Updated: May 4, 2022
by Jessie Lewis, Author of Fallen
There’s an element of mystery to Fallen that makes it a bit tricky to talk about without revealing any spoilers. There is, however, one part that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read the blurb: a child is involved, and her past is a closely guarded secret. Neither will it give anything away to confirm that this child is illegitimate, since legitimate children are not generally relegated to huts in the woods with their connections kept secret.
To understand the lengths some of the characters in Fallen go to in order to conceal their pasts, it is helpful to comprehend just how shameful illegitimacy was considered in the nineteenth century. It’s difficult to imagine the stigma historically attached to it and, in particular, to the unwed mother. Depending on your social standing, it could be ruinous.
Ian Mortimer, in his wonderful book The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, says, “You can depict the extent of sexual immorality in society in the shape of an hourglass: ample to overflowing at the top, narrowing around the middle, and burgeoning again among the lower classes.” It’s a fantastic analogy. At the top echelons of society, those whose prodigious wealth and family connections gave them greater immunity from society’s judgement could essentially behave as they pleased and get away with it. And so they did! Just think of the infamous 5th Duke of Devonshire, who notoriously lived in a long-term ménage-à-trois with his wife, Georgiana Cavendish, and his lover, Lady Elizabeth Foster, all three of whom had affairs with and children by other people. Within the lower classes, large numbers of illegitimate offspring were a byproduct of extreme poverty, woefully overcrowded accommodation, and a lack of education.
In the middle were those members of society who were deeply concerned with the continuation of their family estates through the laws of primogeniture (male inheritance) and the maintenance or elevation of their social status. Both were achieved through legally recognised marriages and births. They were also, arguably, the most strictly religious group—or at least the people with the greatest appearance of piety. Unlike the upper classes, with their laissez faire attitude to promiscuity, and the lower classes, who lacked the luxury of being so particular about their living conditions, this section of society possessed both the means and the impetus to live morally correct lives. With stricter morality often comes harsher judgement, and thus the ‘sin’ of sex outside of marriage came to be seen as an even greater evil (for women! More on that below…). And though they are not the same, promiscuity and illegitimacy are intertwined, thus an unwed mother and her illegitimate child were both considered shameful creatures.
Austen is well known for writing about characters firmly situated in the narrow centre of this metaphorical hourglass. The Bennets, Bingleys, Darcys, and De Bourghs of Pride and Prejudice are all acutely aware of the importance of respectability, obsessively mindful of their social standing, and jealousy protective of their ancestral lineage. Just as it would have been for the real people who lived in those social spheres, a child born out of wedlock to any of these families would have been scandalous at best, ruinous at worst. Just think of the horror Darcy feels in Pride and Prejudice when his sister almost elopes with Wickham, and Elizabeth’s dismay when Lydia actually does run away with him. Mary Bennet sums up this attitude when she says that, “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—one false step involves her in endless ruin—her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful.” –Pride and Prejudice, Ch.47.
There were many reasons for a child to be born to an unwed mother, of course: from impatient lovers separated before they could marry, through extramarital affairs, to sexual exploitation (though on that point, allow me to reassure any readers who might be concerned that nothing occurs in this story that is not consensual). “By 1800,” says Mortimer, “one in twelve children is illegitimate.” And most, he points out, are in the lower classes. This in itself was a reason for people of Elizabeth and Darcy’s sphere to wish vehemently to avoid any such a disaster. To fall pregnant before marriage was to lose one’s moral superiority, thereby blurring the distinction of rank.
What is shocking is the extent of the shame attached to illegitimacy. Ruth Paley, in her book My Ancestor Was A Bastard, makes a frightening point when she tells us, “Look at the assize records for the 19th century and you’ll find that half the murder victims were little babies…it’s really hard to get your mind around the idea that the shame was once so awful that women were prepared to kill their babies.” As only one example, in 1792, eighteen-year-old Sarah Shenston, herself barely out of childhood, was hanged for killing her illegitimate baby. This really was a disastrous state in which to find oneself, though who bore the brunt of that shame bears a bit of a closer look.
As with most matters in human history, it was the women who got the raw deal. A woman who got pregnant before she was married was considered to be disgraced—not virtuous enough to be of good character or breeding, and not trusted to provide a husband with genuine heirs of his body. She was shunned by society, as were her connections. We can see this attitude reflected in contemporary literature. In Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, Tom’s (supposed) mother is sent away to protect her reputation from the stain of having birthed an illegitimate child. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s marriage is arranged hastily at huge expense to evade the scandal of her having ‘lived in sin’ beforehand. In Dickens’s Oliver Twist, set not many years after the Regency, Oliver’s pregnant mother—having been shunned by everyone she knows—is forced into a poorhouse where she ends up dying in childbirth.
To be an illegitimate child was not much better. Ruth Richardson, author of Foundlings, Orphans and Unmarried Mothers, tells us that “It was recognised in the 19th century that illegitimate children were half as likely to survive compared to children with married parents.” It was illegal for an illegitimate child to inherit at the time, so unless a trust was set up for them by their relations, they often relied on the parish for their upkeep. These reduced circumstances were compounded by discrimination, the stigma of being a ‘bastard’ being hugely damaging. Austen’s own illegitimate character Harriet Smith is brought up with the good manners and suitable connections that enable her to befriend genteel Emma Woodhouse. Harriet is nevertheless shunned first by Mr Elton, a vicar, then Mr Knightley, a gentleman, and in the end, Austen marries her to a farmer, conveniently leaving the social constructs firmly in place. Whether or not she did this to deliberately mock those constructs is irrelevant—the fact remains that they still existed.
To be the father of an illegitimate child was nowhere near as scandalous. Though it was still frowned upon, a man’s reputation was nonetheless hardly dented if he had an illegitimate child. Often depicted as rakish heroes in literature, it was far more ‘forgivable’ for a man to be promiscuous, while the women and children were indelibly tainted. It was grossly unfair, but it was also fact, and therefore in Fallen, readers will see these attitudes touched upon. As a modern female author, writing about an era two-hundred years in the past, it is a fine balancing act to accurately present the social views of the time without appearing to condone them. Fortunately, Austen wrote plenty of liberally minded and progressive characters, enabling me to give a nod to the likely behaviour of some, whilst giving a more generous redemption to others. Similarly, whilst gender inequality and the oppression of women is indefensible, that doesn’t mean all women are perfect—and Austen gave us some delicious character flaws to work with, so you may expect both the men and the women to get their share of vexations in this story!