Down at the Foundering Museum, it’s a sobering experience, as you learn that in the 18th century 75% of children in London died under the age of five. On its site, the Foundling Museum remembers the first charity in England, and first ever public art gallery, raising funds to support “exposed and deserted” babies, who would be brought to its doors by destitute and desperate mothers. Here they might have a chance at survival. These babies were known as foundlings.
Over the walls in the Foundling Museum are papered lists of names, including characters from books and films, of people who lost their parents one way or another. There were so many well-known names. In real life, the grief of losing a parent is life-changing and can mark you. I read once that grieving a mother is like having to suffer the pain of shrapnel; it must come out slowly, all the pieces slowly and sharply making their way out through the body and flesh. Standing at this wall of names, it struck me, why do authors so often kill off parents? What narrative and psychological function does it serve? Here are just three that came to my mind. There are many more.
First of all, it suggests the child has a hidden parentage, perhaps a special one. Harry Potter was raised by ordinary Muggle relatives but actually came from fine Wizard stock. A secret destiny must be discovered. Magic powers or knowledge lurk deep inside, waiting to be unlocked. Surely, as small children we all wish there was a royal or magical inheritance? That way, we aren’t just ordinary.
Secondly, it must tap into our worst fears to see a child left on their own to fend for themselves. No parents, no one to nurture or cherish them in this world. It exposes a child to the harsh elements of reality, the best and worst of human nature and requires the child to dig deep to develop resources that would never emerge otherwise. Characters have to fight for themselves. We get to see what they are made of in the face of loss. It’s a bitter lesson to live so young.
Thirdly, death and grief can be such powerful drivers. What you have lost, you search for, albeit in different forms. A purpose, a purpose, a destiny, a story… These characters in the books don’t mess around. They are forced into becoming, creating and relating to other people. They get on with the job of living or, in some cases, dying. All of us will lose our parents at some stage, unless we go first. J. K. Rowling wrote that the one part of her first book that made her cry when writing was when Harry Potter sees his deceased parents as living people in a magic mirror. J.K. Rowling lost her mother before her immense success as an author. Her mother never saw what she achieved.
No wonder orphans make such conflicted and compelling characters on the page. And perhaps they might just be able to guide those that suffer the terrible loss of parents in real life.