Other People’s Children is an apt title for this novel because the book shows how difficult it can be to take on parental responsibility for unknown children. When Matthew marries Josie she thinks that she will be able to deal with the role of stepmother, a role that she has already held in her previous marriage, but it is not as easy as she thinks. Whilst Josie tries to cope with Matthew’s children her own son, eight-year-old Rufus, struggles to come to terms with his new family circumstances.
Tensions in the Family
Matthew’s three children decide to side with their mother, Nadine, who deeply resents Josie. They refuse to eat Josie’s meals or to obey her rules and this causes tensions in the family. Rufus, who has always been a good, quiet boy, becomes caught up in these troubles. His behaviour changes and he is rude to a teacher at school, which upsets Josie. He sometimes wishes he could go and live with his father, Tom. Rufus is aware that Tom is starting his own new relationship with Elizabeth but Rufus likes Elizabeth and feels that she offers him some hope and understanding.
This novel contains two very difficult women who upset many of those around them. One of these women is Dale, Tom’s daughter by his first wife. Dale’s mother died, when she was very young, and she has never really got over this death. For many years she tried to make life difficult for her first stepmother, Josie, but, now that Josie has married Matthew, Dale expects to dominate her father’s life again. She goes out of her way to offend Tom’s new fiance, Elizabeth, by demanding all Tom’s attention. She wants to preserve the memory of her dead mother and to get rid of Elizabeth’s influence over her father.
Dale also demands attention from her real brother, Lucas, and constantly visits his flat, disrupting his life and upsetting his girlfriend, Amy. When Dale sells her own flat, she decides to move in with her father, Tom, and in the process she unsettles both Elizabeth and Rufus by filling their house with her noise and belongings. Readers may have some sympathy for Dale as she is clearly mentally unstable but she causes a great deal of unhappiness in this novel.
Nadine, Matthew’s first wife, is also a very difficult woman. She is so bitter about his new wife, Josie, that she refuses to move on with her life. She takes her children to a slum-like cottage where she has very little food or warmth to offer them. Even in the face of these circumstances her children try to be loyal to their mother and to resist Josie’s attempts to care for them.
Like Trollope’s other novels Other People’s Children deals with the way that changing relationships can cause difficulties. This novel, however, contains less hope than books like The Rector’s Wife and A Village Affair. In those stories the central female characters appear to move towards brighter, more independent futures. In this novel many of the characters find a brief moment of hope which is not fully realized. It could be argued that Dale steals much of the happiness from those around her. Perhaps Joanna Trollope’s book is showing us that broken relationships can never really be mended. It certainly illustrates the complications caused for children when their parents no longer live together.