A pure delight for the fans of historical fiction. Based in 18th century London, introducing us to all levels of society through a story of a stolen child.
The Cosmopolitan recommends the author as ‘the new Hilary Mantel’, and while I haven’t read Mantel, this recommendation coming from this specific magazine is enough to make me suspicious. This is probably why I didn’t buy this book, it has arrived in one of the book subscriptions. But I was drawn to it by the pretty cover, and also the need for some lighter reading in the middle of lockdown 3.0.
We meet our main character, Bess, in 1754, when she is accompanied by her father to the Foundling Hospital, to give away her newborn baby. Bess is a shrimp hawker, got pregnant out of wedlock, but is adamant to save money and collect the child as soon as she can. One of the shocking scenes in the book is the lottery, observed by the rich founders of the hospital. The women who want to give their children have to draw a ball which color will decide their child’s fate. If a child is not admitted to the institution it usually ends dead on the street within few days. All this is observed by a party of aristocrats, who presumably feel better because thanks to their money at least the women and children have some sliver of a chance.
The book shows London much as it is now. By that, I mean very different geography, but the inequalities and dizzying speed of change from a slum to a posh neighborhood are exactly as we can witness now. A ten minutes walk is enough to pass from a poor and dangerous place to one of sheer opulence.
And that’s what happens in the second part of the book, we jump a few years ahead and enter the house of a rich widow. She has not left the house in a decade but is raising a daughter with the help of her two servants. As the girl grows older a nanny is hired, and with a new personality in the house, things inevitably change.
We have a decent cast of characters in the book. Starting with a desperate mother and secluded widow. Joined by a faithful friend, sketchy brother, a do-gooder doctor, and a helpful stranger. And that’s what they really are, types, the only two fully fleshed characters are Bess and the widow. Still, their dynamic is enough to carry the book.
I wrote a few times before that I am not a fan of historical fiction. On the other hand, a good book is a good book and the time the action is set in doesn’t really matter. So taking that into account it is a decent book. It’s well constructed, does not rely too much on twists, but more on a slow reveal. The one thing I really disliked was the ending, but with the kind of plot we had here, it must have been really difficult to find a satisfactory one.
I found the institution of the Foundling Hospital fascinating. The charity continues to this day under the name of Coram and there is a Foundling Museum, which I am definitely planning to visit once the restrictions are lifted.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska