Where Do Novels Come From? The Origins of Lilli de Jong
I was a professional writer and editor with too little time for the work I love most—writing fiction. Then I had my only baby. For months, nursing around the clock was my main pursuit. I was changed in every way by my love for this beautiful infant who needed me to survive.
In that foggy time, my husband showed me a review of The History of the European Family. I learned that so-called illegitimate births were extremely common—in some places and times, up to fifty percent. Extreme prejudice led to extreme actions, including, in some places, the imprisonment of pregnant women and their forced separation from their newborns.
The price paid by most infants born to an unwed girl or woman was separation from their mothers and death.
I was haunted by the sadness these mothers must have endured for the rest of their lives, and horrified by the fates of the infants, unable to survive without a mother’s milk. Cow’s milk, before pasteurization, refrigeration, safety regulations, and so on, was laden with diseases and highly unsafe—and no other adequate substitute had been developed. In foundling hospitals in Europe and America, the vast majority of infants died.
My novel, Lilli de Jong, began when the words of a young, unwed mother in 1883 Philadelphia began speaking in my head. Abandoned by her lover, Lilli gives birth at a charity for unwed mothers. She decides—against all advice—to keep her baby daughter, Charlotte. But the only job she can find is that of a wet nurse to a wealthy family’s newborn. To take this relatively well-paying job, she has to pay for Charlotte to board with a poor woman nursing multiple infants.
Can she save up enough to lease a sewing machine and rent a room, so she can reclaim her baby? Will her baby survive with so little milk and care till then? What will be the relationship between the two mothers—the wealthy one who didn’t want to nurse her newborn, and the social pariah she hired to do so? And hey, how did Victorians make toast? I had a thousand questions, from big to little. And I had to fit the research and writing into a life crammed with motherhood and paying work.
This was difficult, but the novel contains more layers of understanding and is more accurate as a result of all the years it took. I live near the novel’s settings, so I visited historical societies, museums, sites, and neighborhoods, attended lectures and events, spoke with experts, and examined documents from institutions, such as the charity for unwed mothers where a pregnant Lilli, banished from home, finds refuge.
The story of Lilli and Charlotte and those they meet has great relevance today. Like the frightening vision of the future offered in The Handmaid’s Tale, to which Lilli de Jong has been compared, the novel is a cautionary look at the results of the prejudice, inequality, and lack of assistance that women continue to face. Lilli is an inspiring heroine, a young mother who struggles and prevails.
The bond between mothers and infants is too often threatened, even today, by wage inequality, a lack of societal support, and other barriers. Readers say that reading Lilli de Jong brings this situation close to their hearts and that it has permanently changed the way they see the world. Knowing this makes all my years of work worthwhile.