The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The term “adventuress” has become diluted in modern usage, its formerly pejorative meaning dulled to something only slightly disapproving. But for much of the Victorian era the word had some specific and scandalous meanings.
In the eighteenth century “adventuress” was generally used as the distaff version of “adventurer,” and while there was a cultural and moral disapproval associated with a woman acting willfully, independently, and in the same way as a man, the meaning of the term was relatively neutral. But by the 1820s the word had acquired the definition it maintained throughout the century: a woman who would use any means, no matter how immoral, to gain a position. More specifically, this meant a woman who would use sex to snare a nobleman.
This is the meaning which Thackeray intended in Vanity Fair in referring to Becky Sharp,1 and the meaning used by many other contemporary authors of novels and short stories. But in the last four decades of the nineteenth century the word acquired a second, less pejorative meaning. The rise in the practice of men publically displaying their mistresses, and the accompanying rise in the acceptance of that practice, led the word “adventuress” to take on an almost admirable overtone. From roughly 1860 forward, kept women, courtesans, demi-mondaines, the Grand Horizontales, Pretty Horsebreakers, the Great Strumpets--whichever term one chooses to describe the women of the Victorian age who accepted money from their lovers in exchange for company and physical affection--were not only not socially ostracized by Victorian high society but were accepted into the most exclusive parties and occasions, idolized by many young women and watched with admiration by both mothers and daughters. A large number of women went so far as to copy their fashions and dress their children in modified versions of the most characteristic styles of the demi-mondaines.
Society, high and low, was under no illusion as to what these women did but did not openly condemn them openly for their behavior. Rather, they were seen as daringly unconventional as well as the living embodiments of a female fantasy: wealthy, able to speak their minds without fear of social punishment, and free to indulge in various pleasures whenever they chose while not being tied down with children, poverty, or a restrictive, soul-deadening marriage. As Ignacio Ramos Gay writes, “the character of the adventuress constitutes the evolution of the classical prostitute within a bourgeois society towards a refined aestheticism dominated by elegance, taste and manners.”2 Adventuresses were able to travel when they wanted, were socially influential, and routinely engaged in activities such as riding and training horses, activities which had previously been seen as the province of men alone.
While this was going on increasing numbers of otherwise respectable women were exploring the world without the protection of a male companion, either by themselves or in the company of other women, and were writing accounts of their travels. The journalist Daisy Bates (1863-1951) wrote articles for The Times about native Australians at the end of the century. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) traveled across Persia in the 1890s, with her essays about the trip appearing (against her will) in 1894. The American journalist Nelly Bly (1867-1922) gained international fame with her travelogue Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890). Isabella Bird (1831-1904) published accounts of her travels across Australia, the South Pacific, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East, Tibet and China beginning in 1875. And in 1897 Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) published Travels in West Africa, Congo Française, Corisco, and Cameroon about her experiences with a number of West African tribes.
The former group of women were adventuresses, but were respected and even idolized by the people who (moralists thought) should be condemning them. The latter group of women were female adventurers, not immoral (usually) but still acting in unlady-like ways. It should be no surprise that the word “adventuress” was applied to both, and to other women who were independent and did not follow the accepted codes of conduct. A lexigraphic blurring followed, so that by the 1890s an adventuress could be sexually depraved (see: Armadale), criminal but admirable (see: “The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia”), or adventurous while at the same time morally spotless (see: “Miss Cayley’s Adventures”). By the 1920s most long-running story paper heroes had adventuress opponents who were criminals, but had crushes on the heroes and were treated more leniently than the heroes’ other opponents. Sexton Blake (see: The Sexton Blake Mysteries) pursued Mademoiselle Yvonne but was never quite sorry that she always escaped him; Blake foiled her crimes but returned her attraction to him.
The ascension of British feminism and the rise of the New Woman aided this process, with women entering the British work force and performing jobs which had formerly been the province of men. The New Woman writers also took the position, in both print and in public, that sexual freedom should belong to both men and women, and that a woman who had sex before marriage was not to be condemned. There was a substantial backlash against the New Women, in large part because of their sexual ethics, but the change in public attitudes toward sexually active women, and those who called “adventuresses,” was irreversible.
For Further Research
Michael Harrison, A Fanfare of Strumpets. W.H. Allen, 1971.
1 William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1927), 416, 476, 482.
2 Ignacio Ramos Gay, "From Dumas fils’s Étrangère to Wilde’s Aventurière: French Theatrical Forerunners of the Wildean Female Dandy," Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 72 (Autumn 2010): 85.