It’s 1883 in Philadelphia and you are a 23-year-old pregnant woman, turned away by your family, shunned from your community and abandoned by your fiance.
Where do you go?
At that time, there weren’t many places to go. Attitudes toward single mothers were quite prejudiced, as Janet Benton learned in doing research for her debut novel, Lilli de Jong (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).
The story follows Lilli, a young woman left pregnant by a fiance who leaves her behind, forced to leave her Quaker home and enter the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants, a fictional place that took in unwed mothers to give them a safe place to give birth based on the real State Hospital for Women and Infants in Philadelphia.
When the time comes for Lilli to give up her infant daughter to an adoption agency, as most women in the facility did, Lilli decides to keep her.
The book is an exploration of motherhood — a topic that Benton has grown increasingly passionate about, especially since giving birth to her own daughter.
She and her own mother are very close, she noted, and part of that has to do with her childhood. A sister died the night before Benton was born from Tay-Sachs disease.
“My parents had to decide to risk another loss in order to have me,” recalled Benton, who will speak at the Free Library on June 5, “so I was born into joy and grief and … [the] possibility of losing a baby is very powerful for me and that is one of the threads that runs through Lilli de Jong — will she manage to keep her baby? Will the baby stay alive? And also it was the closeness of my mother helping me understand the intensity of the bond between a mother and a child and how vital that is.”
Around the time she had her daughter, her husband gave her a review from The New Yorker of a series of books called The History of the European Family and in it, there was a section about how single mothers tried to get rid of their babies due to social conditions.
“Women who committed infanticide in the 19th century ‘were generally young, single domestic servants … alone and lacking family support, filled with shame, afraid to dishonor themselves and their families, and abandoned by their lovers,’” the article noted.
“I was used to the idea that something like a disease could make your child die,” Benton said, “but the fact that social prejudice that is obviously so unjust against only a woman, not a man, when she becomes pregnant without being married … could lead to the death of millions of infants in human history blew me away, and I started hearing this voice of a young woman in my head describing her circumstances and that’s when the novel was born.”
She began researching the novel 14 years ago — Lilli was published May 16 — finding materials online and in the archives of various institutions, including Pennsylvania Hospital, which held records of “lying-in” institutions that took in women ready to give birth. One such place was the State Hospital for Women and Infants, the model for where Lilli goes.
At one point, the State Hospital had to close for cleaning and when the doctors tried to find temporary shelter for its 12 pregnant occupants, the women were turned away.
“They checked with every hospital in the city and none would admit these women because what they said was no respectable woman would ever come here if these women were within our walls,” Benton said. “This belief that immorality was like this liquid that could ooze out of one person and into another and that these women were really irredeemable. They were seen as a tremendous threat.”
There are some parallels of the novel to today, as women’s health care remains in headlines amid the threat of closing facilities such as Planned Parenthood and as the fight for equal pay is ongoing.
“There’s no question that our status is considerably better than it was in 1883,” Benton said, “but … one area that really sticks out in desperately needing reform is the care of infants and support for the relationship that are the foundation of every human’s life.”
The novel is also a nod to her own family. Lilli and her daughter receive help from a fishmonger named Vera Bernstein — a character that represents Benton’s family.
A great-uncle named John Bernstein was a founder of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1901. His brother and sister-in-law, James and Anna Bernstein, led the agency’s efforts overseas during Nazi occupation in Europe, saving tens of thousands of Jews. Her grandmother was president of HIAS’ women’s division in the 1960s.
At one point, immediate and extended family changed their last name from Bernstein to Benton to increase their chances of getting into law or medical school as very few Jews were accepted.
Vera Bernstein represents her family’s history with HIAS and their Jewish values of compassion and caring for the stranger.
“I put her in there really thinking it would be a private piece of knowledge, but here I am telling everyone,” Benton said with a laugh, “that this woman, Vera Bernstein, represents my family. In the novel, she’s a ray of hope who treats my character with love.”
She noted that Israel recently became the first country to buy foreign rights to the book, which she joked may have been because they could tell she’s a Jewish mother.
“As much as I tried to create a Quaker, I suspect that emotionally, [Lilli’s] bond with her infant is modeled on my own with my mother and my own with my daughter, and there are certain types of emotion that seem somewhat culturally-based … Here I am, a Jewish mother writing about a Quaker, but they could tell I was a Jewish mother,” she laughed.
The reader is taken along on Lilli’s journey through entries in a series of notebooks that Lilli keeps from her time at the Haven and on.
“I really like getting inside characters’ minds and that’s what I find most interesting about reading,” said Benton, who added she has maybe 200 diaries of her own in trunks in her office, “and so for me, the diary novel offers a chance to really put the reader right up against the experience of the character.”
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