Fallen Women in literature actually has its own genre concerning women who gain agency through marriage and love affairs etc. and then, have their secrets found out or are violently mistreated and so, fall from this agency back down to either abject poverty or even worse, death. The literature of fallen women were most famous during the 1700s and 1800s with women being seen as more than alive for their agency in the 1900s and 2000s. Be that as it may, we can find fallen women in literature even in early eras of artistic movements. In Ancient Greece, we have the Orestian Trilogy and Sophocles’ Theban Plays which both contain fallen women, and in Shakespeare we can find fallen women in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello and even in aspects of Julius Caesar. The fallen woman sub-genre has been around for ages throughout literary history, but became more and more famous in the decadent eras of the 1700s and 1800s partially because of the adornment of women of the aristocracy. The scandal that was created around women of the richer classes who required to hold themselves with decorum but ended up becoming involved with acts of degeneracy and the such. Readers were very much used to tragedies involving men and so, from the decadent courts of the Enlightenment and Romanticist Era we get women becoming more involved in tragedy, most obviously inspired by the richness and vulgarity of the Baroque and Rococo Styles. Towards the 1900s and 2000s, the ‘fallen woman’ sub-genre became more complex as instead of just having a rich woman who gains agency and falls into tragedy - we get a more complex story. We still have a woman either coming into riches or being above a certain social class, but then, we have a number of turns: familial tragedy, love stories, backdrops of war and sometimes the woman fell from grace before the plot line began and now, she is attempting to redeem herself. It certainly comes into the modern and post-modern eras with style and poise.
Let us take a look at ten books involving fallen women and what they offer the sub-genre. Fallen women in literature is probably one of the most intriguing of the sub-genres because of the fact that many of the more famous ‘fallen women’ stories are written by women themselves.
10. Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
My friend told me to read this because she had studied it for her undergraduate dissertation. I honestly had no idea what to make of it, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is basically the Charlotte Bronte of the fallen woman. She has written immensely about women who gain agency and lose it all at a whim or mistake and Aurora Floyd is pretty much her magnum opus.
9. Little Reunions by Eileen Chang
A more modern story set in China in a middle class family. It is about a woman who runs away from her life to join a revolution, leaving all her privilege at home. When she falls in love with a man who is a part of the rebellion, things are about to take a turn for the worst and yet, she cannot return to the way things were. Modern and based on life choices, Eileen Chang’s novel is a book of weird turns and turbulent futures.
8. Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann
This too is a modern story of a fallen woman. The ‘fallen’ aspect happening before the events of the novel in a sort of abandonment - this woman seeks out her man as he climbs in the literary word. Yes, he’s Goethe. When she tells her story whilst also trying to regain her reputation, she seeks understanding but doesn’t always get it. It’s a beautiful book that I only read because someone online recommended it to me. It was worth it.
7. Oresteia by Aeschylus
Clytemnestra is possibly the epitome of ‘fallen woman’ - she murders her husband and yet, she has so much agency within her already. After this, we get a turbulent and often murderous story about her short but fulfilling life afterwards until then, people start to realise what has happened. Nothing can end well for this woman, full of anger, full of fire and yet, still full of human passion. One of the earliest examples of the fallen woman, ti is a brilliant play text.
6. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Normally, when we think of the ‘fallen woman’ sub-genre we mention the name “Mary Barton” and the name “Elizabeth Gaskell” because of the fact this is basically the pinnacle of the sub-genre. The fallen woman represented by a depressed girl who works as a dressmaker in Manchester, she becomes entangled in a murder and a scandal after a love affair with a man called Carson. Disgracing her estranged family, there is something not quite right about everything going on, but that won’t stop the turbulent downfall of literature’s greatest fallen Englishwoman - Mary Barton.
5. A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbald
A woman who falls in love with a priest, marries him and instantly regrets her choices becomes a fallen woman through a series of love affairs, scandals, bad choices and many more. Miss Milner becomes one of the most interesting fallen women in English history because of the fact that she never actually does anything horribly immoral - instead she seeks happiness but is given a ton of misinformation and aspects of control disguised as advice. There is really nothing much she can do.
4. Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe
A woman is trying to escape Paris with her family and begins a turbulent love affair with a man called The Marquis. With the language of gloom and darkness dominating the novel, there is honestly something unsettling about the behaviour of her new lover. When things start to turn awry between The Marquis and Adeline, she must escape yet again - she just doesn’t know where and she doesn’t know how. Most importantly though, she doesn’t even know if she can.
3. Zofloya, or The Moor by Charlotte Dacre
When a woman called Victoria is encased in a strange death which is possibly a murder, she turns to her odd and dark family but they, estranged from each other, are no better are protecting her. Love affairs become intriguing scandals and when Victoria falls for a servant called Zofloya, it becomes a mess and she must close herself off from the world or become consumed by it. When secrets are spread and revealed to be more than coincidence, the past is dug up much to everyone’s discontent.
2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Possibly the most famous fallen woman after “Mary Barton” by Elizabeth Gaskell. Nothing that Tess does is ever her own fault. She is raped, she is robbed, her innocence and her life is stolen from her. Rejected by a man she was once in love with, she seeks respite, she seeks acceptance and she seeks a normal life. A series of bad choices made by her and against her, she ultimately becomes the victim of actions that were never her own.
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Anna Karenina” is the most famous fallen woman in all of literary history. She is entrapped by love affairs whilst trying to escape Count Karenin’s cold aggression - yet she is also trying to protect her child. When Vronsky leaves her, she is left for dead and begins to turn her life into scandal as pressure to be the perfect woman increases around her. A novel that begins with one affair and ends with another, often it is called the greatest book ever written.