Classic fiction and adoption-related plots

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. My brain isn’t in sonnet mode at the moment, and most of my attention has been focused on getting round the local 10k road race whilst trying not to swear too much (I managed it, got a PB, and am spending the rest of the weekend sitting down). But two threads on Twitter have been playing on my mind this weekend. One is about the classic fiction we’d recommend to younger readers, and how problematic these recommendations are. There’s a nostalgic rosy glow surrounding many of our childhood favourites, but when we go back to them, it’s not long before we start to see images and ideas that we really shouldn’t be passing on without any kind of health warning. The other was sparked by a tweet by a YA writer about her favourite adoption tropes. There were lots of OMGs from the writer about adopted children bringing joy to the hearts of adopters, lots of excitement about adopted people being rescued from error and misfortune – and lots of absolutely rightful pushback from adopted people pointing out that their lives shouldn’t be treated as a plot device. The writer of the original tweet subsequently posted that she hadn’t thought about it that way, and then deleted the whole thread, but really. How can anyone involved in the creative industries, in 2022, not recognise the problem of reducing a group of people to plot tropes, and tweet about it as if those people didn’t exist in the real world? Come on.

There’s a clear intersection between the two threads, because classic fiction is, of course, full of adoption-related plots. Lemn Sissay’s installation Superman was a Foundling lists some of the many, many fictional characters who are adopted, fostered, orphaned or abandoned, and is an eye-opening starting-point if you’d never realised just how widespread these particular themes are. Look more closely at some of these characters, and the tropes will hit you thick and fast. Bitter adopted child intent on destroying adoptive family: hello, Heathcliff. Adopted child helping to soften and humanise a misanthropic outcast: there’s Eppie from Silas Marner, and I guess we could even include William from Goodnight Mister Tom as well. There’s sour and surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden; there are the countless plucky orphans who populate Charles Dickens’ novels and the characters who – like Posy, Paulina and Petrova in Ballet Shoes – are collected like souvenirs and blaze through life like stars with never a thought for their families of origin. Adopted children who are resentful misfits; adopted children who are prodigiously talented; adopted children who make the sun shine and the birds sing because their main role in life is to make other people happy, like Pollyanna with her Glad Game. And that’s before we even get to that sodding boy wizard.

Extract from ‘Superman was a Foundling by Lemn Sissay, Foundling Museum, London. Photo taken by me in October 2017.

One novel that always comes up in recommendations for classic children’s fiction is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Anne Shirley, adopted at the age of eleven by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, is probably one of fiction’s most famous adopted characters. To generations of readers, Anne of Green Gables is most memorable for the series of scrapes that Anne gets herself into. She gets her ‘bosom friend’ Diana Barry drunk on currant wine, thinking it’s raspberry cordial, and flavours a cake with liniment, believing it to be vanilla essence. She walks along the ridgepole of a roof for a dare, falls off, and breaks her ankle. She hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate when he taunts her about her hair. She almost drowns when she and her friends try to dramatise the Arthurian legend of the Lily Maid of Astolat, and her boat springs a leak. She tries to dye her hair black, and ends up turning it green. Anne is a little girl with a vivid imagination, turning an avenue of apple trees into the White Way of Delight and the Barrys’ pond into the Lake of Shining Waters. The only thing she professes herself unable to imagine away is her red hair.

On the surface, Anne of Green Gables is a charming story. It has featured in numerous charts of the most popular novels of all time: it has been adapted for stage, film, radio and television, and every year thousands of people flock to Prince Edward Island to visit its settings. But there is a much more complex story underneath, one that needs to be viewed through the lens of adoption. There’s a reason why Anne needs such a vivid imagination, and it’s because her life has been singularly awful: difficult, lonely, and abusive. Orphaned at three months old, she has been taken in first by a Mrs Thomas, who has a drunken husband, and subsequently by a Mrs Hammond, who has eight children of her own, including three sets of twins. Her place in the Thomas and Hammond households was to be a domestic help, rather than a loved member of the family. When Mr Thomas is killed falling under a train, his mother offers Mrs Thomas and her children a home, ‘but she didn’t want me’. When Mr Hammond dies, his wife divides her children up amongst her relatives, but ‘I had to go to the asylum at Hopeton, because nobody would take me. They didn’t want me at the asylum, either; they said they were over-crowded as it was’. She has had to imagine companions for herself, imagining that her reflection in a bookcase is a little girl called Katie Maurice, and that the echo of her voice is another little girl called Violetta. And she is in danger of not being wanted again, as the Cuthberts wanted a boy to help on the farm, not a girl.

Adoption, in the novel, is surrounded by stigma. Mrs Rachel Lynde warns Marilla about adopted children who set fire to their adoptive families’ houses and burn them to a crisp in their beds, or alternatively poison them by putting strychnine down the well. Anne eventually becomes a much-loved member of the local community, but she has to earn this position. Marilla intends to train Anne to be ‘a useful little thing’, and Anne herself vows to ‘try to do and be anything you want me, if you’ll only keep me’. And she works hard, although the most important work she does is not physical but emotional, bringing joy to shy Matthew and softening the heart of flinty old Marilla. She’s not alone. Time and time again we see adopted children and orphans in literature carrying out this kind of emotional labour in the lives of their new families.

And significantly, Anne is not allowed to forget that being adopted makes her an outsider. Her place in the community is not a given: she has to make herself acceptable and is reminded that she must bow to convention. When she turns down an offer of marriage from Billy Andrews, his sister Jane warns her that she might live to regret the chance of joining an established Avonlea family, as she is ‘merely an adopted orphan, without kith or kin’. Later, when one of her stories is published in a local newspaper, a disapproving acquaintance tells her that ‘she was very sorry to hear she had taken to writing novels; nobody born and bred in Avonlea would do it; that was what came of adopting orphans from goodness knew where, with goodness knew what kind of parents’.

It’s important for us to be aware of these tropes and stereotypes. It’s important, because they still exist. As I’ve mentioned before, the Dude was once told by another child that ‘all adopted people end up in prison’. (The Dude, bless him, retorted by pointing out that actually, most superheroes were adopted, but he shouldn’t have to feel that he has to be a superhero: he shouldn’t have to be anything, apart from himself.) And it’s important because adoption-related storylines often fly under the radar. Another thread I’ve read over the past few days concerns text choices at GCSE: I’ve already written about Blood Brothers and the appalling doomed-adoptee trope that it plays around with, but here’s a reminder not to use that godawful Blood Brothers resource that asks students to imagine they’ve just found out they’re adopted. Teachers of English need to be just as careful when teaching adoption-related texts as they would be with any other texts that address sensitive issues. Being separated from your family of origin, whatever the circumstances, is trauma. Waiting lists for post-adoption support and therapeutic life story work are hideously long. Support for adopted adults is pretty much non-existent, although organisations like Adoptee Futures are working hard to change this situation.

And yet, adoption-related plotlines continue to roll around, earning millions for the entertainment industry. Hey, wouldn’t it be excellent if some of that was ploughed back into counselling and therapy? What if ‘apologetic writer sees the error of their ways and seeks to make amends’ became a trope? I won’t hold my breath.

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