24 June 2014


My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The fallen women of classic literature are, invariably, isolated women. Women like Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne) – and Lucy Graham (Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon) and Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert)  – struggle with the patriarchal obsession with female sexuality, but wear what is seen as their sins most proudly. In Hester’s case, she literally wears the scarlet letter on her breast long after her punishment has ended, perhaps as a reminder of who she is and what she believes in and her quiet defiance of social expectation. Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – or even Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind – who are seen as sympathetic anti-heroines, act, more than anything else, as cautionary tales for women who wish to engage in sexual activity. With them, the trope becomes that of the ‘dangerous’ woman: if you succumb to her charms, it is her fault for charming you. Even Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, one of literature’s earliest femme fatales, exoticised for her foreignness, which could also be blamed for her wantonness within the Establishment of the Roman framework, threatens the masculine paradigm with her autonomy.

Foucault writes that sexuality is seen as an object of great suspicion. He cites the writer W. R. Greg, who, in 1850, wrote an article entitled ‘Prostitution’ for the Westminster Review, and opined that ‘If the passions of woman 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.’ Literature long saw women’s sexual proclivities as a disease, an abnormality, and the women were stigmatized, labelled and viewed as contamination. Women were either pure or ruined, Madonna or Mary Magdalene, Sita or Draupadi. Female indiscretion and sexual transgression were instantly equated to prostitution. They endanger the hegemony and are a menace to morality.

It took years for literature to celebrate its fallen women. In John Fowles’s wonderful book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sarah Woodruff desires personal freedom so badly that she espouses a scandal that never even occurred, seeing social ostracism as a way of gaining not isolation so much as independence. Ellen Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Rosie Driffield in W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale succumb to gossip and malice, but wear them so graciously, so elegantly, that they are the heroes of the stories that the narrators tell about themselves. Today, Rosie Driffield and Becky Sharp are seen as some of the most exuberant women from the Western canon; Scarlett O’Hara’s sexuality is seen, often, as behaviour to be emulated.

When the musical film based on Les Miserables by Victor Hugo came out recently, there was little doubt that the viewer’s sympathies lay mostly with Fantine. Daisy Buchanan from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby visibly changes in public perception as the decades roll past, as do Tolstoy’s eponymous Anna Karenina and Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. The narrative for the fallen woman has slowly evolved from isolation and punishment to understanding and sympathy; the word ‘fallen’ even seems misplaced. Even classical literature was wont to rewrite itself through books like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which re-imagines Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mad woman in the attic, Antoinette Cosway who later became Bertha Mason.

But even as literature changes, the old tropes are slow to alter in real life. Slut-shaming and sexual bullying continue to be very real problems, demanding feminine guilt for any deviation from traditional gender expectations. In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Sue Bridehead tells Jude: ‘I have no fear of men, as such, nor of their books. I have mixed with them--one or two of them particularly-- almost as one of their own sex. I mean I have not felt about them as most women are taught to feel--to be on their guard against attacks on their virtue; for no average man-- no man short of a sensual savage--will molest a woman by day or night, at home or abroad, unless she invites him. Until she says by a look “Come on” he is always afraid to, and if you never say it, or look it, he never comes.’

What is most alarming about this quote is that it seems like the sort of thing any politician might say when confronted with a case of sexual assault in the real world. Even as our sympathy goes out to literary heroines who boldly explore their own sexualities, we as readers of an evolving society are reluctant to apply the same trajectory to real life, warts and all. The insidious, often malicious, desire to police female sexuality reflects every day in the language of patriarchy and sexual politics. We would, perhaps, do well to learn from our literature, and allow life to imitate art as often as art imitates life.