Adoption in the Regency

I was doing a little rTelling storyesearch 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?

Sometimes we
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. 

Until
the 1920s, there was no formal legal mechanism for adopting children in
Great Britain.
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."
Miss Hannigan

What you had in Britain was just a whole variety of fostering, indenture,
wardship, guardianship,
apprenticeship, and various less-formal-arrangement-ships . . .  but
nothing that put the child on an equal footing with children born in a
marriage. 

So how did they manage the whole orphaned-child problem?Late c19 photoe

Ordinary
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.

If no
one stepped forward to care for orphans, they 'fell upon the parish',
which was a hard place to land.
George-cruikshank-oliver-asking-for-more-illustration-for-oliver-twist-by-charles-dickens-colour-litho-_i-G-65-6508-IHN6100ZLocal officials might solve the
problem of these pesky orphans by apprenticing them. 

This
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
train him
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
household.

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 —

The
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
family.  

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
provided for. 

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
William Blackstonewhen 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   

What
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. 

Second, we
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.

While I
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?

One lucky commenter (US only) will win a copy of Mischief and Mistletoe.

Heroines in an era lacking women’s rights

Anne here, blogging on a question sent in by Maureen Emmons (and thus Maureen wins one of my books.)

On women's rights:  Before women had the right to vote I was under the impression that they had no rights at all.  If this is correct then do you take this into consideration when writing your female characters?

Thanks for the interesting question, Maureen. It's quite a complex area, so forgive me, experts, if I over simplify. And feel free to explain in more depth in the comments section.

Single Women retained much
It's not quite correct to say women had no rights at all. They were limited, depending on the woman's marital status. If a woman never married, she retained the rights to any property she had inherited or any money she earned, as any individual would. In practice, daughters most commonly inherited personal property and sums of money, while sons inherited land, houses, businesses and the like, but if there were no sons, women could inherit everything, unless the estate was entailed. 

Entailed means there was a legal agreement in place that prevented a current owner from selling or otherwise disposing of property such as estates or houses or land. It was designed to protect the heir's inheritance, and it took a legal act to break an entail. 

Brides Married Women lost everything
Married women pretty much lost all their individual rights on marriage. By the law of the time, the act of marriage united two persons into one, and thus all property and rights were held by the husband. Children were likewise held to be the property of the husband, as was in effect the woman — she had no right to deny her husband his conjugal rights to her body. He also had the right in law to any money she earned. WmarriageC

But marriage settlements could help.
Having no legal rights in marriage didn't mean that all women were entirely unprotected, however. Many families took great care to draw up marriage settlements — contracts in which the welfare of the women were safeguarded as far as possible. Marriage settlements could contain agreements that some or all of the property a woman brought to a marriage would revert to her after the death of her husband. These settlements would also stipulate income — the  allowance a married woman might be paid quarterly or annually (sometimes referred to as 'pin money') and there might be conditions about future children and what they might inherit.  Images

Marriage settlements would also make provision for a woman after widowhood. A dowager is a widow who lives under conditions that would have been set up in her marriage settlements.  A 'dower house' is a house set aside for the use of a widow until her death, and the 'jointure' you may have read of is the annual income set aside for the support of a widow. 

These provisions would be set out in in legal contracts signed by the heads of both families before the wedding, and thus her rights would be protected by law. These rights were usually overseen, however, by a male relative on her behalf. She still had little personal control.

A widow could inherit money or property from her husband, and retain it, just as an unmarried woman could. However the only way she could keep it and still marry again was to place it in a trust.

It all depended on the luck of the draw
In summary, a woman's welfare more or less depended on the benevolence of her husband or male relatives, and on how clever and comprehensive the settlements before her marriage were. Some women's rights were gradually introduced long before they were given the right to vote, but that's a subject for another blog.

The Law and my heroines
As for how I deal with this situation in writing my female characters, it's a balancing act. And an opportunity.

I don't believe human nature has changed all that much over time. Expectations change, laws change, rights change but people are still people. I also think that in most day to day life we don't tend to resort to legal rights. It's the kind of thing we only think about if we're denied them. 

The lack of rights that women chafed against most in the Regency era were things like control of property, income, custody and access to their children, and the right to their own bodies — the right to say no to a husband, in effect. These were everyday realities for my heroines, and I try to imagine what any woman of spirit would do when confronted by them.

I've used some of these situations to put my heroines in a difficult position at the beginning of a novel. I've often had a heroine left in a vulnerable position as a result of her father's lack of care — Gallant Waif,  An Honorable Thief — or as a result of a husband's improvidence — The Virtuous Widow. AG-PRake-1

In The Perfect Rake, the sisters were under the control of a violent and unbalanced guardian — their grandfather. He had the right to beat them, and nobody would step in to act on their behalf, so they took their future into their own hands and ran away. Their solution also involves wills and settlements, but it's too complicated to explain here.

In The Stolen Princess, the heroine's main concern is to protect her son from his uncle, who has designs on his inheritance. Again, all she can do is flee, and in the end, she makes a convenient marriage for the protection the hero can provide.

In His Captive Lady, at the beginning of the story, the heroine had a baby out of wedlock, her father took the child away as she slept and she has no idea where her baby is. In To Catch a Bride, the heroine is very much regarded as a piece of property, and she uses all kinds of stratagems to avoid discovery. (To explain any further would be a spoiler, sorry.)

BridebyMistake68kb In my upcoming January book, Bride by Mistake, (see the beautiful cover on the left) the heroine's cousin berates her for losing her mother's fortune by marrying in haste without having proper marriage settlements drawn up to protect her interests and those of her children. 

Ramón glowered. He turned to Isabella. “Did you not negotiate the marriage settlements?”

Isabella flung him a scornful look. Of course she had not negotiated settlements. She was thirteen and fleeing from her violent pig of a cousin.

To Luke she said, “So, you would leave me entirely to your mother’s mercy?”

“Why not? My mother is very nice,” he assured her.

She narrowed her eyes at him. Luke smiled, confirming everything she’d thought. She bared her teeth at him in what was not exactly a smile. Oh, she would make him pay for this.

Ramón exploded. “You stupid bitch! Marrying an Englishman without thought or preparation. Dazzled by his pretty face!” He smashed his big meaty fist against the wall, making them all jump. “The money belongs here, here at Valle Verde! And now it’s lost, lost to you and lost to Valle Verde.”

“And lost to you, which is some compensation, at least,” Isabella said.

Ramón shook his head. “You should have married me! This is what comes of running from your family—you marry a stranger, an Englishman!” He spat.

“Still better than marrying you!” Isabella flashed.

“You brainless little slut, he’s not going to look after you. Don’t you understand? When he dies you’ll be penniless, no better than a beggar, dependent on the charity of strangers—”

“I’d rather be penniless than married to a pig like y—”

Ramón raised his hand. And found a sword at his throat.

“Lay one finger on my wife and you’re a dead man,” Luke said softly.

****** 
I don't give my heroines modern attitudes, but because I want modern readers to understand and identify with them, I try to show my heroines being strong and independent thinkers within the restrictions of their times. They use their wits, their brains and their courage to change their situations.

And then there are my heroes. I don't give my heroes modern sensibilities either, but as men of honor, they are protective and fair-minded toward women. And gorgeous. <G> As I said earlier, a woman's situation in marriage very much depended on the attitude of her husband.

So as a writer, I try to give my heroines a happy ending a modern reader would be happy with, but without violating or distorting the realities of the time. But as I said, it's a balancing act. 

What about you? Does it bother you to read Regency era characters with modern attitudes?  I must confess, some writers can sweep me away so I barely notice it. It all comes down to what you look for most, historical accuracy or story. What do you look for?
And if you're a writer, how would you answer Maureen's question?