Child #627: The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
That’s a question faced by Bess Bright, a character in Stacey Halls’ latest novel The Lost Orphan (MIRA Books, April 2020), published as The Foundling in the UK. Bess, an 18th-century shrimp hawker, has no choice but to entrust her newborn daughter to London’s Foundling Hospital with a plan to buy her back as soon as she can save enough money to pay for her care. She leaves the infant with a half of a heart made of whalebone as her token and the number 627 to remember and redeem her by. But six years later when Bess returns, she’s told her daughter has already been claimed.
The Foundling Hospital in question is in Bloomsbury, London, and the story idea came to Stacy Halls on a visit there only a week after she finished her first novel, The Familiars. “I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment,” she explains. “I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children — they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children.”
But although Halls’ starting point for this novel was the hospital and the missing child, it is her two narrators who bring this historical mystery to vivid life. She says, “I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me.”
For The Lost Orphan, the two women who tell the story, Bess and Alexandra “had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.”
The result is a story with a page-turning plot but also depth of theme as Halls looks at nature versus nurture and leads the reader to ask him or herself which of these women really has the child’s best interest at heart.
It’s also a novel that’s alive with the sounds and smells of mid 18th century London and it’s clear that Halls takes great pleasure in her setting and research. “London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality — in London, 75 percent of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century — it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.”
She also, in her minor characters, captures the diversity of 18th century London, an aspect historical fiction has sometimes been criticized for neglecting. But, as Halls explains, she “wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.”
Readers of The Familiars, set in the early 17th century, will surely be impressed at Halls’ ability to portray a different era and cross sections of society so expertly. And there is more in store. Halls is at work on a new novel set at the turn of the 20th century. It’s another step change, but one she is embracing, describing how it “feels like a huge step forwards in terms of modernity — they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!”
For now, those seeking to know more of the hospital that inspired The Lost Orphan can visit The Foundling Museum in London for themselves and view some of the tokens left with infants placed their care. Although tokens were abandoned in the 1760s in favour of a receipt system, the tradition of numbering continued, rising to as high as 18,000 orphans by 1790. For more information, visit www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).