Lily by Rose Tremain review – Foundling Hospital melodrama

There are wolves, kindly constables and suffering aplenty in this ‘tale of revenge’ set in Victorian London

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of melodrama. It was good enough for Daphne du Maurier, who made of it something heady and elemental, and such contemporary virtuosos as Sarah Waters continue to draw on its disreputable traditions. It needn’t alarm us, then, to find that Rose Tremain’s new novel opens with a confession of murder, a stormy night and the rescue – from ravening wolves, no less – of a foundling infant. What’s the point of melodrama, after all, if you can’t turn up the dials a bit?

Known for flitting easily between period settings, Tremain takes us this time to the London of the 1860s, where Lily Mortimer, though not yet 17, is setting her affairs in order. The former foundling confesses her crime only to the reader, yet she is certain of her doom. She will soon be discovered and hanged, she believes, and means therefore to set down her testimony – not so that we can judge her for ourselves, but so that she can absolve herself or otherwise.

Rescued from the aforementioned wolves by a kindly constable, the infant Lily is consigned to the Foundling Hospital. There she is to be inculcated with humility (her mother being a “shameful sinner”) and fitted in due course for some dismal occupation so that her debt to the upright can be discharged. In keeping with these grimly benevolent principles, she is “christened anew”. Henceforth, she will be Lily Mortimer, named for a high-born benefactress, as if to reinforce her own lowly station.

But before Lily’s oppression can begin in earnest, she is whisked off to the Suffolk countryside. It is the hospital’s practice to farm out its charges for the first six years of their lives, presumably to ensure that they are sturdy enough to be properly brutalised. As befits the heroine of a melodrama, the arrangement also entrains a brief reversal of fortune. For at Rookery Farm, the young Lily is positively steeped in bucolic bliss, doted upon by a sweet-natured matriarch and surrounded by “a bright immensity of sky, skeins of thistledown born aloft, birds in the trembling heavens”.

All of which is lovely enough, in its way – though thistledown is surely “borne” rather than “born” aloft – but by this point in the proceedings the accretion of familiar elements is growing worrisome. Nellie Buck, the foster mother to whose skirts Lily literally clings, regards the world “over the big shelf of her bosom” and brings those around her “to a contemplation of their best selves”. Such florid archetypes can be put to sly uses, but this one is wheeled out with every appearance of solemnity. Again, melodrama is fine, as long as it’s clear you’re doing it on purpose.

Lily is duly heartbroken when she learns that she must return to the hospital, but heartbreak proves to be the least of her sufferings. And in the depiction of these sufferings Tremain finds a surer footing, paring away the histrionics and adopting a flintier register. The Sisters in charge demand not just obedience but gratitude. They don’t get it from Lily, who has known real love and kindness and refuses to play along.

For this she is singled out and subjected to escalating cruelties that culminate in outright depravity. Her only friend, meanwhile – a child of just eight – is driven to such despair that when Lily knits her a scarf, she uses it to hang herself. The central murder, by the time it is recounted, seems scarcely to require explanation, let alone absolution. For Lily, “it was as if a tiny hurting part of her brain had turned itself into a compass […] hovering perpetually upon north”.

At the heart of this novel, then, is a taut and quietly furious moral drama that sits uneasily amid its more frivolous trappings. Indeed, it seems in the end to be striving to shake them off. Lily leaves her employer, a flamboyant wigmaker who moonlights as a courtesan. In a moment of crisis, she seeks out the kindly constable who once saved her. Now a married superintendent, he responds by making a humid declaration of love; another shabby figure from the stagy romp to which Lily herself no longer belongs.

It is puzzling but by no means disastrous that Tremain seems to advertise a lurid entertainment yet ultimately delivers a sombre rumination on wickedness and moral fortitude. The resulting dissonance won’t trouble everyone, and it would take more than that to obscure this old hand’s storytelling prowess. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, but a simple tale well told will do just as nicely.

Paraic O’Donnell’s most recent novel is The House on Vesper Sands (W&N). Lily: a Tale of Revenge by Rose Tremain is published by Chatto (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Paraic O’Donnell

The GuardianTramp

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