london exhibitions – the fallen woman

Reflections on The Fallen Woman exhibition at The Foundling Museum, London

The Fallen Woman was one, originally of good standing, who had “fallen” from grace; “fallen” out of respectable society; “fallen” victim to the sins of the flesh, “fallen” for the wrong man; someone who would then also quite often “fall” out of favor with her family, friends, respectable society, and who quite literally, often ended up “falling” from The Bridge of Sighs into a river of whispers.

It’s not as if extra-marital affairs were something new – Anthony and Cleopatra, Guinevere and Lancelot, Tristan & Isolde, Elizabeth and Sir Walter, Napoleon and Josephine come to mind. So our ladies fall seems to have less to do with “sexual knowledge outside of marriage”, and more do to with the fact that she was caught out by potential consequences – you can’t really hide a swollen belly, and subsequent years of child care and financial drainage. In comparison, the male – whether a lover, courtier, adulterer, seducer, or even rapist– who was often admired for his promiscuity, could also move on with no visible physical literal impact or responsibility (unless of course he got caught with the clap or syphilis)

So what to do in these circumstances? Some country air is always a good cure for most ailments, so off to the country for a few months, after which the offspring could be guised as a sibling, shipped off to a distant relative, or an orphanage…

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 6.03.16 PM.pngWhen opened in 1741, the Foundling Hospital accepted all babies brought to them, with no “preference to any person”; by 1768, mothers had to submit an application. Then by the mid 19th Century, whether a response to the unmanageable volume of incoming babies, or Britain’s focus on the virtuous christian life, with a good marriage, good housekeeping, child bearing and rearing as the personification of a good woman , the hospital introduced a strict criteria for child acceptance that was based on the mother’s… good character and potential to go on and live a virtuous life …  and so the fallen woman was born.

After submitting their application, along with character references, if approved, they were given a date and time to deliver their child through a hatch door in the wall of the Foundling Hospital. Hopefully, now free of the evidence and burden of their indiscretions, these women would be able to return to their former status and station in life.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 6.04.32 PM

The turning point, downfall and despair became ripe territory for composers, novelists and painters: Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Verdi’s Violetta. Women were often depicted outside, outcast, in wintery scenes, desperate, shunned, alone …. the inevitable outcome….plunging to her death…  The exhibition at the Foundling Museum included hundreds of letters from women and their referees…as many women couldn’t actually write, many of the applications were in the same hand writing. Acceptance and reject letters, a sound installation, and some poignant paintings, it was a very moving couple of hours.

Thank goodness society has moved forward and our children can now experience supportive family and friends, whatever their parental circumstance. However, the obsession of the fallen woman, and man, lives on, but with different criteria: drugs, money, alcohol, suicide…people have a morbid fascination with the downward spiral and difficulties of others…Hollywood Babylon collected those stories, tabloids revel in these stories. Amy Winehouse’s public struggles and press feeding frenzy comes to mind, the deconstruction of Robin Williams mental state and suicide, amongst many others.

At least their struggles were not brought about by having to put their child through a hatch door

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