Marriage or Celibacy?


In Oliver Twist, the relationship between Nancy and Rose Maylie signifies the relationship between prostitution and the middle class in Victorian England. Nancy, a woman seen as “a disgrace to her sex” (Dickens 331), encounters Rose’s initial kindness with a sense of shock and gratitude. Nancy exclaims, “Oh, lady, lady…if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me…” (Dickens 333). This claim is remarkably untrue in light of the relationship between different classes of women in Victorian England. Middle class women generally married young, while men spent their bachelor years “sowing their wild oats,” waiting to marry until they were older and more financially stable. Therefore, men satisfied their sexual desires through relations with prostitutes during a large portion of their youth and middle age. Though prostitution was morally offensive and much decried in Dickens’ era, it was also a necessary institution held in place by the middle class social structure.

In 1868, the Daily Telegraph ran a series called “Marriage or Celibacy?” in which these very issues were discussed. The series began with articles crying out against the horrid nature of prostitution. One such article declared, “Society will not contemplate the hideous traffic…the eyes of the kind and good turn from the proof of the evil…[and] we conspire together to forget the event, lest the open mention of the abomination should make the air of public discussion too foul for Virtue to breathe” (Robson 11). Obviously, society could not morally support the existence of prostitution. The Times soon took up the subject, presenting arguments explaining the reason for prostitution’s existence in terms of middle class marital norms. One argument states, “The preposterous measure which is taken of the income needed to support a family, if a young man would not sink in the social scale, is no doubt a fruitful cause of the deplorable evil of which we are speaking” (Robson 21). One reader wrote in that perhaps “freer intercourse” should be allowed “between young persons of different sexes and of equal position in society” (Robson 21). It seems that by 1868, the relationship between prostitutes and the middle class was finally being addressed in a way that Dickens could not present in 1837’s Oliver Twist.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin, 2002.

Robson, John M. Marriage or Celibacy? The Daily Telegraph on a Victorian Dilemma.             Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.



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