Brace Fellow Carina Serreze ’05 Explores Role of Ruined Maids in Victorian England

Brace Fellow Carina Serreze ’05 discussed English society’s views on premarital sex in the Victorian era in her presentation entitled, “Fallen Women: An Exploration of the Role of Pre-Marital Sex.” Using the works of Thomas Hardy, a well-known British writer, Serreze described how society frowned upon women who engaged in sex out of wedlock. Serreze said that her interest in researching Hardy’s work stems from the irony of a man such as Hardy writing about the plight of ruined women. “Through the initial appearance of Hardy’s education, Hardy seems not to know about women,” she said. Serreze said that “ruined” women living in London during the 1800’s were condemned by society. Not surprisingly, said Serreze, chastity belts were common pieces of apparel at the time. Explaining that “ruined” women in London often turned to prostitution to stay alive, she said, “Some women needed to sell their bodies to gain enough money for food and to raise their children.” Serreze said that in 1851, there were more than 40,000 illegitimate children in England alone. Because society frowned upon “ruined” women, measures like the Contagious Disease Act of 1866 were made to remove prostitutes with venereal diseases from brothels. However, Serreze believes that Hardy meant to criticize society’s views on “ruined” women through his literary work, and she said that that Hardy himself had many “ruined” women in his life, including his grandmother and aunt. “Hardy was outraged by the poor treatment of ruined women who were condemned by things beyond their control like economics and rape,” Serreze said. The main focus of Serreze’s presentation was the protagonist of one of Hardy’s major works, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman. Serreze said that Tess was a “pure” woman who was raped by Alec D’Ubervilles in a forest. According to Serreze, Hardy made a point that not all “ruined” women wanted to have premarital sex, but that they were forced into it by rape or by economic situation. Although Tess had sex without consent, society still saw her as inferior. Serreze also discussed the Church’s view of “ruined” women. Although Tess had been raped, the local priest would not accept Tess’s child into the church. Serreze said, “When the child needed to be baptized, the priest sympathized with Tess, but did not help her. When the child died, the church did not help bury the child, and Tess buried the child on her own.” Serreze added that Tess went on to work on a dairy farm, because she could never have power in society solely because she had had sex before marriage. Serreze said that Hardy hoped his readers would realize it was ridiculous for such a negative shadow to be cast on women who had sex before marriage. By having the man who had raped Tess killed in the book, Hardy made sure Tess was able to regain her dignity and prove to society that she was a pure woman, according to Serreze. Following the presentation, Serreze discussed her opinion of society’s views on premarital sex in 2003. “There are plenty of celebrities now, like Elizabeth Hurley, who are admired and still have illegitimate children,” she said. “Society today respects them for their status over the fact they had premarital sex, thus proving that society is changing to accept premarital sex.”