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Prostitution in Victorian England was a part of everyday life for people from every class, ethnicity, and gender. Prostitution became a major concern and a focal point for social reformers in the 19 th century. Concerns were seen everywhere including the literature of people like Charles Dickens.
He created characters some of which may have had real life versions like Nancy in Oliver Twist , and Martha Endell in David Copperfield. No one knows for certain, but there were somewhere between 8, and 80, prostitutes in London during the Victorian Age. It is generally accepted that most of these women found themselves in prostitution due to economic necessity. There were three attitudes towards prostitution — condemnation, regulation, and reformation.
Dickens adopted the last and was intimately involved in a house of reform called Urania Cottage. My interest was piqued when I researched Urania Cottage and read some of the stories of the women there. There are tons of articles about why prostitution became such a problem for society, but my interest lay in how a woman became a prostitute. Sexual ideas of the time — Church views on sex for procreation only — helped to create the idea of the angel of the house. Just as everything else in Victorian England, even poverty could be broken down into class.
There were the low class poor, living in slums, fifteen in a room, etc… Then there was Genteel Poverty. It only accounts for a small percentage of the steps to prostitution, but it an element there none the same. Genteel Poverty was also responsible for another step on the path to prostitution. Many women who found themselves without means to continue their middle or upper class lives turned to skilled domestic labor jobs to survive. Skilled Domestic Labor included jobs like bookkeepers, teachers, and governesses.
Even though there were some upper class women who entered prostitution, the vast majority were of the poorer classes, and most of these started working somewhere else. Some of those jobs would have been breeding grounds for future prostitutes. As ugly as it was, many scholars see prostitution, the acts designed to regulate it, and efforts to reform it, as feminism in its infancy.