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Georgian England

THE FOUNDLING . . . Between the covers

Foundling header

B ornamenteing a middle class British father and grandfather, the concept of abandoning a newly born baby is totally beyond my experience of life and (the fault is perhaps mine) my comprehension. The fact is, however, that since Adam had his way with Eve, biology has trumped human intention, and babies have come into the world unloved and unwanted. Thankfully, there have been charitable institutions over the centuries which have done their best to provide some kind of home for foundlings. Abandoning babies is not something consigned to history: modern Germany has its Babyklappe, and Russia its Колыбель надежды – literally hatches – rather like an old fashioned bank deposit box – built into buildings where babies can be left. Back in time, Paris had its Maison de la Couche pour les Enfants Trouvés while in Florence the Ospedale degli Innocenti is one of the gems of early Renaissance architecture. London had its Foundling Hospital, and it is the centre of The Foundling, the new novel by Stacey Halls.

TFCoverBess Bright is a Shrimp Girl. Her father gets up at the crack of dawn to buy Essex shrimps from Billingsgate Market, and Bess puts the seafood in the brim of a broad hat and, clutching a tiny tankard to measure them out, she walks the streets of 1750s London selling her wares. For American readers it is worth explaining that British shrimps are tiny crustaceans, not ‘shrimp’, the larger creature we call ‘prawns’. In my opinion, the British shrimp is fiddly to prepare but spectacularly more tasty than its larger cousin.

Bess has, to put it politely, ‘an encounter’ in a dingy back street, with an attractive young merchant who deals in whalebone – the staple component of 18th century corsets and also a carvable alternative to the more expensive tusks of elephants. Bess’s moment of passion has an almost inevitable consequence, and in the dingy rooms she rents with her father and brother, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. During her pregnancy, however, Daniel Callard has died, thus ruling out any possible confrontation where Bess presents the child to its father, and says, “Your daughter, Sir!”

Sornamentelling shrimps from the brim of your hat is not an occupation destined to provide sufficient funds to keep a growing child, and so Bess presents herself and baby Clara at The Foundling Hospital, London’s only repository for unwanted children. The Hospital does, however, offer hope to young mothers. Each child’s admittance is scrupulously recorded, and the mothers are asked to leave a small token – perhaps a square of fabric or another physical memento which – when circumstances permit – mothers can use to prove identity when they are able to return and claim their children.

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Bess works and works and works; her meagre profits are salted away until, some six years later, she returns to the Hospital with the funds to pay them back and collect Clara. Her mild anxiety at the prospect of being reunited with her daughter turns to horror when she is told that the baby was reclaimed, the day after she was admitted, when a woman calling herself Bess Bright arrived and showed the requisite token – the matching half of a divided heart, fashioned from whalebone.

Hornamentalow – and where – Bess finds her missing daughter is for you to discover, but I promise that The Foundling is ingenious, delightful, and the author’s skills as a storyteller are magnetic. The attention to detail and the period authenticity are things to be wondered at, but what elevates this novel above the humdrum is how Stacey Halls conjures up our sheer emotional investment in the characters, each one beautifully observed. Art lovers will recognise the painter – and the title – of the picture below and, were he alive to read it, the great observer of London life would thoroughly approve of The Foundling, which is published by Manilla Press and is out on 3rd February in Kindle and 6th February in hardback

Hogarth

The previous novel by Stacey Halls, The Familiars is here.

SKIN AND BONE …Between the covers

old paper or parchment

Georgian England in the early autumn of 1743. The George in question is Number Two, and earlier in the year he had the distinction of being the last monarch to lead British troops in battle, that being at Dettingen, where an uneasy alliance of British, Austrian and Hanoverian forces – known, bizarrely, as ‘The Pragmatic Army’ – defeated those eternal adversaries, the French.

BlakeThis, then, is the England of Handel and Hogarth (at least he was English) and the looming threat from the Jacobites north of the border. Author Robin Blake, (left) however resists the easy win of setting his story in the bustle of London. Instead, he takes us to the town of Preston, sitting on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire.

Titus Cragg is a lawyer, and the coroner for the town. He is called to investigate a macabre and piteous discovery – that of a tiny baby found at the bottom of a malodorous sludge-filled pit, one of several used by tanners in the town to turn rough animal hides into leather. Once the muck and slurry have been washed away from the infant, Cragg discovers a nasty wound on the back of its head. It takes a more detailed examination by a local physician – Luke Fidelis – to reveal that the little girl did indeed die from violence, but of a much more sinister kind.

skin-and-boneThe investigations carried out by Cragg and Fidelis reveal a growing schism between the tanners and the wealthy men of property who run the town’s affairs. The leather workers are an inward looking community. This state is mostly driven by the fact that they live and work alongside the noisome waste materials – mostly faeces and urine – which are essential to the tanning process, and therefore most local people literally turn up their noses at the tanners. The burgesses and council-men of Preston, on the other hand, have their eyes on what they believe to be an acre or so of valuable land – ripe for redevelopment – currently occupied by the tannery.

What’s in a name? To answer the ill-fated Juliet, there is always something. Cragg, as his name suggests has something rock-like about him, while Fidelis has a touch of enigma and mystery. Fidelis, the more exotic of the pair, causes suspicion among the bluff Lancastrians of Preston, if only because his modern views and deep knowledge of the science of medicine contrast dramatically with the more superstitious practices of other local doctors. Cragg and Fidelis do eventually discover the truth about the awful death of the baby, but not before Preston is set on its collective ear by another murder and the downfall of one of its most respected residents and his family.

Skin and Bone scores highly in all the categories which make for good historical crime fiction. At its core it has an intriguing and inventive mystery, not just a standard murder parachuted into a period setting. The Georgian details are established without fuss, showmanship or over-anxious dollops of historical fact splashed on the canvas in the name of authenticity. Most importantly, the dialogue is natural and untainted by any attempt to create what the author might imagine to be the vernacular speech of the time. Cragg – and his wife – are likeable and convincing, while Fidelis provides just enough forensic flair to point his friend in the right investigative direction.

This is the fourth Cragg and Fidelis story and it came out in Kindle earlier this year. The hardback is out today, 25th October and the paperback will be out on 3rd November,  You can check further details of this and the previous books at Robin Blake’s own website, or his Amazon author page.

Blake Novels

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