During Jane Austen’s lifetime, the word “surrogate” signified almost entirely in a narrow judicial context, to designate a substitute judge or other temporary court officer (OED). Romantic culture never employs “surrogate” to name acts of substitute parenting, and Austen herself never uses the word surrogate, in any sense.1 When Romantic culture speaks about substitute parenting, it instead typically uses forms of the word “foster,” which in its root sense—food—substitutes one material substance, breast-milk, for another material substance, blood, as the primary marker of kinship. Johnson’s Dictionary offers several columns of definitions in this category: foster-child, foster-mother, foster-brother, foster-father, foster-sister, fosterage, to foster. Austen, however, never uses any form of the word “foster” in the published fiction, which at first glance seems to place her novels at a measurable remove from a normative Romantic discourse on the subject of surrogate parenting. When writing about parents and children, Austen does use the word “adopt” in a handful of instances, however, and I will turn to one of those notable moments before I finish, when Frank Churchill at Box Hill commissions Emma to locate a wife for him in these peculiar terms: “‘Find somebody for me. I am in no hurry. Adopt her, educate her’” (406).
But even here, with the word “adopt,” there is a primary interpretive obstacle. Distinct in England from continental jurisprudence, formal adoption as we understand and practice it today was not recognized in English common law, which understands identity and status as permanently rooted in blood and biology. By “formal adoption,” I mean the modern legal procedure whereby a child with no biological connection to a parent or set of parents is declared by the state to be the full legal equivalent of a natural child of that parent or parents, with all attendant rights and responsibilities. Formal adoption as such was not legalized in Great Britain until 1926, a surprisingly late date (Behlmer). (The first adoption laws in North America were passed in Massachusetts in the 1850s.) Before the twentieth century, surrogate parenting in Britain was a wide spectrum of practices, ranging from extra-legal, ad hoc arrangements to the legal provisions of guardianship for orphans. In equity, blood kinship always loomed as a trump card in all such cases. Adoption as a cultural practice and social signifier in Austen thus stands historically on the far side of a prominent legal divide.
Surrogate parenting is an important new direction in Austen studies to the degree that it enables a new purchase on monolithic forms in Austen’s culture, such as the consanguinous family.2 I have opened with an excursion into lexical and legal history to stake a methodological claim: for my money, the most promising new direction in the study of Austen and surrogate parenting is her language, in its elusive and recalcitrant particularity. But to get at that particularity, there is also a great deal of social history to bring to the table, from several new directions. In brief, my argument is this: in Austen, surrogate parenting in its figurative and linguistic forms works oppositionally to hold open the radical contingency of all forms of human relationships, especially those forms that labor to pass themselves off as natural and necessary, such as marriage.3
The few published studies of Austen and adoption typically foreground two bodies of evidence, one biographical and one textual. The biographical episode is a primary reason the “New Directions” conference gathered at Chawton House Library, the 1783 transfer of Edward Austen from his birth family to Knight family relatives (Nokes 72-77). The textual example is Mansfield Park, the transfer of Fanny Price from her Portsmouth birth family to her Bertram and Norris relatives. Because both cases are kinship adoptions, they highlight how biology maintains structural dominance in most narratives of surrogate parenting in the British romantic century. In one of the most complex sets of remarks on Austen and adoption to date, Clara Tuite spotlights these two cases to argue that surrogate parenting in Mansfield Park works to naturalize and endorse the marriage empire (104-10). In a section headed “Naturalizing Surrogacy,” Tuite’s argument runs like this: in Mansfield Park, kinship adoption (which starts the novel) and cousin marriage (which ends it) pair off as complementary, mutually enforcing means of endogamous family formation, underwritten by blood and thus naturalizing both adoption and marriage, actions which otherwise threaten to appear contingent and fictive, exogamously.4 In Austen as a whole, however, I want to argue that adoption pushes in just that contingent and fictive direction, that it unsettles the marriage settlement by rendering manifest the fictiveness of all human bonds, even the biological.
To register these oppositional structures, I want to shift the exemplary Austen adoption text from Mansfield Park to Emma. But before departing Mansfield Park, it will be helpful to note at least two ways in which Mansfield Park itself bears marks of surrogacy as an open and contingent rather than closed and fixed form. First, kinship adoption in Austen family history hit shaky ground at just the moment Mansfield Park was published. The “Opinions of Mansfield Park” manuscript reminds us that the initiatory horizon of Austen’s readership was intensely local and familiar, and many of those Hampshire friends and family would have read the fictional Fanny Price kinship adoption through the lens of the Austen-Knight kinship adoption in 1783 (Later Manuscripts 230-34). At Chawton, that adoption suddenly became tangled in a vexed legal contest thirty years later, at the very moment Mansfield Park was published. A local family—the Hintons of Chawton Lodge and their nephew Mr. Baverstock, a brewer in Alton—contested Edward Knight’s inheritance rights to Knight family property in Hampshire, which among other claims placed the Austen residences in Chawton at serious risk (Nokes 438-41; the lawsuit was finally settled in 1818 for £15,000). My point is that Austen’s local readers in 1814 knew very well that the inheritance provisions in the Knight family adoption were not a seamlessly settled affair, and this unsettled biographical context inflects Fanny Price’s kinship transfer as open and provisional.5 A second instance of unsettled surrogacy appears in the first paragraph of the novel. In that paragraph, those same Hampshire readers who were following the new legal challenge to Edward Knight’s inheritance rights encountered the capsule back-story of the three sisters who had become, at the opening of the novel, Mrs. Price, Lady Bertram, and Mrs. Norris (3-4). I submit that it is not insignificant that those three siblings are in that opening paragraph surnamed “Ward,” the only time Austen ever uses that surname. To name a set of blood sisters “Ward” is to move blood kinship a degree (or three) off the fixed and stable.6 In Mansfield Park, even biological kinship is from the very first located under a sign of surrogacy.
Related forms of destabilization come into even better focus when we move beyond these two kinship cases, the Knight adoption and Mansfield Park, to the many other adoption narratives in the culture and elsewhere in Austen’s fiction. I want to turn first to two of these adoption cases in the culture at large, by way of example, and I will then bring these historical materials back to Austen and the particulars of her language in the case of Emma, which I consider the proof text for a study of Austen and adoption.
One of the primary venues where Romantic culture negotiated its anxieties about the family was the tawdry realm of royal scandal. Two adoption battles feature prominently in that tabloid history, inscribing a national template wherein surrogate parenting is a scene not of peaceful natural union but of doubt, mystery, exploitation, and recrimination—a scene, in short, of riotous fictions. Details of both cases percolated nationwide in both gossip and news, and because it is clear from the biographical record that Austen kept an amused eye on royal spectacle, I proceed on the assumption that she would have known about both cases, in outline if not in fine detail.7
The first was a custody case that came to a boil in the years 1803 to 1806, the fate of a five-year-old girl, Mary Seymour. The battle over this recently-orphaned child, known as Minney Seymour, involved Mrs. Fitzherbert, the clandestine bride of the Prince of Wales, and Minney’s titled Seymour relatives, both of which parties staked claims of guardianship (Fraser). The Prince of Wales was called to give evidence in Chancery on behalf of Mrs. Fitzherbert, and the case finally landed in the House of Lords, where it received Solomon-like resolution. Because blood trumped all other arguments in such cases, guardianship was awarded to the Seymour family, but with this nice twist: guardianship was granted not to the branch of the Seymour family who were the particular antagonists of Mrs. Fitzherbert and the Prince, but was awarded instead to the head of the Seymour family, Lord Hertford, who was sympathetic to Mrs. Fitzherbert and promptly, as guardian, handed the care of young Minney back to her. Substitute parenting in this well-publicized national instance thus became exponential: the legal surrogate caregiver, Lord Hertford, yielded the charge of Minney Seymour to Mrs. Fitzherbert, who thus acted as surrogate surrogate caregiver. In the Minney Seymour case, parenthood tilted off its biological foundation—what these legal briefs refer to as “the propinquity of blood”—and became a labyrinthine fiction.
One of the most vexed issues in the Minney Seymour case was religion. The Seymour family argued that Mrs. Fitzherbert’s Catholicism placed Minney’s soul in grave mortal danger, and Mrs. Fitzherbert fought back by hiring an Anglican priest to tutor the young child. My interest in this sidebar to the tale concerns representational form and, in particular, how graphic form bears upon Austen’s representational practice. Below is a James Gillray print from 1805, in the midst of the Minney Seymour affair.8
Titled “The Guardian-Angel,” the print represents Mrs. Fitzherbert not with the seven-year old Minney Seymour but with Minney’s sometime playmate, the nine-year old Princess Charlotte, who was a shuttlecock in the bad marriage between her father, the Prince of Wales, and her rowdy mother, Princess Caroline. In Gillray’s account, the explicit point is that Mrs. Fitzherbert’s Catholicism and her proximity to children unrelated to her in the royal household (Charlotte and Minney) are a threat to the state. But as the title of the print indicates (“The Guardian-Angel”), there is another threat haunting the scene, and that threat is surrogacy itself.9 In the print, Princess Charlotte functions as a surrogate figure for the threatening contingencies of surrogacy, in the person and tale of Minney Seymour.
My point is that Gillray’s print supplies an example of how surrogacy as content—as plot, if you will—is reproduced at the level of form. Before turning to related instances of language and form in Austen, I want to add one more adoption case from royal history. Adoption was one of the primary weapons Princess Caroline deployed to enrage her estranged spouse. In 1802, she took under her care the infant son of a Deptford dockworker, a child named William Austin. Princess Caroline enjoyed mystifying the biological origins of young Willy to such a degree that in 1806 the government launched the infamous Delicate Investigation to interrogate her sex life, a warm-up for the pyrotechnics of her divorce trial in 1820 (Fraser). Although the Delicate Investigation was nominally a secret procedure, Princess Caroline was never shy about parading young Willy Austin in public. When she began her rowdy adventures on the Continent in 1814, she occasioned a great deal of diplomatic dyspepsia by introducing him to European courts as “the little Prince.” For his part, the Prince Regent typically referred to Willy as “the little bastard.” Below is an example of the way Willy Austin was represented in the popular press (Austin is the child leaning on the leg of the abundant Princess Caroline, who is randily fondling the sword-hilt [!] of her Italian lover, Count Bergami.)10
As with the Gillray print of Mrs. Fitzherbert, my interest in this image centers on representational form. The scandal of Willy Austin as a child in the royal household is that he was a spectacularly transgressive substitute for the legitimate heir, Princess Charlotte, a dynamic that became especially fraught at her early death in November 1817. Willy Austin was nothing if not a living breathing fiction of a legitimate royal child. In these prints, the surrogate child becomes at the level of form a figure for the transgressive nature of surrogacy itself, in which the claims of blood are undone by the claims of fictional identities.
What, then, about Emma? As I turn from these historical materials to Austen’s texts, I want to foreground again the methodological stakes. In a footnote to his recent Beckman lectures on Austen’s Style, D. A. Miller rakes a claw across much Austen scholarship of the past quarter century, arguing that this rich body of historicizing work does not differ in kind from the decorative historical labors of Chapman’s generation, with its encyclopedic accounts of carriages and gowns (107-08). Of late we may know much more about Austen and the way money was laundered in the opium trade, or how her epileptic brother was boarded out for a lifetime, but, claims Miller, we still don’t know very much about how her writing works.11 As I study these historical materials about adoption in Austen’s culture, I take Miller’s challenge very much to heart: this work will remain decorative if there is not a pay-off in better understandings of Austen’s representational praxis.
Three observations, then, about Emma, adoption, and representation.
First observation: Although there are instances of surrogacy scattered through all the novels, Emma is Austen’s centerpiece adoption novel, hands down. The book offers a remarkable oversupply of primary adoption narratives, the cases of Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill. Why so much adoption, why the surplus, why the superabundance? This redundancy has a generalizing force that suggests that all narratives begin to look like adoption tales.12 Here, briefly, is the set of primary lexical anchors for these three cases of surrogate parenting. Harriet Smith is as close as Austen’s novels ever get to the word “bastard,” a word that she never uses in the published fiction. Twice the euphemism “natural daughter” is applied to Harriet (22, 64), and twice the problem of her status is pegged as “illegitimacy” (65, 526).3 Just as Harriet Smith is one of the very few bastards in Austen, Jane Fairfax is very nearly the only orphan, one of only two characters in the published fiction so named (174; the other is the first of the two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, 233). There are only three instances in the published fiction when the word “adopt” is used to refer to the care of a child; once in Mansfield Park, about Fanny Price (35), the other two here in this novel, in connection with Frank Churchill (15, 406). All three of these characters in Emma are described by a phrase widespread in the culture for surrogate caregiving: person X “takes [or ‘undertakes’] the charge of” person Y, a phrase applied once to Harriet Smith (66), twice to Jane Fairfax (174, 175), and once to Frank Churchill (14).14 Furthermore, in the novel’s field of allusion, adoption narratives are central to the book Emma recalls from her reading, Madame de Genlis’s Adelaide and Theodore (503).15 This excess and redundancy suggests that what is at stake in the novel is surrogacy itself. At the level of form, surrogacy operates in the novel as a figure for the novel’s own fiction-making procedures. Both surrogacy and the novel in Austen’s practice unsettle settled forms, tilting them off their foundations. I aim at this analogy: an Austen novel is to marriage as adoption is to the consanguinous family. To adopt Austen’s idiom, in both instances the settled form both does and does not signify.
Second observation: There is nothing more fictional in the world of this novel than its celebrated telos, marriage: the perfect happiness of the union. The homology of adoption and marriage comes into stunningly sharp focus at Box Hill, when Frank Churchill commissions Emma to find him a wife by adopting her (406). In this scene, Austen rings changes on one of the most infamous episodes in Romantic adoption history, when Thomas Day, after reading far too much Rousseau, adopted two orphan girls and took them to France to see which would turn out to be the better wife (Uglow 185-88). Austen knew this story, if not at first-hand, then in a surrogate form, in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, where Day’s bizarre experiment is fictionalized as the tale of Clarence Hervey. Frank Churchill’s antics at Box Hill erase the boundary between adoption and marriage, between the parental and the spousal. Marriage and adoption become isomorphic forms, as in the opening verses of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where Keats uses marriage and adoption as figural and grammatical appositives for an artifact: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time” (emphasis added). From this perspective, the great subject of Austen’s fiction is not only marriage but surrogacy itself, which is a groundwork figure for the fictionality of all human social action.
Third observation, with polemics: The stakes in this instance include how to read free indirect discourse, which Frances Ferguson has recently observed is the one major structure that the novel as form has contributed to literature, and Emma is of course a landmark work in the history of free indirect discourse. In a recent high-profile account of Emma in ELH, Wendy Jones brings cognitive science to the table and argues that biology drives the engine of this novel. The cognitive circuits of Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley have been firing neurologically in “limbic resonance” all their lives, so their union in marriage is biologically determined and gives you, gentle reader, a corresponding thrill deep down in your own brain stem. This explanation waxes even more ambitious: biology also explains free indirect discourse, as narrator and reader take pleasure in the free range of sympathetic identification with first this human point of view, then another, and then another. Biologically driven, free indirect discourse yokes separate human beings together narratologically in one big narrative organism, the perfect happiness of the union.
Although I have learned much from the cognitive turn in literary studies, this kind of biologism strikes me as reductionist and essentialist.16 As a parent of adopted children, I confess to growing touchy when biology gets played as a trump card. It’s the equivalent of pointing to one of my daughters and asking me, “Who’s her real father?” Adoption studies has much to teach us about the complex traffic between biology and culture, a perspective that helps open promising new directions in how we read Emma in particular and Austen in general. Biology is always quick to stake a materialist claim to cultural territory: witness the way the term “surrogacy” is now, in our genome-mapping and laboratory-fertilization age, almost exclusively a marker of biological practice, signifying wombs-for-hire, eggs for adoption, and banks of frozen sperm.17
In Emma, surrogacy is an entirely different signifying system, a cultural marker that bids fair to model the artifice, the radical contingency, of all human action, including both marriage and the making of novels. In this view, free indirect discourse is not a network of sympathetic neural pathways but a promiscuous riot of alternative fictions, where the gap between signifier and signified remains open. When late in the novel Emma is trying to figure out what hot piece of news Mr. Knightley is withholding from her, she speculates that it might have to do with the recent death of Mrs. Churchill: “Her fancy was very active. Half a dozen natural children, perhaps—and poor Frank cut off!” (429).18 One of the jokes here is that this fanciful surplus is already at play in the novel, in the superabundance of adoption tales already put into motion. In Emma, the surrogate child, untethered from blood and biology, is the template on offer for human identity.
To complicate the strong work of a resurgent biologism in Romantic studies, adoption reminds us how culture also goes all the way down. One of the most vexed issues in contemporary adoption politics is the status of birth records, which are currently open to adoptees in only six states in the U.S.19 Especially because genetic history increasingly shapes medical decisions, biology is a driving issue in these policy debates. Adult adoptees in the twenty-first century still too often suffer Harriet Smith’s perplexity, what Knightley calls “the mystery of her parentage” (68). In the final chapter of Emma, “Harriet’s parentage became known” (526). But what kind of knowledge is produced? These last two phrases from Emma are the only two instances in Austen’s fiction of the word “parentage,” and that word needs to give modern readers pause: it signified to Austen’s readers not “parents” but “the rank of the father.”20 What is at issue in the term “parentage,” in other words, is not biology but a cultural construct: whether Harriet’s male biological parent is, as one early story has it, a “gentleman” (66) or, in a subsequent late version, a “tradesman” (526). And what of Harriet’s mother, who is entirely erased from this narrative? In a book filled with dead, absent mothers—Mrs. Woodhouse, the first Jane Fairfax, the first Mrs. Weston—that erasure invites its own untold story, open to Harriet’s invention. As Margaret Homans argues, “adoption is a fiction-generating machine” (5), a form of cultural practice where the veridical claims of material origins play out in complex tension with the generative work of narrative. Biology is only one component of the tales we weave about ourselves, and few understand that better than surrogate parents and surrogate children, who like all of us are strangers bound together by the remarkable power—the remarkable power—of our fictions.
1. For data sets of Austen’s lexicon and the surrounding period, I rely on the online search engines at Pemberley ( http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/novlsrch.html) and at Google Books (the advanced search: http://books.google.com/advanced_book_search).
2. For a recent argument that Austen’s fiction marks the end of a movement over the long eighteenth century from the consanguinous family to the conjugal family, see Perry. I would suggest that the study of surrogate parenting brings into focus the remarkable degree to which the emergent conjugal family (in Perry’s account) consolidates power by draping itself in the biological garb of the consanguinous family.
3. For Austen and oppositionality, see Galperin; for Austen’s foundationally ironic contest with the empire of marriage, see Walker.
4. For endogamous marriage in the period, see Corbett.
5. Sir Thomas Bertram understands the provisionality of Fanny’s status better than anyone, when he ships her back to Portsmouth for remediation. If, as Tuite argues, kinship adoption and cousin marriage in Mansfield Park function isomorphically, then might not the married Fanny Bertram anticipate subsequent conjugal remediation?
6. A “ward” in Johnson’s Dictionary is (among other definitions) “one in the hands of a guardian; the state of a child under a guardian; guardianship, right over orphans.” A “guardian” is “one that has the care of an orphan; one who is to supply the want of parents.” (Note that both these terms for surrogate parenting presuppose orphans, not illegitimate or unwanted children.) Austen uses “ward” only once, in the opening chapter of Northanger Abbey: “There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children” (9). I would also note that the three Ward siblings in Mansfield Park are not styled the “Blood” sisters, which was an available surname (if a bit too Irish).
7. Austen makes no direct reference to either of these two royal episodes in her correspondence. For a good summary account of Austen’s knowledge of and interest in contemporary royal antics, see Murray.
9. As Johnson points out in the Dictionary, “guard” and “ward” are nearly identical forms, etymologically.
11. At the Chawton conference, Deirdre Le Faye objected to two phrases about George Austen in my original draft of this sentence: “feeble-minded” and “warehoused.” I have replaced them here with the terms she prefers in her published annotations about George, “epileptic” and “boarded out” (487). But “epileptic” and its aura of clinical precision skate narrowly over a condition that other biographers variously describe as mental defectiveness (Honan 16), idiocy (Tomalin 26; Nokes 522), imbecility (Nokes 522), mental handicap (Halperin 21), and retardation (Bok 404). I agree that “warehoused” is a degree too hard on the Austen family, but “boarded out” strikes me as a euphemistic degree too soft for this decision to place a disabled member of the family away from home for a lifetime.
12. For the function of a similar redundancy in the tales of the two Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, see Johnson (57).
13. The other “natural daughter” reference is in Sense and Sensibility (78).
14. Austen’s one phrase for adoptive practice that does not appear in Emma is the English rendition of in loco parentis, “in the place of a parent,” a phrase which Austen uses twice elsewhere, in Mansfield Park (362) and in Persuasion (268).
15. I am indebted to Gillian Dow for alerting me to the Adelaide and Theodore paratext, as well as the relevance on this score of Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, one of the books Harriet has read.
16. John Wiltshire’s paper at the Chawton conference on “Mr. Darcy’s Smile” is a fine example of the skillful use of neuroscience to open new readings of Austen. To sample some of the best recent work on cognitive science and Romanticism, see both books by Richardson.
17. For latest news from the surrogacy front, see Stephanie Saul, “Building a Baby, with Few Ground Rules.” This article is one of a three-part series published by the NYT in Fall 2009, “21st Century Babies: Made to Order.”
18. In her recent study of illegitimacy in the eighteenth-century novel, Lisa Zunshine assumes that these dream-children are progeny of Frank Churchill: she highlights how this sentence offers “the tragicomic vision of Frank Churchill’s fending off the demands of his former mistresses and their bastard children” (153). But might not these abundant fantasy bastards more likely be tallied not to young Frank but to the elder Mr. Churchill, who after the recent death of Mrs. Churchill would now be free from her formidable yoke to spend his fortune on his secret blood children, at the inheritance expense (in Emma’s fearful fantasy) of the surrogate child (“poor Frank cut off!”)? I can find no edition of the novel that annotates this sentence: not a word either way from Chapman, Penguin (Ronald Blythe), Oxford World’s Classics (James Kinsley), Norton (Stephen Parrish), Bedford (Alistair Duckworth), Longman (Frances Ferguson), Broadview (Kristen Samuelian), or Cambridge (Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan).
19. For more on current birth records issues in the U.S., see the website of the organization “Bastard Nation”: http://www.bastards.org/. Access was opened in the UK by legislation in 1975, as dramatized in Mike Leigh’s 1996 film Secrets and Lies.
20. In Johnson’s definition, “parentage” is “extraction; birth; condition with respect to the rank of parents” (emphasis added). Although Johnson nominally includes both parents in the algorithm, the rank of the father would be the determinative fact in almost all such calculations.
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