Walking the Streets and Treading the Boards: Cosmetics, The Prostitute and the Actress in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and G. W. M. Reynolds’s Ellen Percy; Or, the Memoirs of an Actress (1857)

by Rachael Taylor

My PhD research focuses on representations of female beauty and cosmetics use in British literature and culture from 1848 to 1901. From performing keyword searches of the JISC Historical Texts database for novels which frequently mentioned cosmetics use to gather my primary sources, I was led to an encounter with G. W. M. Reynolds. I had never read any of his work before and I was eager to explore his representation of the actress – a figure who was loaded with cultural significance at the time of the publication of Ellen Percy. What I discovered was an author who wanted to challenge the dominant narratives about a figure who was unjustly treated due to patriarchal ideology. In Reynolds’s work I found a kindred spirit who aimed to reveal the ideology which placed women in such impossible situations, be it partaking in the competitive marriage market or attaining financial stability and a voice of her own as a public woman.


According to Amanda Anderson, the ‘public woman’ is an epithet ‘for sexually immoral Victorian women’.[1]  The immorality comes from ‘contact with the public sphere.’[2] It joins other terms such as ‘“the painted woman”(Anderson, p. 2), which links our public woman to cosmetics use, and the woman who “loses her character”’(p. 13) The novels discussed in this paper have engaged with these euphemisms and attempted to change the public perspective of the woman perceived to have fallen from grace. The term ‘public woman’ is ideological. It reflects women’s relegation to ‘the private, domestic sphere’ (Anderson, p.13) . The domestic sphere held special significance at this time because ‘private morality was the source and index of public morality’ (Nead, p. 92). So the ladies of any household were the yardstick by which morality of the family was measured. Her disgrace was the disgrace of her household. It is little coincidence that neither of these ‘public women’ are as dependent on the marriage market as their domestic counterparts. While their domesticated sisters were traded on the marriage market, the public woman is for sale on the streets and in the theatres. The abnormality of these women is that they are for sale on different terms to the aforementioned bartered brides:


[T]he prostitute does not behave like any other commodity; she occupies a unique place at the centre of an extraordinary and nefarious economic system… This is the true nature of her deviancy… She offers for sale a commodity which can never be totally possessed by the buyer. The prostitute is able to sell her self/sex again and again but she is never owned by being bought and is always available again to be re-sold.



The Victorian prostitute is a perverse commodity. She for sale, yet she can never be owned by any of the men who buy her sexual labour. In a sense, this gives her more selfhood than one of the wives of England who go from being the property of her parents to that of her husband. Because she is for sale, she must advertise herself to be so. This is where the use of cosmetics enters the equation, as she uses rouge to signal her availability.


Gaskell’s depiction of Esther, the fallen woman in Mary Barton, is somewhat conventional because of her meeting a somewhat stereotypically tragic end. Although Gaskell shows pity for Esther, she has her steadfastly refuse to condemn the men who brought about her degradation. Nevertheless, I argue that Gaskell has employed narrative techniques to subtly subvert patriarchal attitudes to prostitution. These include what Gillian M. E. Alban calls the choice of ‘radical themes in the varied class settings of her novels [and] her women reaching beyond [domesticity] …[as] fallen women and prostitutes’.[3] Gaskell gives the fallen woman the means to recount her own story. This is done in such a way that it can be considered alongside the patriarchal perception of her character as relayed by John Barton, her brother-in-law. This approach differed from Gaskell’s contemporaries. Both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell worked as reformers of fallen women. Dickens was an active reformer who ‘[f]rom 1846 to 1858… managed Urania Cottage, a refuge for fallen women’.[4] In this institution, women were rehabilitated and eventually sent to live abroad. Dickens’s rehabilitation of fallen women at Urania cottage included his desire to become the sole custodian of each of the women’s personal stories:


Interviews of prospective inmates were usually conducted by Dickens alone, and he gave considerable thought to his technique of “imperturbable” neutrality when taking the histories… [and] In his role as interviewer and historian at Urania Cottage Dickens was intent on uncovering each “imaginative” female story. But no sooner had he done this than he buried it. The Urania Cottage inmate effectively lost the use of her own voice: monthly interviews with or letters to relatives and friends were rigorously “overlooked”.[5]



In controlling the narratives of fallen women, it is possible to manipulate the perception of them by others around them, and by society. Elizabeth Gaskell’s interventions in the lives of these women worked somewhat differently as she ‘involved herself in many charitable projects of her own’, including ‘participating in plans to reform fallen women’.[6] Gaskell did ‘at least once’ have to resort to referring some of the women she knew to Dickens so that he could organise their emigration abroad. Amanda Anderson adds, ‘[s]he did not, however, participate in any system of reform such as the one Dickens undertook in Urania Cottage.’ In Mary Barton, Gaskell allows the fallen woman to speak for herself, unlike Dickens who took such women’s stories and buried them.


Cosmetics use is explicitly mentioned in Mary Barton alongside prostitution. This is not an uncommon narrative assumption. For instance, in Oliver Twist, the young protagonist points out the ‘high colouring’ of both Nancy and Bet who are implied to be prostitutes.[7] Anderson also describes such fallen woman as ‘hyper determined and disturbingly “false” (painted, melodramatic, histrionic)’. So, although she does not mention it specifically, she is referring to paint in terms of deception because it is ‘false’. She deceives others and others are deceived about her. The fallen woman is ‘painted’ in more ways than one. She paints herself to construct a class-based identity, but she is also painted because her story is usually narrated by others.


At the opening of the novel, Esther appears as what Helena Michie terms as ‘a blank page on which a series of men can write their narratives of her significance.’[8] She is the subject of gossip, speculation and judgement from John Barton, his narrative is written upon her. He recounts the story of her assumed flight with a lover, which has particularly class-based overtones:


My mind is, she’s gone off with somebody. My wife frets, and thinks she’s drowned herself, but I tell her, folks don’t care to put their best clothes on to drown themselves… she came downstairs dressed in her Sunday gown, and with a new ribbon in her bonnet, and gloves on her hands, like the lady she was so fond of thinking herself.[9]


John Barton identifies Esther’s lofty ambitions when he accuses her of being ‘so fond of thinking herself’ a ‘lady’. The Barton family are strongly aware of their working-class social position, and do not pretend to be above it. Barton ties Esther’s somewhat grandiose self-image to what he deems her vanity by her wearing her ‘best clothes’. Mariana Valverde draws a connection between the ‘two myths’ of ‘“finery” and “the fallen woman”’.[10] Finery is taken here to mean any ostentatious clothing which is ornate or decorative instead of the plain, functional clothing associated with the working-class stereotype. It was only wrong for working-class women to wear so-called ‘finery’ because it made them ‘a cheap imitation of upper-class womanhood.’ However, this idea is ideological because ‘what was or was not finery depended on the socioeconomic and moral status of the wearer.’[11] Valverde draws from the writing of William Acton who blames ‘his attempt to reconcile his theory of female passivity with his desire to blame women’s sinful nature for the existence of prostitution.’ This is because ‘Acton wanted to see women as both passionless and sinful.’ It was also a consequence of ‘“vanity, vanity, and then vanity”’. Consequently, Valverde is correct in referring to Acton’s thought as an ‘ideological attack’ because it was ‘not universally accepted’ despite being ‘largely uncontroversial’. Therefore, because Acton’s idea of the fallen woman is a construct, it can be understood as a myth. This myth came to exist as a result of the development of ‘industrial capitalism’ because ‘working-class women came to be not only exploited but also morally regulated’ and seen to be ‘causing both their own problems and urban problems generally’. In Mary Barton, Gaskell chooses to depict the scorn for Esther as coming from her own class in the sense that she is scorned by her working-class brother-in-law for ‘thinking herself’ a ‘lady’. By apparently allowing herself to be seduced by fine clothes and artifice, it would seem that John Barton perceives her problems to be of her own making too.


Esther’s downfall is foretold in the eerie prediction made by Barton, cautioning her ‘“I see what you’ll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker, Esther”’. In this context, ‘artificials’ could imply cosmetics use because of its artificial nature. Furthermore, on Esther’s return to Manchester, cosmetics use is confirmed in the description of Esther given by the narrator from John Barton’s perspective. When Esther encounters John Barton, Gaskell describes her thus:


“Much was like the gay creature of former years; but the glaring paint, the sharp features, the changed expression of the whole! …In vain did her face go deadly pale round the vivid circle of paint.” (p. 153)


It is noteworthy that Esther’s cosmetics use is only explicitly mentioned when it is certain that she has become a prostitute. What we can learn from this textual portrayal is that Esther’s streetwalking has marked itself upon her appearance with her use of rouge. The effect of the cosmetics on how she is perceived by others has rendered her almost unrecognisable to her brother-in-law, despite his heralding her being led down such a path. In order to be a success at her profession, it is obvious that Esther has to signal her availability to men. These artificial means also enhance her complexion and make her an appealing prospect with whom a man would wish to engage in a sexual transaction. Esther therefore must also partake in this aesthetic labour herself to increase her value in this market where men have dictated the terms of service.


The prominent cosmetic item in the discussion of the figure of the prostitute is rouge. The use of rouge is to imitate what is arguably one of the most politicised elements of female beauty – the blush. Mary Anne O’Farrell has written extensively on the blush as depicted in the nineteenth-century novel, which ‘finds the blush an implicit promise to render body and character legible.’[12] Just as Esther uses rouge to signal her status as a prostitute, so does the author use the blush as a signal of the internal reactions to external stimuli. The circumstances where the blush appears render it a bodily beacon of what is a female character’s moral standing. Most often, a blush is a potential indicator of modesty, which is a key factor in patriarchal concepts of what is beautiful in woman. In Volume Two of Modern Painters (1846), John Ruskin refers to the blush as ‘the gradual concentration of the youthful blood in the cheek’.[13] From this we can ascertain that the blush is aligned with youth with its connotations of innocence. It generally occurs to indicate embarrassment or desire, thus rendering it a sexualised bodily symptom of either of these sensations. For instance, during flirtation, modesty is tested when one attempts to push at the boundaries of decency, and this is acknowledged in the blush. However, these boundaries themselves are somewhat subjective, because for one to be aware that something is beyond the pale, they too must have knowledge of what constitutes the indecent. This thinking implies that Esther’s modesty has departed as she has acquired sexual knowledge, hence her having to apply rouge. The flushed cheek is also an indicator of desire, albeit artificial. The rouge glosses over the sexual act about to take place being an economic transaction to be paid for and absolves the man of blame for exploiting her. Esther’s performance, though, is largely class-based as well as sexualised, because she has parodied a bourgeois marker of beauty as depicted in Ruskin’s Modern Painters. The parody in this instance comes from the excess of colour as demonstrated in her ‘vivid circle’ of cheek colour.


Although John Barton acknowledges that Esther has fled with a lover, he ultimately blames vanity for her downfall because she was acknowledged to be beautiful when she was young.


Not but what beauty is a sad snare. Here was Esther so puffed up that there was no holding her in. Her spirit was always up, if I spoke ever so little in the way of advice to her; my wife spoiled her, it is true, for you see she was so much older than Esther, she was more like a mother to her, doing everything for her (p. 6)


According to Barton, the combination of Esther’s beauty, alongside an indulgent elder sister, has fostered both idleness and vanity. They led to her wish to become a ‘lady’ and not have to work. However, this patriarchal perspective refuses to acknowledge that sex work is work. From the aesthetic labour to the sexual act. However, the prostitute is included in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor: Those That Will Work, Cannot Work, and Will Not Work (1851)[14], which fuels the judgement that prostitutes have shunned respectable labour. Gaskell also has him worry about the effect it would have on his daughter Mary, recounting how he scolded Esther for trying to encourage similar sentiments in her when she was a child:


“But as I was saying, she takes Mary in a coaxing sort of way, and “Mary”, says she, “what would you think if I sent for you some day and made a lady of you?” So I could not stand such talk as that to my girl, and I said, “Thou best not put that nonsense i’ th’ girl’s head, I can tell thee, I’d rather see her earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do.” (p. 8)


John’s recollection reveals the perception of the working classes that the middle and upper classes are not as moral because of their lack of honest labour. This bourgeois idleness would potentially leave openings for vice and sinfulness to enter in, which is implied by Barton’s reference to the Bible. These anxieties about Mary and her future are not entirely unfounded, as we learn when Gaskell describes her as she turns sixteen. It appears that Esther’s ‘coaxing’ had a latent but lasting effect:


Besides all this, the sayings of her absent, the mysterious aunt Esther, had an unacknowledged influence over Mary. She knew she was very pretty; the factory people as they poured from the mills, and in their freedom told the truth… had early let Mary into the secret of her beauty… So with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady (p. 28-29.


Beauty, therefore, is seen as a form of social capital, which would enable Mary to transcend class boundaries through making a successful marriage.


It is Esther herself who reveals that an advantageous marriage was the initial reason for her disappearance. Instead, she was seduced and eventually forsaken by her lover who promised to marry her. As she relates her sorrowful tale to Jem Wilson, it is the first time that she has owned the narrative pertaining to her, instead of being speculated about. Her story also contradicts Barton’s conjecture that it is her love of finery which has led her to the streetwalker’s life:


“As she is loving now, so did I love once: one above me far… he promised me marriage. They all do…. We should have done well, but alas! alas! my little girl fell ill, and I could not mind my shop and her too: and things grew worse and worse… And I could not bear to see her suffer, and forgot how much better it would be for us to die together… So I went out into the street one January night – Do you think God will punish me for that?” (pp.199-200)


Although little is said of the effects of Esther’s beauty, more is revealed about Mary’s looks and their effects on her suitors. It is easier to discuss the power of beauty with regard to Mary because of her renunciation of her vanity before it has caused her too much harm. Ultimately, this is what sets Mary apart from Esther who ‘“could not lead a virtuous life if I would… I need drink.”’(p.154) This speech implies that Esther is grieving that she has fallen too far for redemption. This downfall demonstrates that because she cannot, or will not, repent, only lament. It is this differentiation which explains their respective textual fates. Esther ‘“could not lead a virtuous life even if [she] would.”’ This sentiment articulates the Victorian anxiety about the prostitute. The phrase ‘“even if I would”’ – that is to say, “even if I wanted to” – reinforces the societal fear because of the constant mistrust that she would evoke. This kind of agency from her previous existence, even if she it only came as a result of material circumstance, is what is intimidating about the figure of the Victorian prostitute. She is a public woman, she does not retire into the domestic sphere, she has a kind of agency. Rather than passively ‘“die together”’ with her daughter, she went out on to the streets to earn some money so that she could try – albeit in vain – to save her child’s life. Mary, on the other hand, is openly repentant in court. She is more willing to condemn herself than her own father who actually committed the murder for which Jem is on trial, even though she has committed no crime. The motives behind her desire to give herself to Harry Carson were to create a better life for herself and her family:


‘“For you see, sir, mother died before I was thirteen, before I could know right from wrong about some things; and I was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks; and this poor young Mr Carson fell in with me, and told me he loved me; and I was foolish enough to think he meant me marriage… so I used to fancy I could like to be a lady, and rich, and never know want anymore.”’(p. 410)


The ‘“right and wrong about some things”’ discussed by Mary here refers to the part a mother plays in helping a girl behave correctly as she waits to be chosen as a wife. She is ultimately able to be saved and to repent of her sins. Esther, however, will achieve transcendence only through death, which serves as a warning to young women about the dangers of such a life. It is at this point that the reader learns that Esther was dubbed ‘Butterfly’ and this moniker becomes a fitting metaphor for her life and death (p. 494).  For instance, when Esther pretends at respectability when she returns to speak to Mary, she chooses sombre attire in the form of ‘black silk bonnet, a printed gown, a plaid shawl’, but when she dies, she is discovered as ‘a heap of white or light coloured clothes’ (p. 296, p. 495) The light coloured clothes in this scene seem to represent a kind of baptism or cleansing from sin. They appear like the gossamer wings of a butterfly, as Esther’s soul emerges from a chrysalis of her debased body to fly off into the heavens. It is for this reason that although they are light in colour, these clothes are somehow differentiated from the ‘gaiety of dress’ which have earned Esther the epithet of ‘Butterfly’. This transformation signposts the transcendence which Esther has earned through giving her life to save Mary’s. However, Gaskell does it in such a way that her past isn’t immediately forgotten, because of its evocation of the Biblical term ‘light woman’ from the book of Jeremiah to mean a prostitute.

These clothes are only a costume, which suggests a performance, but ultimately it is important to remember that it is a class-based performance, where she at first plays the part of a lady, then a respectable working-class wife, and finally a Magdalen meeting her just demise. The differences in outcome for Esther and Mary indicate a difference in representation for the two women. Mary repents in a courtroom and is granted the conventional happy ending where she plays the role of the ideal wife and mother as she stands in her new home, holding a baby, waiting for her husband to return. Esther, who does not explicitly repent her misdeeds, must pay the price of her immorality with her life, even if her white shroud does hint at some kind of forgiveness for her in the hereafter.


The analysis of the representations of female beauty and cosmetics use in Mary Barton reveals a subtle rebuttal of patriarchal thought on the fallen woman because Gaskell gives the fallen woman a voice. However, in order to refute existing patriarchal ideology, Gaskell also has to include it in the text in some way so that it can be juxtaposed with her more sympathetic depiction of Esther. We understand the stereotypical perspective of prostitutes, such as that voiced by John Barton, to be ideology because it fits with the moralistic writings of social commentators such as William Acton. Nevertheless, narrative voice aside, the tale of Esther does end in tragedy. Despite the best intentions of Mary and Jem to take her with them to Canada to start a new life, Esther dies in her white garment. Although the white garment indicates a new beginning with a newfound purity by giving her life to reform Mary, she cannot be shown to triumph in any earthly manner. There must still be some didactic element to Esther’s story so that Gaskell can be said to have successfully depicted the harsh reality of prostitution.


Like the prostitute, the actress at this time represented the public woman because she was not confined to the domestic sphere. She displayed herself to a public on the stage. However, links were made between the two figures in the public imagination. According to Tracy C. Davis, ‘the popular association between actresses and prostitutes and belief in actresses’ inappropriate sexual conduct endured throughout the nineteenth century… the actress and the prostitute were both objects of desire whose company was purchased through commercial exchange.’[15] In the case of the prostitute, money is changed for simulated desire. The actress is a commodity whose purchase price is a ticket to see her perform, and often in an impassioned manner. In addition, Davis’s feminist interpretation of this understanding of the actress points out the duplicity at the heart of this cultural construction of the actress/prostitute connection. As a commodity, she is an object, and Davis sees her as an object onto whom the desires of those who watch her perform are projected.[16]


According to Sarah Anderton in The Englishwoman’s Journal (1859), ‘the vocation of the actress is understood by few.’[17] Anderton wrote this article because she wished to ‘counter and correct the stereotype of actresses as immoral and wanton.’[18] Reynolds does similar in his text. In this novel, the figure of the actress is positioned in such a way that the reader may compare the morality of the character of both the actress and her middle-class and aristocratic audience. Like a prostitute, an actress relied on cosmetics. They were the tools of her trade, and not solely for her performances on the stage. The actress was always on show, even outside of her onstage performances:


Actresses wore make-up, often to excess, both off as well as on the stage. In the theatre the actors were under considerable scrutiny, by the very nature of the event, especially from the audience sitting close to the stage. If they appeared unsuitable, perhaps too old or ugly for the part they were playing, then the performer might find herself… out of work or in poverty. Concealing the signs of old age was a necessity for women in particular if they were to keep working and earning money at the top of their profession. Their appearances in public was often an extension of their on-stage life.[19]


Stewart shows that cosmetics use was strongly linked to the actress throughout the nineteenth century because of the excess of products she used both on and off the stage. Therefore, we can deduce that the actress’s worth did not always lie in her professional skills, but in her looks and her ability to appear youthful. However, Patricia Zakreski argues that ‘many credited [the actress] with respectability by citing the long hours and selfless dedication to her work that her profession required.’[20] Certainly, the artistic labour that was the lot of the actress may have been conveniently neglected when considering the patriarchal response to this cultural figure. Actress Sarah Anderton writes in the Englishwoman’s Journal her recollections of another ‘young actress’ who had ‘“been up studying until four or five in the morning… and on [her] way to the theatre between nine and ten; but [she] never cared how much [she] had to do as long as [she] did not get ill”’ (Anderton, p 206). That is not a career of vanity and idleness but passion for her Art and intensive labour. Both the actress’s advocates and her critics sit in ‘considerable scrutiny’ inside and outside the theatre. Consequently, she cannot permit herself to be seen by anyone either inside or outside the theatre to see her looking less than her absolute best at all times otherwise she will be deemed worthless and cast aside. The way that cosmetics fit into her role is that they help the actress to maintain her selling value by continuing to draw in spectators to see her performances.


In Reynolds’s novel, Ellen Percy’s beauty is evident from childhood. It is remarked upon throughout her life, as is her morality:


‘“Her figure is slender – but so genteel! In short, my dear madam, she is the genteelest looking as well as the prettiest and best girl in my school. I am very much mistaken if she will not grow up to be a most lovely creature. Did you ever see such silky black hair, with such a raven gloss upon it – such superb dark eyes – such sweet features, especially those vermilion lips of her’s, [sic] with that beautiful smile!”’[21]



Let us consider the significance of this physical description of the young Ellen Percy, when she was a schoolgirl. First of all, this praise of her beauty is a prediction that shapes Ellen’s life. It bears markers of class-based identity, and of course ideology, because she is also ‘genteel’. This gentility of hers suggests docility, further added to by her ‘sweet’ features. This complies with Victorian thought on what the ideal woman should be. Indeed, in Eliza Cook’s Journal (1852), the author wrote an article, ‘Beauty Natural to Woman’ and in it she declared that ‘it is a woman’s business [author’s italics] to be beautiful’[22] so nothing else could be expected of Reynolds’s heroine if she is going to succeed in this business. It is problematic to sexualise the face and body of a schoolgirl, but it is impossible not to notice that there are distinct sexual undertones in the description of her appearance. For instance, the observations that are being made of her ‘slender’ figure, lustrous hair and inviting features. This complies with the expectation that the image of the ideal Victorian woman that she is obviously going to grow up to embody, precludes any ideas of passion or sexuality for herself, yet she is supposed to evoke them for the sake of her observers, who although in this instance are not men, but appear to have internalised the male gaze. Ellen personifies an ideal beauty, which sets her apart from other women such as her friend Juliet Norman who is described as ‘handsome rather than beautiful’ (p. 15). Juliet introduces Ellen to her family and consequently the life of a woman of the stage, for Juliet’s mother is an ageing actress and Juliet a dancer.


possessed the remains of great beauty: indeed she might still be considered a handsome woman. She however had no small quantity of rouge upon her cheeks; and she was dressed in a youthful style of mingled finery and coquetry (p.15).



This is the first description of an actress in the novel, although the reader is unaware of it as yet. The ‘rouge’ does not enhance Mrs Norman’s looks. It is an unfortunate excess on her part. The sense of excess is built upon by the addition of ‘finery and coquetry’, which suggests ostentatious dress coupled with artifice, which implies a certain degree of flirtatiousness which in turn suggests an overt sexuality. However, it is significant that these adornments do not successfully disguise Mrs Norman’s true age.


This moralistic critique from Ellen’s narrative perspective is pointed out by Juliet Norman soon after this initial meeting when she reveals to Ellen that ‘“my father is an actor, my mother an actress, and I am a ballet-dancer.”’(p.16) She reveals the common perception of those who take to the stage:


“I know very well” continued Miss Norman, “that it is the fashion to run down actors, actresses and ballet-dancers, in respect to their private characters; and I likewise know, alas! that there are too many on the stage whose conduct has been only too well calculated to give rise to this sweeping reflection on the whole of us. But in all professions there are the respectable as well as the disreputable; and I flatter myself, dear Ellen, that the name of Norman has been honourably borne by my parents, and will not be disgraced by their daughter.” (p. 16)



The novel persuades us that the acting profession is no less immoral than any other. Reynolds reveals the sordid side of what is normally a more stereotypically respectable position for a young lady just prior to this scene. Ellen has travelled to London in the hope of securing the more conventionally respectable position of ‘a genteel governess’ (p. 14). This position is perceived as genteel because, according to M. Jeanne Peterson ‘if a woman of birth and education found herself in financial distress… she was justified in seeking the only employment that would not cause her to lose her status. She could find work as a governess.’[23] However, upon her arrival she was accosted by a police officer and informed that the gentleman for whom she planned to work was ‘a villain and an impostor – and he was taken into custody… for his conduct towards a young lady’(p. 14). It is Juliet who reveals the truth about the governess when she refers to it as ‘a false position… little above that of the servants of the house, and infinitely below that of the master and mistress – to be incessantly at the mercy of the lady’s caprices, and perhaps exposed to the gentleman’s impudence…’ (p. 18). Indeed, Peterson reinforces Juliet’s position, depicting the governess as ‘little more than a standard furnishing in many a fictional Victorian home’ (Peterson, p.6). She exists as yet another commodity. At least the actress is able to earn her money without being subjected to such treatment. Kerry Powell describes the ‘allure’ of the acting profession because of its prospect of ‘financial rewards’ and of having ‘a voice’.[24]A patriarchal society both fears and desires such a woman, for ‘Victorian men often became infatuated on one hand while they felt imperilled by these exceptional women on the other’(Powell, p. 3) . Normally it was the men who ‘reserved power for themselves and compelled women to silence’(Powell, p. 3). Therefore, perhaps the maligning of the actress by questioning her morality is a desperate attempt to control her.


The actor and the ballet-dancer occupy separate spheres in the theatre hierarchy. The ballet-dancer was often considered to have even fewer morals than the actress. A response from an actress from the time, albeit an American one, aimed to vindicate the character of the ballet dancer. Anna Cora Mowatt wrote the following in her autobiography:


Ballet girls, in general, are a despised, persecuted, and often misjudged race. The rank they hold in the theatre is only a degree raised above that of the male supernumeraries. They are looked down upon by the acting members of the company as though they belonged to a different order of beings… I have known amongst this despised class many and many an instance of girls endowed with the highest virtues, leading lives of unimpeachable purity, industry, devotion of their kin, and fulfilling the hardest duties of life with a species of stoical heroism.[25]



Mowatt’s vindication suggests that ballerinas are the slighted members of an unjustly maligned profession through no fault of their own. Reynolds echoes this sentiment to some degree in Ellen Percy. When Ellen sees Juliet Norman in costume, Reynolds narrates – through Ellen’s eyes – ‘I was at first shocked when I beheld Juliet arrayed in that gauzy drapery, which according to my ideas was scant even to immodesty: but I could not help admiring the beauty of her personal appearance’ (p.19).   In this excerpt, Ellen judges Juliet according to her own standards, and she cannot help adopting the stereotypically feminine reaction to being surprised at what she perceives as ‘immodesty’. Her surprise also indicates that Ellen has the superior moral character, which is something that Reynolds returns to at several points in the novel. When reading the previous extract from Reynolds through the lens of the Mowatt autobiography, we understand that the assumption of loose morals comes from the revealing nature of the ballet costume, and nothing to do with the morality of the danseuse herself. The ballerina was near the bottom of the theatrical hierarchy because she was one of the lowest paid performers. For instance, Tracy C. Davis draws from the testimony of ‘one Islington dancer’ who ‘explained: “Perhaps no girl is subject to so many temptations as the ballet girl. Behind the scenes she is constantly being addressed by men of fortune and talent, and to a girl comparatively ignorant, the temptations are great, and the bright promises held out are many.” The notion that ballet-girls were unvirtuous was prevalent, but the denials were also numerous’(p. 231). Davis provides a reason why ballet-girls would have had to become kept women: ‘On wages of 30s. a week with intermittent periods of unemployment… someone else must have paid the bills’  (p. 231). With such arrangements occurring, it is slightly less outrageous to consider the link between the woman of the stage and the prostitute in the public imagination. However, it is a relationship formed out of necessity on the part of the woman whose body is being exploited for a pittance by her employer and with the gentleman with whom she has this arrangement. Indeed, in the novel, Melissa Harrison enters into one such relationship with the Marquis of Tynedale. After an episode of mistaken identity, she duped him into believing that she was Ellen Percy. Percy rejected not only his advances but those of the Duke of Ardleigh earlier in the novel. Susan Stewart writes that ‘actresses had the attention of eminent men, in their roles as mistresses and confidantes’, so these situations were not just limited to the ballet-girl.


Although Reynolds has Ellen remark upon the cosmetics worn by Mrs Norman, it is a ballerina who warns Ellen that she will have to use them herself. Melissa Harrison warns Ellen of the artifice of the theatrical life: ‘“The scenery is a vile daub – the dresses are the veriest tinsel – care-worn and haggard looks are concealed by paint and cosmetics”’(p. 28). According to Melissa Harrison, the world of the theatre is a façade. It is important to note here that there is a gendered quality to the language that she uses to describe the artifice. The ‘worn and haggard looks’ are a fate worse than death for an actress because if she appears at less than her best then she will not become an attractive prospect to promote a theatre. The understanding about cosmetics here is that they are not just used to enhance facial features in front of harsh stage lighting. They are to conceal the warning signs that the actress’s career is over, and she is used up and worthless. This anxiety about looking older is a particulary threat to women, because women’s beauty standards are tied to youth. Such a method of meeting beauty standards that have been imposed on women by men would be seen as duplicitous on the woman’s part. However, it is arguably no different to an actress than wearing a wig or a different type of costume if necessary to reflect a character. If we delve deeper than a superficial interpretation of this anxiety of being tricked into desiring an ageing woman, what it ultimately reveals is that patriarchal standards themselves are as artificial as the beauty it insists should be inherent to women. Ultimately, what those who produce this ideology fear is that the women themselves know it too and are using it to their advantage.


The most significant ongoing theme in this novel is a class-based critique, which can be summed up my one observation made by Ellen Percy: ‘I could not help thinking to myself that the actors and actresses in this life were not merely confined to the stage – but that they everywhere abounded, even in the very boxes which fronted the stage itself’ (p. 285). Throughout the text, the exploitation does not come from the character of the actress. It is not she who is the embodiment of questionable morals. Consequently, the stage serves the purpose of acting like a mirror to reflect the dubious morality of those who would ordinarily criticise the actress. Instead, Ellen is regularly tormented by the aristocratic classes to the point of kidnap and imprisonment on the part of Captain St. Clair, and other attempts to keep her as a mistress by the Duke of Ardleigh and the Marquis of Tynedale. Furthermore, despite the strong connection with actresses and cosmetics, the significant cosmetics users in the novel off the stage are aristocratic women such as Lady Mangold:


[Lady Mangold]… was an elderly female, decked out with all the accessories of the toilet and other succedaneous aids to give herself as youthful an appearance as possible. In fashionable life it often occurs that false teeth assist in the articulation of language as false – that artificial hair rests above a brow within which is a brain constantly occupied by frivolous artificialities – and that false bosoms are placed upon even falser hearts… She seemed to be an old coquette; but the artificialities of her toilet were so overdone as to be palpable to a most glaring degree… Lady Mangold had never been a beauty: she resembled an old scarecrow dressed up in a fashion to conceal or mitigate… the ravages of time and the presence of actual ugliness… as deep wrinkles and furrows and sallowness were to be concealed by the enamel and the rouge which plastered her countenance.



This hyperbolically grotesque depiction of Lady Mangold reveals a repulsive and deluded woman fighting to retain beauty that she seemingly never had. In this extract, Ellen takes on the role of moralist as she accuses the use of artificial adornments of being reflective of wider deceptive characteristics which are fuelled by a preoccupation with superficialities such as ‘frivolous artificialities’. The sense of deception comes from the attempt to ‘conceal… the ravages of time’. This was not a successful deception of Lady Mangold’s, but it is deception all the same. It is not completely possible to discern whether the aforementioned ‘artificialities’ condemned by Ellen are behavioural or material. However, as Lady Mangold is so evidently elderly, we should question whether she is using cosmetics because they are the class markers for an eighteenth-century aristocrat because this is when she would have been in her prime of life. The main warning that comes from Ellen’s description of her is a hypocritical character because of her preoccupation with ‘artificialities’ and the false language which she speaks as a consequence.


The actress embodies the threat to the patriarchy that is seen in the financially independent and empowered woman. However, in this novel, Reynolds attempts to discredit the prejudice facing actresses by likening it to any other employment for women, especially the supposedly respectable position of the governess. These two professions are likened in such a way in Reynolds’s novel as to decry any employment for women because it goes against the ideology of the separate spheres.  However, the reason why the role of a governess is seen as the lesser of two evils is because is a far more servile role for women and ties her to the domestic realm. We are also given to understand the reasons why women in the theatrical profession – particularly the ballet-girls – have had to compromise their morals, which is due to economic exploitation from low wages. Cosmetics use itself is discussed in terms of a masquerade, positioned alongside the all-round hypocrisy and duplicity of the upper classes.


In Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell allows us to consider stereotypical opinions regarding the prostitute as men attempt to steal her narrative and assume her story before she can tell it herself. The stereotypical opinion of the day, as voiced through John Barton, serves to echo the sentiments of moralists such as William Acton who resort to patriarchal ideology to claim that it is vanity, among other failings, which leads women to their downfall. The signalling of the prostitute to let others know that she is available for exploitation is an imitation of middle-class beauty standards found in the blush. The blush is a performance of desire to gloss over the economical transaction which is taking place. In her writing, Gaskell subtly criticises patriarchal norms regarding the fallen woman by giving her the chance to tell her own story, which was not always something that was permitted of these women by some reformers, the most prominent of which being Charles Dickens. However, she ultimately errs to the side of caution by having the prostitute die at the end of the novel because of her lack of repentance.


In Ellen Percy; or, Memoirs of an Actress, Reynolds wishes to vindicate the figure of the actress. The stage is presented as a career path for Ellen Percy after she attempts to pursue the seemingly more respectable position of a governess until the discovery of the scandal of what occurs behind closed doors in the supposedly respectable middle-class household. The bourgeois home is little worse than the aristocratic families who approach Ellen to try and compromise her sexual morals. Ellen is a figure who has had the sexual narratives of others projected upon her from her childhood when her looks are judged alongside her morality. This legacy follows Ellen throughout her life as she encounters the duplicitous middle and upper classes who try to exploit her. Reynolds has women of these households use cosmetics just as the actress does: to conceal. While the actress conceals ‘“worn and haggard looks”’ (p. 28) , the hypocrisy of the upper classes is hidden behind a façade of paint and cosmetics.


The novels share an interest in commodification of women and how it relates to marriage market in particular. They reveal the threat of the woman who does not depend on the marriage market which commodifies women. Esther realises that her body itself has become a commodity, so she must use cosmetics on it to signify her availability. In Ellen Percy, the actress’s looks are her worth, and the reason why she must resort to cosmetics use. The two threatening figures – specifically the actress and the prostitute – are those who become more aware of their status as commodities and consequently use this awareness to their advantage through using cosmetics use to increase their selling price. They are dangerous because if they have already recognised their position, how soon will it be until they realise that all other aspects of stereotypically ideal femininity are as artificial as their rouged complexions too?


[1] Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 2

[2] Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 139

[3] Gillian M. E. Alban, ‘Gaskell’s Characters Challenging Gender Norms’, Gender Studies, Vol. 15, Issue 1 (Winter 2013), 45

[4] Maria Teresa Chailant, ‘Nomadic Subjects: Streetwalkers and Sexual Wanderers in Dickens and Gaskell’. Http://users.unimi.it/Dickens. http://users.unimi.it/dickens/essays/Craft/chialant.pdf (Accessed November 15, 2019)

[5] Joss Lutz Marsh, ‘Good Mrs Brown’s Connections: Sexuality and Story-Telling in Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son’, ELH, Vol. 58 No. 2 (Summer, 1991), 415-416

[6] Pamela Corpron Parker, ‘Fictional Philanthropy in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 1997), 321-331: 321

[7] ‘When this game had been played a great many times, a couple of young ladies called to see the young gentleman; one of whom was named Bet, and the other Nancy. They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty. Being remarkably free and agreeable in their manners, Oliver thought them very nice girls indeed. As there is no doubt they were.’ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 69

[8] Helena Michie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women’s Bodies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 61

[9] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (London: Harper Press, 2011), 5-6

[10] Mariana Valverde, ‘The Love of Finery: Fashion and the Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Winter 1989), 169

[12] Mary-Anne O’ Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century Novel and the Blush (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 4

[13] John Ruskin, Modern Painters: Volume Two, [Kindle Edition]

[14] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: Those That Will Work, Cannot Work, and Will Not Work (London: Charles Griffin & Co., 1851)

[15] Tracy C. Davis, ‘Actresses and Prostitutes in Victorian London’, Theatre Research International, Vol. 13 Issue 3 (Autumn 1988), 221

[16] ‘While patrons bought the right to see them, to project their fantasies on them, and to denigrate and misrepresent their sexuality, both groups of women found it necessary to sue for men’s attention and tolerate the false imagery.’ Tracy C. Davis ‘Actresses and Prostitutes in Victorian London’, Theatre Research International, Vol. 13 Issue 3 (Autumn 1988), 221

[17] Introduction to [Sarah Anderton], ‘A Few Words about Actresses and the Profession of the Stage’, Englishwoman’s Journal 2 (1859): 385-95 [385-6, 388-9, 391-7] in What Is A Woman to Do? A Reader on Women, Work and Art c. 1830-1890, ed. Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), 206

[18] [Sarah Anderton], ‘A Few Words about Actresses and the Profession of the Stage’, Englishwoman’s Journal 2 (1859): 385-95 [385-6, 388-9, 391-7] in What Is A Woman to Do? A Reader on Women, Work and Art c. 1830-1890, ed. Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), 206

[19] Susan Stewart, Painted Faces: A Coloured History of Cosmetics (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2017), 207

[20] Patricia Zakreski, Representing Female Artistic Labour 1848-1890: Refining Work for the Middle-Class Woman (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006), 140

[21] George W. M. Reynolds, Ellen Percy: or, the Memoirs of an Actress Volume I, (London: John Dicks, 1857), 4

[22] ‘Beauty Natural to Woman’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, Vol. 6 (November 1851- April 1852), 255

[23] M. Jeanne Peterson, ‘The Victorian Governess: Status Incongruence in Family and Society’ in Martha Vicinus ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1972), 6

[24] Kerry Powell, Women and the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3

[25] Anna Cora Mowatt, ‘Ballet Girls (From The Autobiography of an Actress)’ Eliza Cook’s Journal II (1854): 186-7 in What Is A Woman to Do? A Reader on Women, Work and Art c. 1830-1890, ed. Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011), 311

One thought on “Walking the Streets and Treading the Boards: Cosmetics, The Prostitute and the Actress in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and G. W. M. Reynolds’s Ellen Percy; Or, the Memoirs of an Actress (1857)

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