May 16, 2017

Janet Benton

A tale of motherhood set on the brink of modernity

In Janet Benton’s fictional debut, Lilli de Jong, a young woman finds herself pregnant and alone in 19th-century Philadelphia. Lilli’s decision to keep her baby leads her to a charity for unwed mothers, a job as a wet nurse and, briefly but most alarmingly, the perilous urban streets. A historical saga and a romance, Lilli de Jong is both a scathing indictment of societal biases and a testament to the redemptive strength of a mother’s love. With the same grace and thoughtfulness displayed in her novel, Benton answers questions about women’s reproductive rights, then and now, the Quaker faith and the power of motherhood.

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In Janet Benton’s fictional debut, Lilli de Jong, a young woman finds herself pregnant and alone in 19th-century Philadelphia. Lilli’s decision to keep her baby leads her to a charity for unwed mothers, a job as a wet nurse and, briefly but most alarmingly, the perilous urban streets. A historical saga and a romance, Lilli de Jong is both a scathing indictment of societal biases and a testament to the redemptive strength of a mother’s love. With the same grace and thoughtfulness displayed in her novel, Benton answers questions about women’s reproductive rights, then and now, the Quaker faith and the power of motherhood.

You have worked as an editor and a writer of nonfiction for several decades. What about this subject made you want to explore it in fictional form?
I’ve written fiction since I was very young, and I have an MFA in fiction writing. But Lilli de Jong is the first novel I’ve finished. The voice I heard from the beginning was that of Lilli telling her story. I didn’t choose how to explore the story; it never struck me as a subject area, but rather as an embodied and urgent tale. I hear a voice for nonfiction, too, but it’s my voice—that of a person with a body and a history that are already established. When writing in a fictional voice, there’s a sense of being an actor—of taking on a role, trying on a new position in life, a new time and place and set of concerns. I loved doing that with Lilli. She was such an interesting person to inhabit, and I cared deeply for her and her baby, Charlotte.

I also loved pretending to live in Philadelphia in the 1880s, which is not so hard to do, since the city is a living history museum. I feel a thrill when I see places Lilli goes in the book. Driving on Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia, which is lined with tall, old edifices, I’m moved to see the grand City Hall looming ahead, partly because Lilli and Charlotte spent a lot of time nearby while City Hall was being built. As I move through the city, I recall scenes from the novel, imagining the two of them traveling the same streets. It’s a strange, thrilling sensation.

What kinds of historical resources did you use? How did the research shape the narrative?
Oh, many kinds. Some favorites were from the 19th century: records from an institution that sheltered unwed mothers, a pamphlet on the care and feeding of babies, newspaper articles (which were written in a very dramatic style then), travel guides, doctors’ accounts of life at Blockley Almshouse, a guide to doing charity work with the poor, accounts of underpaid working women, home health-care manuals (most health care took place in the home, and detailed guides were written for mothers) and so much else. I was also inspired by countless books, including Janet Golden’s A Social History of Wet Nursing in America, Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, Howard Brinton’s Quaker Journals. The research and the narrative shaped each other.

What wonderful historical tidbit did you have to leave out?
I don’t know if it qualifies as wonderful, but in one scene, Lilli takes refuge in a park. As I was writing that diary entry set in June 1883, I decided that Lilli would pick up a newspaper and encounter some actual news of the time. I did an online search. An article came up from a New Zealand newspaper about stories reported in The World, a Philadelphia paper. Called “Horrible Disclosures at Philadelphia,” the article told of a man who’d performed abortions, which were illegal and thus done in dangerous circumstances, who’d been arrested when his wife charged him with brutal assault. Neighbors said that many women went into his house and never left. Found in his Philadelphia home were “the bodies of several children, and a large number of adult human bodies.” Skulls were found in the cellar, and there were vicious, lustrous-coated dogs living down there. The man’s accomplice reported that some bodies were cremated in the stove on which the family’s meals were prepared; others were likely fed to the dogs.

On reading this, Lilli feels a great kinship with the murdered women. If she had sought to end her pregnancy, she might have gone to this man. I wrote the scene and kept it a while, but I knew it knocked the story in too gruesome a direction. I didn’t need to go to such extremes in order to create a portrait of meaningful suffering.

Lilli is a woman of great faith. How did her being Quaker shape her experience?
I think her faith enables her to do as she does, and here’s why. The founding principle of the Society of Friends is that God sends guidance directly to those who are open and willing. The Quaker practice of silent worship is meant to allow one to perceive this voice. This is likely one reason that Quakers have a long tradition of defying injustices, including slavery and war; the practice of listening to one’s inner voice can create a sense of rightness and the bravery to act. So Lilli’s faith tradition helps her to act as she does. It was important to me, too, that Lilli wouldn’t accept society’s view of her—that she wouldn’t consider herself a sinner and be ashamed. This tired view supports prejudice, and she needs self-respect to act with strength. So what religious background might have given an unwed mother the ability to decide for herself about her own experience? All religions, clearly, can foster courageous people and rebels. But in Philadelphia in the 1880s, I thought most likely she would be a Quaker. Her family and community wouldn’t have seen her as virtuous, but Lilli fights for what she believes is right, regardless of what others say. She was, in fact, raised by her Quaker mother and elders to do just that. Yet she has to stay away from her family and community in order to live as she does. I see Lilli and her companions, by the end of the book, as living on the brink of modernity. They find their places in a society that’s changing fast due to industrial growth, immigration, greater ease of travel, etcetera. There’s room for people like them there.

“This is likely one reason that Quakers have a long tradition of defying injustices, including slavery and war; the practice of listening to one’s inner voice can create a sense of rightness and the bravery to act.”

I read Lilli de Jong the week my oldest turned 21 and was reminded of the tremendously physical work of nursing and caring for an infant. Some things really haven’t changed much. How did your own experience as a mother inform the novel?
I drew on my experience a lot for these aspects of the novel. Like Lilli, I nursed my daughter most of the day and night at first, and I barely slept. Like Charlotte, my daughter was highly alert at birth and developed quickly. I wrote in a diary about my daughter and used bits from that to describe Charlotte. Like Charlotte, my daughter smiled at first feeling the wind. I adored the dearness of her face as she nursed. She was and is unutterably dear to me. But the big picture was wholly different. I was and am married, my baby was not going hungry, I didn’t grow up as Lilli did, my mother is alive and well, and so on.

I’m glad you were reminded of the physical work of mothering. I aimed for readers to feel those things up close.

You are a writing mentor—what exactly does that entail?
I work privately with people who are writing books, usually novels or memoirs. At intervals of their choosing, I read, comment on and discuss their pages, sharing what I’ve learned through decades of working as a writer, editor and teacher in many professional settings. My aim is to help them craft powerful stories. It’s a very effective way to work.

You wrote this at a time when women’s reproductive health was once again making headlines, as was the value of women’s work outside the home. Within this climate, what does this book mean to you, and what do you hope readers will take away?
It’s hard to recall a time when women’s reproductive lives didn’t make headlines and women’s work inside and outside the home wasn’t contested, isn’t it? The same was true in Lilli’s day; the Harper’s article that Clementina talks about with Albert, in which a man describes the proper education of women (very little), was common to the time. At least now, in the United States, we can take for granted that girls go to school, women vote, and married women own property and keep their wages.

Lilli’s story, I hope, has the power of fiction. Fiction, by being concrete and affecting the senses, can break down barriers and generate compassion. I hope readers will take away a felt experience of mothering under duress. I hope they’ll understand more about the difficult, irreplaceable work of mothers. I hope they’ll care more about children, who need loving care. Beyond this, I’ll leave the reader alone and state my own views: that most mothers in the world must struggle far too hard to provide for their children, and that this country needs to create policies and paid-leave programs that support the fundamental, future-building work of parenting.

Lilli de Jong is about tenacity and the tremendous bond between parent and child, but there are times when the going gets pretty rough. What did you do to keep your spirits up as you were writing?
I might have watered the garden, walked, talked on the phone, made a cup of something hot—but mostly I plowed through. I didn’t have time to hesitate. I did cry, while writing the first several drafts especially. I needed to immerse myself in what I was putting Lilli and Charlotte through, to raise up my own feelings, in order to write a genuine account. Over time, the work became more a matter of paring and puttering to achieve effects, rather than taking on the story’s full weight. Still, every time I edited it, I aimed to listen carefully to Lilli’s voice on the page and to concentrate deeply, so I wouldn’t damage it. I hope I haven’t damaged it. I’m an endless editor. The only reason it’s done is because it has to be.

What are you working on next?
I have three novels at various stages of development. I look forward to the moment when one of them refuses to let me go!

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Lilli de Jong.

Author photo credit Steve Ladner.

Get the Book

Lilli de Jong

Lilli de Jong

By Janet Benton
Nan A. Talese
ISBN 9780385541459

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