eing 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.
Bess 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!”
elling 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.
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.
ow – 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
The previous novel by Stacey Halls, The Familiars is here.