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In the Family Way:
Illegitimacy Between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties
by Jane Robinson
ONE thing we have left behind in the last century is the shame of illegitimacy; between 1918 and today there has been a complete change in the way that society views children conceived out of wedlock. The plots of Victorian novels were full of secrets that had to be kept, secrets that would cast a stain on the family, but that today would be announced on Facebook. As Jessie, a mother of two illegitimate children conceived during the Great War, put it in an interview in the 1970s: 'People think you’re bad if you have had illegitimate children, but I wasn't.' Jessie's is one of the many voices collected in Jane Robinson’s shocking book, In the Family Way, which is a tragic litany of society's readiness to blame the most vulnerable for their own misfortunes.
It was always the mother's fault, of course, and it was seen as vitally important to separate these bad apples from the rest of society. One tool used by the state was the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, a malevolent piece of legislation that allowed women to be classed as moral imbeciles as well as mental ones; this included unmarried mothers who could not support themselves and those unwed mothers who were pregnant for the second time. Some of these women - who didn't even have to be medically diagnosed to be classed an 'imbecile', and who could be committed, if under 21, merely on the word of a parent or guardian - never emerged from the institutions in which they were incarcerated. The Act was not repealed until 1959.
In Ireland, after independence in 1922, the climate was just as bad. Thousands of unmarried mothers were committed to Magdalene homes, where they worked in slave-like conditions in the laundries. If they tried to escape, they were caught and returned by the garda. The children of these unhappy women were often sent abroad to be adopted - just like the child in the 2013 film Philomena. In 2011, 15 years after the last of these homes closed, the Irish government finally apologised to the Maggies, as they were called, for their treatment at the hands of the state. Robinson does not record whether the Catholic church has apologised for its part in this.
Illegitimacy in the first half of the 20th century had a taxonomy as intricate as that of miscegenation. There were 'natural' bastards (children born of parents free to marry who chose not to); 'spurious' ones (those who had an acknowledged mother but no known father); 'incestuous' ones; and 'sacrilegious' ones, where one of the parents was in holy orders and the abandoned baby was presumed to be illegitimate. During the First World War when illegitimacy rates soared, these unwanted children were treated with indifference at best, cruelty at worst. Robinson writes about the soldier who returned from the front and drowned the baby that his wife had had with another man. Bastard was a term of abuse so offensive that a troop of soldiers from the West Yorkshire regiment refused to go on duty because their drill sergeant had called them that. Twenty years later, a young child called Pat was forbidden by her uncle from entering his house because of her illegitimacy.
Growing up with the epithet bastard forever attached to your name was an unimaginable burden. There was a feeling that bad blood would out. As one lawyer wrote in the 1890s: 'It is probable they will inherit the moral flabbiness, the uncontrollable impulse, the selfishness and the lack of self-respect that characterises one or both of the birth parents.'
This book is full of heart-wrenching stories of young women kept in ignorance of the facts of life who fell pregnant and were then disowned by their parents. Girls would be sent to mother-and-baby homes where they would give birth, the baby would be adopted and they were expected to return home as if nothing had happened. Unmarried mothers were often given the courtesy title of Mrs Green. Many women gave up their babies thinking that by doing so they were guaranteeing them a better start in life, but as anyone who has read Jeanette Winterson's lacerating memoir of her adoptive mother, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, will know, being adopted was no guarantee of happiness.
One of the saddest chapters in what is a deeply troubling book is the story of the child migrants, many of them illegitimate, sent out to the colonies of Australia, Canada and Rhodesia - the last scheme ended as late as 1967. The Australian government welcomed these white children as a bulwark against the 'teeming millions of our Asiatic neighbours'. Often the mothers had no idea where their children were going (one thought that Rhodesia was the other side of Haywards Heath, a few miles from her home in Brighton). Some children thrived, but many grew up damaged and deracinated, their childhoods lost to a eugenic experiment.
The heroine of this book has to be Lettice Fisher, the founder in 1918 of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child. She campaigned for unmarried mothers and their babies to be given support and help without stigma. After the Second World War, her organisation even campaigned for the rights of German women who had been left pregnant by British soldiers. There was a similar problem in Britain with American troops, who fathered about 70,000 children. Many of the mothers were in the services ('rise with the lark and go to bed with a Wren' was a joke at the time) and few of these children ever got to know their birth fathers.
Robinson, who wrote the excellent Bluestockings, has a good eye for the human story and the affecting detail that brings alive the hypocritical moral landscape of the period, but I could have done with a little more historical rigour (she got many of her testimonies from an ad in Saga magazine). More analysis and less anecdote would have made this a more substantial book. One omission is a real explanation as to why the stigma of illegitimacy has simply disappeared; today there are more babies born out of wedlock than to married parents. On the other hand, the single mother having babies for benefits remains a bogey figure in the tabloids. So, even in the enlightened 21st century, it is still the woman's fault.
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