OLIVER’S BASTARDY: BEYOND THE WORKHOUSE AND INTO THE LAW

Typically, there comes a point when after reading a particular book six or seven times, a new angle opens up and I wonder how come I’d missed that. In the case of Dickens’s Oliver Twist perhaps this has much to do with having overlooked the details of the rocambolesque explanation of the connection between the poor orphan Oliver and his wicked stepbrother, Edward Leeford a.k.a. ‘Monks.’

As Mr Brownlow explains (SPOILERS AHEAD…), Leeford Sr. was married off by his greedy family at the tender age of 21 to what was indeed in Regency times an old maid: a 30-year-old rich heiress. The offspring of the ill-fated marriage was Edward, apparently born wicked because of his parents’ unhappiness. Edwin Leeford not only separated from his wife, but also disowned this elder son for his bad behaviour, at least nominally, not quite legally. The said Edwin then seduced pretty teen Agnes, befuddled her with the excuse that a big secret prevented him from marrying her, and made her pregnant with Oliver, never disclosing that he was already married. Then he fled to Rome, corroded by guilt, to elaborate a plan to, presumably, become a bigamist. Instead, he died and his evil first wife took the chance to destroy a second will in which he acknowledged the existence of Agnes and her bastard (not yet born). This revengeful harridan also told Agnes’s father what a bad girl his daughter was, which brought about her disgrace and her untimely death in childbirth at Mudfog’s workhouse. Monks, learning that the bastard had survived, concocted a strange plan with his buddy Fagin to turn him into a criminal and, if possible, do away with him. Strange, very strange.

The fact that Oliver is illegitimate is hardly concealed in the novel. He gives Noah Claypole a serious beating up for suggesting that Agnes was less than pure and it’s all through quite clear that Oliver can’t name his father. What I had missed is Mr Brownlow’s cornering of Monks until this very poor example of an elder brother accepts sharing what little is left of Edwin’s legacy with Oliver (6,000 pounds). I can’t check Susan Zlotnick’s article “’The Law’s a Bachelor’: Oliver Twist, Bastardy, and the New Poor Law” (Victorian Literature and Culture, 34:1, 2006), nor Laura Schattschneider’s “Mr Brownlow’s Interest in Oliver Twist” (Journal of Victorian Culture, 6.1, 2001) because that would cost me 60 euros –too much to prepare my seminar for tomorrow and satisfy my curiosity. The free access article by Dorothy L. Haller, “Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England” (https://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/haller.htm), however, informs me that although previous to 1834 fathers of illegitimate children had to support them, fear that single women would commit perjury against ‘innocent’ men, led to the Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law of that year. By this, “All illegitimate children (…) were to be the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old.” If Agnes had survived, being unable to support her child, she would anyway have ended up in the workhouse with him. This blatant injustice was overturned in 1844 (see also for free, https://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/newpoorlaw.shtml#Bastardy)

Yet, this is not quite my point. The fact is that through Brownlow (who, remember, adopts Oliver once he’s proven to be a good boy), Dickens defends the right of illegitimate children to be granted equal rights as regards their father’s inheritance. A peculiar website on genealogy (https://www.british-genealogy.com/forums/showthread.php/72235-Illegitimacy-and-inheritance) explains that in 19th century England (not Scotland) “a child who was born illegitimate had no inheritance rights” unless a) the parents married after its birth (without committing bigamy, of course), b) or the illegitimate child would be “provided for in a legal settlement” or “bequeathed a legacy in a legally valid will.” The latter was indeed the case with Oliver, though as Edward’s mother destroys his father’s second will, Monks can very well keep the whole inheritance for himself, as I understand. Only Brownlow’s bullying and the threat of being reported as Fagin’s accomplice in Oliver’s abuse does the trick.

This defence of the bastard –together with that of Agnes as a fallen woman, and of Rose as the collateral damage of that fall– is, now that I think about it, as sensational as Anne Brontë’s defence of Helen as a runaway wife in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I might be totally mistaken in thinking this is not a central issue in Oliver Twist-related bibliography but I certainly had missed it. My apologies to my previous students… it just scares me to think that what other elephant in the room I’m missing.

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