06 July 2014 ~ 4 Comments

The special magic of the orphan girl

Patrice’s note: This is a repeat of one of my favorite posts from past years. In this discussion of the orphan as redeemer, I talk about the particular role of girl orphans in Victorian literature.

  • Ann of Green Gables
  • Emily of New Moon
  • Sarah Crewe
  • Mary Lennox

What do all of these famous orphans have in common? They all bring redemption to the families that bring them into their homes. The trope of orphan as redeemer seems to have been a late Victorian sentiment, and it seems to be specifically attributed to girls. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, in large part because the role of girls in YA and children’s literature has definitely changed. In modern-day YA, the protagonist is often the hero and the love interest, but bringing redemption to a family is no longer one of her roles.

Take a look at the most famous orphan in the world — Anne of Green Gables. Adopted by mistake by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, she is almost returned to the orphanage but Marilla has a change of heart, and Anne stays. She softens Marilla’s heart and brings shy Matthew out of his shell. She makes a bosom friend of the pragmatic Diana, and over the course of several books she enlivens the small town of Avonlea as it embraces her for her romantic and generous nature and her good sense. Even crusty Mrs. Lynde, who warns Marilla that an orphan will poison the well or set fire to the house, warms so thoroughly to Anne that they become good friends, and Mrs. Lynde becomes one of her staunchest supporters.

Anne is not alone; L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon has a similar arc. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novels, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, feature Sarah Crewe and Mary Lennox, who save everyone around them. Mary even helps a crippled boy walk. The Secret Garden is interesting in that the character of Dickon is actually quite a redeemer himself. He is almost a magical creature and he helps bring about Mary’s transformation from a spoiled brat to an open, happy child. What? A boy in a helper role? Astounding.

Contrast that with the orphan boy; Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, and more recently Harry Potter have adventures but don’t have the same softening effect on the characters around them. Harry Potter saves the world, but he doesn’t redeem it. In Oliver Twist, Fagin remains Fagin, the Artful Dodger remains the Dodger, Bill Sykes will never not kill Nancy, and Nancy herself is sweet and good without Oliver Twist to do anything to bring it out. Even when Oliver Twist finds his family, they are ready made to accept him.

As for Huck, he lights out for the territory, the eternal boy. (Hmmm. I wonder what ever happened to Huck Finn?)

Part of what made me think about the orphan girl is a conversation on Facebook with author Beth Bernobich about Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Fanny isn’t an orphan, though she has been sent to live with relatives. As was commonly done in Jane Austen’s era, in the event a family had many children and too few resources, a child might be sent to live with wealthier relatives, and even adopted by them, as was the case with Austen’s own brother.

Does Fanny redeem her wealthy relatives? Hardly. She follows that other orphan trope, that of Cinderella (or Cinderjack, in the case of boy orphans). I wonder what would have happened to a Fanny Price in the hands of L.M. Montgomery or Frances Hodgson Burnett? For one thing, she would have been less of a drip and more assertive and positive, surely. But Austen was doing something different with Mansfield Park. I believe that novel is not really about Fanny at all, and more about a sharp-eyed novelist’s look at the hypocrisies of her society.

While this is just a brief overview about the redeemer character, I think it’s very interesting that this particular character doesn’t tend to show up as much in modern YA. It’s always fun to play around with and invert stereotypes; will modern readers accept a boy orphan as redeemer?

Help me out here; can anyone think of other characters in the “orphan girl (or boy) as redeemer” vein?

4 Responses to “The special magic of the orphan girl”

  1. Bethe Ann Bugbee 25 October 2012 at 9:07 pm Permalink

    Hi Patrice,

    I was just reading in a book titled “I Wish I Knew That” which is a brief overview of all sorts of information. It seems to be aimed at kids somewhere between 4th grade and middle school. In the “Literature Stuff” chapter there is a Classic Reads list which contains many of the books you mentioned. It has others which could also be part of the conversation.

    The first two books are:
    The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
    The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
    I can’t remember if Dorthy was actually an orphan, but she was living with her aunt and uncle. In the Narnia books, if I remember right, the parents were still alive but the children had been sent to the country because of the war. It’s intersting that in both cases the children go off to magical lands, but only after they have been separated from their parents.

    Further in the list (as a You May Also Like after the description of “Anne of Green Gables”) are “Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter and “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. From what I remember of Heidi she certainly falls into the redeemer orphan category.

    Also listed (this time as a You May Also Like after the description of “The Secret Garden”) is “Jane Eyre”. Would Jane still be considered a redeemer orphan if the redeeming part of her story happens after she is an adult?

  2. Patrice Sarath 26 October 2012 at 7:15 am Permalink

    That sounds like an excellent reference. I TOTALLY forgot about Jane Eyre! Yes, she is the redeemer orphan without peer. (She is also the first Mary Sue, which is another post for another time.)

    I have to say I have not read Pollyanna, but I have read Heidi, and that’s another one that falls into the redeemer category. It also comes under Nature as restorative to health, which The Secret Garden also is an example of. Fresh air, healthy, hearty foods all revive sickly, unhappy children.

    And I am so glad you wrote in because you reminded me of a brilliant send-up of the orphan as redeemer — Cold Comfort Farm. In that book the heroine Flora Poste, who is orphaned in her twenties, goes to live with relatives at a bleak farm in a bleak village, whereupon she redeems the hell out of them. It is funny, clever, brilliant, and did I mention funny?

    Now as for the Pevensey children and Dorothy Gale, I wouldn’t consider them orphan redeemers. They are world saviors and heroes, but it’s all grand and not on the personal, family level. The professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, isn’t made happier or more fulfilled by the Pevensies coming to live with him. (I just want to keep writing Pevensy as many different ways as possible.) But the idea that children have to be orphaned or separated from their parents to have adventures is a pretty powerful one, and it runs throughout children’s lit. Which is interesting, because in real life, orphans are so vulnerable.

    Thanks for chiming in!

  3. kodie 22 October 2014 at 5:47 pm Permalink

    tiny tim is sue

  4. Patrice Sarath 22 October 2014 at 6:23 pm Permalink

    I think Tiny Tim is more an example of the Victorian ideal of childhood but I see where you are going with this.


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