Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Virtuous Foundlings and Excessive Bastards

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Virtuous Foundlings and Excessive Bastards

Article excerpt

In Bastards and Foundlings: Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century England (Ohio State, 2005), Lisa Zunshine works through the issues of illegitimacy, class, and gender in eighteenth-century England with efficiency and insight. For a comparatively brief text (172 pages, plus notes), Zunshine's analysis is wide-ranging and provocative in its implications for our understanding of family dynamics in the period. This study challenges the conflation of bastards and foundlings in literature and scholarship, by parsing these vexed, often mutually defining relationships. The slippage between the labels of "bastard" and "foundling" is considerable, for people often assumed that foundlings were bastards, as illegitimacy was a primary motive in abandoning a child. Parentlessness left children open to the stigma of bastardy, so that orphans also were often presumed to be illegitimate. That the assumption of illegitimacy was not necessarily true (for there were legitimate orphans and foundlings) allows Zunshine to analyze status as a construct, which leads her to a spectrum of illegitimacy: illegitimate children, legitimate children presumed illegitimate, illegitimate children presumed legitimate, and so on.

Zunshine identifies four socioeconomic narratives of illegitimacy in the period: the bastard as a threatening pretender to the legal family's property; the illegitimacy of children of common law parents, such as the rural poor, whose status has little effect on their lives; the narrative of tolerated illegitimacy among the upper classes; and narratives of the illegitimate children of serving women, featuring seduction, abandonment, and, in some cases, infanticide. Class is the primary discriminator here, for while the poor and the wealthy accepted illegitimacy, the middle class's identity was threatened by it. The affluent could afford to support all of their children, legitimate and illegitimate, as fiscal responsibility for sexual behavior largely mitigated moral concerns. The poor and the working classes often were not bound by legal marriages, so the illegitimacy of their children was commonplace and not stigmatized. But middle-class concerns about the acquisition, retention, and secure transmission of property were accentuated by the status of illegitimate children, who could diminish and disperse family property, and thereby undermine the fiscal and social status of the family. Admittedly, Zunshine is working in broad strokes here, as her comments on the inadequacy of "middle class" as a label make clean She does not address the effects of illegitimacy on class mobility--on the downwardly mobile upper class, or the aspiring working class--nor do the urban poor figure into this calculus. Rather, for Zunshine, the eighteenth-century cultural narrative of illegitimacy centers on the middle class and its anxieties, for the lack of drama in the illegitimacy narratives of the affluent and the poor diminishes their social impact, and explains the comparative absence of such narratives from the cultural landscape.

The importance of dramatic tension in Zunshine's analysis becomes apparent in the first of her two key theses: that in eighteenth-century British literature, foundlings tend to be female and ultimately revealed to be legitimate, while bastards tend to be male and illegitimate, and remain so. Zunshine concedes that, in fact, "the money and social connections, or lack thereof, of the bastard typically trumped the consideration of gender" (14), and she admits that she does not find sufficient historical evidence to determine that gender affected the status of bastards in the eighteenth-century marriage market, for female bastards seemingly fared no better or worse than male bastards. That history and literary representation do not coincide, but comment upon each other, is not surprising, for the gender distinction in the literature is largely shaped by narrative concerns. The male bastard has many dramatic possibilities--as sexual adventurer, traveler, aspirant to power--which the female bastard seemingly lacks. …

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