MAY 18, 2017
A STREET PREACHER calls out to the homeless and destitute, “For the innocent do not suffer! God only torments the wicked!” An exhausted, hungry Lilli turns away from him, her newborn infant wrapped to her chest. Lilli de Jong, Janet Benton’s debut novel, is written as a series of journal entries, in which the title character details her struggles, hopeful for an audience kinder than the preacher and 1883 Philadelphia society. “Who is thee, my ready friend, whom I entrust all my secrets? Why do I sense an understanding heart, when thee is no more than paper?” As her readers, we are privy to the awful truths about her life. We question who is deserving of charity, forgiveness, and second chances, and whether in the 21st century, we are any more openhearted than the preacher.
Lilli, a 22-year-old pregnant Quaker woman, is abandoned by her fiancé Johan, who was to send for her once he was settled in Pittsburgh. Educated to be a teacher, she lies to her father, telling him she has found a job downtown as a governess, and leaves with a suitcase containing her clothes and a few items she inherited from her mother.
She is fortunate to get into the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants, because there is no other place, as Superintendent Anne Peirce tells the inmates, “that will admit a parturient woman who isn’t married — besides the city hospital at Blockley, which houses the most contagious diseases and people far rougher than us, and often discharges them in coffins.”
Her plan is to give the child up for adoption shortly after birth and return to her former life without anyone knowing her secret. “I’ll be me again, returned to the place that formed me.”
At the Haven, Lilli begins to understand the plight of these impoverished women, now that she is among them, having never before imagined herself outside of her small Germantown Quaker community, having never imagined herself unwed and pregnant. Society would have her believe that these women, as a result of their own sinful acts, have brought suffering upon themselves. After all, she did have consensual sex with a man who was not her husband. Instead, she learns that she is in the minority. Most were raped by employers or family members. It is the victims, who are held accountable for their fate with no financial support from the fathers, who refuse to acknowledge their crimes or offspring. The shame is the woman’s to bear, and Lilli asks, “How is it that shame affixes itself to the violated, and not to the violator?”
In detailing the suffering of these women, Benton reminds us that they don’t exist in just the past. Unfortunately, this mindset continues today. Victims are blamed for their situations. There was more than one woman at the Women’s March carrying a sign reading: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Unwanted pregnancies, sexual health, and ob/gyn care are treated as moral issues rather than medical ones. These are still considered a women’s issue, rather than an issue for both women and men. As if women don’t give birth to male infants; as if a mother’s health isn’t the foundation of a family. After all, no woman is getting herself or any other woman pregnant.
Lilli, like many of us, doesn’t understand the situation until she finds herself in it. She can’t empathize until she is there. She recalls her mother Helen’s charity work. “Regardless of my sympathy for the families she’d assisted and for the others I’d seen suffering, in some dim recess of my brain, I must have believed they’d wasted money, or failed to work hard, or otherwise exercised poor judgment and — I dread to say — brought on their plights.”
Before Lilli gives birth, the superintendent advises her not to become attached to the baby: “It’s best to consider the baby like a tooth that must be extracted […] An infected tooth you’re better off without.” This is clearly the best option for all the women at the Haven.
After her daughter Charlotte is born, Lilli aches from childbirth and nursing proves incredibly painful: “She sucks beyond endurance.” Benton captures the early days of motherhood well, the sensation that at every moment the mother’s entire body is no longer hers. The sleepless days and nights ruled by the needs of the baby’s constant nursing and changing. Lilli decides she is ready to give up her daughter before the mandated deadline.
But when the woman from the adoption agency arrives, Lilli can’t do it. Most adopted infants are taken in by families and raised as free labor. Others are sent to the Asylum, where they will perish within weeks from malnutrition, never having an opportunity to be adopted. When she decides to keep the baby, it is a decision much to her own detriment and the beginning of a struggle to survive. Somehow Lilli feels that she can make this work. This is the tension of the novel — Lilli’s belief that she will not suffer the fate of others, that she is somehow immune.
Because she is an unwed mother, she cannot use her mind to support herself. All her abilities are made null with her decision to keep her child. She must use her body. The Haven finds her employment as a wet nurse for baby Henry, son of Albert and Clementina Burnham, who live in the wealthy Rittenhouse neighborhood. The mother doesn’t “intend to be anyone’s cow” and has as much interest in motherhood as Madame Bovary.
In order to take this job, Lilli must send Charlotte to a woman she has never met — a stranger who cares for multiple newborns at the same time. The Haven will take the baby. To make a living to keep her baby, she must nurse another’s child and pay for someone to nurse her own.
Benton doesn’t shy away from the act of nursing, even if Lilli does at first upon seeing one of her friends at the Haven nursing: “I cleared my throat, embarrassed to see her naked breast. Then I scolded myself for prudery. For what could be more natural than an infant taking nourishment from its mother?”
Nursing is central to the plot, as without it, people would die. Lilli’s milk is the key to Charlotte’s survival, Henry’s survival, and key to her earning a living. Breastfeeding is essential to the survival of infants, as there are no safe alternatives to keep a child alive. There is no pasteurized animal milk, soy product, or formula to help an infant thrive. It is her ability to nurse that provides much of the drama in Lilli de Jong.
Is Benton’s writing about breastfeeding a political act? Probably. When legislation needs to be enacted to protect a woman’s right to feed her child in a public space. When the Pope has to come out and say that it is acceptable for a mother to nurse her child in church. What could be more natural, indeed? It would seem 21st-century society gets queasy or worse, indignant, at the thought of breastfeeding. Although this reader must admit, Benton may have pushed it a little too far with this metaphor when Lilli learns of someone’s fate: “‘So the will was sucked out of thee.’ I saw a strange picture. ‘By life’s giant mouth!’”
In Lilli, Benton gives us an educated, intelligent, compassionate woman. She is not a victim of rape or incest as many of the women and girls at the Haven are. Nor was she coerced into sex. Her conscience, her own free will is what got her into the situation in the first place, and she is unapologetic about willingly giving herself:
And I bathed in memories of my hour’s intimacy with Johan. I walked about the house and yard and did my marketing in a haze, as if lit from inside by that awakening. It was a glorious Sixth Month, and my excitement blossomed along with the flowers. I relished the baby birds and animals bobbling about, the vegetables and fruits burgeoning in our back plot of green, the leafing of the trees. All around me lay proof of the gorgeousness that arises from the interplay of male and female parts.
While her love and devotion transfers from Johan to newborn Charlotte, she is unprepared for the future she has chosen. “While at the Haven, I’d believed I could live as my conscience dictated, without inviting suffering and endangering my daughter’s life and mine. Why had I believed this?”
At each turn, Lilli considers her actions and their morality. In fact, she has a moment in the Haven’s chapel during a visiting minister’s sermon in which he tells them that they will be better people having sinned. They can go forward in life, leaving this behind them to become happy pious people. Lilli believes the opposite, “But the moment I let go of Charlotte and pretend she never existed, my life of sin begins.”
Benton creates suspense throughout the novel as Lilli’s situation gets worse and worse and we worry if either of them will survive. At the Burnham’s house, Lilli becomes very sick with a high fever when she suffers a clogged milk duct. Her first visit to Charlotte at the wet nurse Gerda’s home is delayed. By the time she reaches her baby, Charlotte has lost much weight and is ill, as well. Turns out, Gerda lives in Drunkards’ Alley. Lilli’s baby is in a crate, tied down, next to two other infants whom Lilli must leave.
And that’s just the beginning of their struggle to survive. There is much to worry about. Will she suffer the fates of other women? Homelessness, hunger, disease? Will she resort to prostitution or be thrown in the almshouse or workhouse? What happened to Johan? Why did he abandon her? Was Lilli wrong to believe she could care for her child?
We root for our heroine knowing society isn’t in her favor. Lilli de Jong is meticulously researched. Benton details the day-to-day lives of the pious in Germantown, the wealthy of Rittenhouse, and the homeless in Broad Street Station. There’s more information if interested; she provides a generous author’s note with topics on everything from “common talk” to infant mortality rates at the Asylum.
While employed at the Burnham household, Lilli insists she will be able to make it without support from Johan and the cook says:
“How can you make it alone with a bastard? Do you want to end up a strumpet?”
“Of course not.” I stared at her, aghast. “That won’t happen to me.”
She rolled her eyes skyward again. “So why does it happen to so many like you — because they love to be poked by drunken strangers?”
I blushed. “I’d guess not.”
“Something bad happened,” she said, “and no one gave them a second chance.”
The reader keeps reading, hoping Lilli is right to believe in her ability to be a good mother and that somehow she will get that second chance.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her work has appeared in Watershed Review, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, and the Philadelphia City Paper, among others.