By Janet Benton. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2017. 335 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook.
Lilli de Jong, a historical work of fiction set in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia, is the debut novel of Janet Benton. Lilli is a young Quaker and a teacher at a Friends school who loses her mother and turns to a young man in her acquaintance for comfort. The man forsakes Lilli, leaving her with no way to contact him. And Lilli is pregnant.
Lilli is cast off from her home in disgrace and finds herself at a bleak establishment for unwed mothers called the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants. It is understood that the women there will give up their babies for adoption shortly after they give birth. But Lilli cannot bear to let go of her infant daughter. The novel is presented as a series of entries from Lilli’s notebooks, where she records her and her baby’s struggles for survival.
Though sometimes naïve, Lilli is a perceptive narrator as she chronicles her journey from her Quaker community and the Haven to an affluent home (where she is a wet nurse) to the filthy Philadelphia streets. Virtually every opportunity that exists to support a family is unavailable to Lilli because she is not only a woman but an unwed mother. The scarce choices that she does have are all degrading, unsafe, or both. Through Lilli, Benton explores the treatment and prospects of unmarried mothers, and also elucidates topics such as the history of wet nurses, the grisly conditions in foundling hospitals, the devastation of disease and starvation, and the everyday existence of the impoverished and homeless of the time period.
Such dismal topics are assuaged by Benton’s aesthetic and judicious prose. Her picture of Lilli’s world is tightly drawn, rich, and descriptive while managing a concise presentation of Lilli’s reflections. Though she is not worldly, Lilli is intelligent, and her notebooks are imbued with a sensible eloquence.
As she faces trials and moral dilemmas throughout the novel, Lilli’s spirituality is her touchstone. On important occasions and in moments of crisis, the words of weighty Quakers come to Lilli’s mind. She recalls Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, Isaac Penington, and Caroline Fox. In her reactions to other characters, she recounts what she has been taught by her Quaker mother and other Friends. Other characters notice her plain dress and speech, and her use of “thee” and “thou.” She shares aspects of her beliefs in conversations with other figures in the novel. In the midst of her troubles, Lilli reflects on Quaker ideas, testimonies, and the “buoyant silence of meeting for worship,” which inform the decisions she makes as she pushes forward for the sake of her baby.
Since the novel is intended for a wide commercial audience of both Friends and non-Friends, though, it does not delve too deeply into the complexity of Quaker thought. The core of the narrative is the intense, heartfelt connection between a mother and her baby. This gentle love that Lilli and her daughter share and the distress they experience when separated are among the most powerful expressions of the parent-child relationship that I have encountered in contemporary literature. Friends Journal readers will no doubt feel the depth and urgency of this profound relationship, too.