The Foundling is Stacey Halls’s much-anticipated second novel. Like her debut The Familiars, we are placed in a world where patriarchal powers dictate the mores of the day and women must use their wits to regain their autonomy. This is a tale of two mothers situated on either side of the class divide in 18th century Georgian London but connected by a child, born to one and raised by the other.
Bess Bright, newly delivered of her illegitimate little girl, is passing through the gates of a Foundling home, ushered along in a line of destitute mothers in various states of despair. There is little time for recovery from trauma, heartbreak, and physical pain when a lack of coin means a life on the streets. For the next six years, Bess does all she can to muster together the money she needs to bring her daughter home for good. However, when the time comes, she discovers her child missing, claimed by another who has stolen Bess’s identity.
From the vivid descriptions of Bess’s life on the streets hawking shrimp and sideswiping lecherous hands, we are introduced to Alexandra Callard, an orphan and widow whose vulnerability is more easily disguised by her wealth and power. Agoraphobic and distrustful of the world, Alexandra tightly controls every aspect of her existence and that of her child, Charlotte. Compulsively repressive and lacking in maternal instinct, Alexandra struggles to understand the needs and desires of Charlotte as separate from her own. When Alexandra is finally coerced to permit the presence of a nursemaid in her child’s life, it is then these women’s worlds collide.
An entangled story of juxtaposed dichotomies unfolds: wealth and poverty, power and deprivation, the expressed and suppressed. We the readers are moved from one subjective reality to the other, playing judge to their choices and witnessing the powerlessness of the child at the center of it all. What makes a good mother? Stacey Halls’s finely tuned and richly evocative historical narrative transports us to another era to explore this very modern question.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls. Manilla Press, February 2020