Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel

By Alison Lacroix; Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

Yet Edmund was beloved.

—Shakespeare, King Lear

Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the
eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship.

—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


7
The Stain of Illegitimacy: Gender, Law, and Trollopian Subversion

Martha C. Nussbaum


I. NATURE’S CHILDREN

ILLEGITIMACY IS BOTH legal disability and social stigma. So, at least, it has been in many places and times; and so it was in pre-Victorian and Victorian Britain. The two impediments were mutually reinforcing: legal exclusions imposed on “bastards” a debased social status, supporting and compounding varied forms of discrimination. And moral opprobrium directed at the child who is the fruit and evidence of a sinful sexual union was among the motivations for the imposition of legal penalties.

The common law of illegitimacy was for the most part gender-neutral, although the poor laws did impose a duty of maintenance on mothers alone—until they were challenged and amended in the 1840s. (A major advocate of change was Frances Trollope, whose popular novel Jessie Phillips [1844] had wide influence.) The social meaning of illegitimacy, however, was profoundly gendered—not surprisingly, given the asymmetrical meaning of sexual deviation for males and for females.

For a long tradition beginning at least with Shakespeare’s King Lear, the male bastard is a very attractive fellow. His parents’ putatively enthusiastic lovemaking transfers itself to him, and he is full of high spirits, sexually potent, and very attractive to women. He may be given to crime, but that is in the nature of his excluded and disadvantaged status. In effect, he is a representation of his parents’ sexual eagerness; and sexual eagerness in a male, though it sometimes leads to grief or even

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