I was doing a little research into one of the Regency staples the other day. A girl is adopted into a noble family.
Does this actually work? I asks meself.
After looking around, I've decided,
loosely speaking -- yes.
Strictly speaking -- no.
And isn't that helpful?
We speak loosely of 'adoption', but there's an important distinction between legally taking a child to stand in the position of a biological child with all the rights that come with that and assuming care and custody of the child in a limited way.
Until the 1920s, there was no formal legal mechanism for adopting children in Great Britain.
What you had was fostering, indenture, wardship, guardianship, apprenticeship, and various less-formal-arrangement-ships . . . but nothing that put the child on an equal footing with children born in a marriage.
So how did they manage the whole orphaned-child problem?
Ordinary working folk, from simple decency or from a desire for another pair of working hands, would often take in a neighbor's child when the parents died. The local vicar might find space for another scullery maid in the kitchen. No official legal guardianship was established, but everybody in town likely sighed in relief and went on to other problems, of which they doubtless had a plenitude.
Because if no one stepped forward to care for orphans, they 'fell upon the parish', which was a hard place to land. The local officials might solve the problem by apprenticing them. Unfortunately, few localities had the funds to buy children desirable places. (One common form of charity was to leave money in one's will to buy apprenticeships for poor boys.)
This apprenticeship was a mixed bag. For parish orphans, it might be called the poor man's guardianship. The contract gave the master rights over the child, but also bound him to feed, clothe, care for the child, and train him or her up in a trade. In earlier centuries, apprentices were often treated as part of the household -- an extended quasi family of Master, servants and apprentices. Even in 1820, in Rural Rides, Cobbett could still speak of traditional farms where master and servants, dairymaids and the farmer's daughters sat down at the same table, a disparate but united household.
So some orphans got lucky. Some, like Oliver Twist, not so much.
Looking up into the upper echelons of society --
The laws and customs of primogeniture meant that men of substance, titled or untitled, would often consider themselves responsible for a widespread group of family, friends and dependents. They'd snabbled the property and money. The flip side of that concentration of wealth was that they were supposed to take care of the family.
So your average Merchant Prince or belted (why belted and how was everybody else holding up their trousers?) earl might have a pack of widows, spinsters, dotty great uncles and assorted orphans, only tenuously connected to him, land on his doorstep, expecting to be provided for.
Remember in Heyer's Frederica . . . our heroine applies to the 'head of the family', a very distant cousin, for assistance. He was the winner in the big primogeniture lotto.
Another sort of fosterage was not uncommon. Couples without children of their own would often foster a child, usually related, and raise it as their own. The child would inherit from this couple through the will. For instance, Jane Austen's brother Edward left his family to be fostered by a much richer cousin, Thomas Knight, and eventually inherited his estates.
And we come, finally, to three of several sorts of legal guardianship
First off were guardians in socage. This is for heirs and heiresses of landed property.
What that is saying is that if the young woman has a piece of property -- say a nice house -- her guardian will not be, for instance, the father's brother. The custody of the child goes to the closest blood relative who could not inherit.
Second, we have guardians by nature. That's going to be the father, first off, and the mother if the father is dead. When the father does not explicitly appoint a guardian for a female under sixteen, the guardian was the mother. Her guardianship extends until the girl reaches 21. She doesn't get control of the property. Only to the custody of the child.
And you can catch up on the rest of this posting here, at Word Wenches.