Adoption issues and the displaced child in mid-nineteenth century English culture
This thesis examines the particular situation of displaced
children both in nineteenth-century culture and as represented in the
mid-nineteenth century English novel. It covers the understanding of
adoption in fiction and in practice before the Act of Adoption, 1926,
particularly in the period 1837-1870. In the course of its development,
it identifies the particular situation of displaced children and their
ideological significance in selective fiction of 1837-1870 concerned
with their representation.
Displaced children may be orphans, strays, destitute, legitimate
or illegitimate. What makes them identifiable as a distinct category is
their placement and rearing outside their biological family; a process
often erroneously referred to in the novels as adoption. Such children
appear not to have, hitherto, been identified as a distinct group in
literature. Wide-ranging models of such fictional displacees have been
selected, mostly foregrounded children with a handful of memorable
The core-text novels are, with one exception, from canonical
novelists whose main output was between 1837-70. Dickens has been
privileged and the others are Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George
Eliot, Thackeray and the non-canonical Hesba Stretton.
The approach has been new historicist insofar as materials
have been assembled which might enable reconstruction of the lost
sensibilities of these displaced children and their nineteenth-century
readers. To this end examples of paintings, journaIs, newspaper
articles, Parliamentary debate, letters, ditties and cartoons have been
used to illustrate and consolidate the content of the thesis. 1
The period 1837-70 has been chosen because it opens with
Victoria's accession and the start of the Dickens output. The final date,
1870, marks the death of Dickens and the passing of Forster's
Elementary Education Act whose provisions, albeit slowly
implemented, turned the street urchins into the new school children.
The intervening years take in major works from the canonical
novelists drawn on here, and a wave of writers pressing for betterment
of the lot of destitute children.
The role of sustainers who, in both fact and fiction, run
throughout as counter-point to the displaced children is discussed. In
fiction the ail-important bonding between displacee and sustainer
which transforms them into a duality is emphasised because it sets the
seal on what is, initially, a trial and error relationship. Similarly, the
growth of reciprocity as the displacee matures is given particular
attention. State and charitable sustainers such as workhouses and
Coram's Foundling Hospital are examined, as are the commercial and
frequently corrupt baby-farms.
A key question in the thesis is whether or not it was possible to
take in a destitute child as spontaneously and easily as the novelists
describe, without recourse to any legal or official procedure. To this
end, fictional displacees and sustainers are scrutinised to see how far
what the novelists depict correlates positively with actuality as
recorded by social historians. Allied to this the displaced child and its
enormous potential as a novelistic perennial favourite is considered.
Displacement is of crucial importance in both fact and fiction
affecting, as it does, the child's sense of identity, its precarious status
and the liberating opportunities it affords.
A further issue is the huge difference in the understanding and
practise of adoption between the nineteenth-century reader and a
modem one. With the realisation that in the nineteenth century
adoption was, at best, a flimsy arrangement with no legal safeguards
and, at worst, open to huge abuse and irregularities, the sensibilities of
the earlier reader must have been greatly affected and their concern
heightened when set alongside those of a later reader. There appears to
have been no recognition of this difference in such a relationship in
literary criticism to date.