As my regular readers will already know I’m completing the popsugar reading challenge. I’m way behind on these reviews, but I decided to review these two books in one blog post, as they have some similarities in that they’re both set in 18th century London. I feel fully immersed in this time period having read both books back to back, and they’re both recommendations from me.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls
I read this book for the prompt ‘a book you think your best friend would like’. One of my best friends gave me this book for Christmas, so I know she likes it, and I have another friend who I know will enjoy this, as she likes historical fiction.
Bess Bright has a baby out of wedlock, and she can’t afford to keep it. Reluctantly, she takes her daughter, Clara, to the Foundling Hospital when she’s less than a day old. She makes a promise that she will return to reclaim her when she can.
Six years later, Beth takes her savings back to the hospital, only to find that someone has already taken Clara. Bess needs to find out who could have known about the whale bone keepsake she used as a token when she left Clara, and reclaim her daughter as her own.
The descriptions of the Foundling hospital are fascinating. I had to find out more. It was a originally founded by Thomas Coram, and supported by the painter William Hogarth and the composer George Ferderic Handel. In it’s 213 year history, it cared for and educated 25,000 children. That’s staggering.
This book drew me in, and I was invested in the characters, however, there were some coincidences that didn’t seem realistic, and I felt that there could be more emotion shown in the latter half of the book. I loved the focus on female voices in this book, and some of the suffering they had to go through in this time. As a Mum myself, I can’t imagine the horror of having to give up a child partly because I couldn’t afford to feed it, and partly due to a sense of shame.
I found the details of the era fascinating. Young boys were employed as ‘link boys’ and carried lamps to light the way for people being carried by litter at night. The sights and smells of Billingsgate fish market made the place come alive. Bess worked as a shrimp hawker, selling the crustaceans from her hat.
A large part of the book is set just within a private home, which, although interesting, was a bit of a shame, as you didn’t get to see much of the outside world, and to me, that was what brought the book to life. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. I would love to read her first book, The Familiars, as I like her writing style.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
This book is highly commended, having been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and was a Sunday Times bestseller, as well as receiving many awards. I can see why. Although set in the same time period as The Foundling, the writing style is very different. The details are incredible, and the emotions and atmosphere draw you in, in a whole different way. I read this book for the prompt ‘the book on your TBR (to be read) list with the prettiest cover’. The sumptuous gold and blue design made me want to pick it up and devour it.
The story centres around Mr Hancock, a merchant who by chance finds himself owner of a dead mermaid. Through this, he encounters the indomitable Angelica Neal, who lives a life of glamour and seduction. He becomes infatuated, both with Angelica and the idea of a mermaid, with far reaching consequences.
Again, there are strong female characters in this book, which is welcomed, and I learned a lot about the ‘nunneries’ of young girls, run by old bawds. Of course, those places still exist now, but it was interesting to see inside one at that time. Mrs Fortescue, ‘mother’ to the nubile wenches in her care is a particularly horrid character. Having gone through the life of an upper class whore herself, she now subjects other young girls to the same, wanting power and influence, and preying on the week.
Interestingly, none of the characters are particularly likeable. They all have their flaws. Mr Hancock is impetuous and neglectful, Angelica is vain and self-obsessed . The fact that they are human means they are relatable. They make mistakes, feel embarrassed and are embarrassing. Both main characters ultimately want to be liked by others, and it is this need that motivates their behaviour.
I loved the melancholy of the mermaid, the filth of the streets and the descriptions of the party thrown to show the mermaid. The author has a gift, her writing is magnificent, and I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book.