I’ve snuck in very late to write this post. It’s the middle of the night, and all the dancing is long over. The lobster patties and ratafia have all been consumed and cleared away. I’m feeling rather small and alone in the Ballroom.
Before I was a writer, I was a librarian. And in my librarian days, I worked mostly with children and teens, and so I studied a lot of children’s literature.
In one workshop I attended, the instructor pointed out that most of the great child protagonists in literature are literal or de facto orphans–because nothing of much interest can happen to a child who has loving, watchful parents. True, isn’t it? Well-tended children hardly ever end up riding boxcars across the country by themselves, or single-handedly battling the forces of evil.
The same could be said for much in romance. So many of our favorite, most memorable characters either have no parents, or bad parents.
(Coincidentally, this is why I have thus far resisted any urge to write about the children of my characters. Because something dreadful would need to happen to them, if they were going to be interesting at all–and that would be dreadful for their parents, who are supposed to be living Happily Ever After. But I digress.)
As I was writing Any Duchess Will Do, I enjoyed researching the scenes set at the Foundling Hospital, which was for many years not only England’s biggest orphanage, but its largest and most efficiently run charity.
The Foundling Hospital was founded by a sea captain, Thomas Coram, in the 1740s. Captain Coram had grown sick at heart from walking through the streets of his neighborhood and often coming upon a newborn infant who had been left outside, abandoned by a mother who could not care for her child. The Foundling Hospital originated as a safe place for unwed mothers to surrender their infants without any questions being asked. (In usage of the time, the word “hospital” didn’t refer a medical facility–just a welcoming place, as in “hospitality.”)
Captain Coram gathered a large number of patrons, from all walks of life, to raise money for the Hospital and govern it. He was, apparently, a marvel of fundraising. Many of the first governors and patrons were wealthy or highly placed aristocrats. Some of them were artists and musicians, including Handel, Hogarth, Gainsborough and others. The building was grand, and the public gallery was full of donated art.
Upon their arrival at the Hospital, all infants were christened and given a new name. In the beginning, the names were often given to honor benefactors and governors of the charity. They tried to never repeat a name. But as the years went by, with thousands of children passing through their doors, the staff had to get more and more creative with naming. Evidently, they started using names of streets and avenues, and eventually even more random words, drawn from wherever they could find them. That’s why my unfortunate orphan in Any Duchess Will Do got named Hubert Terrapin.
When a mother surrendered her infant, she left a “token” for future identification and reunification (though most of the children never saw their birth mothers again). These ranged from a bit of jewelry, to a button, to an embroidered scrap of cloth. These tokens were meticulously recorded and stored, and many of them are on display at the Foundling Museum today.
From Oliver Twist to Lil’ Orphan Annie to Harry Potter, orphaned characters have a way of capturing readers’ hearts and imaginations. Who are some of your favorite orphans, in romance or other books and movies?