As difficult as mothering is today, we take for granted how far along we have come. Can you imagine being a single mother in 1883 Philadelphia society? Written as a series of journal entries, in which the title character details her struggles, Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, is about second chances and a heroine whose resiliency I guarantee you will fall in love with. In Benton’s beautifully told and crafted novel, we learn how Lilli is one of the fortunate women to get into the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants because there are precious few options for women who are pregnant and not married in the late 1800s.
When Lilli, a 22-year-old pregnant Quaker woman, is abandoned by her fiancé, Johan, and kicked out of her home for being pregnant, she finds shelter in a charity downtown. Initially, her plan was to give her child up for adoption shortly after birth and return to her former life (as a teacher) without anyone knowing her secret. But, at the Haven, Lilli realizes that she can’t give up her baby or forget about the plight of the impoverished women who are in the same predicament that she is in.
What we learn about Lilli de Jong’s remarkable journey is brilliantly told from the perspective of both a mother and a writer. Janet Benton is a writers’ mentor and editor, and also the writer and/or editor of two award-winning documentaries on Philadelphia history. Most importantly, she brings her expertise as a mother. After Lilli’s daughter, Charlotte, is born, the scenes that both describe and capture Lilli de Jong’s early days of motherhood literally take your breath away.
I do not want to give too much of the novel away because the adventure that ensues hereafter is what this historical novel is all about. What we do learn is how an educated young woman from a small Germantown Quaker community, who had never imagined herself in such a difficult situation defies conventions, fights hard and goes through hell and beyond to keep her child and make a living.
The suspense that Benson creates is riveting. Most importantly, as you root for this courage and tenacious heroine, you learn so much about the plight and ill fates of other women during that time.
Maribel Garcia: Janet, thank you so much for joining us today. Book Club Babble is glad to have you.
Lilli de Jong is meticulously researched. What was it like to do this kind of research? The details of the day-to-day lives of the pious in Germantown, the wealthy of Rittenhouse, and the homeless in Broad Street Station were incredible.
Janet Benton: And I’m glad to be on Book Club Babble today! The research was fascinating and took me to historical sites and archives throughout Philadelphia. I also consulted many online resources and fantastic physical books by historians and history-lovers. I was fascinated to get a fuller picture of daily life in all those areas of the city.
MG: The real tension of this novel is Lilli’s belief that she will not suffer the fate of the women of that time period. Women had to give up their children and suffer the fate of homelessness, hunger and in many cases prostitution. What inspired this feminist character? Actually, would Lillie even consider herself a feminist?
JB: Yes, Lilli believes she can power through all the prejudice—which is more difficult than she’d believed. But if she hadn’t had this moral courage, she wouldn’t have tried to do this difficult thing. The word “feminist” wasn’t widely in use, from what I’ve seen, and might not have meant what we take it to mean today. But certainly many if not most women of that time were quite aware of their oppression and had great moral courage in pushing against it. How could they not be aware of their unequal status? They weren’t full citizens—with no right to vote and no right, if married, to keep their own wages or to own property. They faced widespread, open woman-hating in print and in person; exclusion on account of their sex from most kinds of professional training and higher education; often no right to their own children if they divorced; barely a right to divorce; and so on and on. If they protested, they might be deemed hysterical or insane (sound familiar?). So—she didn’t have to use that word, but she was clearly as aware as so many at the time of women’s disempowerment.
MG: So much of this novel is about breastfeeding. When Lilli has to leave the Haven and go out to find employment, she finds her employment as a wet nurse for the child of a wealthy couple. The catch, if she wants to be employed here (nursing someone else’s child), is for Lilli to send her own baby to a stranger who cares for multiple newborns at the same time. Nursing is so central to the plot of the novel. What planted the seed for this novel?
JB:I began the novel when breastfeeding my own baby. The novel began in my mind when my baby was a few months old. I read a review of a multi-volume work called The History of the European Family, and I learned not only about how common so-called unwed motherhood was, and how fierce the prejudice and hatred were against girls and women who got pregnant (even if by force or incest), but also how these girls and women were usually separated from their infants, and their infants rarely survived without their mothers’ milk. I could easily imagine the pain of such a situation, and the voice of Lilli began speaking to me of her baby, her seemingly lost fiance, and her other challenges, often while I was nursing my baby.
MG: Janet, you captured the early days of motherhood so well, did you write any of this when you were in the early days of motherhood?
JB:I took notes about how my baby looked while nursing and at other times, and I utilized other aspects of my experience to craft Charlotte, Lilli’s dear baby. In those early years, every minute I wasn’t with my child, even late at night, went toward paying work. But I managed to collect a pile of scraps, and typed them up into a document after about two years. From then, it was another slow ten years of working intensively whenever I could and giving up a great deal to finish the manuscript. I was intensely determined to overcome the enormous obstacles and finish because I felt the story was an important one. Motherhood is drastically undervalued in our society, and I wanted, among other things, to offer an homage to mothers.
MG: One of my favorite parts about Lilli de Jong is how it reflects [it’s set in 19th c.] on the rights of women (or lack of) in the 21st century. In one of your interviews, you stated, “We, as a society, don’t support mothers well…each time a woman has a child, it’s a crisis for her work life.” So true. What do you think will have to happen before we really change this?
JB: Women will have to be at least fifty percent of our elected representatives. That’s the only way the so-called women’s issues that profoundly affect everyone alive will become central and get serious investment. The only countries where things are improving for women have this parity in their elected representatives. Iceland, for instance, with about half its elected representatives being women now, just made it not only illegal but punishable to pay a woman less than a man for the same work. A decade ago, a law was passed saying this could no longer go on, but it still did. So a cost was added. Iceland’s women have made huge strides in the past fifty years by protesting together and by getting into elected office in large numbers. Let’s hope this trend continues and grows in the United States with each election.
MG: Janet, thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to more of your writing.
Janet Benton began writing early and has worked hard to give books a central place in her life. Her debut novel, LILLI DE JONG, is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to try to keep her baby. It was one of LIBRARY JOURNAL’s and NPR’s Best Books 2017 and a semifinalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards and has received many additional honors. It is available in paperback, hardcover, audio book, e-book, and large print editions. Janet’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She holds an M.F.A. from the Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst and a B. A. in religious studies from Oberlin College. Janet has worked hard to give books a central place in her life. Her family history has made her highly aware of the power of the mother-infant bond and of the need to stand up for outcasts. After working at magazines, newspapers, and publishers and teaching writing at four universities, she began The Word Studio (www.thewordstudio.us) to offer workshops and mentoring to writers. She loves to interact with readers by Skype, online, and in person. Feel free to get in touch via the Contact tab on this site.