EXCERPT: All the babies were wrapped like presents ready to be given. Some of them were dressed finely – though their mothers were not – in tiny embroidered sleeves and thick shawls, for winter had arrived, and the night was biting. I’d bound Clara in an old blanket that had waited years to be darned, and now never would be. We stood clustered around the pillared entrance, thirty or so of us, like moths beneath the torches burning in their brackets, our hearts beating like papery wings. I hadn’t known that a hospital for abandoned babies would be a palace, with a hundred glowing windows and a turning place for carriages. Two long and splendid buildings were pinned on either side of a courtyard that was connected in the middle by a chapel. At the north end of the west wing the door stood open, throwing light onto the stone. The gate felt a long way behind. Some of us would leave with our arms empty; some would carry our children home again.
ABOUT THIS BOOK: London, 1754. Six years after leaving her newborn, Clara, at London’s Foundling Hospital, young Bess Bright returns to reclaim the illegitimate daughter she has never really known. Dreading the worst—that Clara has died in care—the last thing she expects to hear is that her daughter has already been reclaimed. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl—and why.
Less than a mile from Bess’s lodgings in a quiet town house, a wealthy widow barely ventures outside. When her close friend—an ambitious doctor at the Foundling Hospital—persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her young daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her—and will soon tear her carefully constructed world apart.
MY THOUGHTS: Don’t expect this to be a deep and gritty read, because it’s not. It is a light read, but it is also touching.
The Foundling Hospital, established in the 1740s in London, was the first to take babies at risk of being abandoned. They admitted only a certain number and the places were drawn by lottery. I don’t know if it is true that tickets were sold for the privilege of watching the lottery take place, but it does seem to have the ring of truth to it. I can quite imagine the wealthy standing about drinking and eating while watching desperate and distraught young women hoping, yet dreading, that their child would be one of the lucky ones who won a place. It is reminiscent of those who used to picnic in front of the guillotine.
I had always imagined such institutions to be quite grim, little more than workhouses that starved and ill treated the children, but there is none of that here. That’s not to say that poverty is not addressed. It is, in detail. Whole families living in two rooms, and sometimes more than one family. The hunger, the cold, the dirt, the smells, the stark contrasts between the easy lifestyle of the rich and the harsh lives of the poor are all chronicled.
This story of a child pulled between two women, is narrated by the two women involved. Bess, who falls pregnant to a man who then dies, and Alexandra, widow of Bess’s baby’s father. Bess is a fighter, determined to get her child back. I felt sorry for Bess, but was not totally convinced that she was doing the right thing. Alexandra is an odd woman, she strokes and talks to the portraits of her dead parents, yet finds it impossible to touch her daughter. She is reclusive and forces her daughter to live the same restrictive life. She has no contact with anyone other than her mother, the servants and the family doctor. Clara/Charlotte is an intelligent child. At the age of six she can read and write, and speaks French.
While there is nothing predictable about this beautifully written story, I found the rapid change in Alexandra’s character towards the end of the book a little unbelievable. However, I enjoyed this enough to have earmarked Stacey Hall’s previous book, The Familiars, to read.
The Lost Orphan has also been published as The Foundling.
THE AUTHOR: Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor.
DISCLOSURE: Thank you to Mira via Netgalley for providing a digital ARC of The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls for review. All opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own personal opinions.
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