Longtime editor and essayist Janet Benton turns her considerable skills to fiction with her debut, Lilli de Jong, a beautifully written historical novel set in 1880s Philadelphia about pregnancy, motherhood and the fight for economic independence.
Twenty-two-year-old Lilli discovers she is pregnant after her lover leaves for Pittsburgh in search of better employment. Though he has promised to send for her, Lilli is fearful of being shunned from her close-knit Quaker community and leaves home, taking refuge in a charity residence for unwed mothers in urban Philadelphia. After her daughter is born, she decides to keep the baby, a highly unusual decision in the late-19th century, when finding acceptance and shelter was nearly impossible for an unmarried mother.
Desperate for employment, Lilli is hired as a wet nurse for a wealthy family, at the financial and emotional expense of boarding her own daughter, with catastrophic results. Again and again, circumstances force Lilli to choose between her moral ideals and harsh social realities.
The novel is styled as a first-person diary, and Lilli’s eloquent self-expression is a product of her Quaker education and training as a teacher. Her clear-eyed view of her situation and her fearless questioning of a repressive system make for exhilarating reading, but even her spirit can’t always compete with the hardships of a culture where even wealthy white women had little economic agency.
It is a testament to Benton as a writer that this novel wears its considerable historical detail so lightly, although the narrative does get bogged down with repetitive descriptions of nursing and a few hard-to-believe deus ex machinas. But in its depiction of a mother’s fierce attachment to her child, Lilli de Jong has real resonance in today’s battles over women’s reproductive health and the rights of working mothers.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Janet Benton for Lilli de Jong.