Eighteenth Century Orphans and Foundlings
“It is true that the original of this story is put into new words, and the style of the famous lady we here speak of is a little altered; particularly she is made to tell her own tale in modester words that she told it at first, the copy which came first to hand having been written in language more like one still in Newgate than one grown penitent and humble, as she afterwards pretends to be.”
Daniel Defoe in his Preface to MOLL FLANDERS
There are numerous fictional tales where a traumatic orphan background is the starting point of a life story. The classics of course are Jane in JANE EYRE and Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but an even earlier fictional life began in even more difficult circumstances. And it was the life of one Moll Flanders.
Daniel Defoe in MOLL FLANDERS (1722) tells us straight away that she was born in Newgate Prison but then Moll herself takes over the narrative herself and gives the reader a far more detailed background of her history. And it’s worth quoting in full, for it offers a fascinating insight into the life of an orphan child in the first half the eighteenth century:
I have been told that in one of neighbour nations, whether it be in France or where else I know not, they have an order from the king, that when any criminal is condemned, either to die, or to the galleys, or to be transported, if they leave any children, as such are generally unprovided for, by the poverty or forfeiture of their parents, so they are immediately taken into the care of the Government, and put into a hospital called the House of Orphans, where they are bred up, clothed, fed, taught, and when fit to go out, are placed out to trades or to services, so as to be well able to provide for themselves by an honest, industrious behaviour.
Had this been the custom in our country, I had not been left a poor desolate girl without friends, without clothes, without help or helper in the world, as was my fate; and by which I was not only exposed to very great distresses, even before I was capable either of understanding my case or how to amend it, but brought into a course of life which was not only scandalous in itself, but which in its ordinary course tended to the swift destruction both of soul and body.
But the case was otherwise here. My mother was convicted of felony for a certain petty theft scarce worth naming, viz. having an opportunity of borrowing three pieces of fine holland of a certain draper in Cheapside. The circumstances are too long to repeat, and I have heard them related so many ways, that I can scarce be certain which is the right account.
However it was, this they all agree in, that my mother pleaded her belly, and being found quick with child, she was respited for about seven months; in which time having brought me into the world, and being about again, she was called down, as they term it, to her former judgment, but obtained the favour of being transported to the plantations, and left me about half a year old; and in bad hands, you may be sure.
This is too near the first hours of my life for me to relate anything of myself but by hearsay; it is enough to mention, that as I was born in such an unhappy place, I had no parish to have recourse to for my nourishment in my infancy; nor can I give the least account how I was kept alive, other than that, as I have been told, some relation of my mother’s took me away for a while as a nurse, but at whose expense, or by whose direction, I know nothing at all of it.
The first account that I can recollect, or could ever learn of myself, was that I had wandered among a crew of those people they call gypsies, or Egyptians; but I believe it was but a very little while that I had been among them, for I had not had my skin discoloured or blackened, as they do very young to all the children they carry about with them; nor can I tell how I came among them, or how I got from them.
It was at Colchester, in Essex, that those people left me; and I have a notion in my head that I left them there (that is, that I hid myself and would not go any farther with them), but I am not able to be particular in that account; only this I remember, that being taken up by some of the parish officers of Colchester, I gave an account that I came into the town with the gypsies, but that I would not go any farther with them, and that so they had left me, but whither they were gone that I knew not, nor could they expect it of me; for though they send round the country to inquire after them, it seems they could not be found.
I was now in a way to be provided for; for though I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law, yet as my case came to be known, and that I was too young to do any work, being not above three years old, compassion moved the magistrates of the town to order some care to be taken of me, and I became one of their own as much as if I had been born in the place.
In the provision they made for me, it was my good hap to be put to nurse, as they call it, to a woman who was indeed poor but had been in better circumstances, and who got a little livelihood by taking such as I was supposed to be, and keeping them with all necessaries, till they were at a certain age, in which it might be supposed they might go to service or get their own bread.
This woman had also had a little school, which she kept to teach children to read and to work; and having, as I have said, lived before that in good fashion, she bred up the children she took with a great deal of art, as well as with a great deal of care.
But that which was worth all the rest, she bred them up very religiously, being herself a very sober, pious woman, very house-wifely and clean, and very mannerly, and with good behaviour. So that in a word, expecting a plain diet, coarse lodging, and mean clothes, we were brought up as mannerly and as genteelly as if we had been at the dancing-school.
I was continued here till I was eight years old, when I was terrified with news that the magistrates (as I think they called them) had ordered that I should go to service. I was able to do but very little service wherever I was to go, except it was to run of errands and be a drudge to some cookmaid, and this they told me of often, which put me into a great fright; for I had a thorough aversion to going to service, as they called it (that is, to be a servant), though I was so young; and I told my nurse, as we called her, that I believed I could get my living without going to service, if she pleased to let me; for she had taught me to work with my needle, and spin worsted, which is the chief trade of that city, and I told her that if she would keep me, I would work for her, and I would work very hard.
I talked to her almost every day of working hard; and, in short, I did nothing but work and cry all day, which grieved the good, kind woman so much, that at last she began to be concerned for me, for she loved me very well.
One day after this, as she came into the room where all we poor children were at work, she sat down just over against me, not in her usual place as mistress, but as if she set herself on purpose to observe me and see me work. I was doing something she had set me to; as I remember, it was marking some shirts which she had taken to make, and after a while she began to talk to me. ‘Thou foolish child,’ says she, ‘thou art always crying (for I was crying then); ‘prithee, what dost cry for?’ ‘Because they will take me away,’ says I, ‘and put me to service, and I can’t work housework.’ ‘Well, child,’ says she, ‘but though you can’t work housework, as you call it, you will learn it in time, and they won’t put you to hard things at first.’ ‘Yes, they will,’ says I, ‘and if I can’t do it they will beat me, and the maids will beat me to make me do great work, and I am but a little girl and I can’t do it’; and then I cried again, till I could not speak any more to her.
This moved my good motherly nurse, so that she from that time resolved I should not go to service yet; so she bid me not cry, and she would speak to Mr. Mayor, and I should not go to service till I was bigger.
Well, this did not satisfy me, for to think of going to service was such a frightful thing to me, that if she had assured me I should not have gone till I was twenty years old, it would have been the same to me; I should have cried, I believe, all the time, with the very apprehension of its being to be so at last.
When she saw that I was not pacified yet, she began to be angry with me. ‘And what would you have?’ says she; ‘don’t I tell you that you shall not go to service till your are bigger?’ ‘Ay,’ said I, ‘but then I must go at last.’ ‘Why, what?’ said she; ‘is the girl mad? What would you be – a gentlewoman?’ ‘Yes,’ says I, and cried heartily till I roared out again.
The folklore tropes are clear enough but notice too Moll’s ambition, for, as she says, her aim is to become a ‘gentlewoman’, meaning, in the early eighteenth century, one of high social position or one who attends a lady of high rank. Well, good for her – and why not!
“‘I am giving an account of what was, not of what ought or ought not to be.’”
Moll Flanders, written ‘from her own Memorandums’ by Daniel Defoe
“Though the birth of an heir by his beloved sister was a circumstance of great joy to Mr Allworthy, yet it did not alienate his affections from the little foundling, to whom he had been godfather, had given his own name of Thomas, and whom he had hitherto seldom failed of visiting, at least once a day, in his nursery.”
From Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES
A Foundling’s Tale
Henry Fielding’s comic TOM JONES (1749) is arguable the most famous – and possibly the greatest – foundling story in fiction. Indeed, Coleridge praised it as one of the most perfect plots ever planned. And as with Defoe’s MOLL FLANDERS, it is worth quoting one of the opening chapters in detail to illustrate some of the attitudes towards babes thought illegitimate in the mid-eighteenth century:
Mr Allworthy had been absent a full quarter of a year in London, on some very particular business, though I know not what it was; but judge of its importance by its having detained him so long from home, whence he had not been absent a month at a time during the space of many years. He came to his house very late in the evening, and after a short supper with his sister, retired much fatigued to his chamber. Here, having spent some minutes on his knees–a custom which he never broke through on any account–he was preparing to step into bed, when, upon opening the cloathes, to his great surprise he beheld an infant, wrapt up in some coarse linen, in a sweet and profound sleep, between his sheets. He stood some time lost in astonishment at this sight; but, as good nature had always the ascendant in his mind, he soon began to be touched with sentiments of compassion for the little wretch before him. He then rang his bell, and ordered an elderly woman-servant to rise immediately, and come to him; and in the meantime was so eager in contemplating the beauty of innocence, appearing in those lively colours with which infancy and sleep always display it, that his thoughts were too much engaged to reflect that he was in his shirt when the matron came in. She had indeed given her master sufficient time to dress himself; for out of respect to him, and regard to decency, she had spent many minutes in adjusting her hair at the looking-glass, notwithstanding all the hurry in which she had been summoned by the servant, and though her master, for aught she knew, lay expiring in an apoplexy, or in some other fit.
It will not be wondered at that a creature who had so strict a regard to decency in her own person, should be shocked at the least deviation from it in another. She therefore no sooner opened the door, and saw her master standing by the bedside in his shirt, with a candle in his hand, than she started back in a most terrible fright, and might perhaps have swooned away, had he not now recollected his being undrest, and put an end to her terrors by desiring her to stay without the door till he had thrown some cloathes over his back, and was become incapable of shocking the pure eyes of Mrs Deborah Wilkins, who, though in the fifty-second year of her age, vowed she had never beheld a man without his coat. Sneerers and prophane wits may perhaps laugh at her first fright; yet my graver reader, when he considers the time of night, the summons from her bed, and the situation in which she found her master, will highly justify and applaud her conduct, unless the prudence which must be supposed to attend maidens at that period of life at which Mrs Deborah had arrived, should a little lessen his admiration.
When Mrs Deborah returned into the room, and was acquainted by her master with the finding the little infant, her consternation was rather greater than his had been; nor could she refrain from crying out, with great horror of accent as well as look, “My good sir! what’s to be done?” Mr Allworthy answered, she must take care of the child that evening, and in the morning he would give orders to provide it a nurse. “Yes, sir,” says she; “and I hope your worship will send out your warrant to take up the hussy its mother, for she must be one of the neighbourhood; and I should be glad to see her committed to Bridewell, and whipt at the cart’s tail. Indeed, such wicked sluts cannot be too severely punished. I’ll warrant ‘tis not her first, by her impudence in laying it to your worship.” “In laying it to me, Deborah!” answered Allworthy: “I can’t think she hath any such design. I suppose she hath only taken this method to provide for her child; and truly I am glad she hath not done worse.” “I don’t know what is worse,” cries Deborah, “than for such wicked strumpets to lay their sins at honest men’s doors; and though your worship knows your own innocence, yet the world is censorious; and it hath been many an honest man’s hap to pass for the father of children he never begot; and if your worship should provide for the child, it may make the people the apter to believe; besides, why should your worship provide for what the parish is obliged to maintain? For my own part, if it was an honest man’s child, indeed–but for my own part, it goes against me to touch these misbegotten wretches, whom I don’t look upon as my fellow-creatures. Faugh! how it stinks! It doth not smell like a Christian. If I might be so bold to give my advice, I would have it put in a basket, and sent out and laid at the churchwarden’s door. It is a good night, only a little rainy and windy; and if it was well wrapt up, and put in a warm basket, it is two to one but it lives till lit is found in the morning. But if it should not, we have discharge dour duty in taking proper care of it; and it is, perhaps, better for such creatures to die in a state of innocence, than to grow up and imitate their mothers; for nothing better can be expected of them.”
There were some strokes in this speech which perhaps would have offended Mr Allworthy, had he strictly attended to it; but he had now got one of his fingers into the infant’s hand, which, by its gentle pressure, seeming to implore his assistance, had certainly out-pleaded the eloquence of Mrs Deborah, had it been ten times greater than it was. He now gave Mrs Deborah positive orders to take the child to her own bed, and to call up a maid-servant to provide it pap, and other things, against it waked. He likewise ordered that proper cloathes should be procured for it early in the morning, and that it should be brought to himself as soon as he was stirring.
Such was the discernment of Mrs Wilkins, and such the respect she bore her master, under whom she enjoyed a most excellent place, that her scruples gave way to his peremptory commands; and she took the child under her arms, without any apparent disgust at the illegality of its birth; and declaring it was a sweet little infant, walked off with it to her own chamber.
A clue as the true identity and origin of the foundling can be seen, with a little of hindsight, in the giveaway line ‘Mr Allworthy had been absent a full quarter of a year’. The mother, you realise, when looking again at the book, is someone in Allworthy’s own household, but, dear reader, didn’t I tell you that the Squire was away and so he would not have noticed her with child.
Again a foundling is not strictly speaking an orphan, but Tom, as he is called, after Mr Allworthy himself, is illegitimate and, again, is essentially an orphan child in story terms. And what a rambunctious story it is!
‘Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.’