Wards and Apprentices: The Legal and Literary Construction of the Familial Position of the Child

  • Cheryl NixonEmail author
Part of the Literary Cultures and Childhoods book series (LICUCH)


Eighteenth-century fiction often places its underage characters in temporary families, only to move them to new families that prove equally flawed or fragmented. Simply put, storytelling structure proves reliant on family structure. For example, in many of the century’s most popular novels, although the child searches for a lost nuclear family, the plot seems most interested in the many replacements he or she inhabits during that search. Within the first few pages of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), Moll is born in Newgate Prison, taken in by a group of gypsies, placed into the home of a poor school teacher, and integrated into the household of the mayor’s wife, where she is famously seduced by one son and marries another. In Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), the eponymous heroine leaves her protective guardian Villars to travel to London with the Mirvan family, where she is reclaimed by her grandmother before being able to reunite with her father. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Fanny is adopted into the Bertram household by her aunts; when she returns to her nuclear family, she realizes that she no longer feels at home there and returns to the Bertram’s. These well-known heroines’ shifting familial positions encourage us to reexamine the place the child inhabits within the household and to account for the non-biological family that recreates itself to accommodate the child. Taking its cue from the experiences of Moll, Evelina, and Fanny, this essay focuses on the economic and emotional roles the child plays in the flexible family that is under construction, and compares eighteenth-century legal definitions of the child, captured in the terminology of the legal treatise, to literary dramatizations of the child, central to the plotting of novels, plays, conduct books, and children’s literature. This comparison of factual and fictional understandings of the child reveals the law’s equation of the child with relationships of economic obligation, while the literary work emphasizes the child’s questioning of those obligations and plots his or her escape from them, often as part of a trajectory of self-realization. The law, quite predictably, is interested in positioning the child within stable family structures defined by legal devices such as contracts, while the literary work is interested in the dramatic possibilities provided by the disrupted, fragmented family, and highlights both the challenges and opportunities it affords the child.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA

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