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Jane Austens Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park all incorporate the

traditional marriage plot, but before these narratives can come to fruition, a few female

characters who have stooped to folly must die. Unlike Mrs. Churchill who is carriedoff

after a short struggle (Emma 363), the women do not experience a literal annihilation but rather

suffer a devastating outcome. The death of a fallen woman is a literary tradition often seen in

sentimental literature, in which a seduced and abandoned woman ultimately succumbs to her

sadness and pops off as Tom Bertram states in Mansfield Park. Whether through suicide,

illness, or simply pining away, the death is seen as a clearer of ill-fame (Emma 363) and the

only manner in which a woman may be absolved. Although classified as sentimental novels, Jane

Austens works are almost devoid of literal depictions of death. Many of the passings, such as

Mrs. Churchills, are referenced through gossip and never physically witnessed. While Austen

appears to avoid the literary standard of killing scandalized women as a means of circumventing

traditional assumptions, I assert that Austen adheres to the tradition by symbolically killing her

fallen women through exile.

The fallen woman can trace her lineage as an archetype to the biblical story of Adam and

Eve. According to Kelly Marie Clifton, the story of the temptation and the fall of man is, in

reality, the story of the fall of women (9). Eves banishment from Eden is perpetuated by male

authors as punishment for her sins against God and her husband (Clifton 9), and even Miltons

complex, reimagining of Eve shoulders the blame of humanitys damnation and is reduced to

subservience. She is Defaced, deflowered, and as all fallen women must to death devote

(Milton 9.900 9.01). Jane Austens society embraces the fallen woman figure and, in doing so,

holds females to more rigid standards, imposing a strict dichotomy on femininity. The women of

the Victorian age, as well as Jane Austens era [occupy] a position of duality within the culture
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where they [are] defined as either Madonna or Magdalene, pure or impure (Abbasi 91). Women

who exist outside of this sphere, including prostitutes and single women with sexual experience

are cast out from society and labelled as fallen women. While authors such as Elizabeth

Gaskell and Samuel Richardson rebel against this literary archetype and ascend their heroines

from Magdalene to Madonna, Jane Austen banishes her fallen woman in shame, just as Eve was

banished from Eden, supporting the notion that follied women have no place in her respectable


Stoops to Folly, originating from a poem in Oliver Goldsmiths sentimental novel, The

Vicar of Wakefield, is a euphemism for being seduced and abandoned (Johnson 160). According

to the poem, when a woman is scandalized in this manner what charm can sooth her

melancholy/What art can wash her guilt away? and her only option is to become a pariah and

To hide her shame from every eye (Goldsmith 71). She is destined to [pace] about her room

again, alone (Eliot 14) and inevitably die. Jane Austen attempts to depict this devastation in

Sense and Sensibility through Colonel Brandons deceased lover, Eliza Williams. She is

abandoned by her husband through divorce, and when Brandon is able to locate her, she is in

the last stage of consumption (147). In keeping with the fallen woman tradition, Eliza has

wasted away, as life could do nothing for her (147). However, as with the prior deaths, the

reader is never introduced to this fallen woman in the flesh, only through gossip. Once Elizas

narrative has served its purpose, which is to develop the plot, she vanishes from thought and

mind, having thus been exiled.

It should be understood that the fate awaiting women of folly is not solely to give

repentance to [their] lover (Goldsmith 71) and fall into martyrdom. In fact, Claudia L. Johnson

argues that these women can be represented far differently: as fools, as temptresses, as common
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criminals, as pioneers of sexual liberty, as pariah (160), with which Jane Austen appears to

agree. In Emma, the narrator states that when [a woman] stoops to be disagreeable death is

equally to be recommended (363). A disagreeable women may, therefore, absolve herself of

Being disliked at least twenty-five years through death, and she will then be spoken of with

compassionate allowances (363). It would appear that Austens definition of stooping to folly

includes women of a disagreeable temperament who displease others in their society. Until these

foolish, disagreeable aspects of society are eliminated, every character in their community and

society will suffer.

While Pride and Prejudices Lydia Bennet is described as being one of the silliest girls

in the country and having [a mind]more vacant than [her] sisters, her story arc is,

arguably, the most serious among that of the Bennet girls (20). She is untamed, unabashed,

wild, noisy, and fearless, but she is also ignorant of the real world (204). In the beginning of the

novel, she knows just enough of marriage to want it for herself but too little to have a competent

understanding of it, and by the time of her elopement, she has not changed. Her naivety is

demonstrated in her eagerness to broadcast her newfound marital status to the neighborhood as

though it is a new bonnet or dress. She states that [she and Wickham] overtook William

Gouldinglet down the side-glassand let [her] handrest upon the windowso that he

might see the ring (205). To Lydia, marriage is a superficial institution which allows her to

take [Janes] place nowbecause [she] is a married woman (205). Her ignorance renders her

blind to the fact that she could have fallen victim to unmentionable horrors had Darcy not found


While Lydias entanglement with Wickham ostracizes her and threatens to scandalize the

entire Bennet family, her narrative takes her dangerously close to the role of a fallen woman.
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Fallen women are often depicted as an incarnation of innocence, seduced and ultimately

abandoned by a rake. This often leads to a life of desolation and hardship, sometimes leading to

prostitution, before they inevitably die a slow, melodramatic death. This death is seen as a way to

purge the perceived immorality from society (Barnhill 6). Regardless of her flightiness and

coquetry, Lydia is, for all intents and purposes, innocent. Her inexperience drives her to [throw]

herself into the power ofMr. Wickham, which could lead her to the same fate as Colonel

Brandons Eliza, alone and dying (210). Wickham confirms this hypothetical outcome when he

admits that marrying Lydia had never been his design, and he seems to shirk the responsibility

of her folly completely (210). Had Wickhams plan come to fruition, the only socially-

acceptable outcome for the youngest Bennet daughter would be to die.

Lydias actions are not only an affront to her family and their reputation but a scar on the

face of their community. Johnson contends that, as a fallen woman, Lydia is an offense to good

societyand must be sequestered, her story suppressed (166). As the local clergy, Mr. Collins,

the Bennets cousin, represents the code of morality as it exists in the social universe of Pride

and Prejudice. Considering this, his assertion that the death of [Lydia] would [be] a blessing in

comparison to [her scandal] is not merely a familial criticism; it is a criticism from a moral

superior (192). Furthermore, he advocates for the exiling of the fallen women from the family,

insisting that the Bennets throw off [their] unworthy childand leave her to reap the fruits of

her own heinous offence (193). In keeping with Johnsons suggestion, Mr. Collins attempts to

suppress the story of Lydia and Wickham in order to avoid a scandal. Although she is a fallen

woman, Lydia is an unlikely candidate for endearingly penitent decay (Johnson 166). So what

is to become of the scandalized woman who refuses to die or accept responsibility for her

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The death of a fallen woman serves a dual purpose in a sentimental narrative: to cleanse

her reputation and to remove the wrong from society. Gretchen Huey Barnhill argues that

female wrongdoing is purged from respectable England by removal of the woman criminal (6).

As the woman criminal, Lydia has polluted her community, and as such, she must be removed.

Rather than adhere to tradition and send her to the grave, Jane Austen chooses to politely address

this deviant by exiling her. After their return to Longbourn, following their hasty marriage, Lydia

and Wickham announce they will not be staying long as [Wickham is] to join his regiment at

the end of a fortnight (206). They shall be at Newcastle all winter, and Mrs. Bennet remarks

later to Mr. Bingley that it is such a way from [Longbourn] a place quite northward (206,

219), indicating that Lydia and Wickhams new home is not remotely close to the Bennets. After

they depart, Lydia is heard from through correspondence but never physically seen in the

confines of the novel again. She is killed through exile, and the illicit scandal she has wrought is

purged from society.

In comparison, Louisa Musgrove of Austens Persuasion surpasses Lydia in experience

and self-awareness. Regardless of her status as Anne Elliots rival for Captain Wentworths

affections, Louisa is a relatively enjoyable character. She is described as possessing all the usual

stock of accomplishments and being like thousands of other young ladies, living to be

fashionable, happy and merry (30). However, for all her virtues, she is as imprudent when it

comes to love and marriage as Lydia. Louisa believes that if [she] loved a man[she] would be

always with him, nothing should ever separate [them] which is an idealized, fanciful view of

something she cannot fully comprehend. She is unconcerned with the realities of financial

hardships, raising children, and other critical aspects of marriage in the nineteenth century; her

sole focus is the whimsical notion that love can solve any problem. While it is acceptable for
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fifteen-year-old Lydia Bennet to hold this belief, at twenty years old, it is inappropriate for

Louisa. Her puerile outlook betrays her, and Annes unspoken assertion that she, herself, would

never give up her more elegant and cultivated mind for all [Louisas] enjoyments (30) denotes

a perceived shallowness and immaturity which ultimately leads to devastation.

Louisas literal and figurative fall from grace is a result of her impatiently throwing

herself into the arms of a man who is not ready for her. Considering she does not have the

elegant and cultivated mind of Anne Elliot, she must resort to childish plots to attract the

attention of her suitors. This includes having Captain Wentworth jump her from the stiles

which is described as being delightful to her (79). While this activity appears innocent, a

woman leaping into the arms of a man, particularly a man with whom she is rumored to be

engaged, is flush with sexual symbolism. In this respect, Louisa becomes a temptress, attempting

to seduce Wentworth against his will. She ultimately fails, though, and the pavement that renders

her unconscious is emblematic of the seemingly immovable social rules governing women in her

society. While Anne and the other women keep their feet firmly on the ground, Louisa attempts

to defy gravity and escape the rigid laws of courtship, but she falls short. While she is certainly

complicit in her own destruction, the devastating incident on the stairs is an effect of Louisas

impetuousness and Wentworths rakish behavior.

If Louisa is the fallen woman of Austens Persuasion, then it would stand to reason that

Wentworth is cast in the role of the seducing rake. Similar to Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park,

Wentworth flirts with Louisa and Henrietta for entertainment, as well as a means of servicing his

angry pride, an allusion to the passive aggression he directs at Anne (171). The outcome of this

flagrant, thinly-veiled, symbolic philandering is a reputation as an engaged man which has him

startled and shocked (171). While Wentworth is initially willing to wait for Louisas health to
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improve, upon learning that he is perceived to be engaged to her, he [determines] to leave

Lyme, and await her complete recovery elsewhere, successfully abandoning her for a second

time (171). Louisa has once again, however unintentionally, thrust herself into his ill-prepared

arms, and his inability to catch her the first time is a symbolic abandonment. Combined with the

literal abandonment as he absconds to Kellynch, and Louisa has almost fully embraced the role

of a fallen woman.

Mimicking the resurrection of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Louisa

Musgrove overcomes her fall-induced ailment and emerges a changed woman. There is no

running or jumpingno laughing or dancing, but rather, she wriggles like a young dab-chick

in the water when startled (154). She is, as Charles Musgrove informs Anne, altered (154).

Not only does she receive Jane Austens death by exile, as she is never physically seen after

Anne leaves Lyme, but she experiences a death of the self. She transforms from a chatty,

somewhat hyper young woman to a passive, nervous creature, who Benwick whispers to, all day

long. Claudia L. Johnson asserts that Austen sacrifices disagreeable women to happy endings

(172), and in spite of her initial bubbly personality, Louisas immaturity, impetuousness, and

willfulness make her disagreeable. It is her death that influences Wentworths epiphany and

ultimately brings him back to Anne, closing the novel with a marriage. Louisa, having served her

purpose, fades from the thoughts and minds of the two principle charactersshe is as good as


Perhaps the closest Jane Austen comes to the traditional fallen woman story arc is the fall

of Miss Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park. The daughter of the wealthy, patriarchal Sir Thomas

Bertram, Maria flirts with Henry Crawford in spite of her engagement to another man. Her

eventual marriage to the bumbling Mr. Rushworth is, as Joseph M. Duffy, Jr. insists, loveless
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and cold-bloodedentered into without even a frisson of passion on [her] part and is

complicated by an adulterous conclusion which is prefigured long before Maria actually

[marries] Rushworth (83). During a visit to Sotherton, a discussion on the best way to get

around a gate, for which Mr. Rushworth is dispatched to retrieve the key, becomes a metaphor

for infidelity. Henry remarks that, rather than wait for the key, a possible symbol for a wedding

ring, [Maria] might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with [Henrys]

assistance but only if [she] really wished to be more at large, and could allow [herself] to think

it not prohibited (71). The sexual nature of this dialogue is further emphasized by Fanny

feeling all this to be wrong[crying]; you will tear your gown (71). According to C.

Willett Cunnington, in the Regency era, garments next to the skin should be white, to conform

with the purity of the mind, offering Fannys comment a dual meaning (20). She draws

attention to the danger Henry Crawford poses to Marias purity should she go with him to see the

ha-ha (a concealed trench that creates a barrier to keep livestock away from the main grounds

and provides an unobstructed view from the main area) which foreshadows her fall.

Unlike Wickham the gold-digger and Wentworth the ignorant flirt, Henry Crawford is

malicious when it comes to courting women he has no intentions of marrying. In this regard, he

is closer to a traditional rake than the aforementioned characters. He willingly pursues Maria in

spite of her engagement, stating that an engaged woman is always more agreeable and voices

his desire to [make] a small hole in Fanny Prices heart by making her fall in love with him

(Mansfield Park 33-34, 157). He views Maria as a challenge, and he courts Fanny solely in an

attempt to leave no stone unturned. Unlike other, more charming rakes, however, his

persistence in a courtship that gives Fanny so much pain is more indicative of vanity and

insensitivity than the delicacy of a true lover (Berger 535). He always has an ulterior motive
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behind his actions, and he never does anything without considering how it affects him. Even

when he claims to be selflessly in love with Fanny, he does not fail to pay homage to the true

love of his life: himself. He states that the completion of my happiness to know I am the doer of

it, that I am the person to give the consequences so justly to her, and his overemphasis on the

I in the passage, which is none other than himself, reveals him to be acting under his own

agency (Mansfield Park 203).

To her credit, Maria attempts to restore her reputation after her initial flirtations with

Henry Crawford are tantamount to nothing more than her own humiliation. She rationally

considers her position and makes a decision that will best benefit her, setting herself apart from

the immature Lydia Bennet and Louisa Musgrove. While she does not have the cultivated mind

of Anne Elliot or Elizabeth Bennet, she is able to acknowledge that Crawford has the capacity to

[destroy] her prospects, and she thus [retires] in proud resolve, determined only to behave

more cautiously to Mr. Rushworth in future (139). Jane Austen calls attention to the fallen

woman arc, as well as the archetypes tradition of wasting away, through Marias unspoken

epiphany, stating that [Henry] should not have to think of [Maria] as pining in the retirement of

Mansfield for him, rejecting Sotherton and London, independence and splendor, for his sake

(139). Very little is afforded to fallen women, and should they be refused suicide, such as

Elizabeth Gaskells fallen woman, Ruth, they endure a mental and physical depletion which

often leads to death. Maria, however, is desperate to defy this convention, vowing to break free

from the wicked Henry Crawford before he can irreparably harm her life. Unfortunately, this is a

fight she does not win.

In an almost repetition of Lydias folly in Pride and Prejudice, Maria Bertram elopes

with Henry Crawford, severely damaging her and her familys reputation, as well pulling poor
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Mr. Rushworth into a scandal that will certainly cause him distress. This ultimately leads to her

death through exile which, unlike the aforementioned Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, does

not include matrimony. Henry Crawford will not be coerced into marriage through monetary

compensation or fear of a tarnished reputation. In Jane Austens society, the man is expected to

have gained some sexual experiences before marriage and both fornication and adultery were

exclusively male prerogatives (Stone 315). Marias punishment is, therefore, more severe than

Henrys. Edmund Bertram refuses to acknowledge their relation, referring to Fanny as his only

sister, a sign that Maria has been disowned in his eyes (Mansfield Park 302). Sir Thomas

Bertram, although willing to provide some assistance to his follied daughter, refuses by vain

attempt to restore what never could be restored (302). Her storyline concludes with a literal

exile to another country, remote and private with Mrs. Norris, where they will be able to live

out their lives (Mansfield Park 302). With the departing of the two disagreeable women, the

marriage plot is allowed to take its course, seeing Edmund and Fanny joined in matrimony. In

keeping with Jane Austens death through exile, as soon as the fallen woman no longer serves a

purpose, she is subsequently forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, she is dead.

From elopement to the symbolic seduction of an ill-prepared man, the narrative of the

fallen woman is echoed throughout Jane Austens novels. Rather than adhering to the traditional

form, however, she employs a symbolic death as opposed to a literal one. The unlucky ladies do

not fall into prostitution and are not afforded a dramatic deathbed scene before dying in a blaze

of martyrdom. As stated in Emma, the death is a clearer of ill-fame, but more importantly, it

is a means of purging this perceived scandal from society (Emma 363, Barnhill 6). Lydia,

Louisa, and Maria are sacrificed to a happy ending, their deaths enabling the marriage plot to

come to fruition. Although Jane Austen is often lauded as an early feminist writer, when
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compared to other authors, her treatment of the fallen woman is almost cruel. Is her act of exiling

these scandalous women merely a plot device intended to orchestrate the happiness of the

protagonist, or is Jane Austen a mouthpiece for a society that places a womans worth on her

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