Alexandre Dumas, Fils
Alexandre Dumas, Fils

Author of Camille: The Lady of the Camellias and the illegitimate
son of Alexandre Dumas, père.

Today we’re talking about books featuring people born out of wedlock, not bastard titles (which is another matter entirely).  For centuries, a child born outside of marriage was a cause for terrible shame.  There were all manner of legal issues and the status of ‘bastard’ had huge influence on how a person was perceived by society.

But bastards were also a gift for authors and dramatists. A controversial subject for so long, illegitimacy has been a major plot device since the earliest tales were told around the campfire.

One of the most infamous bastards is the Arthurian traitor Mordred, usually portrayed as the illegitimate son of King Arthur and his half-sister Morgan le Fay.

In the Elizabethan years, William Shakespeare was particularly fascinated with the topic, making it a central theme of plays like Richard III (where the young princes are stained with illegitimacy slurs from Richard) and King Lear (where Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester and the play’s villain). Shakespeare’s other llegitimate characters included Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, Caliban in The Tempest and Phillip Falconbridge in King John.

Notwithstanding the Bard’s interest in the subject, the Victorian era was the golden age of illegitimacy in fiction.  During these years, the importance of social values and sexual restraint where often touted by politicians, the Church and public figures but prostitution, child labor and corruption at all levels were rampant. Illegitimate children were commonplace and Victorian authors tackled the subject at length. British writers like Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy addressed the matter, and so did America’s Nathaniel Hawthorne and Russia’s Leo Tolstoy.

The taboo of being born out of wedlock has greatly decreased in Western society with the shift toward common law marriage and major legal reforms in the 1970s. However, it can still be a polarizing issue - just consider Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel A Thousand Splendid Suns as a modern example.

 

Illegitimacy in Literature

Richard III by William Shakespeare (1591)
Richard III
by William Shakespeare (1591)

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurps the throne by claiming that the young princes are both illegitimate.
King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605)
King Lear
by William Shakespeare (1605)

Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s finest villains.
The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton (1607)
The Revenger’s Tragedy
by Thomas Middleton (1607)

The Duke’s bastard son, Spurio, becomes embroiled in the plot to undo the Duke and his family.
Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Emma
by Jane Austen (1815)

Emma attempts to set up her illegitimate friend Harriet Smith with the local vicar, Mr. Elton.
Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749)
Tom Jones, a Foundling
by Henry Fielding (1749)

More social commentary from 18th century England detailing the life of a bastard orphan.
Who is to Blame? by Alexandre Herzen (1847)
Who is to Blame?
by Alexandre Herzen (1847)

An illegitimate author writes about the illegitimate daughter of a retired general.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Hester Prynne gives birth after committing adultery and is shunned by the Puritan society.
The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray (1852)
The History of Henry Esmond
by William Makepeace Thackeray (1852)

The protagonist is a young boy, illegitimate and eventually orphaned, growing up in Restoration era England.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Bleak House
by Charles Dickens (1853)

The illegitimacy of the heroine, Esther Summerson, provides much of the drama in Dickens' 10th novel.
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (1858)
Doctor Thorne
by Anthony Trollope (1858)

This book’s themes are the social exclusion caused by illegitimacy, alcoholism, and romance outside one’s class.
Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859)
Adam Bede
by George Eliot (1859)

1799 was a bad year to be in a love triangle and things go from bad to worse for vain Hetty Sorrel.
No Name by Wilkie Collins (1862)
No Name
by Wilkie Collins (1862)

This novel explores the stigma of illegitimacy as the heroine attempts to regain her family’s inheritance.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy (1877)

Anna has an illegitimate child with Count Vronsky and it leads to the book’s tragic conclusion.
Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy (1882)
Two on a Tower
by Thomas Hardy (1882)

The book’s heroine chooses a loveless marriage over the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate baby.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner (1929)

Miss Quentin, Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, is portrayed as wild and promiscuous.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)
The Nine Tailors
by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)

The shame brought on by illegitimacy drives someone to murder in this mystery.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
Peyton Place
by Grace Metalious (1956)

The plot follows three women, including Alison whose mother changes her birth date to give the appearance of legitimacy.
The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar (1968)
The Abyss
by Marguerite Yourcenar (1968)

Part of the novel looks at the consequences of the protagonist’s illegitimacy.
The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)
The World According to Garp
by John Irving (1978)

Garp is the illegitimate son of a nurse, who becomes a feminist icon, and a dying combat veteran.
Wise Children by Angela Carter (1991)
Wise Children
by Angela Carter (1991)

Illegitimacy across several generations.
The Maid of Honour by Philip Massinger (1632)
The Maid of Honour
by Philip Massinger (1632)

A king removes his troublesome illegitimate brother from court by sending him on a secret military campaign.
Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (1992)
Bastard out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison (1992)

A 15-year-old gives birth to an illegitimate child, who is abused by her mother’s second husband.
Hawkes Harbor by S.E. Hinton (2004)
Hawkes Harbor
by S.E. Hinton (2004)

Jamie Sommers is orphaned, illegitimate and consistently told by nuns that he was born in sin.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (2007)
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini (2007)

An observation of the life of an illegitimate child in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)
Game of Thrones
by George R.R. Martin (1996)

Jon Snow is the bastard son of Eddard in Martin's epic fantasy series.

Who's Your Favorite Illegitimate Literary Character?

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