Book One of the Shulim Cycle
The emergence of the Magdalene Asylum was both in response to a problem and, over time, problematic. The purpose of the Asylum was to reform women who had fallen from the Victorian ideal, notable among those prostitutes. The problem that borne the prostitute in the United Kingdom was two fold: poverty and women outnumbering men. Single women, having no one to marry in an age when a woman’s financial independence was sparse, had few options open to them for financial security. This was complicated if their own families could not afford to support them in adulthood or parents were lost to war, famine, disease, or social discord.
The Magdalene Asylums began as a solution to the problem that was forming, a problem that was only worsened by oppressive laws that sought to belittle these women more than help them. These institutions would help these women obtain new skills and help place them into reputable positions, typically as domestic servants. Today, we may not think of these careers as fulfilling but for a woman who had nothing but to sell her body and pray each night she slept that she had not contracted syphilis or some other venereal disease, it was a gift from the gods.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for some Asylums to open that were no more reputable than the streets. One such asylum operated near White Chapel and its “recruiters” were very selective about the women that were brought in its doors. It tended to bring in the younger and more attractive women, preferring those who had not been involved in prostitution long, citing trumped up studies about the ineffectiveness of the institutions on more experience prostitutes.
This Asylum would retrain the women taken in, not just in domestic skills but in more refined arts of prostitution. It would then sell these refined prostitutes into servitude in wealthy homes, where they would serve not only as a domestic servant but as an enslaved concubine. Often these women were forced to bear children for their masters if the Woman of the house was unable or the master was widowed. What was tragic was that once born, the child was taken from its natural mother to be raise either by the Woman of the house or a nurse maid.
One of these women was a girl referred to in journal entries as Dahlia. Her real name was unknown. She was brought into the house of one Arthur Renwarth and his new wife, a french heiress Juliette De Sauveterre. According to Juliette’s journals (where most references to Dahlia are found) and mentions of close family friends, she quickly grew bored with her marriage and troubled by her husband, who was given to “dark desires that I fear I will lose my soul if I fulfill for him”.
What became of Juliette and Dahlia is left to controversy. Arthur Renwarth was found dead in his estate in a rather controversial and compromising position. The general understanding is that Renwarth either ran or was part of a group of upper-middle class men who would make a show of the enslaved women, usually in displays of cruelty and depravity.
Juliette and Dahlia were never found. It was rumored that Dahlia was not really taken in for Renwarth’s pleasure, that his desires lay elsewhere from a young woman, but for Juliette’s desire. Juliette fell in love with the young prostitute and left with her to get her away from the cruelty of the world she had been brought into. It is argued whether or not one or both of the women killed Arthur Renwarth prior to leaving or whether he fell victim to an accident revolving around his “hobby” and the women took advantage of the confusion to leave.
—from Victorian Controversies, a lecture by Professor Amanda Hawthorne, PhD at Providence University in Atlanta, GA