British authors

The Foundling by Stacey Halls — enduring power of a mother’s love

The Foundling — Stacy Hall’s second novel after her best selling debut The Familiars — offers vastly contrasting views of London life in the Georgian era.

People in the upper echelons of society have all the privileges of rank and wealth: servants, carriages, fine houses and plentiful food. Those in the lowest ranks work dawn to dusk to earn just a few pennies before going home to damp and often rat-infested rooms in crowded courts.

In The Foundling, these two groups come face to face in the form of two women united by their relationship with one small girl: shrimp seller Bess Bright and the reclusive widow Alexandra Cassons.

It’s 1794 when Bess gives her new born daughter Clara into the care of the Foundling Hospital in London. With her, she leaves a tiny piece of whalebone, half of a broken heart inscribed with her initial and Clara’s. It’s one of her few possessions and the only reminder of Clara’s father — a whaling merchant who died without knowing he would become a father.

Bess vows to return to collect the child as soon as she has enough money. It takes her six years to save £2 but when she arrives at the Foundling Hospital it’s to be told Clara has already been claimed by her mother.

The hospital’s visiting medical man, Dr Mead, is kind but perplexed, unable to offer any clues about the whereabouts of the child or the identity of her alleged mother. Distraught and confused, As the distraught Bess makes her way home, resolving to do everything it takes to find her daughter, she notices a well dressed woman and a small girl getting into a carriage.

Across the city in Devonshire Street, live Alexandra Cassons and her six-year-old daughter Charlotte. They seldom leave the house, venturing out only once a week to the church at the Foundling Hospital. They have no visitors other than Dr Mead. It’s at his suggestion that Alexandra hires a nursemaid for her daughter, a decision she comes to regret.

Can you guess the identity of the woman and girl in the carriage? Or the identity of the new nursemaid? I’m not giving anything away to explain that Bess enters the Cassons household to care for the girl she believes is her daughter.

The plot of The Foundling is relatively straightforward but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a highly enjoyable and readable novel. It’s particularly strong in showing the contrast between Bess and Alexandra, not merely in their respective levels of wealth but in their capacity to love and be loved.

Alexandra has never known poverty; her dead parents and then her husband left her so comfortably off that she’s never had to worry about where the next meal will come from or how to keep warm.

But she has closed herself off from the world, living in a house which is more like a mausoleum than a home. Within it she keeps to a daily ritual of tea with the portraits of her dead parents were alive.

My mother smiled placidly; my father was benign. I was older than them now. It was a strange thought. We passed half an hour with idle chit-chat and once I had finished my tea, I put the lid back on the sugar box and extinguished the lamps, for the room would be unused until the same time tomorrow.

It’s not until the final chapters of the novel that we learn of an incident in her past which has left her fearing the outside world and unable to show love and affection even to her daughter. So Charlotte grows up with every material benefit but has never walked through a park or felt the sun on her face.

In contrast Bess, though desperately poor and lacking Alexandra’s education, has a heart full of love and affection. People warm to her in a way they never do towards Alexandra, her strength and determination gaining both their admiration and practical help.

The Foundling gives a fascinating glimpse into the social history of mid eighteenth century England, and the heartbreaking choices facing poor women like Bess.

They don’t have the luxury of live-in nursery maids or nannies. They can’t take the child with them because they work long hours often in dangerous or inhospitable conditions. Bess’s job means she is out on the streets of London come rain, hail, wind or sunshine. The Foundling Hospital is about her only hope even though it means she may never see the child for years.

I first heard of the Foundling Hospital for orphans when I read Coram Boy by Javila Gavin for a course on children’s literature. It was a grim tale of children who their mothers believed were in the safe hands of the hospital, were instead killed and buried by the roadside.

Nothing so grim happens in Stacy Halls’ novel, though the process of having a child accepted by the hospital was still traumatic. The hospital never guaranteed a place — instead it operated a cruel lottery to determine which child would be admitted, and which rejected. Members of the upper classes treated the selection process as a form of entertainment , blind to the distress caused to the mothers.

…. a score of faces lined the walls — mostly women who ere certainly not nursemaids, fanning themselves and smiling curiously. .. They might have climbed out of the paintings on the walls; their necks flashed with jewels and their hooped skirts were bright as tulips. … They held little glasses in their gloved hands and I realised for them this was a party.

The Foundling was an entertaining read, full of detail about of life in this period yet I never felt I was being force-fed history. A good choice for readers who enjoy well-written historical fiction.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

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