Publication Date

April 2008


School of Communication



Primary Subject Area

Literature, English


Victorian double standard, Contagious Diseases Acts, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, prostitution, fallen women, identity, Josephine Butler


In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed by Parliament in Britain. They attempted to put a stop to the rampant disease which accompanied prostitution. The central figure in this law was the prostitute and the fallen woman. On one hand, the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 viewed prostitutes as commodities in a capitalistic society, and her fallen body was considered to be the source for her identity. On the other hand, opposing groups led by figures such as Josephine Butler sought to give fallen women a more natural identity which focused less on her body and more on her transcendent ability to self-determine. This thesis describes the debates about the Contagious Diseases Acts, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as texts which frame and determine the course of debates about the place of fallen women in Victorian society.