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Posted on 16 Dec 2021 in Fiction |

ROSE TREMAIN Lily: A tale of revenge. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Rose Tremain’s latest novel is both a mystery set in 19th-century London and an indictment of the abuse of children.

She dreams of her death.

It comes as a cold October dawn is breaking in the London sky.

A sack is put over her head. Through the weave of the burlap, she can take her last look at the world, which is a cluster of tiny squares of grey light, and she thinks Whyever did I struggle so long and so hard to make my way in a place which was bent on my destruction ever since I came into it?

In a month’s time, Lily will be seventeen, but already she is a murderer. We know from the cover of the book that her story is ‘a tale of revenge’ but we don’t know until quite late in the book the reason for this act of revenge, or the identity of her victim, or how Lily carried out this murder.

We do know that she was abandoned by her mother when she was only a few hours old: left at the gates of a London park wrapped in a sack, then rescued by a young London police constable who, in bitter weather, saw her and heard ‘the crying of wolves’. Whether there really were wolves in London in the 1850s is disputed by those he tells, but the baby’s foot was certainly bleeding, as if it had been chewed. He takes her to the Foundling Hospital at Coram Fields where, much later, she is horribly abused by a vindictive nurse.

It is clear that Lily is angry with the mother who abandoned her, and when she finds Frances Quale, a strange, reclusive woman who sells religious icons and false relics, she believes she has found her mother and sets out to prove it and vent her anger. She also harbours deep anger for the nurse who treated her cruelly from the time she returned to the Foundling Hospital after spending her first six years fostered by a kind and loving farming family.

The shock of being suddenly returned to the Foundling Hospital by her foster-mother, Nellie, as the law required, is huge:

 Lily tried once again to turn around, to pull free of the nurse, to run to wherever Nellie had gone … ‘Stop that!’ said the nurse. ‘She’s gone and you will not find her. There are no sentimental goodbyes here. We forbid them. Your foster-mother did her duty and that is all. Now, she takes in another baby and you will be forgotten’.

Lily kicks the nurse and runs. She is caught but still defiant, and Nurse Maude immediately labels her ‘Miss Disobedience’. From that moment, Nurse Maude singles her out for special punishment, and this goes on, in more and more perverted ways, until Lily leaves the hospital to go and work at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium, where the sewing skills she had been taught by Nellie make her one of Belle’s most valued employees.

Lily is a novel in an historical setting, but Rose Tremain resists the label ‘historical novel’. ‘When you write about history, you can write anybody’s story,’ she says. ‘There isn’t this question of authenticity.’ The old London in which Lily lives and works is, however, realistically portrayed and the Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital did exist. Its founder and governors were kindly, god-fearing men; and wealthy women, like Lily’s benefactress, Lady Elizabeth Mortimer, helped to support such benevolent institutions. Not everyone who works in such places, however, is as good-hearted as their founders, and harsh punishment and cruelty, then as now, were not uncommon.

When Lily returns to the Foundling Hospital in order to see the records of her admission, she sees Nurse Maude tormenting another small girl. She is surprised that Nurse Maude has not retired, and expresses this to the hospital official who is handling the records: ‘… Nurse Maude is a pillar of the Foundling Hospital, so we have kept her on’, he tells her.

‘We feel that Coram children come to value the rules of behaviour put upon them. Under the tutelage of people like Nurse Maud, they soon understand the difference between right and wrong. Do you not agree?’

Lily pretends that she has not heard the question, but he goes on:

‘One thing we know is that children are often like wild animals when they come to us. You were one such animal – a runaway, weren’t you? And look at you now: quite upright and well behaved and earning your living, but only because we tamed you and brought you to God.’

Not all of Lily’s life is as grim as this. Tremain draws the reader into Lily’s happy early life with Nellie at Rookery farm; her work at the Wig Emporium, where Belle (who is ‘famous all over London’ – and not just for her wigs) is creating wigs for actors in a new performance of La Traviata at Her Majesty’s Opera House; and her meetings with Sam Trent, the constable who rescued her and who has remained curious about her welfare.

There are times when Lily savours new, exciting and exotic experiences, as when Belle dresses her and takes her to the opening night of La Traviata and she mingles with the wealthy men and women who frequent such events.

The audience in their finery are so held by the drama that they have mostly forgotten which tiaras or mantillas or feathers they are wearing. The ladies are choked by strong feelings and long to cry. They search their tiny purses for even tinier handkerchiefs. Weeping at misfortune which is not theirs is a deep pleasure!

Lily is gripped by the power of this tragic love story:

She has the thrilling illusion that what she has just seen – the wonder and the cruelty of it both – was performed uniquely for her….

She longs for her own ‘Alfredo’, her own watchful guardian, to come in and take her in his arms.

She dreams of Sam Trent, who seems to be watching over her, and he also seems to have special feelings for her. It is her guilty secret, because Sam is a married man and his wife has been especially kind to her.

Sam is now a police superintendent, known for his skill in solving difficult murder cases. The more Lily sees of him, the more she knows she is in danger of confessing to him. Sam’s wife, too, brings up the murder which haunts Lily:

‘It upsets you. I can understand that. We won’t talk about it any more.’

Lily is silent for a moment, then asks, ‘Is Sam looking for the killer?’

‘No, I don’t think so. He always says there are no leads of any substance. But if it really was a murder, he thinks there will be a confession … In his work, so he tells me, you would be surprised at how often a murderer confesses. It’s one of those things we find hardest, isn’t it, living with our own wickedness?’

Lily’s life could change in an instant. She has new opportunities offered to her by Belle; Lady Mortimer has expressed the intention of taking her to live with her as her companion; and there is the potential of a love affair with Sam. More pressing, however, is her urge to confess. To whom? To Sam?

Rose Tremain has said that she is drawn to narrators on the margins of life, and Lily is just such a narrator. Through Lily, who is a likeable character, and whose joys and fears seem completely understandable, we see the poverty and richness of life in 19th-century London. Underlying Lily’s story, however, but never spelled out, is Tremain’s own anger that historical ills, especially the mistreatment of children in institutions, still exist.

Rose Tremain Lily: A tale of revenge Chatto & Windus, 2021 PB 288pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Lily from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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