Like several other women in the novel Ellen Monroe, the daughter of a man whose inept investing cost Markham most of his large inheritance, is described as “very beautiful,” and the details of that beauty, like Elyza Sydney’s and Diana Arlington’s, conform to early Victorian notions of female attractiveness: all three women boast skin white as milk, tiny hands, feet, and waists, swan-like necks, and large breasts. Like another of the other beautiful women in this immensely long novel, she sells her virginity for money, but the novelist doesn’t treat her anywhere near as harshly as other Victorian novels treat so-called fallen women, for neither woman ends up an outcast starving in the streets. Ellen’s brief experience as a prostitute is one of many ways she supports her impoverished father and herself in a novel that programmatically (and not always realistically) moves her through various socially demeaning ways of earning money.
In chapter 50, Reynolds’ narrator tells us, “We now come to a sad episode in our history — and yet one in which there is perhaps less romance and more truth than in any scene yet depicted.” Having accompanied the narrator to through scenes of terrible vice, we now come upon one “of destitution and suffering — of powerful struggle and unavailing toil — whose details are so very sad, that we have been able to find no better heading for our chapter than miserrima, or ‘very miserable things.’” We first encounter the seventeen-year-old Ellen in working in a freezing cold room
almost completely denuded of furniture. The cold wind of December whistled through the ill-closed casement and the broken panes, over which thin paper had been pasted to repel the biting chill. A small deal table, two common chairs, and a mattress were all the articles of furniture which this wretched room contained. A door at the end opposite the window opened into another and smaller chamber: and this latter one was furnished with nothing, save an old mattress. There were no blankets — no coverlids in either room. The occupants had no other covering at night than their own clothes; — and those clothes — God knows they were thin, worn, and scanty enough!
After selling “all their little comforts, in the shape of furniture and clothing,” the Monroes found themselves forced to rent to a room in a London slum where the poor, generous girl tries to support them both with needlework, having gone without food for sixteen hours so her father can have the last crust of bread.
Ellen had risen at five that morning to embroider a silk shawl with eighty flowers. She had calculated upon finishing it by eight in the evening; but, although she had worked, and worked, and worked hour after hour, without ceasing, save for a moment at long intervals to rest her aching head and stretch her cramped fingers, eight had struck — and nine had struck also — and still the blossoms were not all embroidered.
It was a quarter to ten when the last stitch was put into the last flower.
When she brings her completed work with its eighty embroidered flowers to the shopwoman the next day, that dishonest businesswoman, who claims she sees only fifty or sixty of them, responds to Ellen’s assertion that there are eighty, “‘is there so much difference between sixty and eighty?’” to which the poor girl replies “‘Difference, ma'am!" ejaculated the young girl, the tears starting into her eyes; ‘the difference is more than four hours' work!’” At the end the cheating woman, who knows her work is excellent and thinks of employing her again, gives her a mere sixpence, —
Eighty blossoms for sixpence!
Sixteen hours' work for sixpence!!
A farthing and a half per hour!!!
Desperate to make more money she remembers the offer of “that old hag” to show “her a pleasant and profitable mode of earning money? The soul of Ellen was purity itself — although she dwelt in that low, obscene, filthy, and disreputable neighbourhood.” Overhearing a family, even more desperate than she is, determined to go to the Workhouse, she decides to visit "the old crone," who “began to talk to the poor starving girl in a manner which the latter could not comprehend, and which we dare not describe.” Ellen listens, doesn't grasp what the old woman is saying at first, and then when she becomes “somewhat more explicit . . . the poor girl burst into an agony of tears, exclaiming, as she covered her blushing cheeks with her snow-white hands —‘No: never—never!’” Realizing that she can't persuade Ellen to take to whoring, the hag suddenly makes a more acceptable proposal, telling her, “‘I am acquainted with a statuary who would pay you well for casts of your countenance for his Madonnas, his actresses, his Esmeraldas, his queens, his princesses, and his angels.’” And so Ellen enters the art world.
The statuary was an Italian; and as he spoke the English language imperfectly, he did not waste much time over the bargain. With the cool criticism of a sportsman examining a horse or a dog, the statuary gazed upon the young maiden; then, taking a rule in his hand, he measured her head; and with a pair of blunt compasses he took the dimensions of her features. Giving a nod of approval, he consulted a large book which lay open upon a desk; and finding that he had orders for a queen, an opera-dancer, and a Madonna, he declared that he would take three casts of his new model's countenance that very morning. . . . Ellen was stretched at full length upon a table; and a wet cloth was placed over her face. The statuary then covered it with moist clay; — and the process was only complete when she was ready to faint through difficulty of breathing. She rested a little while; and then the second cast was taken. Another interval to recover breath — and the third and last mould was formed.
Ellen’s brief careers as a model, first for a sculptor and then a a painter. G. Stiff, the illustrator, omits her work as a photographer's model. Curiously, posing semi-nude for the sculptor is, according to the novelist, less shameful than serving as a painter’s model because he does not sculpt her face. Creating a sculptural portrait of a wealthy woman as a character from myth, the sculptor only needs to copy her beautiful breasts. (Breasts are rather an obsession with Reynolds.) [Click on images to enlarge them.]
For three months the seventeen-year-old girl earns a comfortable living by selling her face, which then appears on “statues of Madonnas in catholic chapels; opera dancers, and actresses in theatrical clubs; nymphs holding lamps in the halls of public institutions; and queens in the staircase windows of insurance offices.” Unfortunately, the “statuary’ dies suddenly, and poor Ellen returns to the procuress — apparently a supplier of models throughout the art world — who then gets her a position with a painter, a man “about forty years of age, [who] dwelt in a splendid house in Bloomsbury Square” and hires her to model between six hours every day. Furthermore, unlike many painters of the time, who seduced their models (or were easily seduced by them), he doesn't want her to be anything other than a model. “It is true that she retained her virtue — because it was not tempted. The artist saw not before him a lovely creature of warm flesh and blood; he beheld nothing but a beautiful and symmetrical statue which served as an original for his heathen divinities and pastoral heroines. And in this light did he treat her.” The artist paid her handsomely, but suddenly leaves London when he is commissioned to paint portraits at the Russian court.
Here the the programmatic succession of Ellen’s jobs becomes obvious, because Reynolds wants to move her from one occupation to another, generally down the scale of respectabilty. In reality, beautiful skilled models, such as Ellen was, would be widely sought, and artists often shared favorite ones. Be that as it may, the novelist has her return to the old woman, once again desperate to find a way to feed her father and herself, and now she sends Ellen to an eminent sculptor, who “‘requires a model of a bust for the statue of a great lady who may be said to have no bust at all. You will suit him.’ . . . The next morning she entered upon her new employment. Stripped to the waist, she had to stand in a certain position, for several hours each day, in the presence of the sculptor,” who worked hard but “paid her munificently, and she was contented.” Ellen realizes the way members of the upper classes look down on someone who has modeled for painters and sculptors, when she applies to become a governess to the children of the noblewoman whose head adorns the nude statue, at which point the “lady raised her eyes and hands to heaven in astonishment, exclaiming, “‘You, miss, a companion for my children! a girl who gets her livelihood by standing half naked in the presence of any body, as a model’” And the lady was compelled to have recourse to her scent-bottle to save herself from fainting.” Reynolds points that she would willingly have modeled “if she had possessed a good bust!”
Backed to the old woman, who sends her to a photographer — “a French gentleman of science at the West End . . . who has invented a means of taking likenesses by the aid of the sun.” The pioneering photographer, “a short, middle-aged, sallow-faced, sharp-featured person — entirely devoted to matters of science [has] no soul for love, pleasure, politics, or any kind of excitement save his learned pursuits.” When he explains to Ellen that he wants to take “full-length female portraits in a state of nudity,” she is about to react with “disgust and indignation, when the Frenchman, who was examining a plate as he spoke, and therefore did not observe the effect his words had produced upon her, mentioned the price which he proposed to pay her. Now the artist paid better than the statuary; the sculptor better than the artist; and the photographer better than the sculptor. She therefore hesitated no longer; but entered the service of the man of science.” Reynolds is rarely censorious about sexual matters. After all, Mrs. Diana Arlington, who lives openly as a nobleman’s mistress, not only flourishes when abandoned earlier by the evil Greenwood, she also acts to save several key people in the story from economic ruin. But at this point, Reynolds somewhat unexpectedly sounds a puritanical note, telling us that once she has posed nude “a tainted soul now resided in a pure body. Every remaining sentiment of decency and delicacy was crushed — obliterated — destroyed by this last service. Pure souls have frequently resided in tainted bodies: witness Lucretia after the outrage perpetrated upon her: — but here was essentially a foul soul in a chaste and virgin form.” Little in the novel supports this judgment.
Three images of Ellen’s later career — left to right: Acting the part of a hypnotized subject, dancing in a ballet, and briefly triumphing as a tragedian. Click on images to enlarge them.
Reynolds continues to move the poor girl through other occupations, which he and his audience obviously took to be shameful but hardly seem so to a modern audience. For example, at one point Ellen finds work as a sham mesmerist’s assistant, and the two are very successful with small private groups of wealthy people, but when the hypnotist presents the act before a large audience, a question from a member of the audience makes Ellen break into laughter — and the act is finished. Next, Ellen, who is as physically talented as she is virtuous and beautiful, becomes a successful ballet dancer after some months of training, and from there she moves on with equally unbelievable rapidity to become a very successful actress, playing a tragic role to great acclaim. Nude models, dancers, and actresses, who all had very poor reputations in the nineteenth century, were often considered little better than prostitutes. True, some famous actresses who took charge of their careers became both successful and respectable, but Reynolds uses the young woman’s jobs programatically. After all, there is no reason that a successful model for a painter, sculptor, and photographer would not easily find work with more than a single artist, and the author’s reasons for moving her down the social and moral scale become increasingly absurd. For example, Ellen immediately becomes a brilliant actress, but her career ends after a single performance when someone in the audience recognizes the author as someone who (unjustly) served time in prison. The audience quickly turns on them both, and the young woman is again out of a job. Again, Ellen could have returned to her successful career as a dancer even if other impressarios did not quickly hire her as an actress. The needs of Reynolds’s plot here completely abandon any pretense to realism, because to follow this story arc, Reynolds has Ellen lose every source of income and once again plunge into dire poverty. Impoverished once again, return to the old hag for help. The woman makes her wait one period of ten days, then another, and finally a third until she is absolutely desperate:
Misery, more grinding, more pinching, and more acute than any which they had yet known, now surrounded the father and daughter. They had parted with every thing which would produce the wherewith to purchase food. They lay upon straw at night; and for days and days they had not a spark of fire in the grate. They often went six-and-thirty hours together without tasting a morsel of food. They could not even pay the pittance of rent which was claimed for their two chambers: and if it had not been for their compassionate neighbours they must have starved altogether. . . . At length the day came when the misery of the father and the daughter arrived at an extreme when it became no longer tolerable. They had fasted for forty-eight hours; and their landlady threatened to turn them out of their empty rooms into the street, unless they paid her the arrears of rent which they owed. They had not an article upon which they could raise the price of a loaf: — it was the depth of a cold and severe winter, and Ellen had already parted with all her under-garments.
At this point she willingly sells her virginity to Greenwood, with whom she becomes pregnant, at which time she tells him,
“I sold myself in detail. . . I mean that I sold my face to the statuary — my likeness to the artist — my bust to the sculptor — my whole form to the photographer — and — — ”
"And — " repeated Greenwood, strangely excited.
"And my virtue to you!" added the young woman, whose tone, as she enumerated these sacrifices, had gradually risen from a low whisper to the wildness of despair. . . . you purchase[d] my only jewel.
Ellen does not, however, end up in the gutter like the fallen women in Rossetti’s Found of Augustus Egg’s Past and Present. In fact, with the help of a devoted maid she manages to hide her pregnancy and infant son
Left: Found. D. G. Rosetti. Courtesy Delaware Art Museum. Right: Past and Present III. Augustus Egg. Courtesy of Tate Britain. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
from both her father and her benefactor Markham, and the otherwise evil Greenwood, who refuses to marry her, surprisingly (and very uncharacteristically) pays a monthly allowance to a poor clergyman, who agrees to raise the baby and let Ellen visit him.
But Ellen still has to make a living, so she returns to the old woman who finds her a position as a pretend “patient to a Mesmerist,” and the intelligent beautiful young woman carries off this “gross deception” with great skill before intimate groups of wealthy people, and does a fine job when the hypnotist moves the act to a large auditorium until a silly question from a member of the audience makes her begin to laugh, destroying the illusion, the mesmerist’s reputation, and her source of income all at one blow.
Back to the old lady, who obtains for Ellen a position as a “figurante, or dancer in the ballet, at a great theatre.” After training hard for a few months Ellen’s
success was complete. The loveliness of her person at once produced an impression in her favour; and when she executed some of the most difficult measures of the Ballonné school, the enthusiasm of the audience knew no bounds. The eyes of the ancient libertines, aided by opera-glasses and lorgnettes devoured the charms of that beautiful girl; — the young men followed every motion, every gesture, with rapturous attention; — he triumph of the debutante was complete.
There was something so graceful and yet so voluptuous in her style of dancing, — something so bewitching in her attitudes and so captivating in her manner, that she could not have failed to please. And then she had so well studied all those positions which set off her symmetrical form to its best advantage, — she had paid such unwearied attention to those measures that were chiefly calculated to invoke attention to her well-rounded, and yet light and elastic limbs. . . She literally wantoned in the gay and voluptuous dance; at one moment all rapidity, grace, and airiness; at another suddenly falling into a pause expressive of a soft and languishing fatigue; — then again becoming all energy, activity, and animation, — representing, in all its phases, the soul — the spirit — the very poetry of the dance!
After achieving this “brilliant triumph” Ellen becomes an equally successful actress in a tragedy written by Markham, but at their moment of greatest success a member of the audience cries out that the author had been imprisoned for forgery, the theatre audience erupts, the show has to be shut down, and Ellen again loses her job — again something that happens more because Reynolds wants to throw obstacles in the way of both his characters than any likelihood that such would actually occur. Certainly, Ellen’s acting triumph would have led to many offers from competing producers and theater owners.
Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.
Last modified 2 August 2016