Lilli de Jong

Lilli de Jong

by Janet Benton


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A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.
Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family's home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. "So little is permissible for a woman," writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385541459
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 811,537
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

JANET BENTON’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. She has cowritten and edited historical documentaries for television. She holds a B.A. in religious studies from Oberlin College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and for decades she has taught writing and helped individuals and organizations craft their stories. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Lilli de Jong is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Notebook Three

Third Month 31

My baby was born two nights ago. Seven pounds, five ounces in weight, and twenty inches long.

I lived the agony, yet somehow I marvel and disbelieve that she came from inside of me!

How is it that every mother discovers this miracle, yet doesn’t proclaim it in the streets?

When the doctor said the head had crowned, I reached between my thighs, and my fingertips met a scalp. There was a hardness. On top of that was hair as soft as milkweed floss. I gave two more mighty pushes, and the whole body emerged.

A girl! A joy. Her breathing and color were deemed acceptable. Things were done to me and to her, as if at a shadowy distance, until she was placed upon my chest.

And there she thrummed, a singular human, giving off a vibration as familiar as my own.

I thought, I already know thee.

Of course! Because in me she came to life.

She squirmed to my nearest breast and opened her tiny mouth to claim its nipple. I saw then how her hair grows in a spiral beginning at the peak of her head, as if she rotated while forming. With her weight upon me, I let my fingers follow that path. I leaned my head forward to her scalp and inhaled, finding her smell— the intoxicating, slight smell of her scalp.

She seems so unformed and pliant, so thoroughly helpless, apart from her glossy eyes. These are fully opened and inquiring. Dr. Stevens has deemed her the most wakeful newborn she has ever seen. “Your baby stares,” she noted, “as if she could eat theworld with her eyes.” She said most babies shut out the world by sleeping.

Already, dear Charlotte, thee distinguishes thyself.

I’m calling her Charlotte, but her new family will give its own name.

There are nineteen days until we part.

She’ll never know: her father’s hair is also red.

• *

I never knew it was so draining to care for an infant. From seeing others tend them, I understood nothing of how urgent each action feels. And I didn’t know how such moments, stacked together, sap one’s strength, or what great weight the word tired can carry. I haven’t slept more than an hour continuously since— since: I can’t remember when.

At least I’ve worked out a way to write while she nurses. A pillow on my lap, this book upon it, and her body by its side. What a thrill, to do something other than stare at the plaster wall and count the clock’s ticking while she sucks!

She sucks and sucks. She sucks some more. My full milk hasn’t yet come in, but she has to suck or else she frets, then cries. My body feels her cry as if it were a bell ringing to announce a fire.

“Wakeful and watchful,” the doctor called her. To that I’ll add, in constant need of soothing. My nipples are split and scabbed. She sucks away the scabs each time she applies her grip, and new ones begin to form as soon as she detaches.

• *

Another small respite, with the baby drowsy at one breast and a notebook on my thigh.

I want to know: What is it that enables mothers to continue feeding, cleaning, holding, and pouring forth concern, throughout the days and nights, despite this drastic lack of sleep? I should be crippled by it— I am crippled by it— yet I go on.

It seems my every self-protecting limit has dissolved.

This baby has broken my will! The will that used to protect me above all, and some new one has grown in its place. This new will makes me serve her needs and has no mercy for me.

Bless Nancy. She strokes my forehead with her dry, wide palm when I grow discouraged.

We’re in the recovery room together, Nancy and Mabel, Charlotte and me. We’ll stay in this room until others require it. Anne considers it best to keep the mothers apart from the mothers- to-be, so our meals are brought to us. Mabel mostly sleeps, leaving Nancy with little to do, so she holds Charlotte now and then, and looks wistfully upon her, no doubt thinking of William.

Someone must hold Charlotte, or else she bawls and shakes her arms and legs; her face grows red and blotchy.

But I mustn’t blame her for always needing to be held. How startling this world must be! A vast stretch of unbounded air. How can she be expected to lie alone in such hugeness, when she is used to living in a dark womb that supplied her everything?

My problem is how deeply she affects me.

The doctor cut the fleshly cord that connected us, but an invisible one has taken its place. I begin to suspect that this one can be neither cut nor broken.

Fourth Month 1, First Day

My full milk came in last night.

Now Charlotte gulps, and milk trickles from the sides of her mouth. How marvelous: I am a mammal! Kin to the cats and cows that nursed in our neighbors’ barn, and to all the furry mothers of field and forest.

And Charlotte? Like any newborn mammal, she nurses furiously, gulping and gulping. On completion she emits a belch, with her belly grown as rotund as my breasts.

She looks at me now, with glittering eyes and slackened jaw. I look back, gratified.

There are new sensations to get used to. The sharp pain that shoots across is the milk rushing into the ducts, Dr. Stevens said. Then comes a tingling and a burning as the milk flows out, which she explained is also typical.

Apparently my dishevelment is beyond the typical. When Delphinia brings meals to Nancy and me, we trade pleasantries and recite the mealtime prayer of this place: “Lead us this day in right action, Lord, that we may become living proofs of Thy grace.” But this morning Delphinia could hardly speak for staring at me— at my hair unbrushed and falling from its combs, at the shoulders and front of my wrapper dotted with spit-up milk, at the clothing I’ve piled on willy- nilly to keep me warm.

“A mother should care for her appearance,” she instructed. Her silver hair was pinned back neatly, and her clothing, though softened by wear, was orderly.

“As if I wouldn’t care for my appearance,” I replied, “if this baby gave me the chance.” Though in truth I spend most of the precious minutes while Nancy holds Charlotte in writing, not primping.

Delphinia took pity. She brushed my hair, pinned it into a fresh bun, and refreshed my supply of clean clothing. Her ministrations brought on relieving sighs, and when Charlotte began to nurse again— her strong mouth pursing and pulling— my weariness had eased, and once more she seemed the dearest being on earth.

Her father was almost so dear to me.

I don’t think of him when she nurses, or when her legs travel the air like an upside- down chicken’s as I clean her bottom, or when I rinse her diapers in a tub or fold her laundered clothing or stare at the clock as she sucks and the hours crawl by. The orbs of her cheeks are nothing like his big, broad-cheeked face; her pert lips and urgent sounds resemble not his wide mouth and well-spoken sentences. I don’t think of him even when I stroke her red hair.

I think of him when she looks into my eyes and seems to say,Thee is my only love.

Her father loved me thusly. Or, I believed he did.

Fourth Month 3

The day is sunny and blustery. Wind whips pollen and tree blossoms into the window screens. Through the bars on the recovery room windows, I see the other girls hanging damp laundry on the clotheslines that run along one side of the building.

Mabel left yesterday, taken by an adoption agent to a family with several other orphans, leaving Nancy free. She went soon after to an intelligence office to apply for housemaid positions. But before Nancy stepped out the door for the first time in months, she fretted, for she would have to lie. She couldn’t tell honestly why she’d left her previous household or why she hadn’t asked that household for a letter of reference. She practiced telling me she was new to Philadelphia and had labored in homes far from here— but the fabrications tangled on her tongue.

She did return to the Haven with a new position, as the maid in a rooming house for women. Then she passed her last afternoon and night on the bed beside mine. Sometime before dawn, I woke to stifled cries and saw her face buried in the flannel that had covered William. Perhaps she was seeking whatever scent of him remained.

When she woke early this morning, she converted that blanket to a scarf. We had our breakfast, brought in by Delphinia. Then, sighing with anxiousness, Nancy dressed in the maid’s uniform she’d brought here, a black cotton gown with a white apron and cap rimmed in eyelet lace. She added cloths inside her corset and chemise to absorb the milk that would drip from her, since she’d no longer have a nursling to relieve her of it. Delphinia brought her a pretty hat and coat from the donations closet, which cheered Nancy.

In the foyer, we gathered to say goodbye— Delphinia, Gina, Charlotte, and me. Nancy flitted among us like an anxious bird, distributing her parting affections. We roommates shared no information that would allow us to find one another. As Anne has advised, we must pretend never to have been in this place. So the finality of our parting added to its sadness. With one last sigh, her green eyes flashing with wetness, Nancy moved her tall self out the door and down the marble steps and out of sight.

Her flannel scarf has set me thinking. I’d planned to feed mynotebooks to the kitchen stove before departing. But perhaps I won’t. In the privacy of night, in my narrow room in Germantown, I’ll want to recall my months here and the baby I left behind. These pages can serve as my scarf of words.

• *

Without Nancy and Mabel with me, I have more chance to think. I want to draft another letter to my baby.

1883. 4th mo. 3

Dearest Charlotte,

I find myself concerned as to thy proper upbringing.

Most of all, I want thee to be loved. After this, I want thee to honor the Light of God within thy mind and heart.

And then— dear one, before marrying, do guard against excessive passion— with the fierceness of a sheepdog protecting its flock from wolves. Thee may inherit a weakness. Please! Be intent on resisting.

Where does thee live, Charlotte? Has thee grown up within a caring fold? If only one day I could see thee.

I won’t even know thy name.

Never mind. I can’t possibly copy this and leave it for her.

Fourth Month 6

What a morning! My milk was blocked. Delphinia dipped cloths in hot water and applied them to my chest. The heat relaxed me, but no liquid came when Charlotte sucked. It seemed my milk had turned to paste. My baby cried and kicked, which caused me grief, which used up my last remaining strength— whatever stores I had squirreled away in my bones.

I lay Charlotte in a bassinet, a place she hadn’t tolerated before. At first she cried quietly, as though to assure herself that she wasn’t being weak by consenting to rest outside my arms. Finally the two of us slept, and my milk came loose, and I woke soaked to the waist. She drank from me in ecstasy.

There is something fierce and wild in her. Her legs and armsappear spindly and frail, yet she kicks and fixes her grip on my clothing and sucks with the power of an animal.

Without Nancy, I have no one to talk with and no one to hold Charlotte a little. An animal panic begins to overtake me at being in this room around the clock. A woman after labor must stay as still as possible, said Dr. Stevens. But soon, she said, she’ll let me take Charlotte outside.

Fourth Month 9

Charlotte is twelve days old. Delphinia wheeled us from the recovery room to the courtyard this morning, and I rose from the chair and walked a few circles around the stone path to invigorate my legs. Oh, how the outside air brightened and cleared my mind! As if I were a window wiped free of dirt. The tree branches were beginning to push out their dainty slips of green, and overhead, the early birds flitted about, carrying bits of dried plant matter for their nests. Then a breeze came on, and Charlotte smiled to feel the cool air move against her skin. This was her first time outside, her first smile! I told Delphinia, who claimed the smile was a sign ofindigestion.

For warmth I’d wrapped Charlotte in a blanket, but she wriggled free and waved her limbs. Delphinia laughed. “I’ve never seen the like! An infant who doesn’t like to be swaddled!"

But I understand. I, too, can’t bear to be confined. Not long ago, I thought nothing of the actions I could do on my own— prepare a meal, hold a conversation, buy goods at a market, explore shelves of books in the library, plan a lesson. Now it’s hard even to reach for my slippers or to raise a bite of food steadily to my mouth. For I must do every single thing with Charlotte in my arms.

How can one baby demand so much? To keep her resting and not wailing, I must lie fixed in place while she nurses or dozes, her mouth tight on me like a manacle— no matter if I’m hot or cold, at ease or pressed into an uncomfortable position, whether I have an urgent need to relieve myself or change clothes or function in some small way as I used to. Her weight makes my arms throb from the near-constant holding, day upon night upon day. My legs grow numb and begin to jerk, till at last I must move, let the numbness turn back to sensation, and all the while endure her cries.

And how those cries affect me! Until now, no matter how much I’ve cared for a person, with the exception of Mother in her dying hours, and despite how dreadful this sounds, I’ve found it easier to bear their suffering than my own. Not so with Charlotte. My shoulders, back, arms, and neck ache from holding her; my nipples are scabbed and sometimes bleeding; yet the most worn-out, painful part of me is my heart. It stretches so wide when she’s contented that I believe its fibers are tearing. When she suffers, it shrinks and throbs and hardens into a knot.

Never before have I even thought of my heart as the muscle it is. Never has mine seemed to expand and contract in concert with my feelings. It hurts continually now from responding to the inconstant creature that is Charlotte.

Anne sees that I can’t be asked to nurse a second infant.

• *

I’ve written nothing yet of what happened after I was moved tothe delivery room. I was shaved— which the doctor said prevents disease. She placed me on towels and bathed me with a cloth. Then she left to examine Sally, who was feeling faint, and all the others in the house.

After some time of worsening contractions, Delphinia brought a dinner tray. I ate one bite of chicken and vomited. She sat with me till the paroxysms ceased and watched me endure several onslaughts of pain, then told me I was doing very well, because I tried not to brace against them, which only makes them fiercer.

I passed a long night in this way, awake. In the morning, the doctor returned and washed her hands in chlorinated lime, then began to execute a process she said is used in the best maternity hospital in Philadelphia: a quick- acting cathartic, then a bath, then the rupture of the waters.

Next I spent some long time pushing in agony. I hardly knew where I was, or with whom. Periodically Dr. Stevens pushed her hand inside me to discern how open I’d become. A problem emerged: though my os was fully dilated, the baby couldn’t pass beyond. Would I have to be brought to the hospital for surgery?

At last the doctor thought to give me a catheter and discovered that my bladder was profoundly full, blocking the passage. All the power of my pushing had only forced my poor baby’s head against my bladder— which may help explain her alertness.

Merely two more pushes and the baby was out. Delphinia bathed her as the doctor gave me morphine and depressed my abdomen gently to expel the afterbirth, then dosed me with quinine until my ears were ringing— the sign she’d given enough. She approached me next with a dropperful of some other draught and I protested, saying I wanted no further treatments. Already the morphine and the quinine were having peculiar effects. I had close in mind what a doctor’s overzealous dosing had done to Mother.

“These unmarried girls lack the common sense of a lady,” Dr.Stevens said to Delphinia, as though I wasn’t in the room.

Delphinia gave a hard stare. “With all they’ve been through, they’re anxious of being harmed.” Then she laid my baby gently onto me.

My body trembles still from its long struggle. The doctor said I would soon forget the pain, but I haven’t forgotten. I awaken from brief rests in a sweat, heart hammering, and recall the hours of fruitless pushing till the catheter cleared the way. I was mad with agony, yet the doctor only yelled to push harder, harder.

That struggle, it turns out, was the easier part. Now the dear person I must keep alive is outside my womb, and no need but air is filled without my effort.

Today was typical. She nursed or dozed with my nipple in her mouth for sixteen hours of the past twenty- four; I counted. The other hours, she had to be in my arms, or she would scream.

A moment may come when I have nothing left to offer— when it will all have been sucked out.

My hand shakes as I write. Oh, for a few hours of sleep! Tiredness penetrates me— as if I were a rag doll, with tiredness as my stuffing.

Fourth Month 12

Charlotte is crying. I can hear her through two closed doors. Yet I’m determined not to respond because I’m furious, furious. I’m seated beside a claw- foot tub in the room across the hall, and Charlotte is in the bassinet, screaming for me, and I have reached the end of my patience.

Here is what has just occurred. The recovery room is on the first story. The furnace sits beneath it, in the basement. The coalman arrived with a delivery as I was reaching to put a dozing Charlotte in the bassinett, aiming to drop myself in bed right after. And do mark, please that this was one of the few times in her fifteen daysof life when she was unwary enough that I might attempt this.

But as I lowered her slowly through the air, the round iron cover on the side of the building slid open, and coal descended raucously through a chute into the basement.

At the first burst of falling coal, Charlotte’s body startled from head to toe. Her face contorted into a mask of misery, and she began to wail. I pulled her to me again, and she affixed her cruel mouth to my nipple, from which she had barely dropped away. The pain shot into me as it does every time, but for once I didn’t clench my jaw and wait for it to subside. I put my finger in her mouth and detached her. I placed her in the bassinet amid the noises from below and ran out of the room.

I’m shaking on the cold floor beside the tub, this notebook clutched to me, while she cries in our room, alone. Of course my flight brings no relief; my muscles clench to hear her. Yet I can’t tolerate her insatiable need. She sucks beyond endurance. I want only to use my chamber pot, to brush my hair and put it up with combs, to bathe, to put food into my body— and most of all to escape the state of nervous vigilance she keeps me in.

Hear me, diary. I meant to keep her the full three weeks before the adoption agency took her. But I won’t. I can’t. Why endure nearly another week of this? I want to go home. I’ll speak with Anne and let her know. I’m ready to give Charlotte away.

• *

I continued my mutiny, covering my ears against her cries, and she actually ceased her protest. I tiptoed to our room and found her sleeping and lay in my bed alongside the bassinet! The two of us slept straight through till supper, when Delphinia brought in my tray.

Thanks to a generous food donation, the fare was ample. I devoured the roasted chicken, the bread with butter, the cobbler made with peaches from some steadfast canner’s remaining stores. Delphinia beamed to see such an appetite. And for the first time since her birth, Charlotte looked about calmly and seemed at peace.

I suspect the poor baby has never had a decent rest till this, despite my endless trying. One might be tempted to think she’s determined not to sleep for fear of losing me.

Yet our dearth of sleep has brought that very outcome closer. I’ve sent word to Anne and now must only last through one more night.

Delphinia told me few girls make it to the full three weeks. “Theones who do,” she observed, “are saddest.”

Can this be so? Am I protecting myself from the agony of losing her by parting early— as Nancy did?

Fourth Month 13

There is no protecting oneself from this.

We spent another night nursing and dozing, and the adoption agent arrived in our room early today. She was a tall, frowsy woman who introduced herself as Miss Emmeline Trout. As she spoke, gaps showed in her mouth where teeth had been; apparently her wages are too low for her to afford a dentist. This was sad and discouraging to see, as was her patched and worn clothing— for her sake, and also for Charlotte’s. Because what sort of a family would adopt a child from an agency whose employee’s condition spoke so plainly of hardship? I feared it would be an impoverished one. Would my baby go hungry?

I’d obliged myself to give Charlotte to this agency several months ago, having made an agreement through Anne. Looking at the vulnerable creature in my arms, however, I wanted better.

Emmeline encouraged me to hand Charlotte over. “We got a family what’s eager and willing,” she said, reaching.

But I couldn’t move my arms forward. Do it! my brain commanded, without having any effect.

“Yer a sentimental one,” said Emmeline, baring her gap- toothed smile. “No harm in you carrying the baby to the office in place of me.”

So I clutched my living bundle close and followed Emmeline down the hall and into the office.

On hearing of my hesitation, Anne stood from her chair and brandished the adoption papers she’d signed after I’d verbally affirmed the agreement. I’d been continuing in the way of Friends by not signing any vow of truthfulness— any contract— since claiming special truthfulness at one moment infers that our words are otherwise untrue. But as I watched Anne, the thought went through my mind that because I hadn’t signed, perhaps they couldn’t force me to comply. Anne, too, might have been thinking this.

“Now hand the baby to her, Lilli.” Anne tightened her lips, keeping her blue eyes steady on me.

I remained unable.

Anne caught Emmeline’s attention and gestured toward me, and Emmeline understood; in a wink she’d slid her skinny arms under Charlotte and scooped her away. A cold spot formed on my front.

“It’s best you go quickly,” Anne instructed her. And I’d thought Anne to be a kindred soul!

Emmeline stepped into the hall with her bounty and headed toward the front door. Charlotte began to bawl. Anne moved out from behind her desk, seized my upper arms, and tried to push me onto the bench so I couldn’t follow.

“We must be brave and do what’s best for the baby,” she said. “Give her the chance to overcome the disgrace of her birth.”

But I wrenched away and ran. “Come back!” I screamed at the retreating woman. “I’m not ready! I’m entitled to the full three weeks!”

And to think it was I who had initiated our early separation.

Emmeline halted and turned, her face pink with discomfort, her small gray eyes pinpointing me. She held Charlotte to her threadbare bodice, but my baby leaned her head toward me and emitted a wail. I rushed at Emmeline and reversed her trick. Instantly Charlotte gripped my wrapper with her inch-long fingers, pushed her head into my chest, and kicked her feet with excitement.

By then Anne had reached us. Her muscles were tense with disapproval. “Lilli,” she admonished. “More days won’t make this easier.”

I could only whisper, for my chest and throat were clenched. “What if they don’t love her? What if they’re cruel?”

At this, Anne’s aspect softened. To Emmeline she said, “You can bring a letter from the family, can’t you? Since this will put Miss de Jong at ease.”

Emmeline’s face went blank as thoughts transpired beneath its surface. She consulted a watch from her skirt pocket. “Our office is closing in two hours. The family expects a baby today.”

“I’m entitled to keep her longer,” I asserted. Charlotte began knocking her cheek against me, giving out her grunt- like sound that signals hunger.

“She is entitled,” Anne told Emmeline. “But taking the full allotted time won’t help. Today’s Friday; why don’t you come back Monday with that letter. We’ll make sure she’s ready.”

I raced to the recovery room and pushed shut the heavy door, then curled with Charlotte beneath the blankets. I satisfied he rthirst and breathed purposefully to calm the thumping in my chest. Then the door opened, and Anne walked in. She sat on the bed formerly occupied by Nancy. A weariness settled over her, and her back slumped.

“I don’t know what I should do,” I began, intending to apologize.“It may—”

Anne straightened. “I expect you to comply with our agreement when the agent returns on Monday. And despite your being in recovery, you must go to chapel with the others on Sunday, to be reminded of what’s right. The cook can take the baby.”

I agreed.

Meanwhile, I have Charlotte for a few more days.

I do hope to find assurance enough in the family’s letter and at chapel to strengthen me, for she will surely find a better life withouther mother’s disgraced company.

Fourth Month 15, First Day

The hours at chapel have only worsened my dilemma.

I took a seat beside Gina in a foul state of mind, only slightly improved by an early bath and a change of dress. The sight of the other girls neatened and wearing clean clothes did cheer me, however. And fortunately it was the elder Reverend Williams’s week to preach. He never smirks or jests at our expense or castigates us, as his son does.

“Ah, but you are bright and fresh today,” he called over his lectern— though most would have viewed our group as stained and ruined. “It is well that I bring you a message of hope.”

Hope? Every leaning head perked up to listen.

“For just as spring comes to the land,” he intoned, “as insects and mammals awaken in the dirt, and plants begin their pilgrimage toward the sun, so each human life has its springtime. You must every one of you remember, whatever your misfortunes and missteps have been, that this is— yes, this is the springtime of your lives.

Delivered in the crackling voice of a gray-haired man with a hunched back and a cane, this counsel was affecting. Certainly we do have youth on our side. In the bodies around me, I sensed an easing. Perhaps all the former freshness in our hearts is not decayed by sorrow. Perhaps something new and untainted might arise!

Reverend Williams moved his sparkling eyes from one to anotherof us, promising: “If you will live in service of God, then you will find happiness. Indeed, and this is my message for you today, you will find more happiness than the woman who has never strayed.”

Breaths were taken in or released through his small crowd of listeners. He raised his arms and lowered them, as if suppressing our potential errors. His voice acquired a singer’s earnestness. “For when the sinner repents, her belief is far more fervent!” he called. “Her hunger for good has been fed by its absence. Do you think the truly repentant can sin again?” We awaited his answer. “The repentant sinner can bear only to pursue good. Only to pursue good! And she will be redeemed.”

He paused to push unruly curls from his angular face. Beside me, Gina gave out a sigh and straightened her spine as if relieved of a weight, despite being filled to bursting with her baby. Others shifted in their seats, loosening their limbs; some wiped moistness from their eyes.

I wished I could share in their relief. Though I had no desire to be disrespectful and even loved this man for his intentions, I found myself beset by irritation at his constructs, which struck me all at once as flawed beyond repair.

For one, most of the young women who pass through here are not sinners, but victims; what did Nancy and Sophie, for instance, do wrong? So why should they be told to seek redemption?

For another, what of the men who put us into our condition? Shouldn’t they be made to kneel before the Lord and spend their coming years in repentance? Who searches out their souls and makes them pay?

And what of the families who’ve let us bear our crosses alone, the families who’ve chosen appearances over love? Surely they too ought to consider their sins.

The reverend raised his half-bent arms and waved them about, continuing to illustrate his points. A younger man’s vigor came to his face; his voice gained force and clarity. The faces around me grew flushed with gratitude and hope, just as he wished them to. But I couldn’t join them. Instead, I mourned the weary, twisted nature of my heart. I marveled at the simplistic notions of well-meaning people that grow ever more tiresome. I wondered how Gina could accept his words, how her eyes could glow adoringly, when she’d so recently bemoaned the lies that will underpin her new life.

And I considered the lie that will underpin my own life. The lie that Charlotte never grew in me, was never born, that all this never happened. We each have our own version of that lie. It’s the currency with which we buy our return ticket to society.

I wanted to call out to the reverend: How can anyone here truly live in service of God, or create an honest love with any human being, with this lie forming the rotten center of our selves? Steeped in this alienated condition, and whether despite or because of it I didn’t know, I felt an odd state overtake me. I began to float away from the scene at hand, as if I were a passenger on the deck of a boat that was leaving. Then it seemed as if an insistentwave pulled me overboard— and I was engulfed by a warm and luscious sea. I was insensible to the others. I breathed underwater, like a fish. A buzzing sound entered my head, and I felt this: unbounded happiness. As if occupying some antechamber of God’s house, I floated alongside a pure and vibrating force. I began to shiver as waves of joy passed over me.

Was this the joy I’d heard other Friends describe? An ecstatic union with my Inner Light of God?

It must have been. Yet with that joy came a crystal-clear awareness of my failings. I saw laid out the whole of my upbringing, which had urged me to live honestly; my coming situation, where lying would be the rule; and the cowardice that had kept me from admitting this divergence.

In Meeting for Worship, at school, and at home, I’d been taught not to conform to the world as it is. My mother, grandparents, and teachers, our Meeting’s elders, and the writings of weighty Friends had exhorted me to live instead as if the world were what it ought to be. Mother reminded me not to be ruled by convention or by shallow pleasure every time she forbade me to wear a ribbon in my hair, or when she chose plain cloth for our attire, or refused to let me see a concert or a play or read a fanciful book. “Our time and skills are meant for beneficial use,” she’d say when she had me join her in sewing clothes and quilts for other families on First Day afternoons rather than roaming with the neighbor children. “We mustn’t distract ourselves,” she’d tell me. “We must keep our eyes and minds free of intoxicating influence, to perceive the wisdom that grows beneath the surface.”

Year after year, she strove to scour away the vanity that might make me timid to stand out. I was meant to grow into a person who would dare, as she did, to act on the unspoken words of my heart, the messages of my Inner Witness to the Divine will.

Yet our circumscribed life had kept me faithful to the bounds it dictated. Had I ever needed, before her death, to put myself at odds with anything but my desire for frivolity in order to pursue right? Not once. The guidance at hand had never failed me. I was ruled entirely by convention.

And now that I faced an actual choice, I wasn’t planning to distinguish myself. I would cast away the baby who sustained her life at my breast. I would refuse to bear my personal cross. Like so many others in my circumstance, I would let myself be turned into a fraud.

Amid this scouring of my soul, I heard dimly the needling voice of Reverend Williams: “Repent of thy sin, and accept the saving grace of thy heavenly Father.”

But the moment I let go of Charlotte and pretend she never existed, my life of sin begins. Lies will color— no, suffuse— my most intimate relations. The pain at my center will stay closed in and festering, while lies spread like a layer of lard beneath my skin.

A message sounded in my brain: Remember the courage of thy ancestors.

Some early Friends suffered beatings and imprisonment and sacrificed their homes and livelihoods in order to uphold their right to draw close to God without a minister’s interceding. My own elders were raised amid slavery and condemned it when doing so was hazardous. They forswore the luxuries created by slave labor, such as cane sugar and cotton. They gave goods and funds to help the enslaved escape; some even helped transport those who were escaping. These Friends risked much to behave rightly and retain their freedom of conscience, yet I planned to take the coward’s way.

My throat grew clogged till I could barely breathe. I dropped my knees to the floor and lowered my head.

After some period, the vibrations in me quieted. The reverend’s voice had ceased, and those around me were rising to their feet. Gina nudged my arm from above, her face questioning. I found myself able to stand. I walked unsteadily to the kitchen and reclaimed my bastard from the cook, who’d taken her for a stroll and was extolling, remarkably, upon the quiet contentment of this baby. Then Gina followed me to the recovery room, wanting company. Seated in a wooden chair, her belly resting on her thighs, she told me she couldn’t wait to leave this institution behind and begin to regain her virtue. She settled into tatting lace for the sleeves of her baby’s christening gown— since a christening is one of Angela’s first plans.

It seems Gina and I are caught in opposing tides. She is eager to ride the incoming waters toward shore and to walk a jetty of lies into a more righteous life. But my body is trembling, despite my having slid beneath the covers and applied Charlotte to my breast, for a new awareness has pulled me so far out from solid ground into the wild ocean that I may never find my way back.

My baby sleeps in my arms, in blameless beauty 

Reading Group Guide

1. How do you think the death of Lilli’s mother affected the course of Lilli’s life?

2. What role do you think Lilli’s religious background played in her willingness to suffer for her choices?

3. Does her faith remain the same or change in the course of the story?

4. How did the diary form of the novel affect your experience of the story?

5. Are there challenges Lilli faced that women still struggle with today? 

6. How do you think Lilli’s story might be different if it was set today? In what ways might it be the same?

7. What messages about motherhood will you take away from the novel?

8. Are there choices Lilli made that you might have made differently, in her circumstances?

9. Johan tells Lilli he won’t pry into her secrets. But her mother warns that secrets will corrode bonds. Whose approach do you agree with?  

10. What affected you most when you were reading Lilli’s story, and what do you think will remain with you?

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Lilli de Jong: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a pleasant surprise! The writing is so beautiful but I was not expecting to be on the edge of my seat while reading this one. I was so worried for Lilli and her baby! Highly recommend if you love historical fiction!
teachlz More than 1 year ago
Kudos to Janet Benton , Author of “Lilli de Jong” for writing such a captivating, emotional, intriguing and compassionate novel. The Genres for this novel are Historical Fiction and Fiction. The timeline for this story is around 1883, and the location is mostly Philadelphia. I appreciate the historical research and the resources that the author has used to create this novel. The author discusses that during this time in history, one of the worst crimes that a woman can do, is to conceive a child out-of-wedlock. Often these young women were forced to leave their homes and disowned by their families, and were outcasts. They were encouraged to give up their babies. The survival of these “bastards'” as the children were called was very slim. The author describes her characters as complex and complicated. There is a difference shown between wealth and poverty. Lilli de Jong , a Quaker who grew up in Germantown believes that her lover will marry her. She winds up pregnant, and abandoned. In 1883 a single, unwed mother to be had very few choices. Lilli does find an institution for unwed mothers, and lives and works there. Like most of the young women there, it is expected that Lilli will give up her baby. These women feel shame , guilt and are frightened. Lilli notices that after the women give birth, they often have to nurse more than one child. Their babies are taken away, and their prospects are very slim. When Lilli gives birth, she finds herself in love with her little girl, and can’t give her away. In order to survive, Lilly has to find work. She works for a wealthy family nursing their little boy, and cleaning their home. While Lilli works, she has to find someone to nurse and take care of her baby. Often these wet-nurses would feed several babies in terrible conditions. I love that the author discusses that women have to work hard to survive, despite prejudice and being ostracized from their homes and community. These women have no rights, are discriminated against, and yet to survive they have to be brave, relentless, and courageous. This time period shows no regard or equality for women. I highly recommend this novel to readers who appreciate Historical Fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PIcked it up because I was intrigued by the name. Loved it! Beautifully written, full of insight and observations without being overbearing. Gives a clear picture of the realities of American city life in the late 19th century and the struggles of women, especially mothers. Must read if you love fiction.
R_Wagman More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely breathtaking novel that immediately got under my skin. Beautifully written, Benton expertly evokes the experience of new motherhood: the radical shift in identity, the sudden responsibility, and the intense love. I was rooting for Lilli from start to finish, and couldn’t wait to return to the book whenever I had to put it down. The book is also relevant to many of today’s cultural conversations about female sexuality and women’s rights. The writing is excellent; think Geraldine Brooks.
R_Wagman More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely breathtaking novel that immediately got under my skin. Beautifully written, Benton expertly evokes the experience of new motherhood: the radical shift in identity, the sudden responsibility, and the intense love. I was rooting for Lilli from start to finish, and couldn’t wait to return to the book whenever I had to put it down. The book is also relevant to many of today’s cultural conversations about female sexuality and women’s rights. The writing is excellent; think Geraldine Brooks.