I’m delighted to welcome my lovely friend and editor, Sue Barnard to my Thursday Themes blog today. Sue’s new book, Finding Nina is out on Monday, and I can’t wait to read it.
One of the main threads running throughout Finding Nina is the theme of illegitimacy. The eponymous Nina’s whole life takes a particular course simply because she is born out of wedlock. As a result of this accident of birth, she is forcibly separated from her mother when she is just one month old, and brought up by a couple who are not her biological parents.
Illegitimacy is by no means a new phenomenon. The English Kings Henry VIII (1509-1553) and Charles II (1660-1685) – to name but two – both sired many illegitimate children. King Charles rewarded his mistresses and offspring with land and titles – indeed, some British Duchies today, such as those of Cleveland, Monmouth and St Albans, owe their very existence to this regal adultery. The latter is popularly believed to be the result of the King’s conscience being pricked when Nell Gwynne allegedly called to their elder son: “Come hither, little bastard, and speak to your father!”
In general, the medieval nobility tended to be willing to acknowledge the male results of their indiscretions. This might take the form of giving the son his father’s surname prefixed with “Fitz” to indicate illegitimacy (for example: Fitzroy = the illegitimate son of the king), or of allowing him to use a special version the family coat of arms. The shield would include the bend sinister – a diagonal band which crosses the shield from bottom left to top right, in the opposite direction to normal. This would indicate that the holder was of bar sinister, or bastard, status.
The word sinister has two meanings. It derives from the Latin word for left, but it also carries the connotation of at best irregularity, at worst evil. So could this be the source of the stigma which became attached to illegitimacy in later years?
Certainly by the mid-17th century (at the height of the Puritan era), illegitimacy was regarded as shameful. Parish registers specified if a child being baptised was illegitimate – and often also recorded the clergyman’s own opinion of the child (base-born, byblow, lamebegot, chanceling) or of the mother (harlot, fornicator, strumpet)… Christian charity appears to be sadly lacking here.
In Britain, the general attitude to the unmarried mother was, until very recently, extremely hostile. For centuries, attitudes and standards had been determined by strict religious doctrine – either hell-fire-and-brimstone Catholicism or repressed and puritanical Protestantism – and in particular, sex outside marriage was condemned as especially wicked. The unmarried mother was an abomination against moral law, whilst her bastard child was a permanent reminder, for all to see, of her act of extramarital fornication.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that for much of the 20th century, in the days before reliable contraception became readily available to the unmarried, one bride in every five walked up the aisle pregnant. Such brides were presumably desperately trying to maintain some modicum of respectability, and hoping that in the fullness of time the “accident” could be disguised as a premature birth. Couples sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to hide evidence of a pre-nuptial conception – including celebrating milestone wedding anniversaries a year early, so that the truth could still be concealed from anyone who could count up to nine…
But in cases where marriage was not an option, and where abortion was expensive, dangerous and illegal, another alternative presented itself: adoption. For many years informal adoptions were fairly common, either within the family (where the baby might be disguised as a sibling to the errant daughter) or by close friends. Later, after the 1926 Adoption Act, adoptions were arranged officially by adoption societies or charities, whose purpose was to place illegitimate babies in “respectable” two-parent homes.
It is against this background, in 1943, that baby Nina’s adoption takes place. The repercussions – both for herself and for her birth mother – cast long shadows over both their lives…
FINDING NINA is already available for pre-order. The book is officially released on 3 June 2019, when there will be an online launch party on Facebook, with guests, competitions and giveaways. To add yourself to the guest list, click here then select “Going”. See you there!
MORE ABOUT FINDING NINA:
1943: A broken-hearted teenager gives birth in secret. Her soldier sweetheart has disappeared, and she reluctantly gives up her daughter for adoption.
1960: A girl discovers a dark family secret, but it is swiftly brushed back under the carpet. Conventions must be adhered to.
1982: A young woman learns of the existence of a secret cousin. She yearns to find her long-lost relative, but is held back by legal constraints. Life goes on.
2004: Everything changes…
MORE ABOUT SUE:
Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet who was born in North Wales some time during the last millennium. She speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad. She now lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.
Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.
Sue’s own family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.
Finding Nina, which is her sixth novel, is not that book.
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