This was such a cover read. Those swirling blues and the despondent silhouette in an old fashioned dress was 100% the reason I picked up this book. The reason I stuck with it was because it’s the first historical fiction I’ve read that really draws me into the time period, makes me care for the characters and encompasses a curious unsolved mysterious.
Six years ago Bess Bright gives her new born baby, mere hours old, to the Foundling hospital in London, Bess unmarried and unable to care for a child. When she returns for her child after years of hard work with her pitiful savings, ready to claim the daughter that has haunted her ever since, she finds her missing, supposedly claimed by Bess mere days after being admitted to the hospital. Desperation sets in as Bess sets out to find the impersonating that has stolen her daughter.
I absolutely love seeing London’s past. You can wonder those cramped little cobbled streets, pass houses that now cost a fortune but were once Victorian slums, see brick buildings adorned with masonry and plaques that so clearly show a hidden past and get a really sense that millions of people have been there before and seen a very different view and had a very different story, and I want to know them all. Hearing the descriptions of 1700s London was my favourite aspect of The Foundling, seeing the modest town houses and carriages, hearing about the pub with the elephant in, Bess’s flat and Billingsgate fish market. The setting was perfectly done laying out the history plainly yet creatively to the reader, so vividly described that you could picture it perfectly.
The audiobook, too, really brought the past to life. From Bess’s cockney London accent to Alexandra’s slow and posh drawl, seamlessly changing between the two narrators as the story is told, really brings the plot to life. It’s immersive, creative and captivating, really setting the stage and stunning the reader.
Bess’s character is the backbone of The Foundling. Her desperation to get her daughter back, the strong friendship she forms with Kezia and the love she has for her family make her chapters poignant and powerful. This graceful main character leads the reader through large swathes of the story, the theme of found family strongly portrayed through her narrative.
Alexandra Callard, a reclusive widow with a fear of London and the dangers it presents, was an unusual character explored under Hall’s careful words. From childhood trauma to the sudden death of her husband Alexandra clearly struggles to cope, refusing to open her house up to more than a handful of servants and imprisoning her daughter for fear of any harm. This nervous character was difficult to relate to, her strange life style and detached emotions making her hard for me as a reader to connect to. However, Alexandra’s character grew on me throughout the novel and her strange way of life made her character arc and growth all the more powerful as the novel draws to a close.
At times the pacing felt difficult, the long descriptions of Alexandra’s strange life and the days the reader lives in her townhouse felt dull and often made me wonder if the novel was going to pick up at all. Overally I understood why a large chunk of the novel took place inside Alexandra’s house where we see the character development taking place between Charlotte and her nursemaid and follow Alexandra’s insecurities towards her own parenting ability but these chapters felt slow compared to the bustle of the streets of London and the fish markets.
Although the plot does lag for a few chapters, as detailed above, The Foundling still presents an exciting and well executed premise that I felt was overall worth reading. I found the plot unique, with a satisfying conclusion, the characters well written, realistic and fleshed out.
The Foundling presents strong women in an artful way. Rather than the brash young woman who is angry at the world and system for never considering her an equal that are too common in historical fiction novels The Foundling is much more subtle. In small ways, such as Alexandra’s life as a widower, having refused to remarry and remaining a property owner secure in her income and strong in her will and mind and Bess who is again unmarried and the bread winner of her family, bringing in income and never pondering on what she could have. The entire novels centres around women, their friendships, relationships and family that really brings to life the strong characters of the time without bordering on the impossible.
Overall The Foundling is a well written historical fiction that encompasses a unique plot and shows an exiting piece of history I hadn’t explored through literature before. With themes of found family and well developed character arcs the novel is a heart warming read.