What would Emily Brontë think?
When I was asked by the Brontë Parsonage Museum to work on a piece to commemorate Emily’s birth, I immediately thought of her androgynous pseudonym, Ellis Bell, and what that gesture represented. Since reading and re-reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ I have long been fascinated by Emily’s choice, or need, to hide behind Ellis Bell. In fact I have used ellisbell as an email address in the past.
“We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice” said Charlotte Brontë in 1850.
‘Wuthering Heights’ protagonist Healthcliff was a foundling: born in 1764, he was found abandoned as a child in Liverpool. Emily would have been acutely aware of the social issues of the time through her father Patrick, who was a keen social campaigner. They lived in Haworth, Yorkshire, and though ‘Wuthering Heights’ is infamous for its setting in the rural wilderness of the moors, their house actually sits at the edge of a manufacturing village which was full of operational textile mills in the 19th Century. We may even speculate that the social conditions affected Emily’s reluctance to get married or have children herself.
The reality is that for women in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries life was incredibly difficult, without appropriate laws or social customs to protect them. There was a strong social stigma against illegitimate children, so if a woman became pregnant out of wedlock she would usually lose her job, and often need to change residence to hide the pregnancy. The only option left to her would be begging or entering a workhouse, which would be a likely death sentence for her child. In the 18th Century, the mortality rate for under 5 year olds in workhouses was 95%.
The Foundling Hospital opened in the 18th Century, founded by Thomas Coram, in response to these conditions. The Hospital offered to care for children who couldn’t be supported by their parents. With higher demand than supply for places, there was originally an anonymous lottery system in place for admissions into the Hospital: whereby a woman would have to pull a ball from a bag. A white ball meant that her child would be offered a place, a black ball meant she and her baby had to leave, and a red ball meant being offered a second chance if any one of the babies with white balls were too sick to be admitted.
“The expressions of grief of the women whose children could not be admitted were scarcely more observable than those of some of the women who parted with their children” wrote an 18th Century observer of the Hospital.
By the 19th Century admission processes had changed to a less random, but more judgmental one. Women had to prove that the baby was illegitimate, that it was their first child, and that they had good moral character. They had to explain — to a board of male governors — the circumstances under which the baby was conceived, and why they had allowed themselves to become pregnant: usually saying there had been promises of marriage from the father before he deserted them.
An enquirer would then follow up on their story by visiting and interviewing people who knew them: landlords, ex-employers, parents. The enquirer would assess the truth of the woman’s story, that the baby was her first and that she had an otherwise “good character.”
In the archives of the Foundling Hospital in London you can find thousands of the hand written petitions, and enquirer’s reports, from the women and girls who came from across the country, as young as 16, who had been raped or deserted by the fathers of their children, often left penniless and with no choice but to beg to have their babies taken away.
Sometimes included next to the petition you will find love letters written from the father to the mother, offered as evidence of her good moral conduct: that she had been misled by the father. Next to one petition in the archives, I found a note written twenty years later, to say the mother had returned to ask to reclaim her child.
Occasionally mothers, and sometimes fathers, would return to try and reclaim the child when they were able to do so. There was originally a token system in operation for this purpose, whereby a mother would leave a piece of her clothing or a trinket such as a playing card with the baby which she could keep half of. The baby’s name would be completely changed when it was accepted by the Hospital but if the mother ever returned she could give the admission date and show her token to prove it was her child.
In developing this short film for the Brontë Parsonage and Foundling Museums, I wanted to acknowledge the struggles of women in the past and celebrate how far we have come as a society in our treatment of women and children. It is now very possible for a woman to author a successful book, to have the right to vote, and to hold the father of her child accountable for it.
Yet women are under-represented in positions of power in almost every industry in the world, earn 60–75% of men’s wages and women aged 15–44 are more at risk of rape and domestic violence, than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria combined.* The subtlety of everyday prejudice and sexism, that our news cycle and social media commentary have been offering a mirror to of late, is connected to these facts.
2018 offers us both the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth, and the 100th anniversary of female suffrage in the UK. Let us pause, and take stock: to reflect on how far we have come, and to reflect on how far we have yet to go. As the new women’s rights campaign plainly says: Times Up.