Illegitimacy in fiction

This is a list of fictional stories in which illegitimacy features as an important plot element. Passing mentions are omitted from this article. Many of these stories explore the social pain and exclusion felt by illegitimate "natural children".

Illegitimacy was a common theme in Victorian literature. "Illegitimacy was a popular subject for Victorian writers, not only because of its value as a plot device, but also because of the changing laws affecting illegitimate children and their parents which kept the topic in the public eye."[1]

Written worksEdit


  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136 prose history): Much attention is focused on the disputable bastardy of King Arthur, as well as the illegitimate origins of the wizard Merlin.
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (1485 prose romance): King Arthur is conceived illegitimately when his father Uther Pendragon utilizes Merlin's magic to seduce Igraine, a noblewoman married to Duke Gorlois. Later, Arthur unwittingly begets a bastard son, Mordred, on his own half-sister Morgause. At Arthur's court, Mordred and his half-brother Agravain incite growing discontent about the Queen’s adulterous relations with Sir Lancelot, and a civil war ensues. While Arthur is preoccupied fighting Lancelot, Mordred spreads word that Arthur has been killed, seizes the crown for himself, and attempts to seduce the queen. She resists, and Arthur quickly returns, attacking and defeating his son’s armies. Mordred dies in combat, and Arthur is fatally wounded and dies shortly thereafter with his kingdom in ruins.
  • William Shakespeare:
    • Richard III (1591 play): Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurps the English throne, justifying the coup by claiming that the young nephew he deposed, King Edward V, and his younger brother, the Duke of York, are both illegitimate, as their father (Edward IV) was promised in marriage to another woman when he wedded their mother.
    • King John (1595? play): Philip Falconbridge, bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, helps save England from ruin at the hands of Richard's incompetent younger brother, John of England.
    • Much Ado About Nothing (1598 play): The envious and melancholy villain of the comedy, Don John, is a bastard, and invents schemes to thwart the marriage of his legitimate brother’s close friends.
    • King Lear (1605 play): Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, first cheats his legitimate brother Edgar of his lands, then stands by while his father is declared a traitor, blinded, and sent to wander in the wilderness. Edmund finally makes an attempt on the English crown itself by bedding Lear's two daughters Regan and Goneril.
    • The Tempest (1611 play): Caliban, a savage, deformed slave of the play's protagonist, Prospero, is the offspring of a witch and a sea demon.
  • Thomas Middleton, The Revenger's Tragedy (1607 play): In addition to cuckolding his father and plotting against his legitimate brother, the Duke's bastard son, Spurio, also becomes heavily embroiled in the Revenger's plot to undo the Duke and the rest of his family.
  • Philip Massinger, The Maid of Honour (1632 play): a king removes his troublesome illegitimate brother from court by sending him off on a secret military campaign.
  • Benjamin Franklin, "The Speech of Polly Baker" (1747 story): a woman is put on trial for having an illegitimate child. She had been convicted four times in the past for this same crime. Each time, she said, the full blame was placed on her shoulders but not the father's.
  • Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749 novel): Tom, the bastard infant of a country girl, is left in an anonymous bundle to the care of the rich and kind-hearted Mr. Allworthy. Mr. Allworthy raises Tom, who grows up and has a number of adventures over the book's thousand-plus pages.
  • Voltaire, Candide (1759 satirical novella): The hero Candide, in the opening of chapter 1, is "suspected [to be] the son of the Baron's sister by a respectable, honest gentleman of the neighborhood, whom she had refused to marry because he could prove only seventy-one quarterings, the rest of his family tree having been lost in the passage of time."[2]
  • Jane Austen:
    • Sense and Sensibility (1811 novel): Colonel Brandon's ward Miss Williams is suspected to be his illegitimate daughter but it is revealed that she in fact the illegitimate daughter of his first love Eliza, who had been forced to marry his brother and was later divorced by her husband for infidelity. She leaves her daughter, also Eliza, to his care. On a visit to Bath, she is seduced by Willoughby who has abandoned her prior to his meeting Marianne. She in turn gives birth to an illegitimate child. When Willoughby's aunt discovers the affair, she disowns him, leading him to forsake Marianne whom he truly loves and marry an heiress for her fortune.
    • Emma (1815 novel): Harriet Smith, a young woman who attends a local school, is described as the "natural daughter of somebody" ("natural" in this sense meaning illegitimate). She is befriended by Emma Woodhouse, who imagines that Harriet is the child of a wealthy gentleman and introduces her to the local vicar, Mr. Elton, who she thinks is a good match. Elton, however, sees Harriet as far below him socially, and instead woos the unsuspecting Emma. It is revealed later in the novel that Harriet is the child of a prosperous tradesman.
  • Alexandre Dumas, père (who fathered several illegitimate children, including Alexandre Dumas, fils), Antony (1831 play): a defense of adultery and illegitimacy.[3]


  • Charles Dickens: nearly half of his 14 finished novels include illegitimate individuals:
  • Alexander Herzen, Who is to Blame? (1847 novel): Krutsifersky is the tutor of Lyubonka, an illegitimate daughter of the retired general, Negrov. Upon forming an emotional attachment to Lyubonka, Krutsifersky is allowed to marry her. The emphasis given to Lyubonka's illegitimacy was of personal concern to Herzen, who was himself illegitimate.[4]
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850 novel): Hester Prynne gives birth after committing adultery, refuses to name the father, and is cast out of Puritan society.
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond (1852 historical novel): supposed illegitimate protagonist, who finally receives documents proving his legitimacy but destroys them in order not to injure the heirs to his property. Set during the English Restoration.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (1853 social novel): a compassionate portrayal of an orphaned young seamstress, Ruth Hilton, who is seduced, impregnated and abandoned by gentleman Henry Bellingham.
  • Wilkie Collins had concurrent domestic relationships with two women, who knew about each other.[5] "For Collins, the theme of illegitimacy was more than just a plot mechanism: through his fiction he continually questioned society's condemnation of the unmarried mother and her child."[6]
    • Hide and Seek (1854), about the parentage of a deaf and dumb girl "Madonna" adopted by an artist and his wife.
    • The Dead Secret (1857 novel), concerns the unexpected discovery of a character's illegitimacy and the resulting moral dilemmas that face the character.
    • The Woman in White (1859), centred on illegitimacy, and the lengths that one of the main characters, the illegitimate Sir Percival Glyde, goes to conceal it. (See also Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White in "Look-alike: Literature".)
    • No Name (1862). Two sisters are disinherited when their parents' death reveals them to be bastards; one accepts her reduced circumstances, but the other plots revenge.
  • Alexandre Dumas, fils (illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas, père), in his play The Illegitimate Son (1858), espoused the belief that if a man fathers an illegitimate child, then he has an obligation to legitimize the child and marry the woman.
  • Anthony Trollope:
    • Doctor Thorne (1858 novel): two sets of country gentlefolk fallen on hard times are especially proud of their "pure blood", but the well-meaning doctor brings up his illegitimate niece as a lady and then discovers that there is no place for her in their social world.
    • Ralph the Heir (1871 novel): The estate of Newton Priory is entailed upon the legitimate heir, nephew of the current Squire; the Squire tries to buy the reversion from the spendthrift, debt-ridden heir so that the Squire can leave it by will to his illegitimate son.
    • Lady Anna (1874 novel): The vicious Earl Lovel has told his wife that their marriage was invalid; during the two decades that she has struggled to prove its validity, their daughter Anna has grown up with her legitimacy in question. He dies intestate, and the disposal of his large fortune depends on her status.
  • George Eliot:
    • Adam Bede (1859 novel): Hetty is seduced by a young officer who abandons her; she then abandons her baby in a field where it dies, and is tried for its murder.
    • Daniel Deronda (1876 novel): Gwendolen Harleth discovers that her suitor Henleigh Grandcourt has four illegitimate children with an ex-mistress. She initially spurns him but later marries him when her family is ruined. Also, the other protagonist, Daniel, suspects (albeit mistakenly) that he might be the illegitimate son of his guardian Sir Hugo Mallinger.
  • Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862 novel): Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine and Felix Tholomyes. After Tholomyes abandons Fantine and Cosette, Fantine entrusts Cosette to the care of the Thénardiers (who secretly force her to work as a scullery maid) and pays them for Cosette's care. After Fantine dies of tuberculosis, Jean Valjean rears Cosette; when she grows up, she falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, whom Jean Valjean saves when an insurrection is crushed.
  • Leo Tolstoy:
    • War and Peace (1869 novel): one of the principal protagonists, Pierre Bezukhov, is an illegitimate child of a dying father who has many other illegitimate children. Pierre is chosen to inherit his father's fortune and title of Count Bezukhov.
    • Anna Karenina (1877 novel): Anna has an affair with Count Aleksei Vronsky, which leads to an illegitimate daughter, whom she names Annie. This incident drives the rest of the plot towards its tragic conclusion.
  • Thomas Hardy:
    • Far from the Madding Crowd (1874 novel): Frank Troy and Bathsheba's servant Fanny Robin are lovers before and when they part after Fanny misses their wedding, she is pregnant, unknown to him. Following Troy's marriage to Bathsheba, Fanny returns and encounters Troy again before dying in childbirth along with her child. Gabriel Oak fails to conceal the facts from Bathsheba and she is devastated when Troy tells her that he only loved Fanny. The events lead to tragic consequences.
    • Two on a Tower (1882 novel): the heroine, Lady Viviette Constantine, chooses a loveless marriage over the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate baby.
    • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886 novel): the protagonist Michael Henchard believes that Elizabeth Jane is the daughter he abandoned, when she returns to him years later along with his wife; but after his wife's death he finds out from her letter that his own daughter died and this Elizabeth Jane is the illegitimate child of Captain Newson, to whom he had 'sold' his wife many years ago. Initially this affects his feelings for Elizabeth, but later he begins to love her as his own child and hides her true parentage from her, which leads to tragedy.
    • Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891 novel): the eponymous heroine is seduced and abandoned by a gentleman; she gives birth but the baby dies.
    • Jude the Obscure (1895): Jude and Sue have two children together and it is later revealed that they are not married, making the children illegitimate. The children are killed by Jude's legitimate son with his ex-wife Arabella, who also hangs himself, and the shock sends Sue into premature labour with another child, who dies.
  • Alphonse Daudet, Jack (1876 novel): about an illegitimate child, a martyr to his mother's selfishness.
  • Bolesław Prus often discussed illegitimacy in his journalistic writings.[7] Stories by him involving it include:
    • "An Orphan's Lot" ("Sieroca dola", 1876 short story).[8]
    • "Little Stan's Adventure" ("Przygoda Stasia", 1879 short story): a year-and-a-half-old boy wanders off from his parents; winds up, after a series of chance occurrences, in the home of another townsman; is thought by that man's neighbors to resemble him, and is assumed by them to be his out-of-wedlock child. The perfectly legitimate boy is eventually reunited with his parents; and the townsman, who has developed an emotional attachment to the boy, regrets that the boy is not his own, if out-of-wedlock, son.[9]
  • Ivan Turgenev, Virgin Soil (1877 novel): the main character, Nezhdanov (whose name means "unexpected"), is an illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat. With a desire to do something in the world, he joins the Narodniki, hoping to find his place by "going to the people". In the end, Nezhdanov's confusion about his divided life causes him to commit suicide.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880 novel): Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is the father of three sons, and widely rumored to have fathered a fourth, illegitimate son, Pavel Smerdyakov. Although the eldest son, Dmitri, is put on trial for the murder of his father, Pavel later confesses the crime to Ivan, another of Karamazov's sons.
  • Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881 novel): the heroine, Isabel Archer, discovers that the daughter of her husband Gilbert Osmond is not his first wife's child but was born to Madam Merle, who had been his lover many years ago.
  • Hall Caine:
    • Son of Hagar (1886 novel): opening scene is set in Victorian London police court where a girl is charged with attempted suicide after she and her illegitimate baby had been dragged from the Thames. The girl later marries and becomes Mrs. Ritson, the wife of a Cumbrian dalesman, and has two more sons.
    • The Bondman (1890 novel): A complex revenge/romance set in late 18th century Isle of Man and in Iceland. Stephen Orry, a dissolute seaman, marries Rachael, the daughter of Iceland’s Governor-General, and deserts her before their boy Jason is born.

Twentieth centuryEdit

  • Harold Bell Wright, The Shepherd of the Hills (1907): the Shepherd's son ("Mad Howard") has fathered an illegitimate child (Pete) with Grant "Old Matt" Matthews' daughter (who died giving birth). Mad Howard leaves the Ozarks but returns and secretly converses with Pete; separately, the Shepherd relocates to the Ozarks and befriends Old Matt. Old Matt, meanwhile, has sworn vengeance on Pete's father and grandfather, not knowing that the Shepherd is Pete's grandfather. At the end, Old Matt forgives the Shepherd and Mad Howard.
  • Johannes Linnankoski, The Fugitives (1908): based on actual events,[10] the novella tells of a peasant family which moved from Tavastia to Savonia due to shame and fear of gossip because the daughter of the family had married an elderly widower but had had an illegitimate child with another man.
  • Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes (1910): the protagonist, Razumov, is the illegitimate son of a Russian prince, by whom he is unacknowledged save to the extent of being supported as a student at the University of St. Petersburg. A fellow-student, Victor Haldin, a revolutionist who has just assassinated a savagely repressive government minister, asks Razumov to help him escape. Razumov, with his father's help, turns him in, and Haldin is hanged. Razumov finds himself admired by university companions as Haldin's associate in killing the detested minister. The authorities send him as a government spy to Geneva, a center of anti-tsarist intrigue. There, he finds, live Haldin's mother and sister, who share Haldin's liberal convictions; Razumov falls in love with the sister and eventually confesses having turned in her brother. He then confesses the same to the assembled revolutionists, who burst his eardrums, making him deaf for life. He staggers away, is knocked down by a streetcar, and finally returns as an obscure cripple to Russia.[11]
  • E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910): Helen Schlegel has a brief affair with Leonard Bast, resulting in a pregnancy which she tries to conceal from her family by going abroad. The discovery of this fact and of the identity of her lover causes a rift between Margaret and Henry Wilcox and has tragic consequences for Leonard.
  • David Graham Phillips, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1912), made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.
  • C. S. Forester, Brown on Resolution (1929 novel): the protagonist, an illegitimate British sailor and the only survivor of his ship, escapes custody aboard an Imperial German raider making repairs off an island in the South Atlantic and delays the ship's departure long enough for a British ship to arrive and destroy it, losing his life in the process. The captain of the British ship is the sailor's father, who never knew of his son's existence.
  • Marcel Pagnol:
    • Marius (1929 play).
    • Fanny (1932 play).
    • César (1936 play).
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930 novel): The character Jewel Bundren is revealed to be the illegitimate child of Addie Bundren and Reverend Whitfield.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors (1934 mystery novel): fear of uncovering illegitimacy and the social shame that that would bring are key plot drivers in the murder.
  • Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (1956 novel): The main plot follows the lives of three women in a small New England town — lonely, repressed Constance MacKenzie, her illegitimate daughter Allison, and her employee Selena Cross.
  • Violette Leduc, La Batarde (1964 autobiography).
  • Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss (1968 historical novel): centres on a man's quest for meaning in his life, and the consequences of his illegitimate birth on his mother (devastating) and his father (very little). Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux adapted it into a movie in 1988.
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, set in the Regency era, has Dr. Stephen Maturin y Domanova as one of its main characters. Being the illegitimate son of an Irish official and a Catalan lady, he faces many small but significant problems, such as being considered a poor match by many people (including himself) when contemplating marriage, risking insult often, in a society in which offenses and their settlement through a duel have an important weight in a gentleman's honour, and feeling anxious when one of his close friends is pregnant with an illegitimate child herself.
  • John Irving, The World According to Garp (1982 novel): the eponymous protagonist is conceived outside of marriage, under bizarre circumstances that permeate the book.
  • Angela Carter, Wise Children (1991 novel): several generations of illegitimacy in a theatrical family.
  • Tanya Huff, Blood Books (1991–97 series of novels): Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, lives in modern-day Toronto, Canada, having long ago been turned into a vampire. He now earns a living writing romance novels and forms a relationship with Vicki Nelson, a former police officer.
  • Melina Marchetta, Looking for Alibrandi (1993 novel): involves a main theme of illegitimacy—of a year-12 student, whose father comes back into her life after having left her mother 18 years earlier. It also involves a massive theme of multiculturalism.
  • Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina (1993 novel and 1996 film).
  • Robin Hobb, The Farseer Trilogy (1995–97) and subsequent novels set in The Realm of the Elderlings focus on "Fitz", a prince's illegitimate son who is named for his bastardy.
  • George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (series of novels, 1996–present): Illegitimacy is a central theme throughout the series, and many major characters have or are illegitimate children. Illegitimacy also instigates the War of Five Kings when Ned Stark discovers that Queen Cersei's children are actually bastards.





Manga, anime, comic, gameEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Representations of illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's early novels", Philological Quarterly, 22 March 2004. [1]
  2. ^ Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism: A Fresh Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams, 2nd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, ISBN 0-393-96058-7, p. 1.
  3. ^ Tad Szulc, Chopin in Paris, p. 161.
  4. ^ Charles A. Moser, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) pp. 229–230.
  5. ^ Robert Gottlieb, "'Make 'Em Cry, Make 'Em Laugh, Make 'Em Wait'", The New York Review of Books, vol. LXIV, no. 10 (8 June 2017), pp. 25–28.
  6. ^ "Representations of illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's early novels", Philological Quarterly, 22 March 2004.[2]
  7. ^ Monika Piątkowska, Prus: Śledztwo biograficzne (Prus: A Biographical Investigation), Kraków, Wydawnictwo Znak, 2017, p. 262.
  8. ^ Monika Piątkowska, Prus: Śledztwo biograficzne (Prus: A Biographical Investigation), Kraków, Wydawnictwo Znak, 2017, p. 262.
  9. ^ Monika Piątkowska, Prus: Śledztwo biograficzne (Prus: A Biographical Investigation), Kraków, Wydawnictwo Znak, 2017, pp. 262–63.
  10. ^ Linnankosken Pakolaiset oli avainromaani Lapinlahdelta (in Finnish)
  11. ^ J. I. M. Stewart, Joseph Conrad, pp. 185–87.