REVIEWED BY JANET BAYLISS
Stacey Halls (Manilla Press: 2020)
This is the author’s second novel, published in 2020, following The Familiars which appeared in 2019. It tells a dual story of two women and their struggle over a child, with pivotal scenes taking place at London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by Thomas Coram to look after babies whose parents could not care for them. The book is set in 1754 at a time when this must have been still a relatively new concept, with intense competition among desperate mothers to get their children placed there, something which the novel captures well.
Bess Bright is an unmarried mother from a poor background (her family sells shrimps) who has her daughter, Clara, placed at the Foundling Hospital. However, Bess saves enough money to reclaim Clara – which she tries to do: only to find the child has apparently disappeared. Another woman has taken her, so Bess sets out on a quest to find her daughter. With the help of a doctor at the hospital she manages to get a place as nursemaid at the house of a wealthy widow who has obtained a girl child in somewhat mysterious circumstances. Seen alternately through the eyes of Bess and of Alexandra, the wealthy merchant’s widow, the plot unfolds through contrasting scenes, with both sides of the debate about the child’s future being portrayed sympathetically.
A good story with intrigue and tension keeping the reader hooked, this book gives interesting insights into eighteenth-century life, the Foundling Hospital and the stark contrast between the lives of rich and poor at that time. The evocation of settings and of working life is vivid; with engaging and mostly rounded characters, although some may find the resolution a bit contrived, presumably in order to give the book a happy ending.