Motherless Mary is a children’s short story about an orphaned girl. It traces the highs and lows of her life, as she encounters loneliness, the cruel workhouse and jealous foster siblings, until she is happily united with an adoptive family.
Dating from 1827, the book is unbound with an original paper cover. Despite its ornamental coloured frontispiece illustration, its basic cover and thin paper indicates that it would have been produced and sold cheaply.
The orphan in 19th century literature
Orphans feature heavily throughout 19th century literature, from classic fairytales and moralistic chapbooks to seminal novels such as Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. Unbound by familial ties and the strict ranks of society, the orphan character allowed authors to create a protagonist with greater agency who possessed the freedom for adventure. This literary preoccupation also reflected the century’s social context, which saw vast numbers of parentless children due to poor living conditions, natal care and healthcare in general.
Motherless Mary is interesting for the fact that it reveals common plot elements and motifs with several other early 19th century orphan stories, suggesting that writers drew on 'stock' elements when composing an orphan character. Some of these include:
- A painted portrait and/or pieces of jewellery that reveal the identity of the orphan’s birth family
- Workhouses and the city as daunting spaces that threaten character, health, and more specifically, virtue
- The orphan typically possesses unswerving mildness, good temper, selflessness, and other saccharine virtues
- A resolved, happy ending where the orphan is adopted and securely placed within an appropriate social order. This typically coincides with a shift from poverty to middle-class comforts
- Use of melodrama and sentimentalism to evoke sympathy and empathy in the reader.
Intriguingly, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist incorporates several of these elements. Recall, for instance, the central importance of Agnes’s ring, locket and portrait.