MAY / JUNE 2016: BY CHARITY BISHOP
When Emma Woodhouse tries to secure a higher-born match for Harriet Smith than a local man, Mr. Knightley scoffs, “[Is it] a degradation for illegitimacy to marry a respected, intelligent farmer?”
Emma has higher ambitions for Harriet. Local parson Mr. Elton makes overtures to Emma of a “distasteful nature,” and she snubs him. He is lower class. In her mind, Harriet is not beneath him. Mr. Elton disagrees; Harriet is illegitimate.
Illegitimacy in the modern age is a non-issue. Few object. In bygone eras, it was scandalous. Pregnancy outside marriage lost women reputations, social positions, and lives. Les Miserables’ Fantine enters a life of prostitution; having a child disallows honest labor. Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is raped and ostracized. The heroine of The Scarlet Letter wears public shame by sewing “A” (Adultery) onto her garments, while her lover, the local pastor, escapes detection. Anna Karenina scandalizes Russian society by having her lover’s child. While a hard man, Karenin understands this girl will have no future without his name’s protection.
The climax of Pride & Prejudice finds Lydia living unmarried with Mr. Wickham, forcing Mr. Darcy to prevent scandal from ruining the family. Highborn households cannot associate with immoral behaviors… or illegitimate children.
Illegitimacy plagues the heroine of Anthony Trollope’s novel, Doctor Thorne. Mary does not know the true story of her birth, or who her parents were, but understands the “taint” of illegitimacy. It persuades her to dissuade the man she loves from making romantic overtures. His mother, likewise, does not favor the match—less due to Mary’s birth and more because she has no money to compensate for it.
In a poignant scene, Mary tells her uncle, Doctor Thorne, that she understands his reason for dissuading her from marrying Frank. She imagines the doctor believes Mary is “unworthy” because she is illegitimate. It is untrue but shows how fixed Mary’s worldview is, influenced by the society around her. Mary’s kindness matters less to some than the state of her birth.
I once heard, “There are no illegitimate children—only illegitimate parents.” Mary cannot help illegitimacy. She had no part in it, yet suffers for it.
By the end of the novel, Mary has money—but is still illegitimate and from a “low-born family.” Frank’s parents are in debt for a hundred thousand pounds to a local baron who “purchased” a title, after making a fortune the old-fashioned way (with labor!). Trollope mocks social classes and stations by exploiting their weaknesses; showing the kind-hearted illegitimate Mary, the hard-working, industrious Doctor Thorne, the ill-tempered “richest” man of low birth in town, and the penniless highborn snobs. Everyone is out to get something, or advance in station… except Mary.
Stories from earlier generations grant insights into the era. It is no longer scandalous that Margaret Hale embraced a man at a train station without a chaperone, or that Lady Dedlock bore a child out of wedlock. The former prejudices, mistreatments, and snobbery show how humanity fails to live according to Jesus’ simple instructions: “love one another,” and “treat one another as you want to be treated.” Society prefers to enforce rules and punish “misbehavior.” The best stories show love breaking beyond social or prejudicial barriers and illustrate the best of the human heart. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!