The Foundling by Stacey Halls


The idea of a book about a child left at the London Foundling Hospital, which took in thousands of babies between 1741 and 1951 and was one of the most popular charities in Georgian England, was fascinating; and I did enjoy reading it.  However, much as I’d love to say that it was brilliant, especially as it’s by a local and relatively new author, there were holes which you could have driven a double decker bus through in practically every aspect of the plot.  The characters were well-drawn, and the descriptions of Georgian London worked well, but the detail of the plot was just ridiculously improbable.  It was a shame, because the general idea, the basic plot, really was good.

The Hospital was so popular that far more women wanted to leave babies there than there was capacity for, so a lottery system was operated.  If a baby was accepted, the person leaving him/her was given a number, and could leave a token to be attached to the baby’s records, and could them reclaim them if their circumstances changed.  Otherwise, boys would be trained for apprenticeships and girls for domestic service, and the hospital governors really do seem to have done their best for them.

In this book, in the mid-1740s, an young East End woman called Bess, a shrimp seller, had become pregnant after a one night stand with a merchant called Daniel, whom she’d only met once before.  She’d then heard that Daniel had died.  She left her baby daughter at the Hospital, and returned six years later to reclaim her, only to be told that the child had been reclaimed the day after she’d been left, by a woman giving Bess’s name.

Bess found out (through a series of highly improbable events) that the woman was Daniel’s widow, Alexandra, who lived in seclusion.  I initially assumed that this was because she was frightened of going out in case people realised that the child wasn’t hers, but it turned out that she was agoraphobic because her parents had been murdered by highwaymen in front of her, and that she’d married Daniel after meeting him for two minutes whilst he was at her aunt’s house and offering him her dowry.  Bess then (through another series of highly improbable events) got a job as the child’s nursemaid … then ran off with her.  And it kind of all worked out OK for everyone in the end.

Well … as I said, the characters were well-drawn, the descriptions were good, and the basic idea of the plot, the poor woman forced to leave her child and the wealthy woman who lived in seclusion (although the highwaymen thing was a bit melodramatic) was great.  Both Bess and Alexandra were convincingly written, as were a host of minor characters, and the descriptions of the different parts of London really were good.  The scene where Bess left the baby was fascinating, especially when you think how many real women actually went through that sad procedure.

But … the detail of the plot was just ridiculous, and it came across as being very amateurish.  How did Alexandra know about the baby?  Her sister had just happened to be in the pub where Daniel and Bess had met for the second time, and had seen them go off together. As if a well-to-do upper-middle-class Georgian woman would have been in a seedy pub.  And, of all the pubs in all the world, the same one as Daniel and Bess, on one of the only two occasions on which they’d met,  When Bess had arrived at the Foundling Hospital, this sister had just happened to be there too (for reasons that weren’t even explained – it was a popular charity at the time, but there was no mention given of her being a patron, or having any other reason to be there), had recognised her from one brief glance nine months earlier, had followed her home, without Bess or anyone else wondering why a posh carriage was rolling through a poor area of the East End, had asked an apparently unsuspicious neighbour her name, and had then told Alexandra.

Then, instead of coming up with some plausible story about a widowed cousin who’d died in childbirth, Alexandra had sent her servants out on errands, and then told them that, in the hour or so that they’d been out, and having shown absolutely no signs of pregnancy, she’d given birth.

The entire book was like this.  I could go on and on, but I don’t want to sound as if I’m pulling it to pieces, because, as I said, I did enjoy it, and it is by a new and local author; but nearly everything that happened was completely implausible.  A few tweaks, and it would have been fine.  Claiming that the baby was a relative’s orphaned child.  Saying that one of Daniel’s drinking buddies had seen him with Bess, and had then seen her again and realised that she was pregnant.

And point taken about trying to be multicultural, and some good points were made about Bess’s best friend, who was black, worrying that her children would be kidnapped because of the fashion for having little black boys as pages.  However, Jews in London in the 1750s would not have been speaking Yiddish, it’s highly unlikely that there’d have been any Serbs in London in the 1750s and, if there had been, they wouldn’t have had Ukrainian surnames, and Anglican church congregations are not generally predominantly Spanish and Irish.  That really was poor.

Great idea.  Poor execution.  It was just all so implausible – when it could so easily have been so good.  I feel bad for saying that, but it was hard to take it seriously when everything that happened was so unlikely.  And it could so easily have been so good.