Martha’s behavior would have been considered sinful and shameful, but following Emily’s own disgrace, Mr. Peggotty has greater understanding towards fallen women.
Charles Dickens had already assisted in altering public opinion towards fallen women through his depiction of Nancy in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), and in 1846, Dickens agreed to assist Angela Burdett Coutts (1814-1906) in establishing a home for the redemption of fallen women.
During the 1800s, the River Thames was visibly polluted. This was in part due to the waste generated in large quantities by the Industrial Revolution, compounded by an undeveloped sewer system. At times the Thames produced an unbearable stench.
Charles Dickens memorably recorded the filthy state of the river in Our Mutual Friend (1864 -1865).
Martha regards herself as tarnished and irrevocably blighted. This view was commonly held towards young women who shared Martha’s past. Repentance and contrition were seen as the only path to rectitude. Read about the plight of the 'fallen woman' as depicted in Victorian art here.
This is true of the character Nancy who attempts to take care of the orphaned Oliver Twist, as well as of Sydney Carton who sacrifices himself to spare the Manette family in A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
A street in London where the Metropolitan Police were situated.
When Charles and Catherine later separated in 1858, Georgina sided with her brother-in-law, and mothered the nine Dickens children who remained with Charles in the family home, while Catherine and Charles Dickens, Jr. (1837-1896) moved from the residence.
It was at the time of the separation that Charles Dickens felt the need to justify publicly his marital circumstances by writing an article about the situation in his journal, Household Words.
Charles Dickens seems to have had mixed feelings about his own ten children. While some accounts record him as a caring father, he is said to have blamed his wife for having had too many, a situation which caused some financial strain.
Following the birth of each child, Catherine Dickens suffered what would probably now be diagnosed as postpartum depression, which would only have added to the strain in their marriage.