Go to the workhouse, taking
you with me, where death was
likely... Or forsake you,
my precious boy, at the
Foundling Hospital, where
you might be raised up not
knowing how your mother tried,
nor how she loved you enough
to say goodbye."
I read Coram Boy (Egmont) by Jamila Gavin years ago; and yet, I remember vividly many of the characters and most of the scenes. It had a tremendous impact on me, as a reader and a person. It lead me to learn as much as I could learn about Thomas Coram and the foundling home that he established in the eighteenth century, when he saw the deplorable conditions that newborn babies faced when their mothers had no way to care for them.
This novel is set in the mid to late nineteenth century, more than one hundred years after The Foundling Hospital opened. By then all pregnant mothers who had no means of support were interviewed by staff and had to make a promise never to make that same mistake again. Their children were placed with a foster family until six, and then came back to an institution until they were ready to learn a trade.
Told by two characters in differing voices, we learn much about their life and times. Mary tells her story in first person, making it compelling and poignant. The voice provides for her readers an immediacy and connection to 'you', since that is the focus of her story. James' story begins when he leaves his foster family and it is told in third person. It is a powerful and readable tale.
The cast of characters provides a clear and devastating picture of life in Victorian times, and the chasm that existed between the privileged and the poor. The workhouse or life on the streets were the options for those who did not find a place in the Foundling Hospital, where they were told that they must prove themselves good and kind, honest and amenable to the demands of their benefactors.
Mary is a strong and sympathetic character, whose life is bereft of much kindness and love. When her lover is called away to Afghanistan, and she finds herself pregnant, that life goes from bad to worse. All that James has known is coming to an end at age six, as he leaves the Peeveys, and he is frightened of life beyond his known confines. Mrs. Peevey is also distraught over the loss, but is told by her husband they cannot keep James...money is tight. They cannot afford another child, and they need to take a new baby in to help with finances.
As you read watch carefully the penned dates and be aware of the voices changing. It is an inspired telling that has a very personal connection for Marthe Jocelyn. Be sure to read her 'Foreword'! Her story is as poignant and heartbreaking as what happens to Mary and James, kindred spirits with definitive spunk!