ON NOT BEING AN ORPHAN
Victorian novelists notoriously relied on orphanhood to foreshadow the exceptionality of a hero's or heroine's adult life; dead or missing parents often seem a prerequisite for an interesting plot. 1 The characters for which Francis Strong has been seen as a model in George Eliot Middlemarch and Rhoda Broughton Belinda are orphans; Dorothea Brooke and Belinda Churchill are each under the nominal guardianship of loving but sometimes unwise older relatives and each has a single sister who is a loyal, commonsensical contrast to the imaginative exceptionality of the central character. But although the Strong family--and the Dilke and Pattison families discussed in the next two chapters--produced members whose stories have circulated in public texts and whose lives have been written as narratives of exceptional characters, neither Francis Strong nor the other "characters" whose childhoods I describe were orphaned as children.
Biographical writing often presents childhoods as preludes if not origins, but rather than orphaning the central figure, it tends to offer families as a backdrop for exceptionality, a fire in which subjectivity is forged or at least scorched, or a microcosm of "historical context." But families are never just idiosyncratic psychic configurations or instances of ideal types within schemas of broad-based demographic trends. Inscribing lives into broader family stories should not mean taking an exceptional individual and locating her in an unmediated "real" by placing her in a family. Families too tell themselves through stories they do not fully control but which are constructed within generic conventions and available languages of natural and unnatural, healthy or deviant domesticities, just as they participate in larger historical stories of the material and ideological organization of family life. Some narratives of family life are valorized or normalized, while others are stigmatized or cast as exceptional. 2