My favourite part of organising the Finchley Literary Festival is getting to meet the authors. Often we get to know them via Twitter or when we invite them to take part in A Conversation with Greenacre Writers. Our only other requirement is that authors are relatively local to Finchley or have a Finchley connection. Though this is not always the case.
When a book is hugely popular on Twitter, you can be pretty sure that it is well-written and has made an impression on its readers. Such was the case last year when we kept seeing references to The Ship written by Antonia Honeywell and whom we subsequently invited to last year’s festival. The one thing that is immediately apparent on meeting Antonia, is her passion for books and writing.
Earlier this year, I had the honour of reading one of Antonia’s WiP, The Dolls Hospital. This is because the narrative includes a care leaver and she wanted my opinion. There is also an older woman in the novel who gave up her baby for adoption.
Some years ago I was involved with an organisation that was trying to get an apology from the UK government for the way single women who became pregnant in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, were treated . An apology was eventually given in Australia but not here in the UK.
Sadly, many of the mothers were left with mental health problems due to the trauma of having to give up their sons and daughters. Many were unable to live a normal life ever again. Not only has Antonia captured the plight of a young care leaver who has been left to struggle, she has also encapsulated what it must have been like to give birth to a child and the horror of having to give him or her away. Antonia’s book is as powerful as Philomena, if not more so.
Meanwhile, there was talk that I would present my PhD research, the representation of orphans and care leavers in literature, at the festival. Having read The Dolls House, I thought Antonia would be a brilliant addition, and so began a conversation which came to fruition as part of the Literary Delights.
We wanted to make the event as dramatic as possible so we included readings of well-known orphan stories by myself, Antonia, Mr Greenacres and Lindsay. We began with Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, one of the most famous orphan narratives ever written.
Fostered, adopted and parentless children are written into the body of our literary culture. Orphan heroes and heroines are familiar characters in children’s literature. Wrenched from their parents at birth or abandoned, they first have to endure a struggle, though later will be destined for extraordinary heroism and glory. Jane in Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, there are quite literarily hundreds of orphans in fiction. And where would we be without our orphans?
If you couldn’t be loved, the next best thing was to be left alone – L.M Montgomery
Antonia spoke about getting rid of the parents: ‘Getting rid of your parents is a childhood fantasy, and it’s no accident that the adventures of the children in novels by Enid Blyton, or E. Nesbit, take place in the absence of parents – a kind of temporary orphanhood, that bestows unlimited freedom.’
She also spoke about Wolves of Willoughby Chase, one of her favourite books:
Sylvia was an orphan, both her parents having been carried off by a fever when she was only an infant. She lived with her Aunt Jane, who was now becoming very aged and frail and had written to Sir Willoughby to suggest that he took on the care of the little girl. He had agreed at once to this proposal, for Sylvia, he knew, was delicate, and the country air would do her good. Besides, he welcomed the idea of her gentle companionship for his rather harum-scarum Bonnie.
Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken 1962
I went on to discuss the orphan outside of the family unit. People are drawn to these characters because they appear to exist outside the camouflage of conformity. Such as the orphans that threatened domestic bliss. They were dangerous, seeking to fracture that institution – the family, for example the ‘villain’ Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights.
Antonia brought up how some orphans in literature find a substitute family and with that they sometimes find unconditional love. As well as love, the state of being an orphan can be liberating: ‘Where the orphan finds a substitute family, they thrive – for example Harry Potter, with Hogwarts as his home, saves the universe. The loss of his parents is an essential part of his ability to do so.’
In Ballet Shoes, Dr Jakes, sees orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil’s, position as enviable:
I do envy you. I should think it an adventure to have a name like that, and sisters by accident. The three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worth while, and if you do, it’s all your own. Now, if I make Jakes really worth while, people will say I take after my grandfather or something.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild 1936
For Jane in Jane Eyre, she is an orphan constrained by her status, that of being reliant on relations for somewhere to live. However, she rejects the family:
I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty…
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 1847
This brave act gives Jane, the freedom to leave and so find adventure and love.
The recently published Mothering Sunday, sees another Jane, Jane Fairfax:
I was an orphan,’ she would divulge for the umpteenth time. ‘I never knew my father or mother. Or even my real name. If I ever had one. This has always seemed to me the perfect basis for becoming a writer – particularly a writer of fiction. To have no credentials at all. TO be given a clean sheet, or rather, to be a clean sheet yourself. A nobody. How can you be a somebody without first being a nobody?
The orphan narrative is often about a nobody. Orphans, foundlings, those that are adopted, are dropped into the narrative after the story of their lives has already started, like starting the book at chapter two instead of at the beginning.
As a child, I was particularly drawn to stories of children without parents, whether this was something temporary, as in many of Enid Blyton’s tales, or the abundance of stories about orphans, such as the contrary Mary in The Secret Garden (1911). This was partly why I undertook Doctoral research. Orphans, care leavers, the healing power of reading; it was a coming together of all that was important to me.
In 2012, I attended Lemn Sissay’s ‘From Pip to Potter, Celebrating the Place of Children in Care in Literature’ at Southbank.
The event highlighted the stark differences in the way literature presents cared-for children and orphans, compared to the experiences of children in those circumstances in the real world.
I also met Josie Pearse, at that event. Josie was finishing her Creative Writing PhD at Cardiff and was investigating orphans and adoption in literature.
I’d been wanting to do a PhD in Creative Writing for some time and was inspired by Lemn and Josie that day to begin to explore the possibility and that it would be something to do with orphans and care leavers in fiction. There are other reasons I wanted to do a PhD and you can read more about that here.
Antonia ended our session by speaking about The Dolls’ Hospital and how she found the orphan in fiction an inspiration. Lalla, the character in The Ship, is the opposite of an orphan to begin with. ‘She has a cosseted life. But then her mother dies and her father abandons her, and it is only by throwing off the constraints of the world they bequeathed to her that she can begin to truly live. The orphan is a state of inspiration – a gift to a writer, and it is important to recognise the state as a gift which within literature, opens doors.’
Antonia finished our talk by making a distinction between ‘orphanhood in real life, which is a state to be feared, and in literature, in which it’s often an inspired state that makes all things possible.’
We could have spoken about Orphans in Fiction, for hours, it’s a truly fascinating subject. My thanks and gratitude to Antonia Honeywell for giving her time and support to the Finchley Literary Festival.