The fallen woman is a social archetype that is used in Western history to refer to a young woman or girl who makes poor choices and is consequently expelled from respectable society. Under Queen Victoria’s reign, the term came to be closely associated with the premature surrender of a woman’s chastity. The Magdalene Library is a collection of six miniature books that contain excerpts from influential nineteenth-century texts examining the plight of the fallen woman.
The library draws on a legacy of miniature book printing, especially those that the Brontë sisters created. The language of printing and design methods from the 1800s is used to explore how Victorian sexual mores and gender roles have shaped our view of women today. Lush ornamentation, maximalism, arts and crafts movement imagery, and other design aesthetics that are often classified as stereotypically feminine are moved to the forefront. The words of Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, and Émile Zola are set alongside paintings of women and lithographs of ladies’ objects. All but one are sewing-machine-bound, to connect the reader to a history of women’s labor and the belief that work can reform a wayward girl.
By revisiting these texts in a new format, we explore a world in which women who wish to consume are instead consumed themselves, falling through no fault of their own, and punished for breaking patriarchal social codes. The fallen woman may be thought of as a thing of the past, but gendered social codes still dominate our vision of female sexuality today. Globally, marriage markets thrive and women’s worth is still largely rooted in our perceived purity.