CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 16. . . .December 18, 2009
The title of Marthe Jocelyn's novel, Folly, may refer, on one level, to a young woman abandoning "common sense" for passion. But as the novel sinks in, "folly" seems a suitable word to apply to life in general in late 19th century England.
Canadian author Marthe Jocelyn provides a short history of the London Foundling Hospital in her "Afterword." The inspiration and funding for such an institution originated with a merchant, Thomas Coram, who rose to prosperity from humble beginnings. After living in America, he returned to England and was shocked to see dying and dead babies on dung heaps or in gutters in London.
His Foundlings Hospital, chartered by King George II in 1739, had a variety of admission policies over the years. "Hospital," in this case, meant something like "orphanage," except that the foundlings' parents were usually alive but unable to care for them.
At the time when Jocelyn's novel takes place (the 1870s and 1880s), every mother was strictly interviewed and had to vow that this pregnancy was her "first and last mis-step." The infants were placed with foster mothers till age six, then raised institutionally until their teens when they could be apprenticed in a trade, enter domestic service, join the military, or, in exceptional cases, pursue higher learning and a profession.
Folly centres on two characters. Mary Finn, from a poor family in Lincolnshire, is a teenager in 1876 when her mother dies and her father remarries. Her story is presented in the first person, addressed to an unnamed "you." Six-year-old James Nelligan's world changes in 1884 when it is time for him to leave his foster family and go back to the Foundling Hospital. His story is told in the third person from a child's perspective.
Through a cast that includes middle class ladies, domestic servants and others, the reader forms impressions of the social hierarchy and gap between rich and poor at the height of Victorian imperialism. There was no social safety net, and charity was for the deserving poor. The foundlings are told: "Your mothers were sinners. It is vital that you never forget that you are the progeny of sin. It is therefore your duty to devote yourself to goodness and servitude...You will be industrious, honest and servile." But the Foundlings Hospital appears in a positive light when contrasted with lives in the workhouse and on the streets. The Victorian middle and upper classes were unsympathetic toward pregnant, unmarried girls, an attitude that may startle teens today. In other ways, though, history repeats itself - the man Mary loves is sent with his regiment to Afghanistan.
In making Mary distinctive and likeable, the author not only brings her up close and personal through first person narration, but Jocelyn also gives her a unique voice and speech patterns. Mary says, for instance, "I was at the Rogue and Scholar only sixty-seven days but it were enough to cry lakes full." Away from home, Mary finds herself in a dog-eat-dog world, where incidents of kindness and affection stand out for their rarity. Musing about the history that "got writ down" versus the memories of ordinary people, she says, "Weren't those battles fought by boys who wished for their mams, or bought peppermint, or arm-wrestled to win a bit of tobacco? Days went by, girls left home, children died, and who marked it all?"
The plight of the poor also comes through in James's story. He has spent his short life with the Peeveys, the only family he has ever known, and is terrified to leave them. Mr. Peevey runs a small shop, and Mrs. Peevey wet-nurses children from the Foundling Hospital whenever she has a new baby of her own. Her own son, whom she co-nursed with James, died in infancy, and, although she wanted to keep James permanently as her own, "Mr. Peevey said no. He said the money was needed." Here we see deeply personal relationships and loving human impulses thwarted and distorted by economic necessity in a laissez-faire state. We are left hoping that the mother-son bond can be restored after James "graduates."
In Folly, Marthe Jocelyn follows Hemingway's "omission" principle of good writing. A writer can and should leave out anything from a story, he said, if omitting a part strengthens the story and makes the reader feel something rather than understand it. At one point, Mary Finn is refused a job because of conflict of interest. Yet, some years later, the reader finds her working in a different capacity for the very employer who refused her earlier, although the conflict of interest element still applies. Did a change in administration or a change in Mary's qualifications make the difference? Readers must form their own conclusions.
To appreciate this story fully, readers must pay attention to the date at the beginning of each episode and keep up with the shifts from Mary's point-of-view to James's. This shifting is for a reason. Jocelyn pays her readers the compliment of assuming they are smart and can figure things out.
Although Folly is a work of fiction, Jocelyn explains a personal connection in her "Foreword." Long after her grandfather's death, her family learned that he had been given up in infancy to the London Foundling Hospital; in fact, the name "Jocelyn" is the one he was given by the Hospital authorities. Using Foundling Hospital records, Marthe Jocelyn found out her great-grandmother's name and some of her history. She has written Folly in homage to these ancestors.
Ruth Latta's latest novel, Spelling Bee (Ottawa, Baico, 2009) deals, in part, with issues of social class and the question of whether biology is destiny.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.