1839 Act on Custody of Infants

As mentioned on the timeline, the 1839 Act on Custody of Infants enabled mothers to petition for custody of their children up to the age of seven. Before this parliamentary act, fathers were always given custody of their children. This has interesting implications in relation to Charles Dickens Oliver Twist, the last installment of which was published just three months before the bill was enacted. 

While it is interesting to consider the legal implications of Oliver's various adoptions throughout the novel (particularly how at the end of the book he ends up in the custody of Mr. Brownlow instead of Mrs. Maylie), I think it is even more worthwhile to consider how the novel and the act represent the time period's view of womanhood and motherhood. The 1839 Act on Custody of Infants is often considered the start of what is known as the "Tender Years" doctrine, which essentially states that in a child's earlier (tender) years it is best for the child to be in the custody of the mother because of women's innate and superior ability to be affectionate and nurturing. 

This notion of women’s innate caring ability and moral sensibility is represented throughout the novel. One such example is the relationship between Mrs. Bedwin and Oliver. Mrs. Bedwin serves as the first motherly character to care for Oliver. The most poignant representation of her motherly care comes in her discussion with Mr. Grimwig, in which she defends Oliver’s innocence despite the evidence against him propagated by Mr. Grimwig. She asserts, “I know what children are, sir…and people who can’t say the same, shouldn’t say anything about them” (Dickens 124). It’s significant that Oliver ends up in the care of Mrs. Bedwin.

Another character who is pivotal to the stories representation of women is Nancy. While Nancy has fallen in with an irreputable gang, there are constant references to the innate womanly goodness within her still being present and accessible. This occurs most notably in the exchange between Nancy and Rose Maylie. Just before they meet, the narrator provides intel into Nancy’s condition: “The girl’s life had been squandered in the streets, and among the most noisome of the stews and dens of London, but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still” (266). The ensuing discussion between Nancy and Rose includes a debate as to whether or not Nancy’s “original nature” is still accessible—with Rose arguing that it is and Nancy opposing. The omniscient narrator and the fact that Nancy risks her life to save Oliver seem to suggest that Rose was right.

All of the “woman’s original nature” that is lacking in Nancy is fully realized in Rose Maylie. A primary example is when Rose pleads with her aunt to keep and take care of Oliver. Her argument includes the points, “think that he may never have known a mother’s love” (197) and “have pity upon him before it is too late” (198) (interesting side note—Oliver is nine at the time, older than the age of seven outlined in the Act on the Custody of Infants).

Ultimately, it seems that there is a strong correlation between the ideas about womanhood and motherhood present in Oliver Twist and the direction in which custodial law in England was heading in the mid-1800’s.

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