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Conference Papers Year : 2021

“Shameful Narratives of Late Victorian Sexuality”


My PhD thesis focused on the archives of the London Foundling Hospital, a British charitable institution created in the 18th century which offered permanent shelter to orphans and children born out of wedlock . Providing a record of these children’s origins, the archives in question are profoundly intimate and marked by the weight of the burden of illegitimacy. In these documents, the silence which usually surrounds out of wedlock pregnancies is given voice as young single mothers are asked to detail the circumstances surrounding their pregnancies, answering a series of questions meant to assess their moral rectitude. Some more private documents also accompany these testimonies, documents used as pieces of evidence such as extracts from romantic correspondence, photographs, small tokens of love inserted in the letters - dry leaves and flowers, hair locks or jewelry -, and also official documents such as marriage or birth certificates. The matter of illegitimacy being highly sensitive in late Victorian society, these documents were carefully classified by the institution and not meant to be seen for a period of 110 years after the child’s admittance - long enough to ensure the secrets contained in the records were safe and would remain hidden from the public. Any child’s admission by the institution was a matter of silence and shame. The names of the children once admitted were changed so most never knew the identity of their parents. Mothers were not allowed to see their children or to make enquiries about them. Some poignant letters linked to these issues have survived in the archive. This paper purports to look closely at a selection of some of these young mothers’ shameful narratives of sexuality which were found in the archives under study between 1875 and 1901, paying particular attention to the obvious shift of outlook between the time the documents were classified and more recent times. While to our eyes, the type of painful in-depth enquiry single mothers had to undergo may appear as a punitive experience, with so much focus on moral penance and intimate details, for the administrators of the time, it was surely the only possible way to provide help. Attacked by many for offering charity to single mothers, they had to justify the choices made in terms of the selection of the children, making sure the mothers were previously respectable, had managed to keep their “shame” hidden and could thus hope to be redeemed. Here is a 1865 report focusing on the type of cases deemed the most deserving by the hospital board: The most meritous case, therefore, would be one in which a young women, having no means of subsistence, except those derived from her own labour, and having no opulent relations, previously to committing the offence bore an irreproachable character, but yielded to artful and long-continued seduction, and an express promise of marriage: whose delivery took place in secret, and whose shame was shown to only one or two persons […] and lastly, whose employers or other persons were able and desirous to take her into their service, and enable her again to earn her livelihood by the reception of her child. Acting as a stark reminder of the double standards of the time, the Foundling Hospital exacting enquiry process offers an invaluable source of information on late Victorian moral values and codes of behaviour.
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Dates and versions

hal-03466076 , version 1 (04-12-2021)


  • HAL Id : hal-03466076 , version 1


Florence Pellegry. “Shameful Narratives of Late Victorian Sexuality”. ARCHIVES OF SHAME CONFERENCE, SorbonneNouvelle University (CREW/PRISMES), Dec 2021, Paris, France. ⟨hal-03466076⟩
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