Illegitimacy: 18th Century and Now

Jane's cousin, Eliza Hancock, was
likely the illegitimate
daughter of Warren Hastings.
Everybody knew.
Nobody said so.
In the third installment of Mr. B Speaks!, Mr. B gets annoyed when the issue of his natural daughter's illegitimacy is openly discussed.

This reaction is almost incomprehensible to members of the modern Westernized world. So much so that within the past few years, several books have been published about how awful it was that women in the 50s were forced by mean-spirited prejudice to give up their children for adoption.

I can't speak for children adopted during the 50s, but I can say that from Mr. B's perspective, his refusal to openly acknowledge his out-of-wedlock daughter as his daughter-by-blood is an attempt to protect--not punish--her.

The issue in the eighteenth century was not illegitimacy per se. It was status. The illegitimate sons and daughters of kings often rose to prominence and married quite well. And nobody much cared about the illegitimate sons and daughters of peasants, who were held to a far less rigorous set of social standards by their "betters" (this wasn't out of any belief in the intrinsic merit of sexual freedom, by the way: the upper-classes overlooked peasants having illegitimate children because they thought the peasants weren't human enough to know better; one of the biggest criticisms of Pamela at the time of its publication was that Richardson would actually, gasp gasp, give a servant girl such high-falutin' ideas as wanting to wait until after the wedding--for religious and pragmatic reasons--to have sex).

However, the known illegitimate sons and daughters of the merchant, gentry, and independent farming classes of this time period had a terrible time marrying respectably (the measure of social acceptance).

Emma and Harriet
Consider, for example, Jane Austen's Emma in which Emma is convinced that Harriet is the bastard daughter of a noble person (giving Harriet the right to marry "up") when it is far more likely that Harriet is the bastard daughter of someone far lower on the social scale. When Mr. Knightley tells Emma that Harriet would be lucky to marry a prosperous farmer like Mr. Robert Martin, he isn't being cruel; he is being honest about the world he, Emma, and Harriet live in.

American society was more relaxed on this topic almost from its inception, partly because American society was composed of the merchant, gentry, farming classes (their children didn't need to marry "up") and partly because the Protestantism of early America almost immediately produced a belief in innocent childhood (in both the moral and legal sense).

English society, however, was far less kind for far longer.

Consequently, one of the nicer things about Richardson's Mr. B is the lengths he goes to to protect his natural daughter: first, he keeps her rather than sending her off with her mother to a distant country: she is given into the guardianship of his sister; later, she is placed in a decent boarding-house. Her mother, who has moved to Jamaica, marries there, allowing the fiction of legitimacy to continue. In time, Pamela adopts Mr. B's natural daughter (in a non-literal sense). The girl, Sally, does eventually marry well. Does she ever guess who her father really is? Probably. But so long as the fiction of her birth is maintained, she will succeed in the social milieu her father wants for her (which milieu was substantially better than the milieu she might have ended up in otherwise).

Speaking as a modern, human product of the Westernized world, I proclaim it a very good thing that parents and children no longer feel the need to go to such lengths to avoid Mr. B's fears. Speaking as a history buff, I believe historical personages (and characters) should be judged by the difficulties of their time rather than the relaxed understanding of our time. Consequently, I've never really "bought" regency romances in which the mother reveals the truth of her natural-born child's birth to that child "out of love." My guess is the writers don't understand the internal and external burdens the natural-born child would then operate under within that society and time frame. For good and for ill, the social pressures of society--even when accompanied by absolutely no legal ramifications--are tremendously powerful.

Having written the above, I think that social pressures are accepted without constraint or feelings of betrayal when they are consistent between generations. It never occurs to Richardson (or Mr. B) to "fight the system." The issue with 50s babies is that the social pressures changed so rapidly--from less pressure to more pressure to considerably less pressure--within a single generation. The social pressures were never completely assimilated and therefore became objectionable in a way that much earlier generations would never have felt.

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