Six years after leaving her illegitimate daughter Clara at London’s Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the child she has never known. Dreading the worst – that Clara has died in care – the last thing she expects to hear is that her daughter has already been reclaimed – by her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl – and why.
Less than a mile from Bess’ lodgings in the city, in a quiet, gloomy townhouse on the edge of London, a young widow has not left the house in a decade. When her close friend – an ambitious young doctor at the Foundling Hospital – persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart.
The Foundling is the second novel written by Stacey Halls whose previous book The Familiars was one of my favourite books last year. However, I didn’t find this book quite as absorbing as the first one, mainly because it relies too much on coincidence to be credible.
Bess, an unmarried mother, is forced to leave her newborn daughter at a Foundling Hospital but is determined she will return one day to reclaim her. Bess works hard for the next six years to earn enough money to return to the hospital, however she is astounded to learn her daughter was claimed the day after she was placed into care and it is Bess’ name that appears on the paperwork. Bess’ plight comes to the attention of a young doctor who is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery but Bess is astonished when she posts him at church with a woman and a young girl. Bess is adamant the little girl is her daughter and is even more shocked when she learns the woman, Alexandra Callard, is the widow of the man who fathered the child.
Bess manages to secure herself a position as nursemaid in the Callard household and begins to bond with her daughter who is now called Charlotte. However, Bess is also dismayed by the sheltered life her daughter is forced to live as Alexandra will not let the child outside other than for their weekly church visits. Alexandra, haunted by an event in her childhood which led to the death of her parents, keeps the household locked up tight for their own safety and barely tolerates newcomers. Alexandra seems incapable of showing Charlotte any kind of love and Bess becomes even more determined to get her daughter away from the emotionally crippling household.
When the opportunity does present itself, Bess flees into the night with Charlotte and takes her back to her childhood home where she has to hide the child from nosy neighbours and her addict brother. Bess is helped by Lyle, a link-boy who teaches her how to stay one step ahead of the law when it is obvious they are on to her, however betrayal lies far closer to home.
The narration is shared between Bess and Alexandra so the contrast in their lives is stark as Bess has known nothing but poverty while Alexandra comes from a far more privileged background. I felt my sympathies drawn more to Bess as she coped with the pain of losing her child and her determination to reclaim her was admirable. However, once Bess found a way into the Callard household, my sympathies began to dwindle after she took Charlotte away from her mother. Bess seems to have given no thought to what kind of life she would be able to provide Charlotte who is far more used to living in the lap of luxury. Charlotte is initially quite traumatised by the change in her circumstances and it made me feel like Bess was in the wrong.
Alexandra is a harder character to like, mainly because she is so emotionally distant, but her behaviour is more understandable when we learn how her parents were murdered and the toll it has taken on her. Alexandra does become more likeable as the story progresses as she is the one who is called on to make the biggest sacrifice for the sake of the child, however the resolution is just not satisfying.
Despite my reservations about the plot and characterisation, I can’t fault the setting in the Georgian era and it is obvious copious amounts of research have been undertaken to bring the era to life.