“Lilli De Jong” by Janet Benton is a novel that gives voice to the circumstances of unwed mothers in late 19th-century Philadelphia.
Pregnant, abandoned by her fiancé, forbidden to stay in her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli enters The Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants because she is promised a reputable adoption and a fresh start.
Once sheltered by the Quaker community, she can no longer associate with respectable society, including her own family. Because Lilli dares to keep her daughter, Charlotte, she must constantly choose between her principles and necessities.
The story is told through Lilli’s journals and offers a distressing view of motherhood, independence, faith, and class at a time when even very affluent women had little control over their lives.
The author convincingly writes about the experience of new motherhood – the sudden responsibility, and the intense love. In noting the most minute details based on meticulous research, the author gives the reader a clear picture of the demands placed on the women of Lilli’s time. The novel is also relevant to today’s cultural conversations about female sexuality and women’s rights.
In her debut novel the author Janet Benton writes, “The difficult work of mothers has long been drastically under-recognized. I wanted to tell a story in which women’s strength was crucial to the world’s surviving and thriving – as it truly is and always has been.”