Author Janet Benton writes that "in the long days and nights of nursing and nurturing" her own baby, as she held her in her "arms and listened to the ticking of a clock, a voice came now and then" into her mind. "It was the voice of an unwed mother from long ago." The voice clearly inspired this novel about an unwed mother and the hypocrisy and corruption of late Victorian, Philadelphia society that preferred the death of illegitimate children over exercising a duty of care for them and their mothers.
Protagonist, Lilli de Jong, is a teacher at a Quaker school. Her family has deep roots and is well respected in her community. Like other members of her religion, they have eschewed luxury and live plainly without the modern comforts of gas lighting or water pipes. Lilli's mother has recently died, and Lilli, her brother, and her father have become rudderless. After her father has an adulterous affair with a mean-spirited "spinster cousin," the family is exiled from their Quaker Friends community. Her brother and her suitor leave their jobs in the family's furniture business to seek their fortunes in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Isolated, and pregnant by her suitor, Lilli is ordered out of her home by her father's lover-turned wife. Forced to give birth in a charitable institution, Lilli defies convention and refuses to abandon her child to abusive adopters or foundling homes.
Her journey, as an unwed mother, is told through her diary entries. Through her eyes, we see the horrors that society of that time heaped on the most vulnerable: the poor, the elderly, the disabled Civil War veterans, orphans, and, at the bottom of the unwanted pile, unwed mothers and their babies. Benton writes of one scene these unwanted people faced living on the streets: "Early-rising laborers pass, mostly hidden by umbrellas, and sodden rats and dogs run along the bricks, sniffing for tidbits dropped by the street cleaners."
Benton's intelligent prose and meticulous, extensive research sets this novel apart from popular, romantic versions of similar stories. The people, the streets and the buildings of 1883, Philadelphia are described in such detail, reading about them is akin to time travel. This book definitely is a must-read.
(In return for an honest review, I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley.)
Print Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (May 16, 2017)
Publication Date: May 16, 2017
Sold by: Random House LLC