‘The difficult work of mothers’

  • “Lilli de Jong” is the debut novel by former UMass Amherst MFA student Janet Benton. —

  • Janet Benton, who lived in the Valley from 1989 to 1997, attended the UMass Amherst MFA program in creative writing. She also taught at UMass and held a number of editorial positions in the region. At right, the cover of her novel. Steve Ladner

  • Third and Chestnut streets, Philadelphia, in the 1880s. Benton used this image to help create a scene in her novel. — Image from Free Library of Philadelphia

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2017

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Sanger all made their mark as early American feminists, whether fighting for voting rights, birth control, an end to slavery or better opportunities in general for women.

Had she been real, Lilli de Jong would have been a kindred spirit. But even as a fictional character, Lilli has some feminist bonafides.

As the narrator of Janet Benton’s eponymous novel, Lilli tells a story that’s both an indictment of the prejudices and limitations women faced in the 19th century, as well as a saga of an unwed mother’s determination to keep and protect her baby, regardless of how society might view her.

“Lilli de Jong,” Benton’s debut novel, has earned some excellent reviews since its release last month — it was an Amazon pick of the month in May for new fiction — in part for how the story sheds light on women’s equality today. The book’s straightforward, first-person narrative has also drawn some comparisons to the work of historical novelist Geraldine Brooks, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.

Benton, a Connecticut native now living in Philadelphia, earned an MFA in 1992 in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she studied under novelists John Edgar Wideman and Valerie Martin. From the late 1980s to mid 1990s, she also held a number of editorial positions in the Valley; she was an editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, and she taught writing at UMass.

Now a writing coach, essayist and documentary screenwriter, Benton first began thinking of her novel after her daughter, Dariel, was born in 2003. In a recent phone interview, she said the experience of nursing and then raising her young daughter led her to investigate family life in Europe and the U.S. in earlier centuries.

“From there I began looking at the history of Philadelphia and what women experienced in the 19th century,” she said. “I’m a pretty fanatical researcher and writer, and I relied on a lot of different sources.”

Those included Jacob Riis’s landmark 1890 book, “How the Other Half Lives,” an early photojournalism study of New York City slums, as well as 19th-century diaries by women, a study of wet nursing, historical records from Philadelphia, and 19th-century novels such as “The Scarlet Letter.”

Though she had a basic understanding of how little independence women had during that era, Benton said her research opened her eyes to society’s horrible treatment of single mothers.

“It’s hard to fathom the level of hatred that was directed at unwed mothers at this time,” she said. “They were really seen as less redeemable than murderers.”

Lilli’s story

Set in Philadelphia in the early 1880s, the novel is told through Lilli’s diary entries, which look back on both recent and more distant events. The story opens with Lilli in a charity ward for unwed mothers, who are cared for through the latter stages of their pregnancies with the understanding they’ll give up their babies for adoption.

From there, Benton unfolds the sad narrative that has led 22-year-old Lilli to this place. A onetime teacher in a Quaker School, she had lost her job when her father, a furniture maker mourning the death of his wife, began drinking and then married a non-Quaker woman; that led the Quakers to cast him and his family from the community.

Lilli’s one solace had been the love that Johan, her father’s apprentice, professed for her. When Johan asked her to marry him, Lilli agreed, and the two spent one indiscreet night together before he left for Pittsburgh to find better paying work in a steel mill; he had promised to have her join him as soon as he was settled.

Instead, Lilli soon found herself pregnant, and she didn’t hear from Johan again.

Her shrewish stepmother discovered her condition and threatened to tell her father, so Lilli left home, taking refuge in the “Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants,” where she signed papers to give up her baby.

But when she gives birth to a daughter — she names her Charlotte — Lilli decides, against everyone’s advice, to keep the girl. It’s here her real troubles begin, as she confronts a society that almost uniformly deems unwed mothers a disgrace and their children bastards.

Benton said she chose to make Lilli a Quaker to give her the resilience and self-respect to challenge that kind of stigma.

“The Quakers believed in equal education for men and women, and they also believed people had a direct connection to God by being open and willing and honest,” she added. “That kind of background and belief makes Lilli’s situation less self-mortifying and shameful to her.”

Lilli gets a job as a live-in wet nurse and servant for a rich couple with an infant son. The boy’s icy mother, Clementina, is angry about a number of things, and she quickly lets Lilli know her place: “Never let my son’s cries rise to a level that disturbs me… And do as our cook tells you; don’t seek me out. If I need you, I’ll send Margaret” (another servant).

Meanwhile, Lilli must give Charlotte over to Gina, one of the unwed mothers she had met in the charity home, to have her nurse her baby, as Clementina refuses to allow Lilli to keep Charlotte in her home.

All too soon, Lilli will face a series of crises as she tries to navigate her job: her guilt at not being able to attend daily to her daughter; her struggle to save money for some kind of independent future; and some other, unexpected events.

Hard living

Aside from enriching her novel with great period details — the tang of 1883 Philadelphia is a strange mix of coal smoke, animal dung and, in places, still-plentiful trees and plants — Benton is at her best in depicting the harshness of life in this era. She depicts a complete lack of a public safety net, the abject poverty of many people and the contempt the rich have for the poor.

The streets are full of beggars, including hordes of ragged children. “They are tough and persistent,” Lilli records, “following quick-moving targets with a repeated ‘Change for food?’ or ‘Black your boots, sir?’ … It affects me most to see their faces — anxious, cunning and preternaturally alert.”

In a world ruled by men, even affluent women like Clementina have little control over their lives. And many of the men in “Lilli de Jong” are not exactly knights in shining armor. Lilli’s father is a drunk; Clementina’s smug husband, Albert, looks to take advantage of Lilli’s powerlessness; the officials of a filthy city ward for abandoned children are sleezy extortionists; and even a man passing Lilli on the street feels free to sneer, “A harlot with a baby, eh?”

But women like Clementina don’t cut Lilli any slack, either. When she first learns Lilli is an unwed mother, Clementina snorts, “Our doctor must have been determined that at least your milk is pure.”

“It’s very much a time when the victim is blamed,” said Benton. “When you think about how women’s lives were restricted and controlled, it’s really about [male] ownership.”

In her diary entries, Lilli wrestles with her faith, wondering if God has abandoned her, and if telling a lie to save her baby is permissible. And if she and other unwed mothers are truly sinners in the eyes of God or society, she asks, “What of the men who put us into our condition? Who searches out their souls and makes them pay?”

Her late mother is a consistent presence, too, as Lilli tries to imagine what advice her mother might offer, and whether her mother would abide the lies Lilli sometimes has to tell to protect Charlotte.

But the story, for all its grief and turmoil — there’s a real page-turning element to the desperate steps Lilli must take to protect Charlotte — is also about the delight a mother finds in her newborn baby, most notably in the infant’s growing curiousity about the world around her.

Benton, who notes she was raised by a feminist mother, says she’s pleased with reviews that have praised “Lilli de Jong” for its strong storyline and historicity. But she hopes the book will also serve as a reminder of the steps still needed to make U.S. society genuinely equitable.

As she writes in an afterword to the novel: “The difficult work of mothers has long been drastically underrecognized. I wanted to tell a story in which a woman’s strength was crucial to the world’s surviving and thriving — as it truly is and always has been.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Janet Benton’s website is janetbentonauthor.com.