On my first visit to London’s Foundling Museum, which tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first children’s home (established by Thomas Coram in 1739), I was fascinated by the tokens that mothers left behind—scraps of fabric, coins etched with names and dates, children’s shirts torn in two so that they could perhaps be matched up again later. These tokens seemed like rare traces of the women who left them. While I learned much during that visit about the children, I learned little about their mothers. The Museum’s recent exhibition, ‘Fallen Women,’ which was on display from 25 September 2015 to 3 January 2016, attempted to tell the mothers’ stories for the first time.
The exhibition focused on unmarried mothers who tried to get their children taken in by the Foundling Hospital in the the mid-nineteenth century, a time when the ‘fallen woman’—a woman who was seen to have compromised her chastity by giving in to seduction—became a popular subject in Victorian art. An entire exhibition could have been devoted to telling the stories of vulnerable and working-class women who were deceived and abandoned by men, and deserted by family and friends, women whose proof of sin was written on their bodies. Yet in ‘Fallen Women,’ the Foundling Museum also attempted, rather ambitiously, to explore the depiction of fallen women in period art.
The exhibition showcased mothers’ voices using the petitions they wrote in the hope of having their babies accepted to the Foundling Hospital, as well as audio installations created for the exhibition based on the petitions. These handwritten petitions—both accepted and rejected—sat alongside Victorian artworks. The incorporation of paintings and drawings was especially appropriate, since fine art has been a part of the Hospital’s history from the beginning.
While many countries in continental Europe established orphanages in medieval times, the stigma of illegitimacy long prevented the establishment of orphanages in Britain. Thomas Coram campaigned for almost 20 years before he was able to open his Foundling Hospital. One of his major sources of support was the artist William Hogarth, who donated paintings and convinced other artists to do likewise. These remarkable donations made the Foundling Hospital both England’s first public art gallery and one of its most fashionable charities.
In this exhibit, however, the artwork and the archival materials sat somewhat uneasily together. While there were a few attempts to intermingle the two, the main room of the exhibit consisted first of paintings, then a cluster of vitrines at the back with archival pieces. This arrangement epitomised an unresolved tension in the exhibit between the roles of history and art. Do the first-person accounts of real women ‘serve to show us the realities beyond the Victorian mythology,’ as the Financial Times review would have it? Or can both historical documents and creative works, when interpreted alongside each other, yield a greater understanding?
The exhibition booklet’s introduction by the curator, art historian Lynda Nead, claimed,
the narratives of these images share many elements of the stories in the Foundling petitions; they depict respectable women who “fall” because they are out in the city, lose their money or family homes and are abandoned by the fathers of their babies.
Yet many of the works displayed were less narratives than snapshots, either of a fallen woman or a woman on the brink of falling – either figuratively into sin or literally, off a bridge, as in George Cruikshank’s 1848 etching of a woman committing ‘self-murder’. Some diptychs fast-fowarded straight from the passionate beginnings of illicit romance to its tragic ending. Other artworks showed us images of smiling, happy women playing with their children, examples of ‘the angel in the home.’
The mothers’ petitions seem to complicate these stereotypical portrayals by showing us real stories. Women described how they were ‘seduced’ (we would often call it ‘raped’) by strangers, acquaintances, supposed friends and fiancés. One met the father of her child at a singing class run by a church organist. He offered to take her somewhere to practice, but when they arrived, ‘there was no pianoforte but a bed. I wished to leave but he prevented me and kept me for some time.’ Another was attacked by a lodger. She writes, ‘I struggled with him until I lost all power and he then effected his purpose.’ Others were seduced by men who had promised marriage.
Petitioners had to relate these experiences to an all-male panel at the Foundling Hospital that would search for inconsistencies and ask intimate questions such as ‘In what manner did your acquaintance with the father of your child commence?’ and ‘Was the criminal intercourse repeated?’ The Hospital panel was looking for reasons to reject these unfortunate mothers. It had always been short of space. In the early nineteenth century, the Hospital announced that it would only accept the illegitimate babies of first-time mothers who were considered to be redeemable.
Nead’s introduction describes how this pressure shaped women’s petitions:
[Mothers] knew that they had to tell their stories according to prevailing assumptions about guilt, desire, love, respectability and repentance and convince the Governors that if their babies were accepted they would be able to restore their social position and recover their moral respectability.
Nead emphasises that these historical documents are constructions—‘stories’, not glimpses of reality—suggesting that they, like the artwork, require interpretation.
Yet a later contribution to the booklet by Margaret Reynolds states that, in contrast to the artwork, the documents can capture ‘truth’:
The nineteenth-century stories and pictures of the ‘fallen woman’ tell one version of the tale but it is a skewed one, and not necessarily the truth of women’s experience. In what happened at the Foundling Hospital we may, at last, be able to hear the real voices of…”fallen women”.
She asks ‘how can we distinguish between what went on in real life and what is portrayed in fiction, poetry and art?’
The way ‘Fallen Women’ was organised, with little interplay between artwork and documents, seems to support Reynolds’s reductive view. More could have been done within the exhibit to show how this history/art, reality/mythology binary breaks down.
For one, artistic and literary depictions of fallen women shape the historical documents. The petitioning mothers are responding to cultural narratives by positioning themselves as sexually innocent and morally salvageable victims who, if not helped, would suffer the seemingly inevitable fate of the fallen woman: the workhouse, prostitution, suicide.
Another way to complicate this binary would have been to more deeply examine ‘stories and pictures’ that challenge stereotypical depictions of fallen women. Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast (1851), for example, an early treatment of the subject, is included in the exhibit but barely analysed. The painting depicts a young mother being cast out by her father into the cold. By showing the rest of her family pleading for her, is Redgrave suggesting that there is still time to intervene?
The exhibition could also have acknowledged that artwork has the power to inspire questions that can then drive historical research. In The Outcast, the unmarried mother’s sister kneels to implore their father, suggesting both female sympathy and male disapproval. An 1856 engraving by Rebecca Solomon, A Friend in Need, shows a middle-class woman stopping a man from harassing an unmarried mother. Do historical documents show a similar gendered pattern of response to fallen women, a tendency for female onlookers to be more sympathetic to unmarried mothers? Or did some women feel the need to condemn pregnancy out of wedlock so that they would not be associated with such a supposed vice?
Lastly, the exhibit could have engaged with literary sources both to explore this question and to provide more examples of cultural narratives that challenge received ideas. For example, George Moore’s 1894 novel Esther Waters differs greatly from most nineteenth-century literary depictions of unmarried women, including Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), all mentioned in the exhibition booklet. Unlike its predecessors, Esther Waters does not imply that death as inevitable for a fallen woman; its main character lives a life full of tribulations but ultimately succeeds as a mother. Esther, a kitchen-maid, is seduced and abandoned by a fellow servant. Suggesting the same pattern of female sympathy and male condemnation that marks the artworks mentioned above, Esther’s pregnant mother sympathises, while her abusive stepfather exclaims, ‘the goody-goody sort are the worst…We wants no bastards ‘ere…. And a nice example, too, for the other children!’
Although Esther is forced to pay other women to care for her son while she works as a wet-nurse and servant, the two are ultimately reunited (like some actual mothers and children from the Foundling Hospital). Esther’s hard work and devotion make her a mother her son can be proud of. Displaying an edition of Esther Waters next to The Outcast and A Friend in Need and digging deeper into the stories they tell could have reminded museum-goers that art and literature do not only express myths, but also challenge them.
Instead of casting historical documents as ‘truth’ and creative works as ‘myth,’ we should interpret them alongside each other as entwined expressions of human experience.