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  • Neither Fish nor Fowl:Children and Parents in Cross-Class Cohabitation
  • Ginger S. Frost (bio)

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An Old Clothes Shop in St. Giles by John Thompson.

Reproduced by permission of the Bishopsgate Institute.

[End Page 46]

Livingin sin” in the Victorian period led to numerous legal and social complications, and cross-class cohabitation was a particularly vexed type of extra-marital relationship (Frost 148–68). Almost all these unions were between well-off men and poorer women and ran the gamut from brief liaisons to (eventual) legal marriages. Subordinated by both class and gender, poor women were not invariably victims, but they did have less leverage in negotiating the terms of their alliances. In a similar way, the children of such unions sat uneasily between classes and between legal statuses. Born illegitimate, they remained so for their entire lives, even if their parents later married. In addition, their mixed-class background had particular effects on their identity formation and their relationships with both parents. Many were caught in between classes and forced into secrecy about all or part of their family histories.

A major problem for all children of cross-class relationships was one of identity. To which class—and parent—did they belong? Most of these children lived with their mothers, who, though poor, received some supplemental income from the fathers. These incomes were modest but could still raise the children above their mothers’ rank. Thus, the children were better educated than their peers and had more opportunities, but their respectability was fragile. Wilkie Collins had three children with his second cohabitee, Martha Rudd. He supported them comfortably, educated them well, and made a will that benefited them. To quote William Clarke, Collins “helped them escape from Martha’s working-class background into the atmosphere, and the assumptions, of a respectable middle-class family.” All the same, Clarke added, “they never lost the consciousness of who they were, and why they were different.” Collins went by the name of Dawson with this family, and possible discovery lurked at every turn. His daughters avoided close contact with their schoolmates for fear of discovery, while Charley, the son, believed that his illegitimacy denied him a commission in the army. Though loved by both parents, the “Dawsons” lacked the security of many middle-class children (Clarke 186–90).

Collins at least acknowledged his children. Other fathers posed as uncles or friends of the family, denying their children honest relationships with them. Roger Ackerley supported two different illegitimate families at the turn of the twentieth century. He eventually married Netta, his long-time cohabitee and mother of his literary son, J.R. Ackerley. His second lover was Murial Perry, with whom he had three daughters. Diana Petre, the youngest, explained that they knew Roger only as “Uncle Bodger.” At one point, Diana’s sister went to Ackerley’s office and asked him directly if he were her father, but he refused to confirm or deny his paternity. Murial only told her [End Page 47] daughters the truth at her death (in 1930), long after Roger had died. Petre realized that though he had always been kind to her, “I had never had a real relationship with him, nor he with me…. We had never met as father and daughter. We had never looked into each other’s eyes knowing, and now we never would” (Petre 5; see also 48–56, 76–89). The complications of Roger’s second family life were financial as well as emotional. He meant for this family to have the proceeds of his life insurance, but he died in debt, and his partners told J.R. Ackerley, his heir, that they would cancel his mother’s pension if he gave the benefits to his half-sisters. The unacknowledged family, then, struggled on alone (Ackerley 201–14; Parker 142–43).

Though both Collins and Ackerley made an effort to know and support their children, other fathers acknowledged their offspring reluctantly and partially. James McNeill Whistler had an illegitimate son, known as Charles Hanson. Charles may have been the product of Whistler’s long-time liaison with Joanna Hiffernan, his model, or a...


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