Bess is a young, unmarried mother in 1754 and she makes the difficult decision to place her child in the care of The Foundling Hospital. For six years she saves every penny she can, in the hope of reclaiming her daughter. When she goes to collect Clara, she finds out she is too late. Someone else, masquerading as Bess, has already taken the child.
All the babies were wrapped like presents ready to be given.
As you may remember, The Familiars was one of my top books last year and I was eager to read Stacey Halls’ second novel. I love how her historical fiction is well researched but she never feels the need to info-dump it all on us. It’s little things like the doctor living on Great Ormond Street, whose house is to be turned into a hospital. This got me thinking about Great Ormond Street Hospital so I looked it up and its history can be traced back to that house and that doctor was a real person. But also, if you’re not being geeky you can just read on by without that info slowing you down.
The Foundling is told from two perspectives, Bess and the woman who raised Clara (or Charlotte) as her own. It doesn’t alternate every chapter, instead giving you time to really get invested in each character. In this way, you can totally understand and sympathise with both women. Clara is Bess’ daughter and was stolen from her, but the other woman has given Charlotte a better standard of life than Bess could ever have given her. She has raised her as her own for six whole years. Both are her mother in different ways.
Charlotte’s adoptive mother might not have to worry about money, but she lives in fear of the outside world. Now a widow, a terrible childhood tragedy had left her with agoraphobia. Charlotte just wants to go outside and see the world, but her mother is scared for what will happen out there. The two live a secluded life until Dr Meade suggests they take on a nursemaid.
The Foundling Hospital was a real place (you can visit the museum on the site of the hospital) which took in children from unmarried mothers and raised and educated them, with the hope of finding them employment at the end. Very few children were ever reclaimed, as Bess finds out, the fees that need to be paid are much higher than working class women of the time could hope to earn. However those leaving their children there could do so without guilt, knowing they had given them a fighting chance in a world that is not kind to mothers out of wedlock.
The Foundling Hospital was on the very edge of London, where pleasant squares and tall houses gave way to open roads and fields that yawned blackly into the distance.
It’s one of several books this year that has had the gambling, drunk brother taking advantage of his sister’s good nature and ability to earn a living. I could have done without Ned’s character but perhaps that is just because I have read a lot recently that was similar. Bess had a hard enough time without him taking her money and getting her into trouble.
Otherwise I enjoyed this tale of two women and one daughter, whose lives become irrevocably intertwined. I kept reading for the mystery of how Clara was claimed, and with hope for all of them to have a happy ending.
ATY: 8. A book with a two-word title where the first word is “The”
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Book Source: Purchased