By Stacia Friedman
We all heard whispered stories in high school about the girl who got pregnant the first time she had sex. If it happened to a Chestnut Hill teenager, her parents would take “steps.” There would be a discrete abortion or they would whisk her off to a distant relative to have her baby and give it up for adoption far from prying eyes.
What if this same story took place in Germantown in 1883 and the young woman was a devout Quaker? This is the premise of Janet Benton’s impressive first novel, “Lilli de Jong.” Written in the form of a diary, the heroine discovers she is pregnant soon after her fiancé leaves town without a forwarding address. When she starts to “show,” she is kicked out of the house by her step-mother. Without savings or connections, where will Lilli go?
The novel’s central conflict is whether the heroine will manage to keep or have to surrender her baby. A child out of wedlock is a terrible liability in the eyes of potential employers. No one wants to hire a “fallen woman,” especially one with a hungry infant to feed. After giving birth in a high-walled home for unwed mothers, Lilli works as a wet nurse for a wealthy Philadelphia family (who summer in Germantown). While tending to the needs of her charge, she must pay out of her meager salary for someone to nurse her own baby. Benton, who researched the novel while nursing her daughter, doesn’t sugarcoat the subject.
“She nursed or dozed with my nipple in her mouth for sixteen hours of the past twenty-four, I counted. The other hours, she had to be in my arms, or she would scream.”
However, the novel is not a diatribe on breastfeeding. It’s a meditation on the value society places on motherhood. Lilli de Jong’s struggles echo the battle going on now in the halls of Congress and in the streets of Philadelphia, where crowds gather to demonize or support Planned Parenthood. Is it any easier to be a single, impoverished, unwed mother now than 100 years ago? Hardly. The deck is still stacked against young mothers without husbands, family support or resources.
Beset by rising tidal waves of adversity — starvation, disease, homelessness, deceit and all manners of abuse — Lilli de Jong soldiers on with babe in arms. At times, the plot takes on Dickensian drama, constantly placing the heroine in harm’s way as she struggles, not just with her harsh circumstances but with her conscience. Is she wrong to keep her child? Would her infant be better off in a “normal” home? These are the questions that kept this reader turning pages.
Benton, 53, has clearly done her homework, right down to the speech patterns of the time with the “these” and “thous.” “I’ve lived in Philadelphia for over 20 years, and I’m in love with its history,” said Benton. “I chose 1883 because the mid- to late-1800s were a time of great social and technological change, right on the edge of what we would consider modern times. Yet still, most Americans — women, people of color, children — didn’t have the rights we consider basic today.”
Born in Ridgefield, Conn., Benton attended Oberlin College, where she majored in religious studies before earning a MFA in creative writing at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After working at magazines, newspapers and publishers and teaching writing at four universities, she began her own editorial service, working with nonprofits throughout Philadelphia. In 2010 she began The Word Studio (www.thewordstudio.us) to offer mentoring to writers. Benton lived in Mt. Airy for five years and currently resides in Wyncote.
Benton started to write her novel in 2003 and sold it in 2015. What took so long? “Try to find 9,000 hours in your regular life for doing unpaid work!” said the author.
Half the pleasure of reading Benton’s novel is recognizing local landmarks, including the Quaker Meeting House in Germantown, the school and cemetery, as well as the streets of Center City, from the sordid back alleys to the posh townhouses. In this respect, “Lilli de Jong” reads like Masterpiece Theater. It is filled with detailed descriptions of the opulent lifestyles of the rich that stand in stark contrast to the simplicity of Quaker ways.
Janet Benton’s debut novel will be out on May 16 in hardcover and eBook from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, in large print from Thorndike and in audio book from HighBridge. (Is it a coincidence that her novel comes out the same week as Mother’s Day? We don’t think so.) On Monday, June 5, 7:30 p.m., Benton will speak about her novel and be interviewed by Sam Katz at the Free Library Authors Series at 1901 Vine St.
For more information, visit https://www.amazon.com/Lilli-Jong-Novel-Janet-Benton