Little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue
An’ the lampwick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo,
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightning-bugs in dew is all squenched away –
You better mind yer parents and yer teachers fond and dear
An’ cherish them ’at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ’at clusters all about
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you, ef you don’t watch out!

James Whitcomb Riley, who wrote the above embarrassing and disgusting verse, was, of course, voicing what was, in the 19th century, considered a very proper and creditable sentiment. (The poem came out in his Rhymes of Childhood in 1890.) It contains, as well, an implicit threat – the orphan’s sinister power:

An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high.

Orphans can cast the evil eye on us; their bad luck may be communicable. But what Riley was primarily saying was then considered perfectly acceptable: the poor and unfortunate were put here by divine dispensation so that luckier people could acquire merit by exercising charity towards them. Such Victorian sentiments have now, in this enlightened age, gone by the board. Our views on destitution have been drastically revised. There, but for the grace of God ... But we can’t help being fascinated by misfortune. News stories about widows or parentless children invariably make headlines. ‘Everybody loves an orphan,’ a market-research-wise colleague with whom I once shared an office in an advertising agency said when I told her I proposed calling one of my books The Orphans of Willoughby. ‘That’s a real selling title,’ she added approvingly. (Actually, the publishers thought it insufficiently exciting.)

Why are we so immediately interested in orphans? Because they arouse in us a feeling of power. We love our friends better when they are divorced or bereaved, because we know they need us. We even feel faintly resentful when they manage to pull themselves together and found new ménages and stand on their feet again. Discreditable – but so it is. A dove forlorn and lost with sick unprunèd wing is everybody’s darling, welcome in any household, because we can manifest benevolence at little cost, and because she makes a useful babysitter. Our lonely friends are dear to us because, at bottom, we need them as much as they need us – maybe even a little more. This, I am convinced, is one of the reasons, and quite a basic one, for the universal interest in orphans. We need them to bolster our insecurity, and we can simultaneously bury our own need under the comfortable feeling that we are doing them a very good turn. Little Orphant Annie, if you recall, had to work uncommonly hard to repay the charity of the Whitcomb Riley family:

An’ wash the cups and saucers up an’ brush the crumbs away
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch an’ dust the hearth an’ sweep
An’ make the fire an’ bake the bread an’ earn her board-an’-keep,

and on top of all that tell stories to ‘all us other children’ at the end of the day’s work. No wonder she told them stories about Big Black Things and little boys who vanished clean away.

American orphans, on the whole, did have to work extremely hard. The log-cabin-to-White-House fable was implicit in all their stories: if only you chopped up enough kindling and shooed the chickens off the porch with sufficient vigour, you would end up putting yourself through college and at least become a teacher, if not President. My comfortable family-buttressed childhood was cheered by comparison with the hardships of a whole series of American orphan sagas. There was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, who had to slave for her harsh aunt Miranda Sawyer in order to pay off the mortgage on her home. Fleda, in Queechy, had the same problem; the word mortgage had a fearsome ring then, which it may have regained today. There was Anne of Green Gables, straight from the orphanage and received coldly because she had red hair and should have been a boy. There was Tom Sawyer, painting the fence for Aunt Polly. Boys did not seem to work quite so hard as girls. Huck Finn, of course, is the Orphan that Got Away. That is his charm. No one can harness Huck, or put him to work: ‘No one is going to sivilise me. I been there before.’ Huck, like Tom Jones, is outside the reach of everybody’s charity. But another American orphan over whom I used to agonise, the orphan par excellence, is Ellen Montgomery, heroine of The Wide Wide World. Poor Ellen: no one ever wept so much, or was quite so miserable, as she. When her mother had to go away for reasons of health, and Ellen must live on the farm with harsh Aunt Fortune, one’s heart was rent. ‘Oh, what shall I do without you? Oh, mamma, how much I want you already!’ And then, no sooner had she got the measure of Aunt Fortune than she had to move on to disagreeable and snobbish relatives in Scotland; her troubles began all over again.

Poor Ellen is in tears on every page from first to last – which was certainly one of the reasons why The Wide Wide World was one of my very favourite books from age seven to 12. Abused, put upon, despised, Ellen was such a martyr that anybody else seemed fortunate in comparison. To be sure, Sara Crewe, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, was almost equally mistreated, but the happy ending came much sooner and more lavishly for her: it was a shorter book. Still, Sara’s sufferings, while they lasted, were highly enjoyable.

‘What are you staring at?’ demanded Miss Minchin sharply. ‘Are you so stupid that you don’t understand what I mean? I tell you that you are quite alone in the world and have no one to do anything for you ... If you don’t please me you will be sent away. Remember that!’

Oh, the delicious horror of that ‘sent away’. Sent away where? Why, to the workhouse, of course. And that brought one, immediately, to the full range of Dickensian horror: to Oliver Twist, fed on the scraps that the Sowerberrys’ dog refused; to David Copperfield, beaten by the fiendish Murdstones; to the little half-starved Marchioness, kept in a dungeon by Sally Brass; to the Nicklebys and Nell, driven out into the harsh world. Indeed, orphans are so plentiful in the works of Dickens that it is quite a surprise to find a child with its full complement of parents.

No doubt, viewed in the light of simple statistics, orphans were, simply, more often to be found in the 19th century. Mothers were more liable to die in childbirth. The works of Charlotte Yonge, for instance, are full of parentless families. Personal experience must have given rise to many of these sad sagas. Is it to be wondered at that the motherless Brontës – making do as best they could in Haworth Parsonage, eating their meals in a separate room from their father – produced some of the prototype orphans of fiction: Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, Cathy, Heathcliff, Shirley, Caroline – not a parent among them. What a shock it is in Shirley when Caroline suddenly turns out, after all, to have a bona fide mother. The reader feels she appears because Caroline has been in danger of dying – otherwise, a parent would seem an unnecessary luxury. One can hardly take Mrs Helstone seriously: plainly, she is never going to become the prop and stay that a real parent should be in the eyes of its offspring.

Other 19th-century writers produce a similar crop of parentless children. Stevenson’s heroes – David Balfour, Dick, the hero of The Black Arrow, Jim, in Treasure Island – have all shed their progenitors. George MacDonald, in the realm of fantasy, was equally severe with his main characters: Irene, in The Princess and the Goblin, has a king-papa, to be sure, but he is hardly ever there; her mysterious grandmother comes and goes in a very arbitrary manner, and is certainly not to be relied on for help and comfort at all times. Hodgson Burnett had several orphans besides Sara Crewe: Lord Fauntleroy lacked a father, Mary, in The Secret Garden, was parentless, and Colin virtually so, since his father couldn’t stand the sight of him. A hating parent is as good, from the fictional point of view, as no parent at all. Better, some might say, since reconciliation is a possibility. A hating parent to whom I was devotedly attached was the hard-hearted mother in Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost, who made her daughter, poor Elnora, stomp off to school every day in hideously unbecoming clothes, and threw her priceless collection of moths into the garbage bin. And there – aha! – sketched out plain, in the person of Elnora’s mother (Mrs Comstock, her name was), we see why the state of orphanhood is not pitiable at all, but, on the contrary, admirable, enviable, to be gloated over in secret. For Mrs Comstock is mother to us all. She is the archetypal parent. She it is who forces us all to go to school in hideously unbecoming clothes that make us the laughing-stock of the neighbourhood, who, while our back is turned, throws out our shells, our mosses, our Airfix models, our year’s collection of comics. A friend of mine once turned at bay on his mother and shouted: ‘Oh god, how I wish I was an orphan!’ I was thunderstruck when I heard this. Were he and his brothers and sisters not the pattern family of the neighbourhood? When we went on humble visits to relatives, they took canoes down the Rhine, or sailing-dinghies to the Faroe Islands, made maps and kept diaries of their adventures. They out-Ransomed the Ransome children. Where we found primroses, they excavated Saxon earthworks. And yet this model son had actually uttered this heretical cry – thereby voicing the burning wish of every child at one time or another.

The obverse of the wish to be an orphan is, of course, the fear that one really is. Almost all children, at one time or another, tremble under the belief that – all appearances to the contrary – they don’t really belong to their family, that they have been adopted, and never told the truth about it, that all their siblings, hating them, are in secret collusion about it. E. Arnot Robertson, in Ordinary Families, had a plain sister holding over the head of a pretty one the threat that she might be returned to the orphanage if she didn’t behave herself humbly and placatingly; that incident had the ring of personal experience about it. The story of Cinderella is basic to us all: orphan stories are not only a 19th-century phenomenon, they come from much farther back. We all know the hating stepmother, the ugly sisters. Those ugly sisters crop up all over the place. There they are in Les Misérables – Azelma and Eponine, the two savage daughters of murderous Madame Thenardier, brutally unkind to poor little orphaned Cosette while she lives with them, haunting her thereafter, through all her better fortunes, like two revengeful spectres from the past. They are Beauty’s elder sisters, tempting her to her doom, persuading her to look at the Beast by lamplight and kill him; they are Goneril and Regan, poisoning Cordelia’s father’s mind against her. They are, in fact, a mythical reminder that families can be dangerous, hostile, not to be trusted, potentially lethal – which is, of course, one of the main themes of contemporary fiction. Families, once so desirable, are now the villains – strangling, suffocating the poor Laingian child. Mrs Portnoy has replaced Mrs Comstock. And this sinister 20th-century light which has been thrown on the family causes us to regard the happy families of fiction with a new eye: Little Women, reread, seems intolerable. How could one ever have stood the mawkish piety, the inevitable moral drawn from every occurrence, the priggish discussion of every action by the whole family. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy never had a moment’s privacy. Oliver Twist could, at least, crawl away to sleep under the undertaker’s counter at night. Huck had his dog-kennel. Fanny Price had her little white attic, freezing, no doubt, to which she could retire and cry herself to sleep after Julia and Maria had been unkind to her.

The great virtue of the orphan story, I believe, and the reason why it has survived for so many centuries and will continue to do so, is that, when it comes to essentials, we are solitary beings; we are born alone, die alone, sleep alone, dream alone; stories about orphans are an instinctive means of acclimatising children, at an impressionable age, to this grim but pertinent fact.

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