Nicola here, talking slightly tongue-in-cheek about a certain trope in fiction, that of birth order. The concept of the “heir and the spare” is something that has been discussed quite a lot lately and it’s a theme that those of us who read historical romance are very familiar with. The noble family is desperate to have an heir (usually male, since women can’t inherit the majority of British titles) and that person will be expected to carry on the traditions of the family, inherit the title and any entailed fortune that goes with it. They will be in line to take the responsibility for the crumbling stately pile and if it really is crumbling, find an heiress whose inheritance fortunately comes from trade or some other source, to prop it up. It feels like a heavy weight for the heir to carry. The emphasis here is on responsibility and continuity. However, there’s a snag. What if something happens to the heir? Then you will need a spare – two boys at least – to ensure the continuation of the family line. So, to be on the safe side, most families try not to stop at one.
So many Regency romances tangle with the laws of primogeniture—the right, by law or custom, of the firstborn male child to inheritthe family estate–that I thought I should expound a little on the topic.
In today’s world, it’s obvious that leaving entire estates and titles to the oldest son is grossly unfair to everyone concerned, including the son who doesn’t want—or is too incompetent to take on—the enormous responsibility of running a sheep farm and sitting in parliament. But the laws were established in medieval times when large expanses of land meant protection and power. The king granted lands in return for service, and his lords expected the same of their sons. To divide the land would be to divide families and the armies serving king and country and weaken defenses.
Cara/Andrea here, As I sit here amidst piles of unpacked boxes and stuff to be sorted into its new places, I am breathing a sigh of relief that the ordeal of moving from one home to another is over. I’m usually able to stay on an even keel through all the inevitable storms and squalls that spring up in the course of Life. But this was incredible stressful. There is, of course, the physical process of sorting through your belongings and deciding what to keep and what is merely weighing you down. That can be emotional. However, far more emotional is both leaving a familiar place, where all your things have a regular place and surround you with a sense of order and continuity, and finding a new place where you feel you can create a sense of “home.” In some ways, change is good! It challenges you to reassess a lot about yourself things, and see things in a new light. But in some ways it’s also absolutely terrifying.
Which got me to thinking about moving in the Regency, especially for women. It suddenly occurred to me that “home” and the prospect of losing a secure place in the world, plays an integral part in many of Austen’s novels. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion—actual displacement from a familiar place or fear of losing it play a central role in the stories. Mansfield Park also has a strong theme of “home” as Fanny struggles to figure where and how she fits in.
Where is your place in the world? I had the freedom to decide I was ready for a change and then take independent action to make it happen, but for our Regency sisters, it wasn’t quite so simple. For one thing, few ladies had the financial means to make such decisions on their own. Unless they were lucky enough to have received a bequest from some rich relative of property or money, they had little hope of establishing themselves in their own place. Of course, if they were married, the situation became even stickier, as the legalities of the time made them little more than a husband’s property, like his horses and his hounds.
In the higher circles of English society, there was also the worry of a husband passing away without a male child, leaving his widow and daughters at the mercy of the heir, who by rights can toss them out on their ear. In this light, Mrs. Bennett’s obsession with marrying off her daughters—especially to a rich man who will take care of the rest of them—becomes a tad more sympathetic. Worry over the future was no trifling matter. Austen shows us this in Sense and Sensibility. The Dashwoods must make the best of being forced from their home when Dashwood’s son by his first marriage inherits the house. They are offered a cottage by distant relations, and must establish a new life. Their story, of course, has a happy ending, but I imagine that many real-life situations did not. Slowly sinking into genteel poverty was not uncommon. The sense of dislocation and helplessness must have been frightening and frustrating.
So ladies were pretty much dependent on making a making a good match or the goodwill of their family to care for them as spinsters or widows. Now, family dynamics likely haven’t changed much over the centuries. Relationships are, say we say complicated, and it’s the rare family whose interactions are nothing but sweetness and light. Conflicts and resentments can arise, making the hierarchy even more complex. A brother’s wife may resent the crowding and extra mouths to feed, or expect an unwed sister to serve as a nursery maid. An imperious grandmother may treat a poor relation as an unpaid servant, there to do her bidding at every hour of the day. Any female with spirit or a lively intellect could very feel stifled and frustrated by a lack of independence. For a gentry girl, an option could be seeking a position as a governess or paid companion, but that was in a sense simply jumping from the frying pan into the fire. For an aristocratic lady, there wasn’t even that choice—if she didn’t marry, she would likely find herself confined to world where the horizons were ever shrinking rather than expanding world.
So as I settle into my new digs, and surround myself with all the little things that are meaningful to me and create a sense of “home,” I reflect on how much as I love the Regency, I am glad to be living in the here and now. (But hey, I brought my oil lamps with me from the old house . . . there is something to be said for the best of both worlds!
So how about you? Have you ever moved, and did you find it as stressful as I did? What would you dislike most about living as a poor relation in a household? I would miss the privacy and the quiet time to read and reflect.
I was doing a little research into one of the Regency staples the other day – the rescued waif. This story standby typically involves a girl adopted into a noble family, treated as one of them, inheriting with the others.
Would this actually work? I asks meself.
So I look about a bit and decided,
loosely speaking — yes.
Strictly speaking — no.
And isn't that helpful?
speak of 'adoption' in a fuzzy, imprecise way. But there's an important distinction
between legally taking a child to stand in the position of a biological
child with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that versus assuming care and
custody of a child in a limited or informal way.
the 1920s, there was no formal legal mechanism for adopting children in
No. I didn't know that either.
I just love finding out stuff when I go researching.
"Why any kid would want to be an orphan is beyond me."
What you had in Britain was just a whole variety of fostering, indenture,
apprenticeship, and various less-formal-arrangement-ships . . . but
nothing that put the child on an equal footing with children born in a
working folk, from simple decency or from a desire for another pair of
working hands, would often take in a neighbor's child when the parents
died. Mistress Taylor down the road might take in a girl who could help with her little ones. The local vicar might find space for another scullery maid in
the kitchen. No official legal guardianship was established, but
everybody in the village likely sighed in relief and went on to other problems,
of which they doubtless had a plenitude.
apprenticeship was a mixed bag.
For parish orphans, it might be called
the poor man's guardianship. The contract gave the master rights over
the child, but also bound him to feed, clothe, care for the child, and
or her up in a trade. In
earlier centuries, apprentices were often treated as part of the
household — an extended quasi family of Master, servants and
apprentices. Even in 1820, in Rural Rides, Cobbett could still
speak of traditional farms where master and servants, dairymaids and the
farmer's daughters sat down at the same table, a disparate but united
Unfortunately, few localities had the
funds to bid children to desirable places. (One common form of charity was
to leave money in one's will to buy apprenticeships for poor boys.)
Some orphans got lucky. Some, like Oliver Twist, not so much.
Looking up into the upper echelons of society, since that's where the fictional orphan above will end up —
laws and customs of primogeniture meant that men of substance, titled
or untitled, would often consider themselves
responsible for a widespread group of family, friends and dependents.
They'd snabbled the property and money. The flip side of that
concentration of wealth was they were expected to take care of the
So your average Merchant Prince or belted earl (why belted
and how was everybody else holding up their trousers?) might have a
pack of widows, spinsters, dotty great uncles and assorted orphans,
only tenuously connected to him, land on his doorstep, expecting to be
Remember in Heyer's Frederica. Our heroine applies to the 'head of the family' — a very distant
cousin — for assistance. He was the winner in the big primogeniture
lotto. Time to pay up, bucko.
Another sort of fosterage was not uncommon. Couples without children of their own would often foster a child,
usually related, and raise it as their own. The child would inherit
from this couple through the will. For instance, Jane Austen's brother
Edward left his birth family to be fostered by a much richer cousin, Thomas Knight, and eventually inherited
the Knight estates.
Then there were guardianships. I do not know why Romance heroes and heroines are so unlucky, but there are just troops of them under some kind of guardianship.
There were several sorts of legal guardians.
First off were guardians in socage. This is for heirs and heiresses of landed property. You do not have real estate, this is not for you.
Blackstone says, "socage . . . who are also called
guardians by the common law. These take place only
when the minor is
entitled to some estate in lands, and then by the common law the
guardianship devolves upon his next of kin, to whom the inheritance
cannot possibly descent ; as, where the estate descended from his
father, in this case his uncle by the mother's side cannot possibly
inherit this estate, and therefore shall be the guardian .
For the law judges it improper to trust the person of an infant in his
hands, who may be possibility become heir to him." Blackstone's Commentaries
that is saying is that if the young woman has a piece of property —
say a nice house or half of Northumberland or something — her guardian will not be the
father's brother who is just bound to have wicked intentions toward her. The custody of the child goes to the closest blood
relative who cannot inherit, who will scheme to marry her off to his fish-lipped son.
have guardians by nature. That's going to be the father, first off, and
the mother, if the father is dead. When the father does not explicitly
appoint a guardian for a female
under sixteen, the guardian was the mother. Her guardianship extends
until the girl reaches 21. An mom doesn't get control of the property.
Only to the
custody of the child. A man will be appointed guardian for the property.
Joan Wolf's The Arrangement deals with a situation of this nature.
Finally, there's the 'guardian by statute', or 'testamentary
guardians'. This guardian is the one spelled out
in a will. If we want young Hannah Tweeting to be left in the care of Lord
Farthing, all we have to do is put Farthing's name in her father's will.
". . . enacts, that any father, under age or
of full age, may by deed or will dispose of the custody of his child,
either born or unborn, to any person, except a popish recusant, either
in possession or reversion, till such child attains the age of one and
twenty years." Blackstone's Commentaries
Only the father could appoint a guardian, not the mum. If the appointed guardian was
unable or unwilling to serve, the guardian didn't have the right to
substitute another. If nobody was named guardian or if the unfortunate man died, this ended in the Court of Chancery, where nobody wins. One didn't inherit a guardianship.
What all these formal and informal relationships had in common was that the child did
not legally become the child of the foster parents, equal in all
respects to those born to that couple. The relationship
between foster child and foster parent or between guardian and ward was always more limited than modern adoption.
In Her Ladyship's Companion, my heroine Melissa was abandoned on
the doorstep of a Vicarage and raised by the Vicar as his own. The
difference between a foster child taken in by kindness and a legally
adopted daughter of the modern sort becomes apparent when, upon the death of the Vicar,
poor Melissa is kicked out to fend for herself.
So, could a titled nobleman adopt a child?
As I say, sorta.
was looking at this subject, adoption, I ran down a mental list of fictional orphans – Jane Eyre, Heathcliff
in Wuthering Heights, (just about everybody in Wuthering Heights), Tom
Jones, Superman, Pip of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Fanny
Price, Moll Flanders, John Worthing (The Importance of Being Ernest),
Penelope Creed (Heyer's Corinthian), Tarzan.
My favorite is Kim.
I just like his sass and style.
So tell me, who is your favorite fictional orphan and why?
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