I was utterly mesmerised by this beautiful book, so empathetically written by Rose Tremain that every emotion, every detail of life for an orphaned girl in 19th century London is vividly carved on the reader’s heart. At times it almost broke mine, but I simply couldn’t put it down.
It’s 1850, and in the powerful spirit of true Victorian melodrama a newborn baby girl is abandoned one wild winter’s night in a London park. She’s saved by a young constable, whose tender heart makes him carry the infant for miles across the city to Coram Fields, where the London Foundling Hospital takes the baby, near death from the cold, under its grim self righteous wing. But before Lily can experience the cruel regime of the Hospital, she is farmed out to foster parents in the countryside, and here she spends the first six years of her life in rural bliss. The Hospital would pay foster parents to raise orphans through their earliest childhood, and Lily is lucky enough to be placed with Nellie Buck, a kind and motherly woman who has only sons, and falls in love with bright, pretty little Lily, as Lily does with her. But this rustic idyll at Rookery Farm ends when she is six, and by law Nellie must return her to the Foundling Hospital. The sheer cruelty of Lily’s gradual realisation that she will never see Nellie again is heartbreaking.
Before we read about Lily’s abandonment as a baby we meet her as a girl of seventeen, now released from the Foundling Hospital and working in Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium, making grand hair pieces for the cream of London’s theatrical productions. Belle makes a good living from this, which she supplements by taking many gentleman callers (ahem) at her luxurious house in Seven Dials. Belle is a wonderful character straight out of Dickens; tough, vulgar and shameless but with a heart of gold. She takes Lily under her wing, certain the girl can make a success of her life despite her troubled background, but from the first moment we meet Lily it’s clear she lives in terror of the hangman’s noose. She’s done something terrible and she’s waiting for the police to find her. Lily’s dreadful deed occurred against a background of horrendous child abuse at the Foundling Hospital. The reader is always on her side and wills her to get away with it, but Lily knows it’s just a matter of time.
This is a terrific story, rich and many layered. Heart rending as it often is, it’s also warm, witty and funny. A total treat of a read.