, she expends her remaining energy on repentance and self-hatred; the urge to self-destruction is the ultimate proof that the fallen heroine retains a sense of moral value and is therefore worthy of the audience's sympathies. The knowledge of guilt is often enough to kill a woman: either suddenly, like Buckstone's Agnes de Vere, who poisons her husband for attempted adultery and then expires herself with purely melodramatic logic: ‘I am dying of a broken heart’; or more slowly like Nelly Armroyd, who ends her days in an ill-furnished attic, ‘waiting and praying for death’, which duly arrives.33 The moral lesson is often explicit: Elinor, in William Travers's A Poor Girl's Temptations (1858), who has left her honest home for the luxurious life of a kept woman, is thrown out onto the streets, where, destitute and degraded, she takes poison and begs anyone listening to: ‘Shun I implore you the guilty draught of sinful pleasures, though the cup be crowned with glittering gems. Lest you find too late, as I have done, it is the path to ruin, misery and death.’34

Melodrama's representation of the fallen woman—vain and frivolous, seduced, abandoned, and dying horribly, while her aged parents grieve—had a life well beyond the confines of the stage. A product of prevalent conceptions of female sexuality and offering a neat way of avoiding more complex questions of social causation and responsibility, the theatrical magdalen was a widely accepted, universally recognizable figure. The women who thronged the porticoes and galleries of London theatres, clustered in the Strand and Regent Street, and made the capital an international byword for public indecency, were depicted by journalists, moralists, and social analysts as living embodiments of melodrama's imagined maidens.

In Prostitution in London (1839), Dr Michael Ryan estimated that there were at least 80,000 prostitutes in the capital, a figure quickly challenged by Ralph Wardlaw in his Lectures on Female Prostitution: its Nature, Extent, Guilt Causes and Remedy given in 1842, in which he pointed out that such a number would mean that one in five women aged between fifteen and thirty were involved in the profession.35 Ryan's was among the highest estimated numbers, but that such a figure could be posited is a sign of the degree of anxiety surrounding prostitution. A wide range of publications on the subject appeared in the 1840s, from clergymen, doctors, and laymen, declaring the reluctant necessity of investigating such a distasteful but socially urgent issue. Whether written in the rousing rhetoric of religious evangelism, demanding an end to male debauchery and appealing for generous subscriptions to rescue funds, or offering tables of statistics and recommending government regulation, sanitary inspections, and legalized brothels, these publications replicated the theatrical tropes of fallen womanhood with a remarkable degree of consistency. The irresponsibility, vanity, and aversion to mundane industry which mark the theatrical heroine out for imminent seduction are faithfully listed by the evangelical physician William Tait in his Magdalenism: An Inquiry into the Extent, Causes and Consequences of Prostitution in Edinburgh (1840) under the heading of ‘Natural Causes’, which ‘may be arranged in the following order:—Licentious Inclination—Irritability of Temper—Pride and Love of Dress—Dishonesty and Desire of Property—Indolence.’36 William Acton, surgeon to a venereal hospital and a leading advocate of government regulation, offered a remarkably similar list as the causes of female vice:

Natural desire.

Natural sinfulness.

The preferment of indolent ease to labour.

Vicious inclinations …

Necessity, imbued by

The inability to obtain a living by honest means consequent on a fall from virtue.

Extreme poverty.

.…love of drink, love of dress, love of amusem*nt.37

Acton's emphasis remains on individual character as the primary determinant of a prostitute's career, though extreme poverty is allowed a place on the list, just after that fateful first fall. Tait similarly placed ‘Seduction’ at the head of his list of ‘Accidental Causes’.38 As on stage, expensive clothes play as vital a role in these texts, both as instigators of woman's fall and markers of her corruption. So Tait declares:

The love of finery may be said to be the besetting sin of woman, and with these persons the passion is extremely conspicuous. Satins and silks, with the most superb trimmings and ribands, are all their desire; and they would sacrifice everything for the love of fashion.39

Acton similarly describes prostitutes’ immoral earnings as ‘recklessly squandered on the adornment of their bodies’, though his proposals for controlling the ills of prostitution focus on state regulation and sanitary inspections—in contrast to Tait's emphasis on moral education—and the suppression of female vanity.40

The appeal of this melodramatic model of causation is obvious: it locates responsibility in the individual, in the strength of character which either resists or succumbs to temptation, while marginalizing environmental and economic factors. William Logan's The Great Social Evil (1871) provides a graphic demonstration of such logic taken to an extreme. He recommends extending the moral education of the lower classes, on the basis that very few middle-class daughters are employed in prostitution, from which he happily concludes that this ‘speaks volumes for the excellence of the educational and moral discipline to which they are subjected’.41 On the one occasion that Logan does postulate a woman driven to prostitution by absolute financial necessity, it is a seamstress whom he depicts, unable to support her hungry child or ailing mother on the pittance she can earn, forced to ‘rush upon the streets, there to seek the hire which her lawful calling has cruelly denied her’.42 Logan does not locate the seamstress in an economic framework of class exploitation or the ruthless mechanism of a competitive capitalist economy; rather, her plight is framed by a disquisition on the evils consequent on women's love of finery. Paid starvation wages by avaricious female employers to make gowns for callous female clients, the seamstress's fate provides further evidence of the moral frailty of women.

Evangelical writers on prostitution most clearly reproduce and evoke the melodramatic model of prostitution and fallenness. Society's setting of moral standards and the inculcation of moral habits in the young and the lower classes are given great weight in their analysis of both causes and remedies for the ills of prostitution. But the crucial emphasis is on individual moral fibre and self-control, with social structures playing a primarily instructive role. Melodrama's tales of weak-willed women, tempted by riches then tortured by conscience, following their inevitable path to a miserable death, offered a convenient and powerful means of appealing to their readers’ sympathies. Pathetic scenes straight from the stage are played out between tables of statistics. William Tait, for example, devotes several pages to a vivid picture of aged parents tortured by their daughter's fall, the mother's tears and the father's silent gaze at the breakfast table, the village gossip scattering their few remaining hopes, the news of death bringing no relief for their ‘bleeding wounds’.43 His treatise is methodically categorized, listing classes of prostitutes, their manners and habits, the causes and consequences, in the form of a scientific sociological study, but the scenes and rhetoric of both pulpit and popular stage are threaded through his text, as when he offers the familiar formula of silks and misery:

Although some prostitutes may live amidst a profusion of riches, and be decked in the most splendid attire, and partake of the most expensive luxuries which the world can afford, they are still miserable and unhappy; and their ‘end is bitter as wormwood,’ ‘their feet go down to death,’ and their ‘steps take hold of hell.’44

The temperance reformer William Logan even gave melodramatic scenes of repentant maidens driven insane by their guilt the status of common fact, noting that, though forgiveness should always be offered to the reformed sinner, ‘The result to the crushed maiden is often life-long madness.’45

For moral reformers presenting their analysis within an overtly religious framework, the narrative of inevitable and rapid decline, which formed the basic backbone of all melodramatic stagings of the fallen woman, held an irresistible and logical appeal. William Tait catalogued prostitutes—from kept women in luxuriously appointed flats in St John's Wood to the lowest streetwalkers who ‘what with filth, vermin, scabs, and whisky…emit a most disagreeable and sickly odour’.46 Nothing ultimately separates these women; they are merely steps on the same ladder, and no matter how highly placed at first, each must inevitably arrive at the bottom rung. William Logan brings together the first and last acts of the country maiden's seduction and decline, picturing the seducer confronted on the streets by the girl he once deflowered, ‘seeing for the soft and beauteous eyes, that once looked love into his—hollow orbs where hunger has come and where death is fast following; for the rosy cheek with the blush of innocence not yet faded from it—the pallor of decay; for the sweet ringing laugh—the wild shriek of false mirth or the breast-shattering cough of consumption; for the simple dress—the tawdry rags of what was once a fashionable dishabille, won by the wages and worn to tatters in the service of sin’.47 Though clearly underpinned by a belief in God's justice and the wages of sin, both Logan and Tait naturalize this process, describing the prostitute squandering her earnings in idleness, profligacy and self-indulgence, her health ruined by the depredations of alcohol—taken to drown out the pangs of conscience—and the cold night air. The melodramatic mode of pathetic suffering and tragic death provided the vivid scenes and heightened language in which the prostitute's plight could most effectively be delivered, in a way which underscored the urgency and horror of this ‘social evil’ without drawing accusations of indecency.

It was not, however, simply a matter of employing the melodramatic as a convenient rhetorical device; it was also the lens through which facts and statistics themselves were viewed and interpreted. Surveys of prostitutes attested that the vast majority were aged between seventeen and twenty-three. Assuming a narrative of inevitable decline, Tait concluded that, even allowing for those who were reformed, married or transported, ‘prostitution too often brings upon its unfortunate victims premature death’, whether by disease or suicide, so that ‘almost all of them die before they reach the age of thirty’.48 Logan similarly insists on this ‘short career—six years being their average life-time, after giving themselves up to a course of prostitution’.49 Despite the demonstrable absence of thousands of prostitutes dying on the streets, moral reformers insisted on the terrible fate of the fallen as part of an ideological framework which underpinned the urgency of their recommendations for better religious instruction and improved funding for magdalen asylums.

Even William Greg, whose long article on prostitution in the Westminster Review in 1850 took a pragmatic and factually based approach to the issues, still clung stubbornly to the idea of inevitable and rapid decline. Despite taking seriously the French writer Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet's analysis of the transience of most women's employment as prostitutes, and their passage after a few years into domestic service, shop work or other means of securing a living, Greg insists that such is not the case in England, where ‘prostitutes sink rapidly from one grade of their miserable profession to a lower and a lower…and they almost never succeed in escaping from their condition’.50 Greg's purpose is specific: he attributes the survival and rehabilitation of Parisian prostitutes entirely to the beneficial effects of the French regulation system, which imposed compulsory registration, licensing, and health checks on all sex workers. William Acton, an enthusiastic campaigner for the introduction and extension of a similar system in England, interpreted the statistics in an opposite way, but in support of a similar solution. Most women left prostitution by their mid-twenties, Acton agreed, but not for an early grave; instead, they became wives and mothers, spreading the sexual diseases which were an almost universal corollary of their profession to their spouses and offspring, and thus weakening the future stock of the race.51 Presenting prostitution as an unavoidable product of human nature, male appetite, and social structure (most notably late marriage and the tight restrictions placed on soldiers marrying), Acton rejected the narrative of decline and death as a myth, identifying sexual disease as the primary evil of prostitution and one which was entirely curable, by the forced arrest, examination, and treatment of all women engaged in the trade.

While rejecting the tragic narrative of early death, Acton did subscribe to the accepted melodramatic model of the fallen woman: her idleness, vanity, frivolity, weak will, and inability to take deliberate and calculated decisions.52 Like their theatrical archetype, Acton's frail women are in need of male restraint and male regulation, for disaster must result from the ‘mistaken theory—namely, that women are the best guardians of their own honour’.53 Similar theories of female sexuality underpin Acton's, Logan's, Greg's and Tait's thinking, and inform the creation of the melodramatic fallen heroine. They are all rooted in a model of female virtue as an essentially passive quality. Virtue in women is not the result of active choice, of the exercise of conscious will, or informed decision. Instead it is rooted in ‘modesty’, what William Logan calls woman's ‘finer nature’ and her ‘larger dependence on the maintenance of her moral instinct’.54 Once damaged, tragic consequences follow upon her first taste of sexual knowledge:

Coleridge, somewhere in his Table Talk, remarks that man's morality is more dependent on strength of thought, and woman's on force of feeling and pure instincts. From this it appears to result, that more men than women fall, but that more fallen men recover themselves than fallen women;—that more men than women are reclaimed from vice. Whatever influence, then, threatens to trample down that fine network of moral instinct, that very appreciable kind of divinity which peculiarly hedges woman round, ought above all things to be the object of her dread, abhorrence and prompt and indignant scorn; for when that safeguard is gone, well-nigh all is gone, and the ruin is as frightful as the precipitation is swift.55

As Tait similarly concludes, a ‘man may by industry, perseverance, and determination’ raise himself to a higher rank, whereas the ‘general law’ in regard to women ‘appears to be, like that of gravitation, always pressing downwards’.56 Greg similarly asserts that women's sexual desire is ‘dormant, if not non-existent’ until awoken by undue familiarities or sexual intercourse with a man.57 Unable to envisage the possibility of women possessing the power of self-restraint, conscious choice, or active will power, he concludes that ‘If the passions of women were ready, strong, and spontaneous in a degree even remotely approaching the form they assume in the coarser sex, there can be little doubt that sexual irregularities would reach a height, of which, at present, we have happily no conception.’58 This is the logic that connects the seduced maiden to the tearful courtesan and the suicidal streetwalker; having once taken that first fatal step, the sinful woman lacks the moral agency and active force to recover herself, relying instead on the intervention and commanding force of man.

The intimate relation between melodramatic treatments of the fallen woman and serious analyses of prostitution is graphically illustrated by a review of William Travers's A Poor Girl's Temptations in the Morning Chronicle. Describing the play as ‘founded on the dark, knotty, sad, painful, and perplexing problem, known as the “Social Evil” ’, the unnamed reviewer congratulates Travers for his ‘simple, faithful, uncoloured, but too severely true picture’ of a condition that so many statesmen have shrunk from confronting.59 Travers's drama of a country girl seduced by a devious aristocrat, kept in repentant but silken splendour, and then thrust out to perish by her own hand on the street when her lover's desires are transferred to another, is applauded as ‘no romantic or over-coloured picture’.60 Moreover, the reviewer's description of how and why Elinor succumbs reads as a remarkably faithful reproduction of Greg's analysis of such women's motivations. Setting the two passages side by side, one a response to a theatrical production, the other serious sociological analysis, there is an extraordinary consonance of tone, imagery, and underlying assumptions. So the critic writes that Travers's Elinor

falls from a mere exaggeration and perversion of one of the best qualities of woman's heart, a weak generosity, which cannot refuse anything to the passionate entreaties of the man she loves, the strange, sublime unselfishness of the warm, fond, heart of a woman, a positive love of self-sacrifice; and she proves her devotion to the idol she has enshrined by casting down before his altar her richest and most cherished treasure.61

A few years earlier Greg's Westminster Review article analysed the dynamics of seduction in almost identical terms:

They yield to desires in which they do not share, from a weak generosity which cannot refuse anything to the passionate entreaties of the man they love. There is in the warm fond heart of a woman a strange and sublime unselfishness, which men too commonly discover only to profit by,—a positive love of self-sacrifice,—an active, so to speak, an aggressive desire to show their affection, by giving up to those who have won it something they hold very dear.62

The melodramatic formulations marry seamlessly the writings of theatre critic and social analyst.

In this context the testaments of prostitutes themselves can sound a startlingly different note. W. R. Greg was emphatic in declaring that ‘poverty is the chief determining cause which drives women into prostitution’, and he quotes at length Henry Mayhew's letters to the Morning Chronicle, in which Mayhew gives verbatim reports of his interviews with women who lived on sub-starvation wages, working fourteen hours a day for three or four shillings a week, and forced to resort to the streets to feed or clothe themselves or their children. One woman tells how, despite her starving baby's legs being frozen to her side by the cold, she was turned away from the workhouse because she did not have an order for admittance, leaving her to return to prostitution as her sole means of survival.63 Her pitiful plight mirrors the fallen Agnes of The Lear of Private Life, but the causational frames that surround each narrative are in stark contrast. Notably, Greg carefully chose the testaments of women who expressed shame and disgust at the measures to which they were forced to resort, thus maintaining a familiar moral and sentimental narrative, alongside the stark details of economic exploitation and social neglect.

Other first-person narratives of women selling sexual services, collected by Bracebridge Hemyng and Henry Mayhew and published in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in 1861, contrast starkly with the traditional melodramatic narrative of moral weakness, fall, and passive decline. A flower girl and a sixteen-year-old streetwalker, for example, both talk of committing minor criminal acts in order to secure food and lodging in prison, as the only available alternative to selling their bodies, while the flower girl's parents, far from weeping over her tragic fall, sent her out on her trade and lived off her meagre earnings.64 However abject their circ*mstances, these women were still making choices, fighting for survival and negotiating their limited opportunities—yet Mayhew locates them in Volume IV alongside procuresses, bullies and brothel-keepers, thieves and beggars under the heading ‘Those That Will Not Work’. A letter to the Times in 1858 from ‘Another Unfortunate’ offers an even starker contrast. Detailing an abused and deprived childhood, the writer challenges the very notion of a fall: living without privacy in close physical intimacy with boys and men, and entirely outside the strictures of religious doctrine, ‘I lost—what? not my virtue, for I never had any.’65 She tells how she gained education and accomplishments courtesy of one client, and now, as a self-supporting sex worker who patronizes local businesses, she asks by what right she should be condemned or her liberties infringed, especially by representatives of the middle classes whose income depends on the sweated labour of those beneath them, selling their bodies to supplement inadequate wages.

This counter-narrative of wider social responsibility, economic and environmental causation, and a pragmatic struggle for survival in an indifferent society runs entirely counter to the predominant melodramatic narrative. Yet the routine suffering not only of the fallen heroine but also of stubbornly virtuous characters on the streets of the metropolis was a standard ingredient of melodrama. So, for example, the trials of the destitute in Dion Boucicault's The Poor of New York vividly represent the desperate situation of the unemployed and the underpaid. Boucicault's starving women may choose death before dishonour, and be rewarded with the restoration of their stolen fortune, but the play ends not only by acknowledging the artifice that secured the audience's sentimental pity, but also with a plea to respond in similar fashion to the real poor outside the theatre's walls, as the hero turns directly to the audience in the play's closing moments:


  (To the public) Have the sufferings we have depicted in this mimic scene, touched your hearts, and caused a tear of sympathy to fill your eyes? If so, extend to us your hands.

mrs fairweather:

  No, not to us—but when you leave this place, as you return to your homes, should you see some poor creatures, extend your hands to them, and the blessings that will follow you on your way will be the most grateful tribute you can pay to the POOR OF NEW YORK.66

For all the coincidences and climaxes of the plot, one of the central attractions of such urban-based melodramas was the accuracy and detailed physical realism of their reproduction of the city landscape, inhabitants, and customs. The protagonists’ struggle for survival could thus double as a tear-jerking spectacle and a naturalistic reminder of the actual conditions of life for millions of the poorest in society.

Boucicault shows New York in the grip of financial speculation, its economic depression the result of widespread gambling on prospects in a society where money alone buys status. In the context of such a profit-driven society, the sufferings of the poor and the sexual vulnerability of the heroine can be read as the consequences of a widespread failure of social responsibility. Many seduction melodramas linked gambling to seduction, as twinned desires for gratification without liability or industry. By painting a society addicted to speculation, Boucicault unusually does not depict the seducer's moral weakness as a flaw that divides him from a wider network of economic responsibility and contract; rather, the pursuit of profit without obligation appears as a natural extension of capitalist enterprise. Boucicault thus provocatively links the sexual vulnerability of the poor to society's pursuit of wealth. Though far from the systematic underpayment identified by Greg as the primary cause of prostitution, the relation between the fracturing of social responsibility in the industrialized city and the plight of the heroine is brought suggestively into play.

The seduced heroine may perish on the hostile streets or throw herself from Waterloo Bridge, but her passivity and despair are not the only female responses to the challenge of urban survival on the melodramatic stage. Haines's The Life of a Woman pairs its tragically helpless heroine with a resilient and resourceful sidekick. Dorcas Downey enters ‘showily dressed in red cloak and plenteous display of ribbons’ but her misplaced vanity and social ambitions do not mark her out for doom. Streetwise without ever having left the country, she intends to use her looks for profit but only on her own terms; as she sings with sexually suggestive knowingness:

Sure every belle must have a beau

To make this world wag well,

But lest he’d have my clapper go,

My beau must ring his belle. 67

While Fanny is tricked into the hands of a procuress, raped, sold on, drugged, and imprisoned, finally dying of shame and despair, Dorcas negotiates the capital with exemplary skill. She not only rescues and protects Fanny, but also tricks two procurers of country innocents into the hands of the law to teach them ‘not to try and outwit a Yorkshire lass again’ (III, i, 16). Where Fanny declares herself ‘indeed punished for my helpless degradation’, Dorcas can honestly boast that ‘if I hadn’t known a bit how to take care of myself, I should ha’ been as wretched and as helpless as she be now’ (II, iii, 13; II, ii, 11). Far from being in need of a man's protection, Dorcas is easily the most quick-witted and energetic character in the play, remaining intelligently wary of the double-edged offer of male help and attention. In Lost in London, Nelly Armroyd is similarly paired with Giddy Dragglethorpe, ‘a strapping redcheeked angular specimen of the Lancashire breed ’ who sports ‘a wildly grotesque’ bonnet in imitation of London fashion.68 Giddy tracks her fallen friend to London, supporting Nelly on her deathbed by taking work as a laundress. Negotiating the city with ease, Giddy slaps the villain's footman for cheeking her and is rewarded with a proposal of marriage, as he expresses the hope that their children would inherit her strong hand (II, ii).

While the heroine's tragic suffering pays the wages of sin, the fate of more minor characters may be determined by mundane pragmatics rather than a punitive poetic justice. In Thomas Egerton Wilks's Woman's Love; or, Kate Wynsley, the Cottage Girl (1841), the eponymous Kate has left the village suspiciously fat and returned thin, and is accused of being no better than she ought. The audience is soon informed that Kate is secretly married to a visiting aristocrat, and her pregnancy blessed by marriage. Meanwhile the village girls discuss her disgrace in tones of outraged morality, condemning her as ‘a forward slu*t’ and demanding her expulsion from the community.69 Their asides, however, make it clear that they too have walked in Lover's Grove, passed the bounds of accepted behaviour and even secretly given birth. They are well aware of each other's sexual practices but their consciences remain untroubled—as does their uneventful course in the background of the play. It is Kate, rendered sensitive by an education which has ‘expanded my mind and refined my perception’, who is pained even by the suspicion of sexual irregularity, unlike her laxer peers (I, ii, 4–5). The village chorus provides a seam of mundane realism running through the melodramatic main plot: based on a study of parish registers, Michael Mason has calculated that, before the more widespread use of contraception in the 1860s, between a third and a half of English brides were pregnant, suggesting that the sexual habits of Wilks's gossips were common practice.70

In seduction dramas where the fallen heroine finally marries her seducer, the main plot itself has a problematic relation to the melodramatic conventions of poetic justice. The disgraced maiden's final betrothal is at best an adulterated enactment of virtue rewarded: no matter how persecuted, the heroine's wayward passions significantly reduce her moral standing, while her lover's lightning transformation from betrayer to betrothed could make him appear a dubious prize. Class operates as a crucial mitigating factor in this equation. The ardent aristocrats of Love's Frailties and Clari are torn between their desire for the lower-class heroine and the social unsuitability of the match. The final offer of marriage is thus presented not only as recompense for their unscrupulous dealings, but also as a virtuous overcoming of class barriers. Indeed, a large degree of villainy seems to be required for marriage to the lustful aristocrat to be figured as anything but a happy ending. In J. B. Buckstone's The duch*ess de la Vaubaliere (Adelphi, 1837) the wicked Duke is forced by the king to marry Julie, an innocent country girl he has abducted. Once married, however, the Duke loses interest in Julie and plots her murder. The depth of his dastardliness is explained when he is revealed to be the illegitimate offspring of a bigamous second marriage, and his brother, the rightful heir, appears in the nick of time to rescue Julie and send his bastard sibling to the Bastille. In Henriette the Forsaken, Buckstone's hero is another upper-class bounder, who not only seduces the humble Henriette but allows her father to be executed for a murder he himself committed. Considerable space is given to Ferdinand's agonized musings on the duties he owes to his class, and his horror at the idea of cross-class marriage is shared by the despoiled heroine and her father. The play ends with Ferdinand mortally wounded in a duel, expiring in the arms of Henriette, in a tableau that represents both the expiation of his sin and her inseparable connection to him.71 For all the class conflict implied in such plots, their social conservatism is evident.

The Cinderella-like rise of these seduced maidens further complicates the moral message of the seduction melodrama. The heroine's lack of moral discipline and disregard for her father's authority may be punished with humiliation, shame, and even temporary insanity, but in terms of class mobility her final reward is considerable. In order to attract the eye of the local noble the seduced maiden is conventionally endowed with a superior degree of dignity, intelligence, and charm. So Giddy Dragglethorpe admiringly describes her fallen friend as so full of grace and beauty that she seems ‘a kind o’ queen’.72 Love's Frailties, Henriette the Forsaken, and Lost in London all offset the heroine's superior dress sense, refined speech and romantic sensibilities with rustic sidekicks, whose awkwardness and comically coarse manners mark them as suited to remain in their humble station. The dangers of social aspiration are emphasized: a village dame comments of Susan in Love's Frailties, ‘Take my word for it, that young girl will come to no good. This comes of edication. They no sooner learn to read and write, but they must fall in love with the richest man they meet’ (I, i, 4). The comic nature of this warning only serves to emphasize the ambiguity of the melodrama's overall message: the heroine's social ambitions are fulfilled, despite a temporary delay, and the gap between the refined and beautiful heroine and her clumsy rustic companions forestalls any real nostalgia for a state of lower-class rural contentment, however morally superior.

The offsetting of the high-class heroics and pathetic appeals of the leads by the comic shenanigans of lower-ranked characters is standard melodramatic practice. In James L. Smith's opinion these counter-voices ultimately serve to reinforce the central moral for the average ‘Joe’ in the audience:

While the hero lives on love alone, the funny man orders up hot meat and vegetables and gravy. His function, apart from being funny, is to voice Joe's latent scepticism of the heroic code within the confines of the play itself; this siphons off Joe's disbelief, and strengthens his committed sympathy for noble but impracticable virtue.73

Conversely, Jacky Bratton has argued that melodrama is, in Bakhtin's terms, heteroglot, ‘a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other’, and that ‘the contradictions highlighted by examining their different voices are read as deliberate mediations, the means whereby a consensus is tacitly negotiated, and ideological and hegemonic work is done’.74 Dorcas and Giddy's ingenuity and determination interact with the central narrative of the heroine's fall, with its attendant implications of female vulnerability and the need for seclusion and male authority and protection; their combination of ambition and resourcefulness suggests, however, that, with the necessary pragmatism and worldly wisdom, women are well able to fend for themselves. Further, as Bratton has observed, alternative systems of moral value are brought into play by the range of voices within the drama. Bratton notes of the moment in Buckstone's version of Victorine when the fallen heroine learns that her keeper is rejecting her and she exclaims ‘Ruined! Ruined!’:

The moment is charged with the ambiguity of the whole play: it is by the pragmatic morality of the comic world that she is ‘ruined’ at this point, by the loss of her financial support; in the native world of the heroine, she was ruined long since.75

The downward spiral of a sexually fallen woman may thus be read less as a product of ineluctable natural forces than as the incidental result of one woman's ineptitude and over-developed conscience. One strand of the play can imply the need for greater male protection and constraint for frail and vulnerable women, while another strand suggests the value of worldly wisdom and sexual awareness for women, who are well capable of fending for themselves. The more pragmatic, cynical or worldly voices heard in a melodrama interact with the tortured conscience and high moral tone of the suffering heroine's central story; if read as a Bakhtinian dialogue, these plays do not present explicit and simple moral lessons, but instead offer a more open-ended debate on causation, social responsibility, and sexual morality.

The multivocality and the interplay of competing moral systems within seduction melodrama can be seen most clearly within the often complex role of tableau in these plays. J. T. Haines's The Life of a Woman; or, The Curate's Daughter offers a particularly intriguing example of such multifaceted operation. When the newly re-furbished Surrey Theatre reopened on 20 April 1840, it competed with the rival attractions of Greenwich Fair by announcing Haines's The Life of a Woman, described on the playbill as ‘an entirely New Original Pictorial Drama of Interest, forming a VILLAGE TRAGEDY!…Presenting a living embodiment & moving amplification of the conception of the immortal HOGARTH’S Celebrated Series of Pictures, denominated The HARLOT’S PROGRESS.’76 Following the Victorian theatrical practice of pictorial ‘realization’, Haines's melodrama freeze-frames the play's action at set moments in tableaux which reproduce Hogarth's prints on stage, carefully mimicking costumes, poses and settings.77 Yet Haines's play was far from being a faithful dramatization of Hogarth's work. Though moments in his play reproduce scenes from Hogarth's prints, the dramatic narrative into which they are woven differs significantly from its eighteenth-century source, as Haines revised and sanitized the harlot's tale to suit the theatrical tastes of his own century. Removing the satirical and political implications of the original, Haines produced a sentimental tragedy of seduced innocence and wicked villainy, which reproduces all the standard tropes of Victorian melodramatic treatments of fallen womanhood.

Hogarth's celebrated series of prints The Harlot's Progress (1732) opens with a country girl being accosted in the street by a procuress, under the leering gaze of a prospective client (Fig. 1). Subsequent prints chart her progress through the hands of a rich keeper; then as a highwayman's moll, surrounded by prophylactics and treatments for venereal disease, with an arresting officer at the door; imprisoned and beating hemp; then dying of the pox, her child crouching beside her; and finally dead and coffined at a raucous wake, complete with drunken prostitutes and lascivious clergymen (Figs. 2–6). Hogarth's series offers a warning narrative of decline and death: the pretty country girl enmeshed in prostitution and crime, and declining to a dreadful syphilitic death. Beyond this, however, the specific and recognizable identities of characters in the prints delivered a pointed satire on wealth, corruption, and the double standards of eighteenth-century justice. The leering onlooker in Hogarth's opening print was a portrait of the notorious aristocratic rapist Colonel Chartres, accompanied by his servant John Gourlay, and serviced by Mother Needham, an infamous procuress who was known to have supplied the colonel. The arresting magistrate in Plate III was Justice Gonson, renowned for his enthusiastic pursuit of prostitutes, whose arrest he seemed to regard as a competitive sport. The lower-class characters have equally specific referents: the prostitute Hackabout (the name is legible on her coffin in Plate VI) was arrested by Gonson in 1730 for disorderly conduct in the same year that her brother Francis Hackabout and James Dalton (the name on the hat-box over the harlot's bed in Print III) were hanged as highwaymen. Colonel Chartres was convicted in 1730 of the rape of Anne Bond, a country girl employed as a maidservant in his house, and removed to Newgate prison, but his rich and influential friends, among whom Sir Robert Walpole was numbered, secured his discharge and a king's pardon on the same day that Dalton was sentenced to death.78 Hogarth's prostitute and her procuress cater to the appetites of their social superiors, only to be crushed by a punitive justice system which smiles indulgently on the crimes of the rich. The church, meanwhile, neglects its duties: a parson is too busy scanning a letter of preferment to his bishop to rescue the girl from Needham's clutches, and clergymen grope the drunken prostitutes at her funeral. As Ronald Paulson has commented, the progress of Hogarth's Hackabout reflects Bernard de Mandeville's brutal summary of the value of prostitution in his Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724), in which he likens society to a butcher who in order to save his meat from flies will ‘very Judiciously cut off a fragment already blown, which serves to hang up for a cure; and thus, by sacrificing a Small Part, already Tainted, and not worth Keeping, he wisely secures the Safety of the rest’.79

Fig. 1.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (4)

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William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress (1732), Plate I, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 2.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (5)

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William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress (1732), Plate II, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 3.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (6)

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William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress (1732), Plate III, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 5.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (8)

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William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress (1732), Plate V, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 6.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (9)

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William Hogarth, A Harlot's Progress (1732), Plate VI, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The specific individuals depicted in Hogarth's prints appear as named characters in Haines's play: Colonel Chartres, John Gourlay, Justice Gonson, and Jem Dalton all feature in The Life of a Woman and are advertised on the playbill. The only character specifically renamed is the harlot herself, who becomes the vicar's daughter, Fanny—an intriguing choice of name for those audience members versant with eighteenth-century literature, whose most famous country maiden turned prostitute was Fanny Hill, the heroine of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), a gleefully p*rnographic narrative of her erotic adventures. Yet Haines's Fanny is an anguished and passive victim. She is tricked into visiting London by the promise of employment to save her family from penury, whereupon she is raped by Chartres and handed on by him to a rich moneylender, who soon grows tired of her tears and repentance and throws her out. Drugged and carried unconscious to a highwayman's crib, she is unjustly arrested and, once released, dies of no apparent physical cause beyond misery and shame. Hogarth's social satire is carefully excised. The clergyman, in the form of Fanny's father, is a model of piety and probity; grief-stricken at his daughter's fall, his tragic suffering and death take centre stage, pushing his daughter's demise to the sidelines. The justice system as embodied by Sir John Gonson becomes rigorous and even-handed. Gonson tracks down Chartres and Gourlay with the help of Fanny's resourceful maid Dorcas, and the curtain falls on Gonson as moral arbiter, forcing the ‘horror struck’ Chartres to view the victims of his crimes (III, v, 21). Haines's Fanny is not, like Hogarth's harlot, a socially aspirant product of a venal society, but a pathetic maiden, whose vanity and frivolity make her vulnerable to the dastardly plot hatched by a collection of villains. The sexual energy of Hackabout is erased; Fanny is a repentant victim of her own shame, too aware of her ignominy to face her father, while innocent of taking lovers on the side, plying her trade, or acting as a highwayman's moll. Fitting the same punishment to a far lesser crime, Haines gleefully acknowledges the harshness of his moral in a verse epigraph to the prison scene:

Misfortune oft, crime's punishment may bear,

But search will prove some seed of error there,

To thinking minds this lesson this makes plain,

The slightest step from virtue brings its pain.(III, i, 15)

Hogarth's complex web of social, economic, and sexual exploitation and opportunism is replaced with the moral binaries of melodrama, wherein crimes result from individual villainy and if virtue is not always triumphant it is always clearly recognizable.

The playbills that advertised The Life of a Woman as ‘a living embodiment’ of Hogarth's harlot and her progress were designed to provoke audience curiosity as to how explicitly and faithfully the details of the prints were to be realized in performance. The practice of realization and the advertising of plays on its attractions only make sense if a significant proportion of the audience would recognize the original images—as Meisel has pointed out, playgoers could be familiar with images from print shop windows and reproductions in penny magazines.80 The second print in Hogarth's series is a particularly interesting case in point: Hogarth's scene shows Hackabout clearly enjoying the fruits of her fall; she is kicking over the tea-table to cover the exit of a new lover under the nose of her rich keeper, one breast escaping provocatively from her expensive dress, either as a result of her lover's caresses or in a further effort to distract attention. Haines's play radically rewrites the context for this picture: Fanny is bewailing her fate, miserably tearful for all the wealth that surrounds her, when she is tricked into receiving the highwayman Jem Dalton, who pretends to offer her reconciliation with her father. Hogarth's print is realized when Dorcas hurries Dalton out the door, and the tableau is succeeded by the entry of Fanny's one-time sweetheart Adam, whom she greets with horror, screaming, ‘No, no, come not near me—touch me not—I am as an accursed pestilence’ (II, iii, 13). Where Hogarth's print celebrates the harlot's sexual energy and resourcefulness, as well as depicting the unscrupulous dealings that lose her a luxurious lifestyle, Haines transforms the picture into one about the impossibility of obtaining pleasure at the cost of sexual purity. The accuracy of the play's realization of the print is unlikely to have extended to a display of the heroine's naked breast, such a spectacle risking the revocation of the theatre's licence and a prosecution for indecency, yet familiarity with Hogarth's original not only provided a prurient draw but also a competing narrative to interact with Haines's sanitized version. Notably, the Dicks’ edition of the play uses precisely this scene to advertise the script (Fig. 7). The prints are thus reproduced within a framework which seeks to rewrite their meanings, while simultaneously referencing the original series.

Fig. 7.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (10)

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Cover of J. T. Haines, The Life of a Woman, Dicks’ Standard Plays edition Shelfmark: M.adds. 111 e11/468 (reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

Notably, contemporary reviewers disagreed over the moral nature of Haines's play. The reviewer for the Morning Chronicle praised Haines's drama of sexual ruin, remorse and death as ‘in its language and general tone…better than the majority of such productions generally are’.81 The reviewer hoped that the tears wrung by Fanny's death might strengthen the moral fibre of its spectators, and counterbalance the influence of the alternative entertainments at the nearby fair: ‘It evidently produced a very strong effect upon a very miscellaneous audience, and may possibly have averted, in some cases, those evils which Greenwich Fair has from time immemorial been noted for inducing.’82 The critic for the Odd Fellow was considerably more cynical, both about the moral influence of such dramas and their intent. Noting the presence of a Jack Sheppard-like highwayman in Haines's melodrama—he plays a minor role, enamoured of Fanny and unsuccessfully attempting to free her from her abductors—the reviewer expresses disgust that the manager should ‘pander to the beastly appetite that in such filth as “Nix my dolly, pals,” could find agreeable food’.83 He then expresses a similar distaste for Haines's main plot:

The Easter novelty at Mr. Dividge's theatre is a drama in which the series of Hogarth's pictures called ‘The Harlot's Progress’ is sought to be embodied. Could these kind of things be turned to anything like a moral use, we should be the very first to hail them, but knowing, as we unquestionably do, that their effect is to enlist the sympathies of the young and thoughtless upon the side of depravity, we cannot look upon their performance with any feeling other than sorrow. The bill which the lessee of the Surrey Theatre has thought fit to put forth is a choice specimen of minor theatre blackguardism—‘The Curate's Daughter,’ ‘The Boudoir,’ ‘The Seduction.’ Alas! how long will these things be tolerated?84

The bill's appeal, he implies, is to prurient and possibly vitiated tastes, drawn by the titillating spectacle of illicit sexuality. Indeed, the pairing of Haines's melodrama with a farcical interlude entitled The Wet Nurse seems to reinforce the validity of such suspicions.85 That audiences and performers shared a humorous consciousness of the potentially salacious appeal of seduction dramas is also suggested by Mrs Yates's much-lauded performance as Buckstone's Victorine, in which, ‘Some laugh was raised when she began, at the end of the first act, to undress in order to go to bed, as if she was seriously going through the preparatory operation.’86 Such details confirm Peter Thomson's suspicions about the lubricious attractions of the genre:

Melodrama was at once family entertainment and soft p*rnography. It was not the pious protestations of the heroine that interested the audience, but the threat to her virtue. The smothered libido of the nineteenth century escaped into melodrama.87

The prospect of frail female flesh under threat was an inviting one.

Haines's realization of Hogarth's prints thus served as a potentially salacious draw for audiences, while his relocation and re-inscribing of the pictures within an alternative story arc produced a complex relation between the melodrama's action and the import and implication of the original prints. This implies a more complex and multiple role for theatrical tableaux and their relation to narrative art than has yet been critically recognized. The very term ‘tableau’, the French word for picture, reveals the close relation between melodramatic dramaturgy and the techniques of narrative art, as Peter Brooks sums it up:

[T]here tends throughout melodramas, and most especially at the end of scenes and acts, to be a resolution of meaning in tableau, where the characters’ attitudes and gestures, compositionally arranged and frozen for a moment, give, like an illustrative painting, a visual summary of the emotional situation.88

Seduction melodramas were inevitably filled with tableaux of women fainting at the crucial moment of abduction, crying in tears and silks, and kneeling in shame to pray for forgiveness. The familiar story arcs of seduced women, filled with regret and self-hatred, mourning their lost homes and rapidly declining unless rescued by protective male relatives, provided a rich source for emotionally laden pictures, both on stage and on the painter's canvas. Repetition and reproduction of central tropes reinforced the power of these plots, making them so familiar as to be accepted as self-evident truths—such that social commentators and campaigners could assert their existence without producing evidence or statistics to support them. The familiarity of the plot trajectory made it possible for one frozen moment to convey a whole tale. The fallen woman thus became a staple subject of narrative painting by the mid-century. Works such as Richard Redgrave's The Outcast (1851), Frederick Stanhope's Thoughts of the Past (1852), Frederick Walker's The Lost Path (1863), Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Found (1863), and Alfred Elmore's On the Brink (1865) (Fig. 8), all give snapshots of the fallen woman's progress, from Elmore's runaway, dressed and ready for flight, to Rossetti's bedizened prostitute held in the forceful grip of a sturdy rustic determined to drag her from the corruption of the city. These narrative paintings do not refer to any specific literary work or myth, but purport to realism in the contemporaneous dress and anonymity of their figures.

Fig. 8.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (11)

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Alfred Elmore, On the Brink (1865), © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

To contain a whole story in one moment, the painter must be able to draw on an established iconography and set story arcs, as Martin Meisel explains:

The problem for the narrative painter…is to represent a subject of finite duration, whose phases are necessarily not all present at once. His subject, then, is not representable in a single frame except with the help of such modifying agents as a convention that permits the ‘simultaneity’ of stimulus and response; as symbolism does the work of literary foreshadowing and retrospection; as a shared knowledge of specific stories and story formulas which permits the spectator to supply the broken pattern with sequential meaning.89

The readable language of stage gestures and the familiar plot formulae of the melodramatic stage helped to supply this communal symbolism, making it possible to project the story forwards and backwards.

The dramatist's success, however, depended on an ability to create tension, suspense and surprise. While dramatic plots could provide the stories for narrative paintings and famous pictures be realized in dramatic tableaux, the artistic imperatives of the different media could result in alternate implications drawn from the same material. So, for example, the melodramatic fallen woman's traditional choice of a watery grave inspired Thomas Hood's 1844 poem The Bridge of Sighs and a plethora of paintings from George Cruikshank's The Drunkard series, to E. Fitzpatrick's The Unfortunate (1858), and G. F. Watts's Found Drowned (1867). The drowned woman's body could be read symbolically as a suffering penitent, simultaneously purged and destroyed by the river.90 But the laws of dramatic suspense meant that the theatrical heroine's fate remained crucially uncertain: last-minute rescue is always an option; in Milner's version Victorine is declared dead at the scene, whereas Buckstone has her seized by the hair and dragged to safety.91

Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853–4) (Fig. 9) could similarly be read as a tableau from a seduction drama: the young woman, surrounded by the shiny furniture and trashy trappings for which she has exchanged her virtue, suddenly overcome by a sense of sin which lifts her in horror from her lover's lap. Symbolic details, such as the cat eying the corpse of a dead bird, further clarify their past relation. John Ruskin commended the painting for its readability, finding in it not only a tale of the woman's past but also her future: ‘the very hem of the poor girl's dress, at which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet failing in the street’.92 As Kate Flint has noted, Ruskin misidentifies some details in the picture, including wrongly naming Frank Stone's engraving Cross Purposes as a woman taken in adultery, but it is Ruskin's conviction that the scene must be a stage in the inevitable decline of the fallen woman that is striking.93 Ruskin's doom-laden prediction fits ill with Hunt's pairing of the painting with his The Light of the World, in which Jesus knocks on a door, symbolic lantern in hand. As Martin Meisel has pointed out, Ruskin's description of the lost girl's face, ‘rent from its beauty into sudden horror; the lips half open, indistinct in their purple quivering; the teeth set hard; the eyes filled with the fearful light of futurity’ is actually that of an earlier version of the painting, which Hunt subsequently painted over with the rapt, eager expression of the finished work.94 Consistently referring to the painting as The Awakened Conscience, Hunt thus moved his fallen woman another stage towards a vision of salvation, suggesting redemptive action would follow his tableau. Ruskin's mistaken certainty thus speaks volumes both about the prevalence of set story arcs, but also their multiplicity, and the significance and power of performance, where a woman's change of expression could suggest an entirely different set of consequences.

Fig. 9.

1 Seduced Maidens and Resourceful Maids (12)

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William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience (1853–4), © Tate Gallery, London.

As Meisel has noted, Watts Phillips incorporated a realization of The Awakening Conscience in his Lost in London. When Nelly Armroyd listens to her seducer Featherstone sing lightly of betrayed love, her ‘face has appeared to struggle with contending emotions during the singing’.95 But Phillips is faithful neither to Hunt's nor Ruskin's version of the story behind the picture; Nelly's conscience is not awakened, for it has never slept, giving her no peace at all throughout the entire course of the play, nor does her sense of shame spur her to action—her rescue must wait for the intervention of her friend Giddy and faithful husband Job. Suspense is crucial; if an audience knows what will follow the tension is inevitably lost.

The notion of the readability of the tableau or narrative painting and the predictability of the fallen woman's fate is thus disrupted by the need for an element of dramatic tension and surprise, and by the degree to which any individual viewer subscribed to the belief in a sinful woman's inevitable demise. Tableaux have been interpreted as moments of weighted significance, summarizing and crystallizing the preceding action and expressing the play's moral meanings in significant form. As Peter Brooks declares, ‘In the tableau more than in any other single device of dramaturgy, we grasp melodrama's primordial concern to make its signs clear, unambiguous, and impressive.’96 However, as Caroline Radcliffe has noted, by introducing stasis into the play's flow and referencing an exterior medium, the effect of the tableau contains a paradox: ‘Time is frozen, breaking the usual prescriptive “here and now” of theatre, both lessening and heightening reality.’ The stage picture could be described, she argues, as a transition between ‘transparency’—an awareness of the artifice and mechanism of theatre—and ‘hypermediation’—the coming together of theatre's appeal to all the senses.97

Tableau's operation is thus inherently contradictory and multiple. In matters of sexual judgement the supposed clarity and readability of tableau in fact provides a means of representing the more complex and multi-voiced dialogue running through the play. This tension within a tableau is as old as melodrama itself. Several scholars have noted the influence on the early formation of melodrama of the German writer August von Kotzebue's sentimental dramas, most notably Menschenhass und Reue (1790), in which an adulterous wife is reunited with her estranged husband after years of repentance and charity on her part and reclusive despair on his. The play appeared in four different English translations at the end of the eighteenth century, one of which, The Stranger by Benjamin Thomson, remained immensely popular throughout the nineteenth century, performed regularly every year until 1842.98 The play ends with the estranged couple about to part, when their children rush forward to embrace them; husband and wife ‘gaze at each other—spread their arms, and rush into an embrace. The CHILDREN run, and cling round their Parents. The curtain falls.99 The family reunited as the curtain descends is the archetypal resolution of melodrama, expressing the sacredness and importance of familial ties. But the inclusion of a sexually guilty woman in this formation raises disruptive issues of judgement and consequence. In her preface to the1806 edition, Elizabeth Inchbald defended the play's morality by emphasizing the considerable suffering which precedes this reconciliation. She then pointed out the ambiguity of the play's ending; as the curtain falls on the final embrace, audience members can project the action forward according to their own particular moral strictures:

Notwithstanding all these distressful and repentant testimonies, preparatory to the reunion of this husband and wife, a delicate spectator feels a certain shudder when the catastrophe takes place,—but there is another spectator more delicate still, who never conceives, that from an agonizing though affectionate embrace, (the only proof of reconciliation given, for the play ends here), any further endearments will ensue, than those of participated sadness, mutual care of their joint offspring, and to smooth the other's passage to the grave.100

Silence may speak volumes but it is also conveniently ambiguous.

The development of melodrama from the sentimental and romantic dramas of the eighteenth century involved the simplification of character, moving from the psychological complexity of tragic and romantic heroes in conflict with themselves to an externalized conflict between good and evil embodied in hero and villain. In Peter Brooks's formulation, melodrama is driven by the desire to express all: ‘Nothing is spared because nothing is left unsaid; the characters stand on stage and utter the unspeakable, give voice to their deepest feelings, dramatize through their heightened and polarized words and gestures the whole lesson of their relationship.’101 Far from being ambiguous, Brooks argues, these gestures reach towards meanings that cannot be articulated by mere language. The melodramatic body can express the ineffable, communicate the presence of innocence and purity as an evident truth, unarguable in its silence: ‘it is the fullness, the pregnancy of the blank that is significant: meaning-full though unspeakable’.102

The climax of Edward Fitzball's Mary Melvyn; or, A Marriage of Interest (1843) serves as a perfect example of such significant gestures. Suspected by her rich and aged husband of an adulterous love for her cousin and former sweetheart, Mary Melvyn is persecuted through three acts, culminating in a stormy midnight trek across the Isle of Wight to prevent her husband committing murder. Shot by his own hired assassin, her husband finally accepts her innocence thanks to the revealed truth of melodramatic gesture:


  Melvyn, I am not guilty –


  Not guilty, Mary?


  No, on my soul!

(Appealing to Heaven.)


  That fervent aspiration! I believe thee—God forgive me—one bitter pang is spared me!—I fall victim to my own device.’ Twas jealousy urged me to the deed—too late I see my error—103

But this moment's revelation stands in stark contrast to the ambiguities and uncertainties of the rest of the play. Believing her cousin Frank dead, Mary allowed her greedy guardian to bully her into marrying Melvyn, but Frank's unexpected return drives her husband into increasingly uncontrolled fits of jealousy. Mary is persuaded to take part in amateur theatricals, leaving Melyvn further disturbed by the idea that she is skilled in ‘assuming a character’ (I, iv, 6). Playing Louis XIV's mistress, the significance of Mary's appearance and gestures are uncertain:

(Tableau of Mary, as La Valière clinging to the convent pillar; the king near her. Applause.)


  My wife! Can it be?(I, iv, 7)

A troubled wife plays a guilty mistress trying to resist temptation, under the suspicious eyes of a husband who reads excessive significance into her skills of expression. Moreover, if the tableau being enacted is intended as a specific reference to those in Edward Bulwer Lytton's scandalous 1837 play, The duch*ess de La Valliere, it becomes doubly ambiguous; Lytton's play contains two scenes in which the duch*ess seeks shelter in a convent from Louis's unlawful desires: in one scene she succumbs and becomes his mistress, in the second she rejects his blandishments and enters a convent.104 Depending on which of these scenes Mary Melyvn's tableau is taken from, it may be a prelude to sin or to redemption. In Fitzball's play-within-a-play, gesture is thus expressive but its meanings are multiple and unfixed. Moreover, performing roles is the norm in Mary Melvyn: a flirt pretends affections to stir up her admirer's jealousy, and he in turn pretends indifference to provoke hers; even Melvyn performs decorous restraint in front of his servants. Deceit is not a villainous camouflage but a seamless part of the fabric of social interaction.

Mary's soliloquies leave the audience in no doubt of her enduring feelings for Frank, but whether Mary Melvyn is to be a drama of sin and repentance remains unpredictable almost until the final curtain. Tortured by her suppressed feelings for Frank and her husband's resentful suspicions, Mary kneels before a portrait of her dead mother. The portrait evokes two strong dramatic associations: the absence of a mother's care leaving the daughter vulnerable to temptation and error, and the memory of the dead mother reminding the daughter of her duties. As Mary addresses the painting—‘Image of my sainted mother, whose tender cares were lost to me ere I knew how to value them’—Frank enters and urges Mary to leave her violently jealous husband (II, iii, 10). The symbolism of the setting signals clearly to the audience that Mary's virtue is in danger, but whether it will fall remains perilously in the balance.

Mary Melvyn's fidelity to her marriage vows ultimately wins out over manifold trials and temptations, but though her virtue is made manifest in the closing moments of the play, she herself protests against an invasive questioning of her inner feelings. Marriage, she implies, is dependent on a degree of emotional privacy. So she reproaches her husband:

You wring the expression from me, you grasp my heart till the blood will gush forth. Why am I unceasingly to be chidden? Why suspected?—you have no cause to upbraid me—what I did with my affections ere I became your wife you have no right to inquire. (II, i, 8)

A woman's heart is not necessarily on her sleeve, and the precise reading of gesture and tableau is a more complex matter than might at first appear.

The multiple voices in melodrama, from passive victim to resourceful maid, could thus set up tensions between moral idealism and pragmatic realism. The familiar trajectories of seduction plots had a widespread hold on the cultural imagination, but the dramatist could exploit their very predictability to open up conflicting possibilities—a tableau could be located between alternative narratives, providing a tension-filled crossroad from which the drama could proceed in less predictable directions. A tableau could summon up more than one set of referents, introducing not a synchronicity but a tension between the play's action and the stage picture's potential meanings. ‘Freeze-framing’ a play's action has traditionally been read as an opportunity to make the drama's meanings manifest, to impress their moral truth upon the audience, but the pause could equally be one for thought, a moment to apprehend not the simple truths but the complex contradictions and possibilities of the drama's multiple implications. Seduction dramas could simultaneously parade their fearful moral lessons, stimulate prurient curiosity, and include alternate voices to disrupt any absolute statement. Gesture might evoke the ineffable, yet, as the collection of bigamy dramas examined in the next chapter will show, unspoken emotions could provide a dangerously unsettling undercurrent.



Edward Fitzball, The Earthquake; or, the Spectre of the Nile (John Cumberland: London, 1829), II

, ii, 33.


Michael R. Booth, English Melodrama (Herbert Jenkins: London, 1965), 30

. See also

Frank Rahill, The World of Melodrama (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA, 1967), xiv–xvi


Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (Columbia University Press: New York, 1985), 31–2

; James L. Smith, introduction to

James L. Smith (ed.), Victorian Melodramas: Seven English, French and American Melodramas (Dent: London, 1976), x–xi

. A number of the plays discussed here are described simply as ‘dramas’ throughout the Lord Chamberlain's Plays Collection, but have nonetheless been critically identified as melodramas, and in a number of cases anthologized within edited collections of melodramas. ‘Melodrama’ is thus a descriptive term used more consistently by twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics than it was by Victorian practitioners.


English Melodrama, chs 3, 4, and 5.


See, for example,

J. B. Buckstone, Luke the Labourer (Adelphi Theatre, 1826)


W. B. Bernard, The Farmer's Story (Lyceum, 1836)


Joseph Graves, The Tempter; or, the Old Mill of St Denis (Sadler's Wells, 1838)


Douglas Jerrold, Black-Ey’d Susan; or ‘All in the Downs’ (Royal Surrey, 1829)


W. H. Smith and ‘A Gentleman’, The Drunkard (Boston Museum, 1844)



Douglas Jerrold, Nell Gwynne (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1833)

. Dicks’ No. 274.


Anonymous, Maria Marten, or, The Murder in the Red Barn

. First performed Marylebone Theatre, April 1840; reprinted in

Michael Kilgarriff (ed.), The Golden Age of Melodrama, Twelve 19th-Century Melodramas (Wolfe: London, 1974), 204–35



Isaac Poco*ck, The Miller and His Men, Dicks’ No. 28. J. B. Buckstone, The Green Bushes, Dicks’ No. 827.


Stage direction for Nelly, Watts Phillips, Lost in London. First performed Theatre Royal Adelphi, 1867. LCP, BL Add MS 53057G, II, i, 17.


H. M. Milner, Victorine: The Maid of Paris, first performed Coburg Theatre, 1831. Dicks’ Standard Plays, No.352, II, i, 7–8. An adaptation of Victorine, ou la Nuit porte conseil, drame en 5 actes, mêlé de couplets, by Théophile Dumersan and Charles Dupety. First performed Porte Saint-Martin, Paris, 21 April 1831.


Prefatory Remarks, W. T. Moncrieff, The Lear of Private Life! or, Father and Daughter. A Domestic Melo-Drama (London: T. Richardson, c.1825), vi



Moncrieff, The Lear of Private Life,

Dicks’ No. 924, II, iii, 13.


See also

Charles Selby's London by Night (Strand, 1844)


Edward Stirling's The Bohemians: or, The Rogues of Paris (Surrey, 1843)


W. T. Moncrieff 's Scamps of London (1843)

, all adapted from the popular French melodrama Les bohémiens de Paris by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Grangé, which was in turn an adaptation of Eugène Sue's serial novel, Les Mystères de Paris (published 1842–3).


J. B. Buckstone, Victorine; or, ‘I’ll sleep on it’. First performed Theatre Royal, Adelphi, 17 October 1831. Dicks’ No. 856.


John Howard Payne, Clari, the Maid of Milan. First performed Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, May 1823. Dicks’ No. 406, III, ii, 14.


R. C. Pixérécourt, La Femme à deux maris (Paris, 1802)

. First performed Ambigu-Comique, 14 September 1802. For a history of the emergence of the genre and Pixérécourt's role in it, see

Rahill, World of Melodrama

, Part 1.


Femme à deux maris, III, vi, 71. An otherwise faithful English translation is nervous of such stark equivalence, and considerably waters down Pixérécourt's formulation: ‘A justly offended father, who affectionately grants his forgiveness, is a faint representation of the merciful goodness of the DIVINITY!’ A Wife with Two Husbands, translated from the French by Miss Gunning (H.D. Symonds: London, 1803), 104.


Melodramatic Imagination, 15–17.


Susan Staves, ‘British Seduced Maidens’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 14:2 (Winter 1980–1), 122



A. C. Campbell, The London Banker; or, The Profligate. First produced Grecian Theatre, 17 January 1844. Dicks’ No. 723. See also, e.g.

William Bayle Bernard, The Farmer's Story (Lyceum, 1836)

, Victorine, Lost in London, and London by Night.


Elaine Hadley, Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800–1885 (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1995)

, ch. 4.


J. B. Buckstone, Henriette the Forsaken. First performed Theatre Royal, Adelphi, 5 November 1832. Dicks’ No. 821.


Buckstone, Victorine, Act I.


Campbell, London Banker, I, i, 3. This is in marked contrast to earlier eighteenth-century seduction narratives, where a heroine's fall into prostitution was generally motivated by extreme financial hardship; see

Katherine Binhammer, The Seduction Narrative in Britain, 1747–1800 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009), 40–8



Charles Dillon, The Mysteries of Paris. A Romance of the Rich and Poor. First performed Royal Marylebone Theatre, 2 September 1844. Dicks’ No. 980, II, v, 15.


Dion Boucicault, The Poor of New York.

First performed Wallack's Theatre, New York, December 1857. Dicks’ No. 381, V, iii, 21.


J. T. Haines, The Life of a Woman; or, The Curate's Daughter. First performed Surrey Theatre, 20 April 1840. Dicks’ No. 468, III, ii, 17.


Watts Phillips, Lost in London. First performed Theatre Royal Adelphi, 1867. LCP, BL Add MS 53057G, II, i, 22. For further discussion of melodramatic depictions of the city see

Katherine Newey, ‘Attic Windows and Street Scenes: Victorian Images of the City on the Stage’, Victorian Literature and Culture (1997), 253–62



Lost in London, III, 45.


The 1851 census was the first in which urban population outnumbered rural. Increasing migration from country to city increased rapidly, with the proportion of urban to rural population reaching 5 to 4 by 1861, and by 1881 more than two-thirds of Great Britain's inhabitants were living in towns and cities. See

Norman McCord, British History, 1815–1906 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1991), 315



Lost in London, I, i, 9.


The Lear of Private Life

, Dicks’ No. 924, I, iii, 6.



, 7.


J. B. Buckstone, Agnes de Vere; or, The Wife's Revenge. First performed Theatre Royal, Adelphi, 10 November 1834. Dicks’ No. 805, III, 15; Lost in London, III, i, 32.


W. Travers, A Poor Girl's Temptations; or, A Voice from the Streets (City of London Theatre, 1858)

, LCP, BL Add MS 52972 H, III, iv, 24.


Quoted in

Trevor Fisher, Prostitution and the Victorians (Sutton: Stroud, 1997), 14



William Tait, Magdalenism: An Inquiry into the Extent, Causes and Consequences of Prostitution in Edinburgh (P. Rickard: Edinburgh, 1840), 83



William Acton, Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects in London and other Large Cities and Garrison Towns. With Proposals for the Control and Prevention of Attendant Evils (2nd edition. John Churchill and Sons: London, 1870), 165



Magdalenism, 81.



, 58. For how an assumption of vanity as a motive influenced analysts’ questioning of prostitutes, see

Mariana Valverde, ‘The Love of Finery: Fashion and the Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse’, Victorian Studies, 32: 2 (Winter, 1989), 168–88



Prostitution, 73; Magdalenism, 87.


William Logan, The Great Social Evil. Its Causes, Extent, Results, and Remedies (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1871), 182




, 226.


Magdalenism, 172–5.



, 154.


Great Social Evil, 162.


Magdalenism, 73.


Great Social Evil, 132.


Magdalenism, 170

, 73.


Great Social Evil, 96.


W. R. Greg, ‘Prostitution’, Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review 53:2 (July 1850), 484



Prostitution, 27, 32–3.


Ibid, 164, 239.


Ibid, 272.


Great Social Evil, 152.



, 152–3.


Magdalenism, 34

. For further discussion of modesty and Victorian concepts of female virtue, see also

Peter T. Cominos, ‘Innocent Femina Sensualis in Unconscious Conflict’, in Martha Vicinus (ed.), Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Methuen: London, 1980), 155–72



Greg, ‘Prostitution’, 457.




Morning Chronicle, 2 March 1858

, 5.








Greg, ‘Prostitution’, 459.



, 466.


Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

, Vol. IV. First published 1861. Reprinted in

Fisher, Prostitution and the Victorians, 30–3.


Letter to the Times (24 February 1858), quoted in Fisher, 41.


Poor of New York, V, iii, 21.


Life of a Woman, I, i, 3.


Lost in London, I, i, 6.


T. E. Wilks, Woman's Love; or, Kate Wynsley, the Cottage Girl. First performed Royal Victoria Theatre, 12 April 1841. Dicks’ No. 414, I, ii, 5.


Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994), 67



J. B. Buckstone, Henriette the Forsaken. First performed Theatre Royal, Adelphi, 5 November 1831. Dicks’ No. 821, III, iii, 18.


Lost in London, III, i, 32.


Introduction, Victorian Melodramas, xiii.


Jacky Bratton, ‘The Contending Discourses of Melodrama’, in Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill (eds), Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen (BFI Publishing: London, 1994), 39


Bratton quotes M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press: Austin, TX, 1981), 47



Bratton,‘Contending Discourses of Melodrama’, 44.


Playbill, quoted in

Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1983), 119



For an authoritative account of this practice see

Meisel, Realizations.


For full details on the genesis and context of The Harlot's Progress see Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, 3 vols (1991–3), vol. 1,

The ‘Modern Moral Subject’, 1697–1732 (Lutterworth Press: Cambridge, 1992)

, chs 8 and 9.


Quoted in


, 254.


Meisel, Realizations, 93

. For the popularity of realizations at the East End Britannia Theatre, catering to a predominantly working-class and lower-middle-class audience in the mid-nineteenth century, see

Janice Norwood, ‘The Britannia Theatre: Visual Culture and the Repertoire of a Popular Theatre’, in Anselm Heinrich, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards (eds), Ruskin, the Theatre and Victorian Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2009)



‘The Theatres’, Morning Chronicle (21 April 1840).




Odd Fellow (25 April 1840), 66. ‘Nix my dolly, pals’ is a quote from W. Harrison Ainsworth's popular ballad, composed for his Dick Turpin novel Rookwood (1834).




Review in Times (21 April 1840), 5.


‘Adelphi Theatre’, Times (19 October 1831), 4.


Peter Thomson, Introduction to Plays by Dion Boucicault (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1984), 6



Melodramatic Imagination, 48.


Meisel, Realizations, 20.


For further discussion of the artistic representation of the drowned woman see

Meisel, Realizations, 133–40


Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Blackwell: Oxford, 1990)

, ch. 6;

L. J. Nicoletti, ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide, and London's “Bridge of Sighs” ’, Literary London (March 2004), online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2004/nicoletti.html



See, e.g., Love's Frailties and London by Night; W. T. Moncrieff, The Scamps of London (1843); Edward Stirling, The Bohemians; or, The Rogues of Paris (1843);

George Cruikshank, The Drunkard's Children (1848)

; Milner, Victorine, IV, i, 14; Buckstone, Victorine, III, iv, 20.


John Ruskin, Letter to the Times (25 May 1854),

The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols (George Allen: London, 1903–12), vol. XII

, 334.


Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000), 216



Meisel, Realizations, 365–8.


Lost in London, II, i, 19.


Melodramatic Imagination, 48.


Caroline Radcliffe, ‘Remediation and Immediacy in the Theatre of Sensation’, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 36:2 (2009), 50




Lothar Fietz, ‘On the Origins of the English Melodrama in the Tradition of Bourgeois Tragedy and Sentimental Drama: Lillo, Schröder, Kotzebue, Sheridan, Thomson, Jerrold’, in Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou (eds), Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre (St Martin's Press: New York, 1996)



The Stranger, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Translated from the German of Kotzebue by Benjamin Thomson. Printed, under the authority of the Managers, from the Prompt Book. With remarks by Mrs Inchbald. (Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme; London, 1806), V, ii, 72.



ibid, 5.


Melodramatic Imagination, 4.



, 73 and ch. 3 ‘The Text of Muteness’.


Edward Fitzball, Mary Melvyn; or, A Marriage of Interest. First performed Theatre Royal, Adelphi, 13 February 1843. Dicks’ No. 622, III, iii, 15.


Lord Lytton, The duch*ess de la Valliere. First performed Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 4 January 1837. Dicks’ No. 847, II, iii, 12–13, and V, iv, 27–8.

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