Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Representations of Illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's Early Novels

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Representations of Illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's Early Novels

Article excerpt

Illegitimacy was a prominent political, social, and literary issue throughout the nineteenth century, and is a theme that the sensation novelist Wilkie Collins repeatedly returns to in his fiction. Best remembered for his 1860 novel, The Woman in White, which heralded the beginning of the reading public's appetite for sensation literature, and his 1868 novel, The Moonstone, a defining text in the genre of detective fiction, Collins published twenty five novels as well as numerous short stories and plays in a career spanning over forty years. Collins's writing throughout his career served as a platform for his often unconventional views on marriage and the position of women in society as well as on the treatment of illegitimate children. Illegitimacy was a popular subject for Victorian writers, not only because of its value as a plot device, but also because of the changing laws affecting illegitimate children and their parents which kept the topic in the public eye. This essay will examine Wilkie Collins's engagement with the theme of illegitimacy in two of his early novels--Hide and Seek (1854) and The Dead Secret (1857)--focussing particularly on his examination of the social and legal issues that affected the illegitimate child and its parents.

A brief history of the legislation affecting illegitimate children and their parents is necessary to understand the backdrop against which Victorian novelists were writing. At the beginning of the century there remained in place an act dating back to 1609, which stated that "every lewd woman which shall have any bastard which may be chargeable to the parish shall be committed to the house of correction." (1) In 1810, a further act ensured that a woman could not be imprisoned for longer than one year, but in 1834 the Bastardy laws underwent a radical change. Up until this point, "any man charged by a woman as the father of her illegitimate child had either to contribute towards its maintenance, marry the woman or submit to imprisonment." (2) If the parents of an illegitimate child could not afford the cost of its upbringing, then the parish would provide financial assistance. A commission was set up to investigate the Bastardy laws, the result of which was The Poor Law Report of 1834. The authors of the report objected to the fact that a man could be punished based on a woman's allegations, and suggested that for a woman "a single illegitimate child is seldom any expense, and two or three are a source of positive profit" (261). The report argued that "the female in these cases is generally the party most to blame; and that any remedy, to be effectual, must act chiefly with reference to her" (270), a conclusion indicative of the sexual double standard and fear of female sexuality that prevailed in the nineteenth century. The report concluded that the Bastardy Laws "offer temptations to the crime which they were intended to punish" (477), and consequently recommended their entire abolition, thus effectively freeing the fathers of illegitimate children from any legal responsibility. Although the House of Lords amended the bill so that a woman could apply to the Quarter Sessions for maintenance payments from the father, the fact that a woman's evidence now had to be independently corroborated made it virtually impossible for such an application to succeed. (3) Furthermore, even if successful, the father of the child could no longer be imprisoned for non-payment, thus making it unlikely that the mother would receive any financial assistance. Although these reforms meant that an unmarried mother could no longer be imprisoned as punishment for beating an illegitimate child, their overall effect was to place the full responsibility for the child on the mother. Various amendments were made to the Bastardy Laws in the years that followed. (4) Affiliation cases were returned to the Petty Sessions in 1838, supposedly making it easier for the mother to apply for maintenance, but as corroborative evidence was still required, the difficulty in gaining financial assistance from the father of the child remained. …

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