Cheryl L. Nixon
Babson College


This course studies a figure central to the eighteenth-century novel: the orphan, ward, or lost child. Many of the eighteenth-century novel's best known protagonists, including Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Evelina, and Fanny Price, fit this description and could be featured in this course. In his recent The English Novel in History, 1700-1780, John Richetti emphasizes the novel's ability to "render individuals as (potentially) both socially constructed and individually defined" (8). The orphan--an individual left alone to negotiate the social world--obviously heightens the connections and tensions between these aims of the novel. The orphan allows the novel to ask elemental questions about the self (who am I if I have no parents?), society (will I be cared for, accepted, or rejected by those around me?), and family, which typically mediates the relationship between the two (do I need a familial structure and how do I recreate it?). As he or she articulates a desire for these institutions, the orphan reveals the instability inherent to them. This course, then, examines how the novel attempts to create narrative structure through this destabilizing figure, exploring how the orphan plot emphasizes the novel's capacity for both formal realism and wish-fulfilling fantasy.

This course seeks to complicate the analysis of the orphan plot by placing orphan fictions alongside orphan facts. Along with the rise of the novel, was there a rise in interest in the child? More specifically, along with evidencing an interest in the narrative possibilities of the orphan's life story, do these plots signal an eighteenth-century interest in the real orphan's life? Mortality rates and the attendant reality of orphaning have been reconstructed by historians. For example, as Peter Laslett has shown, in the seventeenth-century, approximately 40% of all children would be orphaned before they reached age 21. In addition, changing definitions of the child has been a topic of much historical investigation; Philippe Aries' thesis concerning the early modern invention of childhood and Lawrence Stone's thesis concerning the eighteenth century's invention of the affective family are perhaps the best known and most hotly debated arguments concerning the child's centrality to the family. This course hopes to encourage students to enter these debates by examining the "lost" child who exists outside of the affective or nuclear family. As a component of this investigation into the historical reality of the orphan, the course features secondary source readings that detail the invention of the foundling hospital, the education of children, and the workings of the apprenticeship system.

The course also places primary historical sources side-by-side with literature, encouraging students to become excited about the eighteenth century by allowing them to experience "real" eighteenth-century documents. In addition to novels such as Moll Flanders and A Simple Story, the course features a collection of legal documents I have located at the London Public Records Office and Harvard's Law School. I have used these documents in a preliminary fashion in other courses; I have simply circulated xeroxed copies of them. Student response to seeing crime and punishment in the Old Bailey Records or deciphering handwritten bills from the Chancery Court has been overwhelmingly positive. I hope to create a simple web-site that would contain scanned copies of some of the legal documents I have located, allowing my students--and all students of the eighteenth century--to incorporate these materials into their study.


I teach at a small private business school, Babson College, a context that presents unique challenges to the English professor who wants to teach literature in a historically- or theoretically-informed manner. Although I have taught a preliminary version of this course at Babson, I have not yet taught this specific syllabus and specific materials. My setting requires--indeed demands--innovative courses which will entice students into an advanced study of literature. And, once the students have chosen the course, innovative teaching must be used to encourage students to construct a basic understanding of the texts and, then, complicate those readings. All of my students are business majors; none have the training of a traditional English major. Before taking an advanced literature course, my students are not required to complete an "introduction to literature" course, a British literature survey, or an eighteenth-century literature survey (they do complete general "humanities" coursework). My upper level courses focus on the eighteenth century, but they can assume no prior knowledge of the century's literature, history, or concerns. I note the context for this proposed course simply because it dictates the course's shape: it must focus on the close reading of the selected literature and historical materials and it must contain creative assignments in addition to the traditional analytical papers and exams.

Although this course is an advanced literature course at a business college, it could be offered as a lower-level theme-based course to English majors. Alternatively, with added units containing additional novels, theoretical readings, or research assignments, this course could serve as a starting point for a more advanced course.


Goal #1: Engage in interdisciplinary study through use of primary sources
As its overarching goal, this course engages in an interdisciplinary study of the orphaned child. By studying both fictional and factual orphans, the course seeks to defamiliarize what has become a standard character-type and encourage new insights into the cultural meaning of that character. The course places eighteenth-century novels and eighteenth-century legal records side-by-side, resulting in an examination of both imagined and real orphans. We take, as our starting point, the notion that eighteenth-century literature is, to some degree, representing reality. We then ask how literature re-imagines this reality. What does the novel add to or erase from the orphan's legal reality? How does the novel depict the orphan and his/her experiences? How does the novel structure the orphan's world? The course examines the factual and fictional record's role as a source of knowledge about individual experience and cultural concerns, raising questions about the "real" location of the "real" meaning of the orphan's story. Students experience a primary-source-rich course, encouraging them to think more carefully about not only the orphan-figure, but the relationship between fact and fiction.

Goal #2: Understand events and concerns of "orphan plot"
As its literary goal, the course emphasizes an understanding of the possibilities of the "orphan plot." The course asks students to recognize the paradigmatic events and characters of the orphan plot, uncover the larger cultural hopes, anxieties, and fears voiced by the orphan plot, and understand the eighteenth-century's role in creating the novelistic structure of the orphan plot. At the beginning of the semester, with the help of excerpts from fairy tales and late twentieth-century novels, the class creates an outline of the narrative elements it feels are essential to this plot. This plot outlining exercise comprises the first creative writing assignment in the course; it is performed in small group and results in short informal presentations. The assignment asks the student to define the orphan-protagonist, describe additional characters, outline essential plot events, locate a setting, create a time line, imagine the plot's resolution, and explain any sort of larger "message" they feel the plot must articulate. The group then writes one short scene from an imagined narrative that follows their paradigmatic outline, enacting the groups' choices concerning the age and gendering of protagonist, domestic or exotic setting, and the cautionary or subversive tone, for example.

The course then investigates the eighteenth-century novel's construction of these plot elements. Featured novels include Moll Flanders, Millenium Hall, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, and A Simple Story (of course, this list can be expanded to include other titles). Students consider how and why each novel adds variation to their simplified plot structure. I provide lectures on the "rise of the novel" and eighteenth-century culture, but most of our class time is spent in discussion triggered by each novel's narrative structure and thematic content. After reading the first eighteenth-century novel (here, Moll Flanders), students write their first analytical paper. For this paper, students must formulate and answer a basic question concerning a plot event and its larger meaning; the assignment encourages students to formulate their own questions, but also provides sample topics, such as "How does a child define him/herself when they are orphaned," "What happens to a child when he/she must navigate the world without the help of parents," or "What replacement family structures are created for the missing parents?" The students' questions and answers are summarized in a class discussion, encouraging students to remember them and see if and how they change for subsequent books.

Goal #3: Investigate historical record of orphan experience
As the class reads the selected novels, it also works towards a historical understanding of the situation of real orphans, wards, and lost children. Students read excerpts from works such as Stone's The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, Laslett's "Parental Deprivation" in Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, Davidoff and Hall's Family Fortunes, George's London Life in the Eighteenth Century, and Low's The Regency Underworld. After we have gained a basic understanding of the historian's reconstruction of the eighteenth-century family, the class turns to primary documents. Selected Old Bailey Records, Chancery Court manuscripts, English Reports, and manuscript family records are paired with the appropriate novel. By making these documents available to the class, I help the students to position themselves as amateur historians, question-askers, and answer-constructers. The course asks students to decipher these documents in a variety of settings: alone, with a partner, or in an in-class workshop. Ultimately, the course also encourages students to interpret these documents in a variety of ways: for example, does a guardianship ledger-account from the Court of Chancery evidence an "cruel" non-emotional definition of the orphan or a "kind" economic trusteeship of the orphan?

I ask students to engage in a second creative writing exercise that requires a line-by-line imitation of the historical record. Students "translate" one of Moll Flanders' crimes into a Old Bailey Record, imitating the Records' formal qualities. Then, they translate one of the entries in the Record--a real criminal committing a real crime--into a novelistic passage written in Defoe's style. To help students become comfortable with the imaginative possibilities of primary source research, they will share their "Moll Flanders/Old Bailey Records" creative writing imitations.

Later in the semester, students present summaries of subsequent primary documents in a series of brief informal speeches. I have xeroxed manuscript Chancery court cases, located at the PRO, and I give each student his or her "own" case to decipher. The informal speeches prove the student's ability to read eighteenth-century hand and understand the content of the case. These speeches serve as a first draft for the students' second paper, which provides an interpretation of the document. This paper summarizes the primary source, provides a well-reasoned interpretation of the source, gestures towards alternative interpretations of the text, and explains unresolved questions or concerns raised by the document. As these materials are unique to my research, this assignment would be hard to reproduce in another classroom; however, this type of juxtaposition of primary sources with the novel can be modified to include readily available print sources. If a professor seeks a legal exploration of the orphan, I can imagine a course using Blackstone's Commentaries' chapter on wards, which could be easily connected to A Simple Story. If a professor wants to use non-legal primary sources, I can imagine juxtaposing conduct book material or debates concerning the education of children with Millenium Hall. This speech and paper assignment encourages students to "get into" eighteenth-century culture by getting into non-literary source material, allowing them to approach fact with the open-ended interpretive process previously applied to fiction.

Goal #4: Question meaning of orphan in fact and fiction
This course opens by asking many basic questions concerning orphans, wards, and lost children. Why is fiction filled with stories of lost children? What does it mean to not have a family? Why is an orphaned child typically confronted with an evil stepmother or incestuous guardian? Is this because the orphan is a "real" phenomenon and these are "real" experiences? Is this because the orphan is a handy device which can be used to raise larger questions about family structure, parental responsibility, and the child's coming of age? If orphans were "real" in the eighteenth century, how is their story developed in the developing novel? And, if orphans are less prevalent today, why are their stories still familiar (so much so that we can hum their story in songs from "Oliver," "Annie," and "Peter Pan"!)? This course closes by revisiting these basic questions and asking students to answer them by reflecting on the factual and fictional records they have read.

For their final open-topic analytical paper, students must wrestle with a concern that illuminates one of the larger questions of the class. This paper is aided by a final week of in-class writing workshops. This paper does not require secondary research beyond what has been provided in the class, but it must examine the historical situation of children by comparing a primary source's description of an orphan to a specific literary representation of an orphan.


The simplified syllabus provided at the end of this proposal lists some of the novel's thematic concerns, which I use to organize this course. I have created three central units, each taking its focus from plot elements:

·I. The Orphan as Familial and Social Outcast
·II. The Institutional and Surrogate Care of the Orphan
·III. The Orphan's Search for a "Real" Family

Each week has specific thematic sub-topics listed; these sub-topic correspond to the novel being read. For example, for the weeks devoted to Millenium Hall, the sub-topics include "The Institution for Lost Children," "The Guardian's Control of the Ward," and "The Orphan's Reunion with the Parent."

In addition, the subjects addressed by the legal sources are used to organize the course. Each unit also contains a legal label:

·I. The Orphan in Criminal Records
·II. Guardianship Records of Trusteeship and Marriage Consent
·III. Child Custody and Welfare Law

Again, the specific legal records and legal topics to be discussed are listed for each week. These legal concerns reflect my own research interests. As stated above, the legal material could easily be replaced with alternative eighteenth-century cultural texts, such as conduct books, educational texts, or art works that emphasize the child.


As explained above, the course encourages students to:
·Engage in interdisciplinary study through the use of primary sources
·Understand the events and concerns of the "orphan plot"
·Investigate the historical record of orphan experience
·Question the meaning of the orphan in fact and fiction


As explained above, the course will require students to:
·Participate in class discussion
·Experiment with a group creative writing assignment, defining the orphan plot
and writing a sample scene.
·Experiment with a short creative writing "imitation," rewriting Moll Flanders
as an Old Bailey Record.
·Write a 5-page paper addressing a structuring element of the orphan plot
·Give an informal speech summarizing a primary legal source
·Write a 5-page paper, based on the informal speech, summarizing and
interpreting a primary legal source
·Write a 10-page final paper addressing a central course concern


Eighteenth-Century Novels/Fiction:
(in order of assignment)
Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Charles Perrault, Selected Fairy Tales
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders
Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall
Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story
(list can be added to/changed)

Current Novels (excerpts):
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Primary Source Materials (xerox packet):
Old Bailey Records
Chancery Court Master's Reports
English Reports
Manuscript family records

Secondary Source Materials/Criticism Articles (selections are reproduced in a xerox packet, others are placed on reserve):
Anderson, Michael. Approaches to History of the Western Family 1500-1914.
(London, 1980).
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. (New
York, 1962).
Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman. Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England.
(New Haven, 1994).
Bowers, Toni. The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture, 1680-
1760. (Cambridge, 1996).
George, M. Dorothy. London Life in the Eighteenth Century. (London, 1925).
Donzelot, Jacques. The Policing of Families. (Baltimore, 1997).
Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women in the
English Middle Class, 1780-1859. (Chicago, 1987).
Earle, Peter. The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and
Family Life in London, 1660-1730. (London, 1989).
Flint, Christopher. Family Fictions: Narrative and Domestic Relations in Britain,
1688-1798. (Stanford, 1998).
Haggerty, George E. Unnatural Affections: Woman and Fiction in the Later 18th
Century. (Indiana, 1998).
Langford, Paul. A Polite and Commercial People, England 1727-1783. (London,
Laslett, Peter. "Parental Deprivation" in Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier
Generations: Essays in Historical Sociology. (Cambridge, 1972).
Low, Donald A. The Regency Underworld. (Wiltshire, 2000).
Richetti, John. The English Novel in History, 1700-1780. (London, 1999).
Stone, Lawrence The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. (New
York, 1977).
Waller, Maureen. 1700: Scenes from London Life. (New York, 2000).
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. (Berkeley, 1957).
Wrigley, E.A. and R.S. Schofield. The Population History of England, 1541-
1871: A Reconstruction. (London, 1981).
Zomchick, John P. Family and the Law in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The
Private Conscience in the Private Sphere. (Cambridge, 1993).


Unit I. Introduction: Orphans in Fact and Fiction

Week 1: Orphan, Wards, Lost Children: The Paradigmatic Plot
Selected Fairy Tales
Excerpts from Harry Potter
Excerpts from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Week 2: Orphans, Wards, Lost Children: The Basic 18th C Historical Situation
Selected Secondary Articles
Creative Writing Assignment #1: Outline the Orphan Plot

Unit II: The Novel: The Orphan as Familial and Social Outcast
Legal Records: The Orphan in Criminal Records

Week 3: The Orphan's Search for Family
Moll Flanders
Old Bailey Records: The Child in the Courtroom

Week 4: The Orphan's Turn to Crime
Moll Flanders
Old Bailey Records: Theft
Creative Writing Assignment #2: Imitate the Old Bailey Record and Defoe

Week 5: The Orphan as Parent of Orphans
Moll Flanders
Paper #1

Unit III: The Novel: The Institutional and Surrogate Care of the Orphan
Legal Records: Guardianship Records of Trusteeship and Marriage Consent

Week 6: The Institution for Lost Children
Millenium Hall
Secondary Sources on the Foundling Hospital (Coram's Children)

Week 7: The Guardian's Control of the Ward
Millenium Hall
Chancery Court Master's Reports: Marriage Consent, Incest
Student Speeches

Week 8: The Orphan's Reunion with the Parent
Millenium Hall
Chancery Court Master's Reports: Child Custody
Student Speeches

Week 9: The Guardian's Protection
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
Chancery Court Master's Reports: Trusteeship
Student Speeches

Week 10: The Guardian as Role Model
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
Chancery Court Master's Reports: Trusteeship
Student Speeches

Week 11: The Orphan's Negotiation of the Social World
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker
Paper #2

Unit IV: Fiction: The Orphan's Search for a "Real" Family
Legal Records: Child Custody and Welfare Law

Week 12: The Orphan who Breaks the Rules
A Simple Story
English Reports: Child Custody

Week 13: The Disobedient Mother/The Obedient Daughter
A Simple Story
English Reports: Maintenance, Education

Week 14: The Lost Child's Test of the Family
A Simple Story
English Reports: Child Welfare

Week 15: Conclusion
In-Class Writing Workshops
Paper #3



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