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The theme of the woman destroyed by love, betrayed by unrequited love, seduced by false deals or false lovers or victimized by tragic love, dominated the Pre-Raphaelite as well as Victorians paintings and poems of the nineteenth century.
These themes stem from medieval romance (for example the cycle of King Arthur) and were met with both fear and fascination by most Victorians.
The Victorians were great moralisers, they felt obliged to support certain values, so they promoted a code of these values that reflected the world as they want it to be, not as it really was. The personification of this behaviour was Queen Victoria, who ruled for more than half a century the country.
During this age sexuality was generally repressed in its public and private forms, and prudery in its most extreme manifestation led to the denunciation of nudity in art and the rejection from everyday vocabulary of words with sexual connotation. All these aspects are part of what has come to be known as the “Victorian compromise” and these were refined by the rich middle class.
The middle-class ideals also dominated Victorian family life, that was a patriarchal unit where the husband represented the authority and the woman role was the education of children and the managing of the house.
With these preliminary remark it is easy to understand the meaning of most Pre-Raphaelite pictures. The artist focuses of the grim fate that awaits the outcast woman in order to warn other young ladies to avoid similar temptation and ruin.
Augustus Egg’s “Past and Present” series depicts a woman’s infidelity to her
husband and its dramatic consequences. In the first, “Infidelity discovered”, the adulteress, an upper middle-class mother has just been discovered and you see the incriminating letter on the floor. The fallen
woman’s body is thrown at the feet of the husband, who sits silent, shocked.
The two little daughters are uninterested and they are playing with their house of cards. The woman’s partner in crime remains absent from the scene and this underlines the fact that women are not supposed to have feelings outside the family, unlike men. The second and the third pictures, the “Abandoned Daughters” and “The wife abandoned by her lover with her bastard child” represent the present, ten years later and they illustrate the consequences of her actions and their self-destructive effects. The stages of the woman’s face are visible from the fact that the two young women are alone in a poorer place and at the same moment the mother is huddling under a bridge.
The theme of the fallen woman was dealt in literature in a different way by Thomas Hardy with hid “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. The subtitle of the novel, A pure woman, aroused the indignation of Victorian readers. Tess, who was raped byher master, the shrewd Alec, is not presented as an adulteress but as a victim insisting on her natural goodness. In the end not only society but also chance conspires against the innocent Tess, that after her child death she can not marry her lover because of her sin, but she is executed for having killed Alec and not for her unchastity. It is very interesting to mark how the modern readers may have access into the protagonist feelings and is able to understand her actions in opposite of the Victorian one that condemned Tess.