Reading over Our Mutual Friend again, one word (or two words joined by a hyphen) shook me out of my comfortable familiarity with the text: ‘love-child’.
I suppose in some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. There is a long tradition of exploring illegitimacy in fiction. Indeed, the nineteenth century is awash with characters born out of wedlock, or giving birth to such infants, from Oliver Twist to Ruth Hilton to the sorry fate of Tess Durbeyfield’s child. But the word love-child, to me, suggests something more positive than the child of a fallen woman. It is almost as if it is trying to sanitise the stigma that comes from being born as a consequence of an illicit affair. It suggests that the child was conceived in love. Or does it?
Lovechild is a word that I particularly hate for very personal reasons. My husband had an affair which resulted in a so-called lovechild. To me, it always seemed such an unnecessary cruelty: to slap the word love on to a child that resulted from what was, at best, a sordid affair, conducted in secret, with the consequence kept as a shameful secret for some time. As a result, when I see the word, in any context, it stirs something in me.
This time, as I read it in Dickens, what it stirred in me was an interest in the etymology of the word. I had always associated it with being a relatively recent addition to our lexicon, used to describe the progeny of celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy or Hugh Grant. Yet here it was in Dickens:
‘And Master – or Mister – Sloppy?’ said the Secretary, in doubt whether he was man, boy, or what.
‘A love-child,’ returned Betty Higden, dropping her voice; ‘parents never known; found in the street.’
As Betty drops her voice to impart the information regarding the parentage (or lack thereof) of Sloppy, there is no escaping the shadow of scandal and shame associated with the status of being a love-child. She drops her voice because such things should not be said out loud. They are to be kept quiet, not to be proclaimed.
Having established that the word was in use when Dickens wrote Our Mutual Friend in 1864/5, and that it was indeed used to denote something against the socially acceptable conventions of the time, I was still left with the question of where it had come from? A quick visit to the dictionary suggested the word had evolved from the eighteenth-century descriptor ‘love-brat’, and that this, in turn, came from the more Shakespearean ‘bastard’.
I scanned through some of the books on my shelf with well-known stories of illegitimacy from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur to Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. I could find no usage of the phrase love-child in the text. So, as one does in the absence of being able to plan a trip to London to go to the British Library, I turned to the internet. Here, I came across an interesting article from 2011 exploring the use of the word, which you can find here: https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/05/arnold-schwarzenegger-s-love-child-and-the-rise-of-a-bastard-phrase.html.
As the author identifies, the first known use of the phrase ‘love-child’ seems to have been in 1805, when Eugenia de Acton (a pseudonym for Alethea Lewis) wrote in The Nuns of the Desert, of a Miss Blenheim being understood to be ‘what in that country is denominated a love-child’. The phrase also appears in the Posthumous Poems of Percy Byshhe Shelley, published by his second wife in 1824, where the ‘ambrosial nymph with happy will / Bore the Saturnian’s love-child’. The birth of this particular love-child seems somewhat infused with joy.
I could spend many an hour wondering what Shelley actually thought about the term love-child, since he abandoned his pregnant wife to take up with a teenage lover who would go on to give birth to a love-child of his own. We still celebrate the woman he left his wife for today as the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. She would go on to pay a high price for her irresponsibility, or, as she saw it, her ardent love for the poet. She gave birth to her lovechild prematurely, and her baby died not long thereafter. As she grieved her loss, Shelley doted on his legitimate son. Grief and guilt haunted her. Shelley’s wife Harriet also suffered as a consequence of her husband’s affair. She would go on to drown herself in the Serpentine, dying at the age of only 21.
So, where does this leave us with the word ‘love-child’? I still feel a certain amount of resentment when I hear the word bandied about every time some male celebrity is caught out with a ‘lovechild’ by a scandal hungry press. Yet it is clear that the word was always, and continues to be used, in a somewhat ironic sense. No one actually believes love has anything to do with it. The word is used precisely because the connotations are clear: that a child has been born outside of a relationship, by a cheating man hoping to escape the consequences of his infidelity.