Wastrels and Fallen Women

Last week I reviewed Nicola Phillips’ The Profligate Son. I immediately heard back from a regular reader of History in the Margins who likes to keep me on my toes.* He asked: “How comes it’s always a guy that is a wastrel? Are there no Regency or Victorian ‘ladies’ that are wastrels?”

Not wanting to be guilty of inadvertent sexism, I gave the matter some thought before I answered. With the caveat that I am basically making this up, I think that only men were wastrels in the nineteenth century because you have to legally own–or be the prospective heir to–property in order to waste it. Prior to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870**, any money a British woman received from inheritance, investment or the work of her own two hands legally belonged to her husband. In theory a single woman or a widow could own property in her own right. In practice, male relatives generally controlled their property, too.

Since women didn’t have control of property they could “waste”, they couldn’t be wastrels. They could however “fall”–losing what the Victorians considered to be a woman’s greatest treasure, her innocence. The fallen woman is as common a figure in Victorian literature as the wastrel.

So what do you think?

1. Do you agree with the property link to wastreldom? (And if not, why not?) Can you come up with examples of female wastrels from the nineteenth century?
2. Absent female wastrels, who are your favorite Victorian “fallen” women in fact and fiction?

Curious minds want to know.

* Thanks, Dad.

**I’m focusing on British laws here because the discussion started with the trope of the wastrel in British novels. Similar laws were passed on a state by state basis in the United States, beginning in Mississippi in 1839. Other countries and cultures had different laws related to women and property. Islamic law, for instance, always recognized the right of a woman to own and inherit property.


  1. Carl on September 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Hei Pam,

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with you here. The concept of the “wastrel” implicitly requires property of some sort to be wasted. As “traditional values”* severely restricted a woman’s rights to own or hold property, only a man could be a wastrel. Also agree with the rough equivalency of “wastrel” with “fallen woman.”**

    As to favorite Victorian*** “fallen” women, I’ll list Edith Garrud and the other “jujitsu suffragettes.”

    *European ethnocentrism rears it’s ugly head.
    ** No geographic or cultural limits there, sexism being a global phenomenon.
    ***Monarchy and aristocracy, pah!****

    ****Terry Pratchett is a hero with much to answer for.

    • pamela on September 16, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      I knew that eventually someone was gong to call me on borrowing Terry Pratchett’s asterisks.

  2. Dad on September 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Rather than fall upon an historical petard, I’ll yield to the family historianess.

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