Adoption issues and the displaced child in mid-nineteenth century English culture
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis
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 minor ones. 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.
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