‘Lilli de Jong: A Novel,’ by Janet Benton

For Mother's Day, a mother's tale

I usually avoid current historical novels. However, sometimes a book reminds me that history is an important lens through which to view the present. Lilli de Jong: A Novel by Janet Benton, a long-time Philadelphian, is such a novel.

Author Janet Benton. (Photo by Steve Ladner)

Single night, single mother

The title character, a Quaker raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, is a “respectable” young woman with a keen mind and a fondness for writing the diary entries that tell her story. Despite beginning life with many advantages – education, a stable family -- we meet Lilli shortly after her circumstances start to unravel. In short succession, her mother dies, her father takes a new lover who dislikes her, the illicit affair causes her family to be shunned by their congregation, and her fiancé, Johann, and brother, Peter, move to Pittsburgh to pursue their fortunes. A single night of passion with Johann shortly before his departure hastens the downward spiral.

Lilli tries to follow the advice given to her by the authorities at the home for unwed mothers where she is fortunate enough to give birth, but she can't bear to part with her beloved infant, Charlotte. This decision proves extraordinarily costly.

In the late 19th century, the only single mothers who received sympathy were widows, whose late husbands' families were expected to care for them. Benton's book makes it abundantly clear why an unmarried woman of that era who became pregnant, whether by force or consent, might decide to save herself from misery by getting an abortion or placing her infant for adoption, the latter practically guaranteeing the child a life of servitude or an early death.

It was almost impossible for any woman in Lilli's predicament to make a living wage, never mind taking care of her child at the same time. Benton portrays in heartbreaking detail the many ways Victorian society conspired against women in general and unwed mothers in particular, cloaking self-righteous inhumanity in religious observance. The author also makes the point that men faced no such censure, being free then, as now, to walk away from the consequences of their sexual passion.

Power and powerlessness

Janet Benton writes beautifully, vividly describing the pleasures and drudgery of late-19th-century life, and the deepest, wildest human emotions. I particularly enjoyed Lilli's philosophical side: She ponders not just gender roles, but also religion, ethics (she discovers John Stuart Mill in a wealthy employer’s library), and expediency, the latter, especially, when she is forced to decide how much of the Quaker conduct she learned from her beloved mother she must discard in order to survive.

Janet Benton's debut novel. (Photo courtesy of Nan A. Talese)
Janet Benton's debut novel. (Photo courtesy of Nan A. Talese)

Benton has a degree in religious studies, and it shows. To a longtime Bible student like me, Benton’s questions and analysis show a respect for Christians that is often lacking in current literature, while questioning the areas that can be problematic.

The theme of female powerlessness runs through the book. All its women are trapped, regardless of class or education, and even Lilli's relatively freethinking male employer can't understand the problem. Still, Benton never takes a simplistic view. Motherhood can be a woman’s most restrictive choice, but the fierce love of a mother for her child occupies the novel's core. Benton adds a lengthy endnote explaining that the idea for her novel was born shortly after her daughter. Having experienced the many ways an infant can inspire both love and exasperation, I appreciated her realistic depictions of day-to-day challenges, from leaking breast milk to the bliss of a baby's toothless grin.

My one small complaint concerns coincidences. Sometimes the light at the end of Lilli's tunnel turns out to be an approaching train. However, she and Charlotte are incredibly lucky -- perhaps too lucky. Of course, it's a very rare person who has never experienced good luck (or divine mercy, if that is your belief system). That said, while Lilli enjoys moments of respite, there is nothing light about this book.

Lilli de Jong takes its readers on a journey that remains disturbingly relevant: The idea of the unworthy poor is ever with us, and self-righteous judgments of women's sexuality abound, while both gender equality and affordable, high-quality childcare remain pipe dreams. Whether or not such things interest you, this is a worthwhile book. Lilli is a compelling, memorable heroine whose very human reactions to adversity make her growth and determination all the more inspiring. The Mother's Day release is appropriate, but you don't have to be anybody's mother to find this book illuminating.

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