Manilla Press | 2020 (6 February) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1747 when Bess Bright walks with her father Abe to the Foundling Hospital on the northern fringes of London. Bess can hardly walk. She gave birth just hours ago and now she must leave her newborn, illegitimate daughter Clara with strangers, abandoning her as a foundling, with just a token for her daughter and the hospital to know her by. Six years later Clara returns to the hospital with the money that she has spent years saving. At last she can buy back her daughter and be her mother again. But Bess discovers that, just the day after Clara was left, a woman claiming to be Bess turned up and carried the baby away as her own. It is a catastrophe and Bess’s life is almost destroyed. Only one thing can save her – the hope that she will find her daughter and the woman who stole her.
A mile from Clara a young widow, Alexandra, lives in her gloomy townhouse with a couple of servants. She hasn’t set foot outside the house for a decade except for her weekly Sunday trips to church. And that is the only time that her little six-year-old daughter Charlotte feels the sun on her face and can breathe fresh air. Otherwise, she is confined to the house with her unhappy mother. The vicar knows that something must change and suggests that Charlotte should have a nursery maid to help look after her and puts forward a young woman that he knows, Eliza. Alexandra dreads having somebody new in her house, disrupting her carefully constructed and elaborate routine. But she will find she has no choice as the past threatens to catch up with her.
I loved The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s brilliant debut novel, and so I couldn’t wait to read The Foundling, another stand alone historical mystery with another stunning cover. These are gorgeous books! This time we are placed in London in the mid 18th century and it is a very different place for Bess and Alexandra. The novel moves between the two women, using the first person narrative for both and so we are immersed in their lives, and it’s fascinating to see their worlds constructed. Bess leads a hard and poor life as a hawker walking the streets of London selling boiled prawns from the stinking, scalding basket on her head. I love the way in which Stacey Halls describes the everyday turmoil of her life. Alexandra is very different. She is a widow of some means but one who has agoraphobia and who cannot leave her dark and unhappy house except for church.
I enjoyed getting to know Bess, Alexandra and the enchanting Charlotte very much. This is such a beautifully written and deeply atmospheric novel, with a touch of the Gothic to it as we see the world though Alexandra’s tormented eyes. I liked Beth a great deal but I surprised myself by falling most deeply for Alexandra. I loved the way in which her story is revealed.
There are coincidences in the novel, which did contribute to it feeling not entirely plausible or convincing. There is a plot device that I’m not sure about. But, nevertheless, this is a gorgeous and enchanting read that pulls at the heartstrings, sometimes for unexpected reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the Foundling Hospital, now a museum, and the tokens left by women who had to make such a terrible choice. As a result, I couldn’t resist The Foundling and, very unusually for me, I read it in just one day, even though that day was a very full one. I did not want to put it down unread. It is wholly engrossing. And just look at the cover! The inside cover is just as gorgeous.