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  • The Spectral Hospital:Eighteenth-Century Philanthropy and the Novel
  • Lisa Zunshine

Established in 1739 as a shelter for illegitimate children of the poor otherwise liable to be murdered by their parents or abandoned in the streets to certain death, the London Foundling Hospital loomed large in eighteenth-century cultural imagination.1 It embodied both the noblest philanthropic aspirations of the British Enlightenment and some of its worst fears, namely that unchecked by the stigma of illicit maternity, women would gain an unprecedented control over their reputations and reproductive behavior. Straightforward praises, such as Henry Fielding's "compliment to the present Age for [this] glorious [Benefaction]," mingled with such underhand commendations as the one voiced by a 1760 anonymous pamphlet that assured the "young Maids" that now they "may safely take a Leap in the dark with their Sweethearts; and if they should chance to be with child,... they may go to the Foundling Hospital and get rid of their Bantling, and pass for pure Virgins."2 It was widely rumored, moreover, that the reason any man would champion the case of this charity was that he hoped to swindle the public into paying for the upkeep of his own bastards; a 1750 pamphlet claimed that the Hospital's founding father, Captain Thomas Coram, worked so hard on behalf of illegitimate children because he "had many a Lass grappl'd under the Lee."3 The institution's vulnerability to slander notwithstanding, the visit to the beautifully appointed grounds of [End Page 1] the Hospital, to its art exhibition, and to its children's quarters was considered "the most fashionable morning lounge in the reign of George II."4 Foreign visitors, especially, saw it as an emblem of the growing public spirit of English men and women. As Jean Andre Rouquet put it in The Present State of the Arts in England (translated into English in 1754), "we may say that in England everything is now done by people. This hospital is now a very large building, and was raised by the subscription of a few private persons, who were desirous of seeing such an establishment. The king subscribed to it like others, and the public benefactions are every day increasing."5

Surprisingly, however, given the prominence of the Hospital in the mental landscape of the Enlightenment, no eighteenth-century writer cared to capitalize on what appears to us today the obvious selling and sentimental potential of a story featuring a child who grows up in the Hospital and then negotiates the world outside of its walls, perhaps rising above her station through hard work or luck and perhaps even discovering her parents in properly dramatic circumstances.6 That no such story was written back in the eighteenth century appears even more remarkable if we remember how eagerly the reading and theater-going public of the period consumed fictional narratives about foundlings. In the theater, they saw Richard Steele's The Conscious Lovers (1722), Edward Moore's The Foundling (1747), and George Colman's The English Merchant (1767); at home, they read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker (1771), Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), Charlotte Smith's Emmeline (1784), Agnes Maria Bennett's The Beggar Girl and her Benefactors (1797), Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801), as well as numerous anonymous novels published at the turn of the century, such as Fatherless Fanny (1811)—all featuring children lost and then recovered by their families.7 The London Foundling Hospital constituted an important feature of the imaginative terrain of many of these narratives, but it was treated by the eighteenth-century fiction writers in a very particular manner. For them, it was a place where infants could have been deposited by heartless strangers, but that threat never came to pass, or where they might have been expected to be left by their despairing mothers, but were not, or where they have been left, but might as well have died, since nobody ever heard about them again. Often a possible, but never an actual home for a viable protagonist, the London Foundling Hospital was both absent from and present, a just-beyond-reach spectral entity, in the foundling fictions of...


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