Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Escape Chute: An Unexpected Loophole to Enfranchisement

The daughter of a maid, like the wife of a bachelor, is well taught. 

This old English saying about illegitimacy (and common law) could serve as a motto for A Stranger in Blood, my mid-Victorian period story from my Sister Morphine collection, which was inspired by the unconventional heroines found in the fictions of George Gissing, the nineteenth-century novelist and supporter of female emancipation. See... 

Its theme centres on an often disregarded loophole in English law – an escape chute, if you will
– concerning the Age of Majority as it applies under the reformed 1872 Bastardy Laws.  Hitherto unexplored implications of this Law – certain exemptions from the legal age of majority, venia aetatis (an age indulged by agreement) in their effect — prompted, in addition, the writing of A Stranger in Blood. Nor did this legislation change significantly in the first half of the 20th Century, since the 1872 Law served as the basis of dealing with the financial management of illegitimate children for a further 85 years, until 1957.

My story was devised for publication in 2004, the year of the 160th and 170th Anniversaries of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and its controversial ‘Bastardy Clause’ (that children up to 16 years old should be the sole responsibility of the mother), and of the Act’s further amendment in 1844.  The 1834 Act caused an outcry and in 1844 the Law was changed so that a mother could apply for maintenance from the father. In 1872 the Bastardy Laws were reformed to make the putative father equally liable for the support of the illegitimate child until the age of 16.  

2004 was also the 20th Anniversary of the Age of Majority Bill (Dáil Éireann of the Republic of Ireland 1984) which entitled the Act to reduce full voting age from 21 years to 18 years. The reduction of Age of Majority from 21 to 18 is codified in The Family Law Reform Act 1969, for England and Wales ; the Age of Majority (Scotland) Act 1969 ; and the Age of Majority Act (Northern Ireland) 1969; under this Act, earlier marriage (under 18) also defined the attainment of full age.

Women must have their wills while they live,
because they make none when they die.

This second English saying also served as an epigraph to a sub-plot in my story dealing with the future of a wife and her fortune before the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882.

Feminist issues such as these were explored by George Gissing in his fictions, and my own text was a kind of homage to those short stories and novels of his that questioned the inequalities endured by all thinking women in Victorian society.

Gissing was also a keen-eyed observer of the niceties of class distinctions, and, should you ever read my A Stranger in Blood,  you’ll note that the two leading players in this story are intended as two sides of the same coin – a double-headed coin, as it were – an ego and an alter ego, whose contrasting highborn and lowborn social ranks reflect Gissing’s own preoccupations with class differences between feminist militants in their struggle for self-determination.

In this connexion, it’s appropriate that Gissing drew inspiration for some of his fictional feminists from the celebrated French anarcho-feminist firebrand, Louise Michel, who was herself illegitimate and the daughter of a serving maid.

Similarly, my narrative is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, herself illegitimate, and a founder of Girton College, Cambridge, 1869, (authoress of Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women, 1867, and Acting Mistress of Girton, 1872). She was a notable campaigner for Women’s Property rights and in 1854 she published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women, which was an influential document for campaigners in their securing the Act of 1882.

Memo : A must-read for all George Gissing aficionados is Professor Pierre Coustillas’s magisterial The Heroic Life of George Gissing.

See also . . . A Girl Alone: Scenario of a Screenplay in Homage to George Gissing.

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