The Bookshop has had the utmost pleasure of hosting Stacey Halls for two events in the last year; in September to talk about her spellbinding debut and Sunday Times bestseller, The Familiars, and in February, to talk about her brand new novel The Foundling. Set in London in 1754, Bess Bright makes the heartbreaking decision to leave her illegitimate newborn baby at the Foundling Hospital in London, promising herself that she will come back to claim her daughter as soon as she can. Here, Stacey tells us a little bit more about her second novel, and the inspiration behind it...
1) Can you tell us a bit about your book, The Foundling?
The Foundling is set in Georgian London, and is about a young woman, Bess, who left her illegitimate daughter Clara at the Foundling Hospital six years before. When she returns to claim her, having saved enough money to be able to support her, she is told Clara has already been claimed by her mother. So she sets out to find out who has taken her, and why.
2) What inspired you to write the book?
The story idea came to me when I visited The Foundling Museum in London. The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by a sailor and philanthropist called Thomas Coram for babies at risk of abandonment, and it was the first place of its kind – essentially a children’s home where parents could leave their babies regardless of background or circumstance. Because places at the hospital were so highly sought, in its early days the hospital devised a lottery system where the mothers drew coloured balls from a bag, and the colour determined whether or not their child got a place. It was such a striking image, I ended up using it as the first scene in the book. The second thing that inspired me was the tokens - little objects that mothers would leave with their babies as a sort of secret deposit. The idea was if they were ever able to come in and claim their children however many months or years down the line, they would name the token they left with their son or daughter, and that way they’d be identified. It made me think what if someone abused the system, or there was a mix-up and two women left a similar token on the same day.
3) What did you learn when writing the book?
Writing a book is always an education, particularly when you’re a historical writer. You have to become an expert in this micro world, some of which is real, or at least authentic, most of which isn’t. My favourite part of writing is the research, which feels like a really fun school project. Contrary to what people might assume I don’t read very widely about a period; I plot the story out and then look into specifics, for example London in Georgian times, life for the poor, food and drink, Billingsgate market, crime and punishment, life for people of colour. As much as I’d love to read up for two years I don’t have the time, and the story always comes first. There are always loads of things I want to include but it has to work; a few do make it in, such as the fact that there were lions in the Tower of London that you could make payment to see with a dead dog, presumably to feed them!
4) What surprised you the most?
I was surprised to learn that London had a Black population of between 15,000 and 30,000 in the early 18th century, which in a city of a quarter of a million people was not insubstantial. The majority were enslaved, but a significant proportion was not. I think the reason I was surprised was because we tend to make assumptions about periods based on what we consume, in my case novels and period dramas, which almost exclusively feature white casts. I decided to include a Black woman in The Foundling to reflect the diversity of the city at the time, but also to pose an irony: Bess’ child is missing, which is the worst thing that can happen to a mother, but Keziah’s two boys are always at risk of being stolen and sold into slavery. She would be powerless if that happened, as the laws of the time permitted it, so she has to live in this very discreet way.
5) What was the last book that you bought at a bookshop?
I bought two: Terri White’s memoir Coming Undone and Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves.
6) What was the best book you read during lockdown?
It’s not out until next year (sorry!) but Girl A by Abigail Dean. It’s a debut, and it’s phenomenal, about a girl who has overcome a traumatic, abusive childhood to become a successful lawyer, but her mother’s death in prison forces her to confront her siblings and her past.
The Foundling is released in paperback on Thursday 3rd September.