“Lilli de Jong: A Novel” by Janet Benton— A Voice from the Past

Benton, Janet. “Lilli de Jong: A Novel”, Anchor Books Reprint, 2018.

A Voice from the Past

Amos Lassen

Writer Janet Benton takes us to Philadelphia in 1883 where we meet twenty-three-year-old Lilli de Jong who is pregnant and alone having been abandoned by her lover and banished from her Quaker home. She gives birth at a charity for wronged women and has planned to give up the baby. However, she bonds with the child and an unexpected future opens up. At the time of the story, unwed mothers dealt with great prejudice, yet Lilli refuses  to give up her baby girl. Instead, she faces moral condemnation and financial ruin as she struggles to keep the two of them alive.  

Lilli writes in her diary as things happen and we are with her as she does. What we see is how cruel life can be in the big city and a look at a time in our history n a mother’s milk is crucial for infant survival. The novel is a depiction of history and a tribute to a woman’s love for her child. Lilly will do whatever she has to in order to keep her child alive. What we see is the way society regard this— with sanctimony, hypocrisies, and pervasive sexism and because of these, women were confined and unequal in the Victorian era and it is not over yet. We are reminded that there are no rules or standards to become a good mother aside from the need for love.

Lilly is simply a wonderful character and that is a result of the work of author Benton who created her. From the moment I met Lilly, she drew me in and the more I read about her the more I loved her. What she does to keep her baby is amazing. The way that Benton weaves in the history as it was is also amazing and it is difficult to believe that society was once the way it was. It was not easy to live in nineteenth-century American society and it was that much more difficult as an unwed mother.

This is story of hardship, redemption, and hope and a look back at history and it forever changes the reader in the way he sees society. It was a time when the views we have today of marriage and sexuality did not exist (and had not even been thought of).

Lilli de Jong’s mother’s death a year ago changed her and her family. Her mother was a woman of strong faith and wise words, whose life was built on the ideal of compassion. Lilli wondered what her mother would think of her situation as she sits with her roommate at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants. She knew that had she remained home, she would have been shunned by the family, but she wondered if her mother have shown her the compassion she gave to others.

Lilli became pregnant out of love for Johan who promised himself to her, and she to him and then went looking for a life with a future. As time passes, she does not hear from Johan and her belly begins to swell. She’s thrown out of her home when she can no longer hide her pregnancy.

As we read, we feel what she feels— from the dirt and grime of Philadelphia to the self-loathing that comes by looking into her baby’s eyes, and knowing that whatever act she’s just committed has brought her one day closer to a way out. Lilli has become an object of disgust but she has a strong sense of preservation.

Now something interesting about author Janet Benton that perhaps some of her Jewish writers were able to catch. Benton is Jewish and out of that she created the character of Vera Bernstein who is something of a savior in the story. Benton’s last name would have been Bernstein had it not been for the anti-Semitism when her father was a teen and so the children would not fall victim to the quota system at schools here. Benton comes from a long line of those involved in Jewish communal life and repairing the world. Rereading the book now with knowing this could provide an alternative understanding but that is not really necessary to love this book.

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