From the opening pages of Rose Tremain’s new novel, we know that Lily Mortimer is a murderer and that she expects to hang for what she has done. What we don’t know is who the victim was and what drove a young woman like Lily to commit such a terrible crime. To find the answers we have to go back in time, to a cold winter’s night in 1850 when policeman Sam Trench finds a baby abandoned by the gates of a London park. Sam takes her to the London Foundling Hospital where she is given the name Lily and sent to live with a foster family in the countryside. This is only a temporary arrangement – children are expected to return to the Hospital once they reach the age of six – but Lily’s foster parents, Nellie and Perkin Buck, grow to love the little girl and they are all heartbroken when the time comes for them to separate.
Back at the Foundling Hospital, Lily feels trapped and unhappy; she and the other children are badly treated by the women who are employed to take care of them and Lily herself seems to be singled out for the worst punishments. As the years go by, Lily becomes an adult and starts work as a wigmaker at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium – but even though she has left the orphanage behind, she is still haunted by the events of her childhood.
After being disappointed by Rose Tremain’s last book, Islands of Mercy, I found this a much more compelling read. It took me a while to get into it as the timeline jumped around so much at the beginning, constantly moving from Lily’s present to her past and back again, which felt disjointed and confusing – and the absence of chapter breaks didn’t help – but eventually things settled down and I was drawn into the story. There are shades of Jane Eyre, particularly in the parts of the book that deal with Lily’s relationship with another orphan, Bridget, and I was also reminded of Stacey Halls’ The Foundling, another novel set partly in the London Foundling Hospital (although this book has a very different plot).
The Hospital – also known as Coram, after its founder Thomas Coram – is vividly described and comes to life as a grim, forbidding place where the abandoned children are made to pay for the ‘sins of their mothers’. Although Lily is occasionally shown some kindness by people such as her benefactress Lady Elizabeth Mortimer, most of the treatment she receives at Coram is harsh and cruel. It seemed such a shame to me that the children weren’t allowed to stay with foster families who loved and wanted them, although I understood that the idea of returning them to the Hospital was so that they could learn the skills that would equip them for life in Victorian society.
This is a bleak novel, but also quite a moving one and despite knowing that Lily considered herself a criminal, I had a lot of sympathy for her from the beginning and hoped that her story would have a happier ending than the one she was expecting. I would recommend Lily not just to Rose Tremain’s existing fans, but also to anyone looking for a dark Victorian tale to immerse themselves in this winter.
Thanks to Vintage for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 49/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.