Throughout the Victorian period, thousands of orphans and other unparented children existed on the fringes of society, where they were at once more pathetic and more of a threat to social stability than children in even the poorest of families. Such figures often feature in children’s literature, for propagandistic or less stridently didactic purposes. Children’s literature in the upbringing of children may have been at the top of its hour, but life for most of her citizens was much more precarious than it is now.
Orphaned children far outnumbered the facilities available for them. The luckiest were taken in by other branches of their family, with various degrees of willingness. Swelling the numbers of the truly orphaned were not only the deserted or neglected, but also the abused, the rebels and the runaways — all, in one sense or another, living rough. Highly emotive figures are useful in literature, and, proportionately, there are even more orphans on the pages of Victorian fiction than there were on the streets. Focusing on a young character’s lack of parents could pull in the reader’s sympathy at once. For less crusading authors, too, orphans or mysterious foundlings were useful, indeed staple, figures.
The didactic element is still there, but it is addressed to the children themselves. Ewing was popular with both girls and boys, but adventure stories specifically targeted at boys also use the stock figure of the resilient, resourceful orphan to encourage self-improvement. Bob Repton is sent out to to the Rock to learn Spanish because his “crusty old uncle” fears he is getting into too many scrapes at school, but finds him still too young to help him in the wine trade. Bob ends up winning both the hand of the Major’s daughter and his uncle’s approval. However, exhortation was not always enough. Mrs Sherwood’s influence did dwindle through the period, but even the most sympathetic children’s writers of the later decades felt that a firm hand was needed sometimes. Ewing places young Jan in London, where he is forced by a character nicknamed the Cheap Jack to become a pavement artist.
Naturally, Jan encounters many other street children, youngsters of eight to ten who are “drunkards, sweaters , thieves, gamblers, liars, vicious,” and who try unsuccessfully to corrupt him. Many people are sorry to believe that there are a great many wicked and depraved grown-up people in all large towns, whose habits of vice are so firm, and whose moral natures are so loose, that reformation is practically almost hopeless. But much fewer people realize the fact that thousands of little children are actively, hideously vicious and degraded. And yet it is better that this should be remembered than that, since, though it is more painful, it is more hopeful. Easier, no doubt, but “vicious children” like those running wild on the streets of London would need more than a good example or two to set them right. But on the whole it was hard for the Victorians to feel positive about youngsters who were not part of a caring family. London: Offices of the Sanitary Institute, 1885.
New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Manchester and New York: Manchester Univ. Masterworks of Children’s Literature, Part 2, Vol. New York: Stonehill and Chelsea House, 1985. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. This article is about the juvenile human. Views of a Foetus in the Womb detail.