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ELH 68.4 (2001) 1023-1047
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"A Sort Of Adopted Daughter":
Family Relations In The Lamplighter
My title comes from a passage in Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854). Throughout the novel, Gerty, the main character, has no stable place in any one family. She is alternately Trueman Flint's "adopted child" or the child of True and Emily Graham who have "adopted her jointly." 1 She is both a "doubly-orphaned girl" (176), according to Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, and she is an "orphan child" of the "good foster-mother world" (278). Exactly what it means to be an adopted child in Gerty's world, or to be doubly orphaned, is tantalizingly imprecise. The array of relational possibilities is quite stunning, whether from the parental perspective or the child's. This imprecision has significant consequences in terms of Gerty's development in the novel, most importantly in producing her capacity to dispense what I shall be calling "judicious sympathy"; that is, an ability not only to recognize and respond to the multiple claims people make upon her sympathy, but more importantly, to prioritize those claims and to mete out her sympathy accordingly. Gerty exercises her sympathy the way she goes about making her family--freely, rationally, and contractually.
Cummins's inconsistent vocabulary is, however, part of another story, and that is the development of what legal historian Michael Grossberg has called "the legal category of domestic relations," specifically divorce and adoption, which was being formulated and debated during the historical moment of The Lamplighter. 2 Gerty's story, in fact, is the story of the production of domestic-relations law. The Lamplighter produces a paradigm of family based on chosen affections rather than biologically determined ones, and as such both intersects with and departs from antebellum formulations of the family, especially in the nascent sphere of domestic-relations law. This notion of family, in which the rules of contract apply to biological relations, reflects the republican ideal in which each family member possesses individual rights which are guaranteed, not by one's status in the family, but by the contractual obligations family members have [End Page 1023] toward one another. The novel captures in literary form the moment when courts were attempting to define terms such as adoption and guardianship, as well as trying to make sense of domestic arrangements which were based on contracts, sometimes verbal, sometimes written, rather than on biology. Were these families, or weren't they? Could families now be chosen, and if so, what rules governed the choice? The legal narrative is, as we shall see, as uneven and unstable as Gerty's, which is to say that both the law and the novel profoundly waver about affirming the very reconstitution of the family that their narratives seem to advocate--families based on choice. Many of the most significant legal cases of the antebellum period having to do with custody and adoption sought to resolve a conflict between a residual model of the family, which envisioned its members in contractual relation with one another. Cummins's novel, like the law, reproduces these conflicts, sometimes coming out in favor of blood ties, sometimes in favor of adopted ones, and also, like antebellum law, slowly and unevenly moves toward a recognition, indeed a validation of the claims of contract.
But Gerty's story is also radically different from her legal analogues. Whereas the law demands a verdict which, in delivering a child to one person meant separating a child from another, Gerty's judicious sympathy produces a much happier outcome. In the course of the narrative, we witness Gerty's gradual possession of her sympathy, enabling her to choose how, when, and to whom her affections will be given. Although Gerty gets to belong to everyone--that is, virtually every adult character in the novel adopts her at some point--her sympathy produces a family economy where one person's gain is not another person's loss. The term judicious sympathy responds to June Howard's timely call for a "transdisciplinary" approach to the study...