Orphans are everywhere in literature — Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, Oliver Twist, Daniel Deronda, and onwards to the present day. They are obviously useful to storytellers, and particularly to the writers of children’s books, who naturally want their heroes to undertake adventures without the controlling eye of ordinarily caring parents. The parents of Roald Dahl’s James have to be killed by a rhinoceros for his satisfyingly swashbuckling adventure in a flying giant peach to take place. L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, living with an aunt and uncle, is, we know, an orphan, but no trouble at all is taken over her loss — we just like to know that there’s no one keeping an eye on her.
They have to make their own way in life, brushing aside neglectful or brutal guardians. Although they are most readily associated with genres of literature close to folk tales, such as fantasy, surprisingly serious works of literature find orphans very useful. Thomas Mann’s Castorp in The Magic Mountain shows how full of potential the necessary initiative of a young adult in orphanhood can be.
Of course, frequently the figure of the orphan is used for heartbreaking ends – poor Eppie in Silas Marner, or Jo in Bleak House. But there is also the question of the briskly sensible orphan, unsentimental about his or her fate. Mildred, in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, assures the lachrymose Julian, sighing over his fiancée’s condition: ‘Well, of course, a lot of people over 30 are orphans. I am myself. In fact I was an orphan in my twenties.’
Other novelists take a sharply cynical view of the condition — the appalling Connolly children in Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, for instance. When, in Our Mutual Friend it becomes known that the millionaire Boffins are searching for a suitable orphan for adoption, excitement breaks out:
The instant it became known that anybody wanted an orphan, up started some affectionate relative of the orphan who put a price upon the orphan’s head. The suddenness of an orphan’s rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange.The market was rigged in various artful ways. Counterfeit stock got into circulation. Parents boldly represented themselves as dead, and brought their orphan with them. Genuine orphan-stock was surreptitiously withdrawn from the market.
Now that the state of being an orphan is relatively rare in the West, we have a tendency to assume that novelists were preoccupied with orphans for abstract, narrative reasons. But of course orphans were very much more common in ages of high mortality. What to do with them, and how institutions could fulfil the duty of care that ought to fall to parents, became questions of public debate from the 16th century onwards.
Jeremy Seabrook’s book is full of heartrending glimpses of suffering, most of which, though not all, are connected to orphans. There are the occasional stories of orphans who coped very well, or who were looked after by thoughtful and generous people: Alan Johnson describes in his autobiography being taken on by his barely older teenage sister, providing a good example of what could be achieved. It is also true, as Seabrook acknowledges, that rich orphans were not likely to have been neglected. The inheritance of an orphaned child would not be available to him or her: guardians fought for the right to take charge of their property (this happened to Chaucer’s father in 1324). Their emotional deprivation was often real, but at least their worldly interests would be considered carefully by the adults around them. A little down the social scale, the London Orphan Asylum was founded around the turn of the 19th century ‘for the reception of destitute orphans, particularly those descending from respectable parents’. The difference between the deserving poor and the others would be visited on their children’s fates.
Nevertheless, most orphans led a precarious existence. The Elizabethan Poor Law gave magistrates and parish officials the power to bind over orphans and pauper children as apprentices. They were often vulnerable. One 18-year-old servant was removed from the household of a couple in Norwich in 1599 because both master and mistress had syphilis — the inference being that it was assumed that masters would sleep with their young female servants. Orphans could be snatched from the street and sold into servitude. One case, quoted by Seabrook, shows 70 young people being shipped from Aberdeen to Virginia in 1743 and sold for £16 each.
It was taken for granted that the poor or orphaned would be set to work. A 1570 census describes children as young as six as ‘idle’, and children of four were bound apprentices. Other ingenious ways of making money out of children, even on their behalf, were sometimes discovered. A small girl, in Queen Anne’s reign, is recorded as having her hair cut off and sold for £4, to be kept for her at 5 per cent interest until her majority. You did not need to be deprived of all support to be vulnerable to this treatment: up to 80 per cent of children in 19th-century orphan institutions had at least one parent living, like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle.
The savage brutality of these institutions carried on well into the 20th century. It is shocking to hear, from a witness called Hetty Day, that in an orphanage in the 1930s ‘you were not known by name, only a number. I was G80, my sister G90, my brother B52 — Girl and Boy.’ Of course, individual cases of terrible abuse continue to the present day. Victoria Climbié died because she was abandoned to the care of an ‘aunt’, who promised a better life in Europe. There are, too, parts of the world where 19th-century standards of care and institutionalisation still exist; Seabrook mentions China and Bangladesh.
I wondered, however, in the course of this gruellingly miserable book, whether the subject is a clear and interesting one. Seabrook shows a definite tendency to wander away from orphans to examine other examples of human misery, such as infanticide and baby farming. When he turns to individual cases of famous orphans, it is hard to see that the condition shaped their lives in any similar way. J.S. Bach was clearly a self-reliant and well-balanced person, while Marilyn Monroe was obviously unstable. Whatever Keats, Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Jobs, Coleridge, Poe and Ella Fitzgerald had in common, they were not vulnerable to the same degree.
There is something quite comic about Seabrook claiming that ‘many suffer — or are driven to — early death; sometimes, it seems in pursuit of those whose love they never received, or in collusion with their abandonment’. As a piece of cod-Freudian explanation, I don’t think this is supported, as Seabrook claims, by Keats’s death from consumption or John Lennon being shot by a deranged fan.
There is also a definite tendency to take the approved position. Grenfell, for instance, is ‘a grisly reminder of official neglect and indifference towards poor people’. Seabrook complains about the brutality of Dhaka garment-factory owners; but far from all of them run 19th-century-style sweatshops; many are proper, enlightened philanthropists who organise educational programmes for their employees.
The voices of the orphans themselves only rarely sound out with any individuality. They were children who were usually discouraged from saying anything that wasn’t dutiful to the institution or to their paid guardians, and frequently their statements, if they exist, touchingly parrot the approved phrases of their day: ‘I fear everyone is going to leave me — I suppose that is the fear of the orphan, I am frightened of rejection’; or ‘It was like it wasn’t me. My demons took over’; or ‘I alternated between self-pity and anger at the hurt she had inflicted on me.’ Too often it’s as if there are kindly social workers waiting to hear what they expect to hear. Only occasionally, as in the superb testimonies of Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor in the 1840s, do the voices of orphans sound truthful and human.
This was always a vulnerable and horribly neglected part of human society; and those who endured it were sometimes strong, but mostly defeated by their situation. It is almost impossible now to reach these people’s lives. Their voices were stifled from the start.