Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Showcase: The Lost Orphan by Stacey Halls

When I saw this historical gem show up I knew I had to read it. I hope all you fans of the genre get a chance to read it too!

Publisher: Mira

Release Date: 4-07-2020



A Sunday Times bestseller!

Two women, bound by a child, and a secret that will change everything . . .

London, 1754. Six years after leaving her illegitimate newborn at the Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the daughter she has never known. Dreading the worst, that she has died in care, she is astonished to discover someone pretending to be Bess has already claimed her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl—and why.

Less than a mile from Bess’s poor lodgings, in a quiet Georgian townhouse, lives Alexandra, a reclusive young widow. When her close friend—an ambitious doctor at the orphanage—persuades her to hire a nursemaid to help care for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart.

From the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Familiars comes this captivating story of mothers and daughters, class and power, and love against the greatest of odds.

“A gripping tale of motherhood, loss, and redemption. Hall’s distinctive characters and scrupulous historical detail drop us into a rich, Dickensian world full of desperation and lies, and shows us just how far a mother will go to hold onto her child.” —Serena Burdick, International bestselling author of The Girls with No Names

“The new Hilary Mantel!”—Cosmopolitan

Read an excerpt:

Part One


Chapter 1

Late November 1747

All the babies were wrapped like presents ready to be given. Some of them were dressed finely—though their mothers were not—in tiny embroidered sleeves and thick shawls, for winter had arrived, and the night was biting. I’d bound Clara in an old blanket that had waited years to be darned, and now never would be. We stood clustered around the pillared entrance, thirty or so of us, like moths beneath the torches burning in their brackets, our hearts beating like papery wings. I hadn’t known that a hospital for abandoned babies would be a palace, with a hundred glowing windows and a turning place for carriages. Two long and splendid buildings were pinned on either side of a courtyard that was connected in the middle by a chapel. At the north end of the west wing the door stood open, throwing light onto the stone. The gate felt a long way behind. Some of us would leave with our arms empty; some would carry our children out into the cold again. For this reason we could not look at one another, and kept our eyes on the ground.

Clara was clutching my finger, which neatly slotted into her tiny palm as a lock does a key. I imagined her reaching for it later, her hand closing around thin air. I held her tighter. My father, whom Ned and I called Abe because Mother had, stood slightly behind me, his face in shadow. He had not held the baby. Earlier, the midwife—a wide woman from a neighboring court who was as cheap as she was discreet—had offered her to him as I lay beached on the bed, shimmering in pain, and he shook his head, as though she were a hawker proffering a peach.
We were shown inside by a slim, bewigged man with reedy legs, and through an entrance hall unlike anywhere I’d been. Everywhere surfaces gleamed, from the walnut banister to the polished long-case clock. The only sound was our skirts rustling, and our shoes on the stone—a little herd of women swollen with milk, bearing their calves. It was a place for hushed, gentle voices, not hawkers’ ones like mine.
Our little procession made its way up the claret carpet of the stairs, and into a high-ceilinged room. Only one skirt and bundled infant could pass through the doorframe at a time, so we lined up outside, like ladies at a ball. The woman in front of me had brown skin, and her black hair curled beneath her cap. Her baby was unsettled, making more noise than the others, and she bounced him with the unpracticed air we all had. I wondered how many had their own 
mothers to show them how to swaddle, how to feed. I had thought about mine fifty times that day, more than I had in the past year. I used to feel her in the creak of the floorboards and the warmth of the bed, but not anymore.
The room we had entered was papered green, with elegant white plaster piped below the ceiling. There were no flames in the fireplace, but it was warm and brightly lit with glowing lamps and pictures on the walls, framed in gold. A chandelier shivered at the center. It was the finest room I had ever stood in, and it was crowded with people. I had thought we might be alone, perhaps with a fleet of nursemaids who carried off the babies that would stay, but a score of faces lined the walls—mostly women who were certainly not nursemaids, fanning themselves and smiling curiously. They were very well dressed and interesting to look at, and they were very interested in us. They might have climbed out of the paintings on the walls; their necks flashed with jewels, and their hooped skirts bright as tulips. Their hair was pinned up high and cloudy with powder. There were half a dozen men scattered about, too, silver-buckled and potbellied—not like Abe, with his drab coat like a bag of horse feed. The men appeared more stern, and many of them were eyeing the mulatto girl, as though she were for sale. They held little glasses in their gloved hands, and I realized for them this was a party.
I was still bleeding. Clara had been born before daylight that morning, and every part of me felt torn. I had not been her mother a day, yet I knew her as well as myself: the smell of her, the little patter of her heart that had beat inside me. Even before she was pulled from me, red and squealing, I’d known what she’d feel like and how heavy she would be in my arms. I hoped they would take her, and I hoped they wouldn’t. I thought of Abe’s lined face, his eyes on the floor, his calloused hands holding the door for me. He was the only father in the room. Most of the others were alone, but some had brought friends, sisters, mothers, who looked on miserably. Abe would not meet my eye, and had not spoken much on our slow, sad walk from where we lived at Black and White Court in the city, but his being there was as good as a hand on my shoulder. When he had reached for his coat at home and said it was time for us to leave, I had almost cried with relief; I had not thought he would come with me.
A hush fell over the room as a man standing before the huge fireplace began to speak. His voice was as rich and thick as the carpets. I stared at the chandelier as he told us how they drew the lottery: that a white ball admitted a child, a black one did not and a red one meant we had to wait for an admitted child to fail the medical examination. It took all my energy to listen.
“There are twenty white balls,” the man was saying, “five red and ten black.”
I shifted Clara at my breast. The swells at the edges of the room were looking on us more boldly now, wondering which of us would be lucky, which of us might leave our babies on the street to die. Who among us was unmarried. Who was a whore. A nurse began moving about the room with a cloth bag for us to reach inside. By the time she came to me, my heart was stomping around my chest in boots, and I held her indifferent gaze as I shifted Clara to one arm and put a hand in the bag. The balls were smooth and cool as eggs, and I held one in my fist, trying to feel its color. The nurse shook the bag impatiently and something told me to let the ball drop and take another, so I did.
“Who are the people watching?” I asked her.
“They were invited,” was her bored reply. I clutched another ball, let it go, and she shook the bag again.
“What for?” I asked in a low voice, aware of the many pairs of eyes on me. I thought of their sons and daughters in their grand houses in Belgravia and Fitzrovia and Mayfair, lying beneath warm blankets, brushed and washed and full of milk. Perhaps they would visit the nursery before going to bed tonight, grown sentimental at our plight, dropping a kiss on sleeping cheeks. One woman was staring hard, as though willing me a particular color. She was large 
and held a fan in one hand, a little glass in the other. She wore a blue feather in her hair.
“They’re benefactors,” was all the nurse said, and, feeling as though I couldn’t ask another question and knowing I must choose a ball, I settled on another, weighing it in my palm. I drew it out, and the room fell silent.
The ball was red. I would have to wait.
The nurse moved to the next woman, while the rest watched her journey around the room, their jaws set in tight, anxious lines as they tried to work out what had been drawn, and what was left. We had been told at the gate that our babies must be two months old at most, and in good health. Many of them were sickly, starving things that their mothers had tried to nurse. Some were six months at least, swaddled so tightly to look smaller they cried out in discomfort.
Clara was the smallest of them all, and the newest. Her eyes had been closed since we arrived. If these were her last moments with me, she would not know. All I wanted was to curl around her in bed like a cat and go to sleep, and come back the next month. I thought of Abe’s silent shame. Our rooms at Black and White Court were thick with it; it stained like coal smoke and rotted the beams. I thought of taking her to Billingsgate, sitting her on my father’s stall like a miniature figurehead on the bow of a ship. A mermaid, found at sea and put on display for all to see at Abraham Bright’s shrimp 
stall. Briefly I fancied taking her hawking with me, bundling her to my chest so my hands were free to scoop shrimp from my hat. I’d seen some hawkers with their babes strapped to their fronts, but what happened when they were no longer the size of a loaf? When they were fat little things with fists and feet and hungry, empty mouths?
A woman began wailing, a black ball clenched in her fist. Her face and her child’s were the same unhappy masks of despair. “I cannot keep him,” she cried. “You must take him, please.” While the attendants calmed her and the rest of us looked away for her dignity, I yawned so widely I thought my face would crack. I’d not slept for more than an hour since two nights ago, when Clara began to come. This morning Ned sat with the baby before the fire so I could shut my eyes, but I was in so much pain I could not sleep. Now, every part of me ached still, and in the morning I had to work. I could not walk home tonight with Clara in my arms. It was not possible. But neither could I leave her on a doorstep for the rats. As a girl I’d seen a dead baby by a dung heap on the roadside, and had dreamed about it for months.
The room was very bright, and I was very tired, and suddenly I was aware of being led to a little room off the side, and told to sit and wait. Abe followed and closed the door behind him, shutting out the sobs and the tinkle of sherry glasses. I wished for a cup of warm milk or some beer; I did not know how to stay awake.
A nursemaid appeared from nowhere and removed Clara from my arms, but I had not been ready, and it was too soon, too sudden. She was telling me there was a space for her, because a lady had brought an infant of at least six months, which was far too old, and did she think they could not tell the difference between a babe of two months and one of six? I thought of the woman and her child, and wondered idly what would happen to them, then pushed away the thought. The nursemaid’s frill cap disappeared through the door again, and I felt delirious, too light without Clara in my arms, as though a feather could knock me over.
“She is not yet a day,” I called after the nurse, but she had gone. I heard Abe shift behind me, and the floor creaked.
A man was now sitting before me, writing on a ticket with a fat feather, and I forced my eyes open, and my ears, too, because he was speaking. “The doctor is inspecting her for signs of ailment.”
I unstuck my mouth. “She was born at quarter past four this morning.”
“If she shows signs of ill health she will be refused admission. She will be examined for venereal disease, scrofula, leprosy and infection.”
I sat in dumb silence.

“Do you wish to leave a token with the memorandum?” The clerk finally looked at me, and his eyes were dark and solemn, at odds with his eyebrows, which sprouted from his head in a rather comic way.
A token: yes. This I had prepared for, had heard how the babies were recorded with an identifier, left by the mother. I fished in my pocket and brought out mine, placing it on the polished desk between us. My brother, Ned, had told me of the Foundling—a hospital for unwanted babies, on the edge of the city. He knew a girl who’d left her child there and cut a square from her dress to leave with it. “And if you leave nothing and go back?” I asked him. “You might be given the wrong one?” He’d smiled and said perhaps, but the idea had chilled me. I imagined a room piled high with tokens, and mine being thrown on a heap of them. The man took it between his finger and thumb, and examined it with a frown.
“It’s a heart, made from whalebone. Well, half a heart. Her father had the other.” I flushed furiously, my ears scarlet, aware of Abe still standing silently behind me. There was a chair next to mine but he had not taken it. Until now he’d known nothing of the token. The size of a crown, I had the right-hand side, smooth at one edge and jagged at the other. A B had been scored into it, and below it, more roughly, I had scratched a C, for Bess and Clara.
“What will you use it for?” I asked.

“A record will be made should you wish to reclaim her. Her number will go in the ledger as 627, with the date, and a description of the token.” He dipped the feather in ink and began to write.
“You will put that it’s half a heart, won’t you?” I said, watching the words spill from his quill, but not understanding them. “In case there’s a whole one, and they get mixed up.”
“I will put that it’s half a heart,” he said, not unkindly. I still did not know where my baby was, or if I would see her again before I left. I was afraid to ask.
“I will reclaim her, when she’s older,” I announced, because saying it aloud made it true. Behind me Abe sniffed, and the floorboards creaked. We had not yet spoken about this, but I was certain. I straightened my skirt. Streaked with mud and rain, on washing day it was the milky pewter of an oyster’s shell, and for the rest of the month the dirty gray of a cobbled street.
The nursemaid came to the doorway and nodded. Her arms were empty. “She’s fit for admission.”
“Her name is Clara,” I said, feeling overcome with relief.
A few months before, when my belly was small, on one of the more genteel streets around St. Paul’s, where the townhouses stretched up to the sky and jostled for space with the printers and the booksellers, I’d seen an elegant woman dressed in a deep blue gown, glowing like a jewel. Her hair was golden and shiny, and one 
plump, pink arm held a little hand, belonging to a child with the same yellow curls. I watched as she tugged at her mother, and the woman stopped and bent down, not caring that her skirts were brushing the ground, and put her ear to the little girl’s lips. A smile broke out across her face. “Clara, you are funny,” she had said, and took up her daughter’s hand again. They moved past me, and I rubbed my growing stomach, and decided if I had a girl I would name her Clara, because then, in a very small way, I would be like that woman.
The man was unmoved. “She will be christened and renamed in due course.”
So she would be Clara to me and no one else. Not even herself. I sat stiff-backed, clenching and unclenching my fists.
“And how will you know who she is, if her name changes, when I come back?”
“A leaden tag is attached to each child on arrival, bearing a number that refers to their identifying records.”
“Number 627. I’ll remember it.”
He regarded me, and his eyebrows fell into stern furrows. “If your circumstances change and you do wish to claim your child, the fee for her care will be payable.”
I swallowed. “What does that mean?”
“The expenses the hospital incurred caring for her.”

I nodded. I had no idea what sort of cost that might be, but did not feel as though I could ask. I waited. The nib scratched, and somewhere in the room a clock ticked patiently. The ink was the same color as the night sky in the window behind him; the curtains had not been drawn. The quill danced like some strange, exotic creature. I remembered the large woman outside with the blue feather in her hair, and how she had stared.
“The people in the room,” I said. “Who are they?”
Without looking up he replied: “The governors’ wives and acquaintances. Lottery night raises funds for the hospital.”
“But do they need to watch the babies be given over?” I asked. I knew my voice did not sound right here; it made him sigh.
“The women are very moved by it. The more moved they are, the more donations are made.” I watched him come to the end of the paper and sign it with a flourish. He sat back to let it dry.
“What will happen to her, when I go?”
“All new admissions are taken to live in the countryside, where they will be cared for by a wet nurse. They return to the city at around five years old, and live at the Foundling until they are ready to work.”
I swallowed. “What do they work as?”
“We prepare girls for service, and set them to knitting, spinning, mending—domestic pursuits that will make them attractive to em
ployers. The boys work in the ropeyards making fishing nets and twine to ready them for naval life.”
“Where will Clara be nursed? Which part of the countryside?”
“That depends on where there is a place for her. She could be as near as Hackney or as far as Berkshire. We are not at liberty to reveal where she will be placed.”
“Can I say goodbye?”
The governor folded the paper over the whalebone heart, but did not seal it. “Sentimentality is best avoided. Good evening to you, miss, and you, sir.”
Abe moved toward me and helped me from my chair.

The Foundling Hospital was on the very edge of London, where pleasant squares and tall houses gave way to open roads and fields that yawned blackly into the distance. It was only a mile or two from Black and White Court, where we lived in the shadow of Fleet Prison, yet it may as well have been two hundred, with its farms and cows to the north, and wide streets and townhouses to the south. Coal smoke choked the courts and alleys I was used to, but here there were stars, the sky like a large velvet drape, covering everything in silence. The moon was pale, illuminating the few re
maining carriages of the wealthy guests who’d watched us give up our children. Sated with the evening’s entertainment, they were now home to bed.
“You’ll be wanting something to eat, Bessie,” Abe said as we walked slowly toward the gate. It was the first time he’d spoken since we arrived. When I didn’t reply, he said: “Bill Farrow might have some meat pies left.”
I watched him trudge beside me, and noticed the defeated slope of his shoulders, and how stiffly he moved. The hair that spilled from under his cap had turned from the color of rust to iron. He squinted at the quays now, and the younger boys had to point out the boats from Leigh that brought the shrimp from among the hundreds swarming on the water. For thirty years my father had sold shrimp from a shed in London’s fish market. He sold it by the basket to costermongers and bumerees, to hawkers and fishmongers, alongside two hundred other shrimp sellers, from five in the morning to three in the afternoon, six days a week.
Each morning I took a basket to the boiling house at the end of Oyster Row and hawked it from my head in the streets. We did not sell cod; we did not sell mackerel, herring, whiting, pilchards, sprats. We did not sell roach, plaice, smelt flounders, salmon, shad, eels, gudgeon, dace. We sold shrimp, hundreds of them, thousands, every day, by the double. There were plenty more fish that were 
nicer to look at, nicer to sell: silver salmon, rosy crabs, pearly turbot. But our living was made, our rent paid, from the ugliest of all, looking as they did like unborn creatures ripped from the belly of a giant insect, with unseeing black eyes and curled little legs. We sold them, but we did not eat them. Too many times I’d smelled them spoiled, and scraped the little spidery legs from my hat, the eyes clumped together like spawn. How I wished my father had been a Leadenhall market man instead, and I a strawberry seller, smelling like a summer meadow, with juice and not brine running down my arms.
We’d almost reached the tall gates, and a cat mewed nearby. My insides were empty and aching, and I could think only of a pie, and my bed. I could not think of my baby, and whether or not she had woken to find no comfort. If I did that, I would fall to my knees. The cat wailed again, and did not stop.
“It’s a baby,” I realized aloud in surprise. But where? The grounds were dark, and the sound came from somewhere to our right. There was nobody else around—I turned to see two women leaving the building behind us, and ahead the gates were closed, manned by a stone porter’s lodge with a glowing window.
Abe had stopped, looking with me into the darkness. “It’s a baby,” I repeated as the noise started up again. Before all this, before I grew Clara and gave birth to her, I’d never noticed infants 
crying in the street or wailing in our building. But now, each little mew was as impossible to ignore as if someone was calling my own name. I left the path to go along the dark wall that hemmed the hospital grounds.
“Bess, where you going?”
In a few strides I saw it: a small bundle left on the grass, pressed against the damp brick, as though for shelter. It was swaddled as Clara had been, only a tiny, ancient face visible, with dark skin and fine black wisps of hair at its temples. I remembered the mulatto woman. This was surely her child, and she must have picked a black ball. I gathered the baby in my arms and shushed it gently. My milk had not yet come, but my breasts were sore, and I wondered if the child was hungry, and if I should feed it. I could hand the baby to the porter at the lodge, but would he take it? Abe looked openmouthed at the bundle in my arms.
“What shall I do?”
“It ain’t your trouble, Bessie.”
A noise came from the other side of the wall: people running and shouting, a horse neighing. Outside the city everything was darker and louder, as though we were in some strange land at the very edge of the world. I had never been to the countryside before, had never even left London. The baby was settled in my arms now, its tiny features creasing into a sleepy frown. Abe and I went to the gate. In 
the road beyond, people were gathering, and men were running with lanterns toward a coach-and-four, and trying to calm the sweating, bucking horses that had worked one another into a panic. Several white, shocked faces were looking down at the ground, and I slipped through the gate to move closer, still holding the baby. Two feet poked out from beneath the shafts. I saw a muddied skirt, and elegant brown hands. There was a low, guttural moaning, like an injured animal. Her fingers moved, and instinctively I turned to shield the baby from the sight.
“She came from nowhere,” the coachman was saying. “We was only going slow and she jumped out.”
I turned and walked the short distance to the porter’s lodge, which was unlocked and abandoned; he was likely at the scene. Inside it was warm, with a low fire burning in a grate, and candle flickering at a small table set with an abandoned supper. Finding a spare buff coat on a peg, I wrapped the child and left it on the chair, hoping the porter would understand whose it was, and take pity.
In the distance, several windows in the Foundling were yellow, but most were black. Inside, perhaps in their beds, were a hundred or more children. Did they know their parents were outside, thinking of them? Did they hope they would come, or were they happy in their uniforms, with their hot meals, their lessons and instruments? Could you miss somebody you didn’t know? My own daughter was 
inside, her fingers closing around thin air. My heart was wrapped in paper. I had known her hours, and all my life. The midwife had handed her to me, slick and bloodied, only this morning, but the Earth had turned full circle, and things would never be the same.


“Halls’s mysterious tale is full of intrigue. The characters are quirky, and their personalities will keep readers invested. The Georgian setting also plays a huge role, as does the formidable hospital. This is a page-turner with a satisfying and harmonious ending.” –Library Journal

"A rich and atmospheric reimagining of an historical period rife with superstitions, misogyny and fear....Now with so many high profile men claiming to be victims of a witch hunt, it's good to understand what a real one feels like."--New York Times Book Review

"Set against the furor leading up to the Pendle Witch Trials, Halls's winning novel is a quietly powerful and richly evocative tale."-- Publishers Weekly

"The lives of two young women intersect in a novel that imagines the story behind a famous 17th century witch trial ...when acting in socially inappropriate ways could get one condemned to hanging."--Kirkus Reviews

"Rich with intrigue and filled with details of the constraints faced by seventeenth-century women, both well born and common, The Familiars offers a look into the real-life world of the notorious Pendle witch trials that ended with eleven executions." --Booklist

"A mesmerizing historical novel that deftly plumbs a darkly textured tapestry of so-called justice to reveal the real crimes being carried out against society." –Seattle Review of Books

About the Author:
Stacey Halls was born in 1989 and grew up in Lancashire, England. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has worked as a journalist since the age of 21, writing for publications including The Independent, Fabulous magazine, Stylist and Psychologies. She lives in London with her husband. The Familiars is her first novel.