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Lily by Rose Tremain

Chatto & Windus, 2021

My interest in Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital - which opened in 1741 and was operational in some form until the 1950s - began as a student, when I spent three years living a couple of blocks from the site.

I visited the museum out of curiosity soon after arriving in London and have since been fascinated not only by its mission to take London’s then-numerous abandoned children off the streets, but also by its achievement in attracting celebrity patrons of its day such as George Frederic Handel and William Hogarth. Most such institutions had previously been funded by the church, so in this sense it feels like a truly modern charity, characteristic of the individualistic age of Enlightenment into which it was born.

Mothers unable to care for their children would bring them to the hospital, leaving a token as proof of parenthood should they ever be in a position to reclaim their child. The hospital would place the child with a foster family outside of London for the first six years of its life, then readmit the child to be taught the skills needed to secure work, apprenticing them out at the age of fifteen.

But whilst the hospital’s aims were worthy, its methods feel far from modern. The young children inevitably formed bonds with their foster families and became accustomed to rural or provincial life, which was very different to the squalor of the capital, making the transition back difficult. As was typical of its time, teaching was disciplinarian – today we would call it cruel – and abuse was rife.

The hospital has provided fodder for both literature and art over the centuries, from Dickens to Stacey Halls’ 2020 novel The Foundling, and it’s the theme of abuse which Rose Tremain picks up on in her new novel, Lily.

It’s 1850 and baby Lily has been abandoned at a London park gate. She’s taken to the hospital by a passing policeman, sent to an idyllic farm in Suffolk until the age of six, then returned to the Hospital where she spends nine years being “educated” as well as horrifically abused; she’s then sent to work at a wigmaker on Long Acre where she excels, ending up making wigs for performances at top London theatres including the Royal Opera House.

Along the way Lily has committed a terrible crime, in revenge for her treatment at the hospital (in the interests of avoiding a plot spoiler I won’t say what).

The novel is relentlessly bleak. Lily is a headstrong character, building up an admirable resilience to what is thrown at her, in contrast to some of her less strong-willed peers. It’s this spirit which makes the reader root for her to make something of herself, but frustratingly, this never quite happens.

She successfully runs away but is returned; the opportunity to go and live with a wealthy benefactor is frustrated; she turns down opportunities offered by her kindly employer because she is dogged by the crime she has committed; and finally, she confesses her crime thinking that she’s been found out, when in fact she hasn’t.

This isn’t supposed to be a fairy tale – anyone who is living with a secret as terrible as Lily’s is never going to overcome it - but nevertheless, it’s frustratingly lacking in triumph over adversity. The ending sits oddly, seeing her return to the farm of her childhood, where it’s suggested that she could live happily ever after with the farmer’s son who – recently abandoned by his lover who preferred a more refined life with a bookbinder – is running the farm by himself and is in desperate need of help.

Alternatively, as her crime is now known and her whereabouts easily guessed, the authorities could come for her and send her to the gallows.

The ending is left open, which is thoughtful, but at the same time it feels too neat. Tremain has taken pains to construct a tough, metropolitan character in Lily, with all sorts of possibilities open to her.

When she unnecessarily confesses to her crime, it’s clear that she needs to start a new life, but even with the threat of arrest colouring the picture, the return to her childhood idyll feels too happy-ever-after.

It would have been much more satisfying to have Lily board a boat to say, New York, with the lesson that adversity builds character and drive. Of course, her suffering and her guilt would be with her forever, but this would feel more in keeping with the character that Tremain has built up.

What is this book about? Ultimately, it’s about the blighting of a young life through cruelty. But the make-up of a life isn’t so simple. In the final chapter, Lily reflects that if she hadn’t been sent back to the hospital, she wouldn’t have committed the crime. But if she hadn’t been taken to the hospital in the first place, she wouldn’t have experienced life on the farm – or indeed survived at all, in all probability. She certainly wouldn’t have developed the toughness of character which could have been the making of her.

An enjoyable read, brilliantly written as always, but lacking in any kind of redemption. Had Lily taken over the wig emporium, built her own business, or made a roaring success of herself in America, there would at least be the lesson that adversity can lead to opportunity and progress.

As it is, the lesson seems to be that life is depressing. Perhaps that’s the point, but for me, this didn’t make for an altogether satisfactory read.

Chequered as it was, the history of the Foundling Hospital offers a wealth of extraordinary life stories. I’ll be looking up Stacey Halls’s novel The Foundling to see what inspiration she takes from it, and checking out the current exhibition at the Museum which follows a Foundling child’s journey from abandonment to fighting in the battle of Trafalgar.

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