In her notes on her debut novel, Lilli de Jong, Janet Benton writes, “The difficult work of mothers has long been drastically under-recognized. I wanted to tell a story in which women’s strength was crucial to the world’s surviving and thriving—as it truly is and always has been.” True to her word, this novel tells the story of an unwed mother who leaves the conventions of the late nineteenth century behind in order to protect her child. Benton, whose works have appeared in The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, began this novel on scraps of paper while nursing her daughter, an appropriate setting for such a heroic topic. Known for her historical research as writer and editor of two award-winning documentaries on Philadelphia, Benton brings her expertise as both mother and historian to this historical novel.
“My time of shame began in glory,” the heroine, Lilli, says as she describes her first and only sexual act which forces her to flee her Quaker society to hide her pregnancy. Her separation from a respectable life, however, begins much earlier when her father remarried only weeks after her mother’s death. It is an aberration in Quaker law to forego the year of mourning, and for such behavior, he and the rest of his family are disowned. It is a necessary catalyst for the events that follow, cutting Lilli loose from the safety of her family and heritage.
Lilli’s background as a Quaker on the outskirts of Philadelphia in 1883 serves the story well. Her life with the “Friends” is quaint, without the indoor plumbing or gas-lighting or fashions of the city, but she is educated, moreso than many of the women of her time, as a result of her Quaker upbringing. When cast out from that society, the reader sees an intelligent, free-thinking woman of 23 navigating the social mores of inner-city Philadelphia, which claims to be progressive, but in fact offers the same conventional strictures on women. Through her, Benton asks the big questions, both biblical and cultural. She wrestles with the necessity of Job’s suffering, Eve’s heavier blame in the original sin, and the inherent crime of premarital sex. Lilli says of her brief affair, “loving him felt godly. Do the senses trick us? Or do the senses tell us truly, and the world’s restrictions only fail to let us follow them?” She is not one to make assumptions.
And because the novel is framed as a diary, Benton often has Lilli reflect upon the process of writing itself—the catharsis and sense of purpose it brings to her life once she must navigate it on her own without the support of her family or lover or religious community. Lilli writes, “There is perhaps some logic to it. I find hope and courage through this unburdening. In fixing events to a page, I can step beyond them.”
Lilli often remarks on the fates of the women around her, the other castaways, as she outlines the horrors that await women who have a baby without the safety net of marriage. They are the victims of rape by family and masters and strangers or, more rarely, the victims of false promises by lovers. And their children become victims of the state. Blockley, the state hospital for infants, stinks of urine, vomit, disease, and neglect. It is a place to die, not to heal. Women who choose to keep their children rather than send them to Blockley must work as wet nurses and maids, caring for other women’s children while sending their own out to “baby farms” to be kept and nursed by someone else. More often than not, these children die from neglect while their mothers work to buy an independent life for them both.
In noting even the most minute details, Lilli gives the reader a clear picture of the demands placed on the women of her time. She recites the litany of her life in the home for unwed mothers, where she works to earn her keep at eight months pregnant: “After stirring hot vats of laundry, wringing out the steaming cloths, and hanging them on lines; after scrubbing floors on our knees, helping Cook peel potatoes and knead heaps of dough, wiping away the grime that falls to every surface from the city air, and unpacking crates of donated supplies left at the back gate, we should want nothing more than rest.” Long sentences reflect long days. Life is a series of physical exertions with little relief, which only increases once the baby is born. Benton paints a stark picture of single motherhood in the 1880s as Lilli chronicles her pregnancy and child’s first fragile year of life.
Just when the reader is tempted to relegate the significance of this story to the past, an historical novel with a theme for another time, Benton calls forth the struggle of every mother. She pulls her message forward with the emotional honesty of Lilli. Her exhaustion, fear, and hyper-alertness as a new mother are universal. Hiding away from her screaming baby, Lilli writes,
I’m shaking on the cold floor beside the tub, this notebook clutched to me, while she cries in our room alone. Of course my flight brings no relief; my muscles clench to hear her. Yet I can’t tolerate her insatiable need. She sucks beyond endurance. I want only to use my chamber pot, to brush my hair and put it up with combs, to bathe, to put food in my body—and most of all to escape the state of nervous vigilance she keeps me in.
And though motherhood pushes Lilli to the edge of her sanity, it also brings her back to life. Her pregnancy brought her desolation and degradation, but her child, in that first tenuous year of life, saves her from despair. Lilli reflects on the archetypal mother, writing, “That by passing through this suffering and furthering our human race, she crosses to a land where pain and joy are ever mingled and where her every move has consequence.” This is the story’s yin and yang, one familiar to all mothers. To raise a child is to ask for heartache and happiness in equal measure and this novel is a reflection on the sacrifices that all mothers have made for their families in past and continue to make in the present.