Orphans and Oracles: What Clara Knew

The Widow's Children

by Paula Fox
Dutton, 224 pp., $8.95

Lady Oracle

by Margaret Atwood
Simon and Schuster, 345 pp., $8.95

These two novels share a concern with the status and sufferings of the orphan or outcast. Neither of their heroines is technically an orphan, but each of them is thought to resemble one. The adventures of literary orphans, who are liable to be both cast out and imprisoned, locked out and locked in, can resemble a certain experience of family life: the experience of those who feel themselves excluded and who wish to escape. To think about orphans can look like a way of thinking about the family, whose members will sometimes be exposed, and imagine themselves exposed, to the orphan’s double trouble of coercion and neglect, and the literature of the orphan includes the adventures of many such imaginary orphans as the heroines of these novels.

The preoccupation with this subject gives the impression of passing from a world of tribal magic, of mangers and bullrushes—where, by virtue of hidden powers and entitlements, outcasts and strangers could be sacred and successful—to a secular world consisting of the immediate family and its surrounding communities, and of rather more stubborn afflictions. And yet misfortune and its secrets can still be revealed as powerful and enchanted. In Europe and America, since the eighteenth century and Romanticism, the preoccupation has been keen; it is bound to have expressed, or continued to express, a variety of needs and constraints, some of which I do not mean to discuss; and it has been associated with invention and achievement.

Orphan Annies and orphan authors—real and imaginary—have grown rich and famous. On the page, orphans have tended to win, though the material rewards are no longer what they were: at the end of the day, the stricken deer sits down to dinner in a splendid mansion. The literary tradition of Gothic “strangeness,” which appeals to Margaret Atwood, rests upon imagined states of estrangement, but it also rests upon imagined states of advancement. Many of the early Terror novels, and of their successors, comforted the public by finding prospects and heritages for the forlorn: once the mysteries of places like Udolpho were solved, estates and annuities came to light, and fainting Emily was revived by a good marriage. On and off the page, orphans have been imitated, and sensibility, susceptibility, suffering, solitariness, darkness, and mystery, envied

The image of the orphan, who is both weak and strong, both silent and outspoken, embodies one of the contradictions inherent in romantic preconception: it is likely to be admired, that is to say, by those for whom both privacy and publicity are very appealing. Fictions of all sorts have echoed the blubbing and blabbing of the inscrutable orphan child, and have done so in what can appear to be a social setting of small, well-disciplined families, where it may be necessary to affect to be such a child. It has been said that the novel has had to pretend to be other, more authentic forms of writing, and one of the things it has pretended to be is some miserable…

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