I must begin this post with a confession of sorts: for the last week and a half, I have been living with another woman. Oh, to be sure, I continue to cohabitate with Diane, my wife of almost 46 years. She actually knows this other woman, in fact, perhaps better than I do.

There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

            There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

 

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

 

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

 

Lilli’s is a harrowing yet inspiring tale. She is a Quaker in 1883, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia Lilli is educated enough by the Quakers (Society of Friends) to become a schoolteacher. Her mother dies when Lilli is still living at home, and her widowed father romances another woman, which earns him, and consequently Lilli and her brother Peter, not just censure, but expulsion from the Quaker Meeting as well.

 

Lilli has a one-night encounter with Johan, the good-looking, smooth-talking guy mothers warn their daughters about. Wouldn’t you know it, but Lilli gets pregnant. Johan pledges his intention to marry Lilli, and promises to send for her from Pittsburgh once he finds work there and is settled. Of course, Johan is gone with the restless wind.

 

There weren’t a whole lot of choices for unwed pregnant women, either in Philadelphia or anywhere else, for that matter, in 1883. Jodie Foster will have a much easier time of it in 1997. For a fleeting nanosecond, Lilli considers the option of abortion, which in the late 19th century was a crude, primitive and eminently perilous procedure. Besides, it violates her deep Quaker principles. Instead, she finds respite of sorts at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants.

 

She was to surrender her infant within three weeks of its birth to the well-meaning staff of the charity, who would then find adoptive parents. However, Lilli develops such an almost unhealthily boundless bond of love for Charlotte, that she is determined to keep her. Not an easy decision, by any means, in Victorian society. Lilli secures one of the only forms of employment available for an unwed mother: she becomes a “wet nurse” for the child of an affluent family. Meanwhile, she is forced to “farm out” her own daughter to an anonymous wet nurse elsewhere, with almost disastrous results.

 

That’s as far as I have gotten so far in this riveting novel, however. But I can tell that my literary neighbor has set me up to witness more heartrending hardship for Lilli, and undoubtedly for little Charlotte as well.

 

Having attended a book talk Janet gave at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got the distinct impression that most of those present who had already read Janet’s novel, or who lined up to purchase a copy after the talk and have Janet sign their copy, were women. That’s to be expected in a way. I’d wager many of those women in attendance were mothers, or were hoping to become mothers, and certainly had their own, undoubtedly often ambivalent relationship with their own mothers.

Lilli de Jong cover

But I have to say, that reading Lilli de Jong as a male, a husband, and a father of two sons, has been very enlightening. Much of the prejudice that Lilli encounters in her society, and the judgment she endures from religious leaders, was not new to me. By her decision to keep Charlotte, Lilli is rendered impoverished and powerless. The self-serving phenomenon of blaming the poor for their own situation remains with us today. Just listen to Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania talk derisively about Medicaid and its recipients.  I came to see in the course of the story, however, how even her mistress, her boss, Clementina, although wealthy and privileged, has only very limited choices and is virtually powerless in her own right. Powerlessness is a woman’s thing in the 1880s, not just a poor woman’s thing – even today, to be sure.

 

I’m personally proud of my author-neighbor Janet Benton. The advice often given to budding authors (like myself) is to hang out with more established writers and absorb the wisdom. So, how fortunate I am to be able to talk books and writing with a skilled novelist from my front porch to hers ,whose debut novel wasn’t merely selfpublished like my own, but by a real grown-up publisher,. I feel a kinship with Janet because we both like to read and write historical fiction.

 

Kirkus Review concluded its review of Lilli de Jong, with the following assessment, and I end this blog with the same words: “Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.”

Janet Benton portrait

Lilli de Jong is available as a e-book for $12.99 on http://www.BarnesandNoble.com. Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites sell the hardcover book at a discount. Philadelphia area friends: signed copies are available at local Barnes and Noble and Indie bookstores. If you are not near Philly, Janet would be happy to send you a signed bookplate. Let me know and I’ll shout your name and mailing address to Janet from my front porch.


Until the next post, live each day to the fullest because today is he only day that you are guaranteed to have.             JAS

 

 

A SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT FOR A MAN

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