The Lilli de Jong Quest – The Long Lost Voices of “Fallen Women” – An Interview with award-winning author Janet Benton

by Ilona Kimberly Nagy

The Women on a Quest series is about the inherent creativity and drive of women who carve out their own paths. My quest is to tell stories about individuals, business models and creative avenues that inspire me–and uphold the women brave enough to live their quests with guts, grit and caring radiance–radiance that lights the way for others. 

Author Janet Benton at eight years old with her mother, Suzanne Benton

Janet Benton on her love for her daughter: “My daughter fills my heart with light every day. Loving and raising her schools my heart and strengthens me.”

Author Janet Benton with her daughter

Janet Benton her urge to write it down: “One thing that keeps me writing is my mood. If I don’t get a tiny chance to write most weeks, I feel trapped. I’d like twenty hours a week for writing, but so far that has rarely been possible, so I admit to feeling somewhat trapped most of the time by the difficulty of achieving this. The other reality that keeps me both writing and frustrated is the stream of ideas that runs through me and demands to be put on the page. Words come to me and I write them down, usually in highly truncated form because I don’t have the time to develop much at that moment. I have piles of scraps!”

Janet Benton on how long it took her to finish Lilli de Jong: “I was determined to finish, and I did so over the course of a dozen years from idea to the final proofs (at the publisher). I spent at least 8,000 hours writing and researching Lilli de Jong.”

The first stirrings of Janet Benton’s debut work of historical fiction, Lilli de Jong, flared in her mind as she sat for long hours and nursed her infant daughter fifteen years ago.  As she marveled at the flood of tender (exhausted) feelings inside of her, the writer and editor heard a new voice, a new character, begin to speak loudly and clearly in her mind. “It was the voice of an unwed mother from long ago,” Benton recalls in her Author’s Note. Thus grew Benton’s quest to discover the world of her emerging protagonist, Lilli de Jong, a 23-year old Quaker woman who lives in 19th-century Philadelphia and finds herself pregnant, abandoned and alone.

“When a story idea works, I’m in the mind and heart of the main character the moment a story comes to me,” says Benton. “She or he springs into my mind along with the image and idea of the story—not a detailed idea, but a strongly felt experience. There’s something I want to name, to explore, but it’s hard to capture. That felt experience comes with a sense of heat and urgency.”

Just before the main character of Lilli de Jong began to emerge, Benton had read a review by Joan Acocella of The History of the European Family,which, among other tragic stories, detailed the poverty and stigma encountered by “fallen women” in 19th-century Europe. The rate of illegitimate children was over fifty percent in some places and times. The situation in the United States at that time was no different. Whether girls fell in love and were abandoned after finding themselves pregnant or were forced into their “condition,” they had almost no choice but to give up their infants if they hoped for any future at all for their babies — or for themselves.

Called “a gorgeous paean to the courage and ferocity of a mother’s love” by Shelf Awareness and “a super lush historical novel and an amazing feminist manifesto” by Book Riot, Lilli de Jong is on no less than twenty-one Bookbub lists and was named one of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2017. Kirkus Reviews adds that “Benton holds a mirror up to the past and, in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go. An absorbing debut from a writer to watch.”

With all of its clear resonance with readers, there has been some interest in the novel from people working with Hollywood. But one noted that the story is “small,” contrasting it with the “big” stories Hollywood is said to prefer. In a recent article for Signature Reads, Benton charted out this seemingly outdated categorization of big (re: about guns, war or alien, face-eating monsters) vs. “small” (re: about women, family and relationships). In her article, Benton recounts her shock that such a cliché remained true.

What happens if we keep on elevating the same bang-em-up, zoom-in-on-hero-shot stories as automatically “bigger” and more “marketable” over “softer,” more psychologically complex or more accurate historical renderings as “small”? Even with evidence of healthy profit margins and lower budgets for the latter?

There is nothing that is small about the main character of Lilli de Jong, a young woman living in 19th-century Philadelphia, who will grab you with her fierce-hearted loyalty to the teachings of her mother, who will inspire you with her gritty conscience that is tested in every conceivable corner. Lilli is in a big old mess of a predicament, which seems to keep getting worse.

As a part of this series devoted to women’s quests, I asked Benton a few questions about her life and her mission to make sure Lilli de Jong’s story is remembered.

In your acknowledgements you write, “to my mother, Suzanne Benton, for raising and sustaining me in your loving and creative spirit, and for teaching me that one’s understanding of history depends entirely on where one looks.” I’d love to know more about your mother and what she taught you. Is there one lesson that stands out about “one’s understanding of history depends entirely on where one looks”?  

Yes, there is one lesson that comes to mind. My mother, Suzanne Benton, is a visual artist. When she joined the feminist movement in the mid-1960s, she became more conscious of the masks women wear in life. She learned to weld at a class she took when I was two and set up a welding studio in our house; then she decided to weld some masks. Next, she began to create stories to tell while wearing the masks. Her first mask tales were retellings of Bible stories. One, “Sarah and Hagar,” retold familiar stories about Abraham from the women’s points of view. She told the story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice to God from Sarah’s point of view, using one mask. She told of Hagar, described as Sarah’s handmaiden, being raped by Abraham and having a son, Ishmael, as a result, from Hagar’s point of view, using another mask. The Bible story tells us that, in jealousy, Sarah banished Hagar and Ishmael and that they almost died in the desert. My mother brings the anguish of both Sarah and Hagar to life, revealing their experiences as women trapped in a patriarchal culture. Amazingly, her first performance of “Sarah and Hagar” was in an outdoor theater at Lincoln Center, 50 miles from our home. Another of her stories was “Mary Adeline and the Birth Story.” It combined the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother, with that of my mother’s classmate, Adeline, who became pregnant as a teenager and left school. Adeline came back after having had her baby in secret and didn’t go back to school but instead began working at the local drug store, becoming someone the other kids whispered about. One can’t help but feel her anguish and the fear her situation raised in the other girls.

Sarah and Hagar, Suzanne Benton, 1975

The intensity of these mask tales showed me how much energy is released when one tells a familiar story from a different point of view. I came to understand that the stories told as history are at least as biased and partial as those Bible stories. In much of what we call history, women’s names, even, have been disappeared, along with our experiences and contributions. We should all be enraged at the disappearance of most kinds of people from the tales of the past we are fed in school, on television, in many books, in articles, in movies, on commemorative signs, at historic sites, in the names of buildings, and on and on. To exclude so many people and concerns from history and from the tales we tell of the present day is to keep most of us from understanding our value and our power.

At the end of the book, where you describe your research, I loved your note of thanks to the institutions of the past that offered tactical help to unwed expectant mothers in a “climate of hate.”  You write, “The maternity home that takes in Lilli is also based on a real institution—the State Hospital for Women and Infants.” Those who led the institution wrote passionately in annual reports of the 1880s about the women they wanted to help. You write, “The condition of the arriving inmates is described as ‘depressed by the disgrace attaching to their situation; anxious through fear that their fall should become known to their friends,’” and so on. In the report-writer’s words, some of the women were “suffering from attempts to produce abortion; unhappy in view of the necessity of separation from their children; and not infrequently, from exposure and insufficiency of food, on the verge of serious illness.”  

–What surprised you in your research as you delved into the past your heroine might have lived—and what did it reveal about the real people in history who would have dared to help her?   

What surprised me at first was the virulent hatred directed at those pregnant out of wedlock. Whether these girls and women were raped, tricked, uninformed about biology, or aware of the risks and willing to follow their physical desires appeared to make no difference. I don’t mean that those following physical desires without being married deserved hatred. I mean that there is no logic to the hatred apart from the logic of wanting to control women and children. If unauthorized lust were truly the cause of the hatred, then people who had been acted upon rather than acting would not be “stained,” and people of both sexes who had intercourse before marriage would have been equally “stained” to those who believed unauthorized lust was evil.

But all of this soon stopped surprising me, as I looked at our culture and cultures around the world, where societal attitudes and structural inequalities still reveal that a woman must be married to have children without facing prejudice, that single mothers earn lower wages even than other mothers receive, and that single mothers face many other hardships.

Women didn’t have the right to vote in America until almost 150 years after the nation was founded—not even a hundred years ago—and until each state changed its laws, a married woman didn’t have the right to her own wages. Her children and home didn’t belong to her, so if her husband died, she could lose them. Such forced dependency still casts its long shadow.

I was also startled, when researching for Lilli de Jong, to read of the corruption of public officials at the Blockley Almshouse—Philadelphia’s public almshouse, run by a Board of Guardians. Food and other resources were literally stolen by at least one of the so-called guardians and put in storehouses in his home. All but inedible foodstuffs and other substandard supplies were purchased cheaply, with those involved pocketing the price difference. Bodies were dug up from the cemetery and ferried across the river, sold to those wishing to learn medicine by examining cadavers.

Those who helped unwed mothers were brave, as some people always have been and will be. There were many men and women who helped them in nineteenth-century Philadelphia; from what I read, it appears that the State Hospital for Women and Infants was founded by male doctors and medical residents.

You write beautifully about the double standard between men and women and particularly the social consequences of sexuality for women. Lilli, having lived those consequences every day and been stripped of her dignity and shamed by everyone she met—gets angrier and angrier at the man she loves, including at his romantic notions of their love when they reunite at the end of the book. It’s the willingness to provide physical support and genuine understanding that begin to matter to her the most.  This is an important moment in the book.  What does Lilli need the reader to understand?

I think it’s difficult to achieve full understanding between the sexes in some areas, and this is one. A man and a woman who can get pregnant may share a joyous, spontaneous experience of sex, but for a woman, that moment can bring a fundamentally, inescapably, permanently altered life from that moment on. 

By looking at the biases against unwed mothers and their children, we learn that, when a female has sex, by choice or force, and has a child without being legally attached to a man, she is a threat. Judging from what occurs—such as wage inequality, work requirements that may be impossible to meet partly due to the needs of children, and cruelly inadequate public assistance from agencies made dysfunctional by underfunding—we see the intention: to keep the resources of the unwed mother and her children minimal. Why?

As Lilli gazes with love at her infant daughter she thinks to herself: “Perhaps our bodies are like patchwork quilts, made up of kin from decades and even centuries past. Charlotte contains all these patches and offers her own as the next in line—one more reason to cherish her.” 

Family Photo

–What is your family quilt made up of and how would you describe it to readers?

I do know of my immediate kin from decades past, but none from centuries past. They are highly varied people, with—among those I know or knew—a lot of creative pursuits and humanitarian actions among them. I know of one other fiction writer among us, but I never met her. Sadly, when I was living in New York City after college and my father told me her phone number and address, I was only 20 and somehow didn’t understand that she would be happy to hear from me. I was too uncomfortable to reach out to a stranger, even one to whom I was related. She was an old woman, and she died before I realized it would be wonderful to meet her. Most of my father’s family of that generation were extraordinary people I never met. On my mother’s side, there was a great-aunt who, as a chiropractor, defied the law and endured prison to keep practicing—I never met her, either—and I’m sure there were many other fiery women, given how my great-aunt, grandmother, and mother turned out, and interesting men, given the marvelous good humor of my great-grandfather, who died at 102 when I was 14.

What would Lilli make of the Me Too movement? So many women are finally pushing back against shame and the diminishment that they have been made to feel is “their fault” by naming men who would not have been held accountable for their actions. How do we give these past generations a voice that will change the future? 

We give past generations a voice by telling their—our—stories. But these stories are still difficult and risky to tell. Lilli was in such a marginal position that I don’t see how she could have complained about abuse, which should tell us something about today, as well. Most women can’t afford to threaten their jobs by coming forward, or their marriages, or their other personal and public relationships. Most don’t have anyone powerful and sympathetic to help us. And the backlash is terrifying.

After reading your book, what do you most want readers to remember about Lilli and Charlotte? Why?

The basis of this novel is the powerful bond between a mother and her infant. Mothers and infants are everyone. We all were infants, and we all had mothers. Providing a fair, safe, supportive environment for parents and children should be the first goal of human society. From this, all else that is good arises. In the United States and much of the world, we have a long, long way to go.

Theme Song for Lilli de Jong:  “The song that came to mind is by Labelle and it’s called ‘It Took a Long Time.'”

“It’s on an album called Nightbirds. This is a love song I found when my husband and I were putting together a CD for our wedding. Our band was called The Nightbirds, and the album this song comes from is called “Nightbirds,” so it happened to catch my eye in a used-CD shop. The song bowled me over, and it was my top pick for our wedding CD. But it also makes sense as a song about my novel, because the novel took such a long time to complete, as I never was able to work on it full time. I’ve had many novel ideas and started two others, but the lack of freedom to write always stopped me after a while. Lilli’s was the only novel-length story I’ve ever been so powerfully committed to. This took so much persistence, and the song’s line “It took a long time to find this place” certainly applies to what it took for me to get a novel into the world.”

[otw_shortcode_button href=”” size=”medium” icon_position=”left” shape=”square”]You can now buy Lilli de Jong in paperback[/otw_shortcode_button]  

About Ilona Kimberly Nagy: I am a professional writer and publisher who reveres the interview and profile format. I truly believe that everyone has a story to tell and that curiosity combined with research leads to magic doorway interviews that invite readers to relax and discover their connectedness to every imaginable subject. I’ve interviewed Academy-Award-winning film director Pamela Tanner Boll and Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson along with many other film directors, educators, translators, musicians, scientists, artists, and so many more.  With twenty years experience in the publishing world, I help clients shape and promote their writing, and work with a stable of wonderful clients, all of whom have inspired me with their noble quests.