Was motherhood harder in the 1800s than it is now? Maybe not. An interview with ‘Lilli de Jong’ author Janet Benton
If the tagline is “fiction need not apply,” why the heck are we talking to a novelist?
Because sometimes, a good novel gets at the truth better than the news.
Lilli de Jong, Janet’s first novel (published in 2017) became one of NPR’s best books of 2017 and one of Bustle’s 17 best debut novels by women in 2017, plus many more honors and rave reviews. The story follows a young Quaker woman in 1880s Germantown (a Philadelphia neighborhood) who becomes pregnant out of wedlock.
Two notes before we begin: First, Lilli de Jong is newly available in paperback. Second, I hate author interviews that contain spoilers. If you haven’t read this book, but you want to hear from Janet Benton before you pick it up, this interview is safe—we’re not divulging plot beyond the novel’s basic premise.
BUT—if you have read the novel, or you read the novel and then want to revisit this conversation, there is a clearly marked EXTRA SUPER-SPECIAL SPOILER section at the end, where we get Janet’s thoughts on the ending of the book.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Alaina Mabaso: We have a crisis around the medical side of birth for mothers in America, but we also have this other piece about maternal leave and access to childcare. Do you hope that people who read your novel could come away with a better understanding of the needs of mothers and children?
Janet Benton: I hope that very deeply. So many people have said that at first they were thinking while reading the novel, Boy, we have it better; and then they read on and started thinking, Well, not really.
Women still face these issues. How on earth am I going to bring in an income while I have a baby? My baby needs me, and my society is not supporting me caring for my baby. A lot of women feel terribly isolated when they’re home with an infant. And so many people are not home with their infants. We don’t have a society that supports parenting.
[Motherhood] was a huge challenge in my life. I could not imagine, prior to giving birth to my daughter [now 15 years old], how I could take three months off without pay, and she turned out to be a sensitive baby who needed me, and I felt such a powerful love for her. I wanted to be the one caring for her, helping her develop … I made a lot of sacrifices. I worked while she napped, I worked after she went to sleep. I worked on the weekends when my husband was home. And my income took an enormous hit for the first several years, and still does. I want to be home for her after school.
Every birth of a child is a huge crisis for a woman, and for every family. Unless they have a ton of money, it means a tremendous amount of sacrifice and I cannot believe that we can’t do better.
Above: Novelist Janet Benton. Photo by Steve Ladner.
AM: Ostensibly Lilli de Jong is about motherhood, but more specifically, it’s a book about motherhood without a man. Motherhood with a man present is elevated as this ideal of womanhood, but motherhood without a man attached is fatally stigmatized.
JB: There is less stigma in the U.S. now in some communities around giving birth without a partner, but around the world, there are still drastic outcomes for mothers and infants that are the result of prejudice against mothers giving birth out of wedlock. The biggest shock is when you consider many of them didn’t even have consensual sex, and even if they did, because of their behavior, they are given 100 percent responsibility for the pregnancy. The outcome for infants is often that they are separated from their mothers, because their mothers can’t afford the public shame or the financial disability of having an infant.
Adoption is an extraordinary act of love and an important part of the world of parenting. There will always be infants and children who need homes, but it is sad when a society’s ignorance and prejudice are what is separating a [biological] mother and child.
In the U.S., even though a [single mom] may not be shunned … how on earth is she supposed to support herself with a baby? How do welfare work requirements make sense for her? Is she getting paid well enough to afford good childcare? Even if she is, why shouldn’t she be allowed to take care of her own child the way that a wealthy woman would be able to?
AM: From what I understand, often what happens is a mother ends up going back to work and spending her pay on childcare, or she stays home and they live on her partner’s salary.
JB: In which case she is earning no social security and gets no employer assistance with retirement savings. That happened to me, as a self-employed person who has put my child’s school calendar as my calendar … My husband would say I have the benefit of flexibility, but it puts us in this circumstance where he has this extreme chain to a job, and has no freedom of movement because we need the healthcare and the steady paycheck, and I am captive to the school calendar and the days that are necessary as a primary caregiver for our daughter … I would not have health coverage without him. My income has gone way down from before she was born.
I don’t know how we can pretend to care about mothers and children without parental-leave policies in place to make it possible to care for your [family].
Above: Germantown Friends School, a Quaker school operating since 1858 in the neighborhood Lilli lives and works in. The building in back is the original building, and the one in front was built in 1869. This photograph was taken around 1900, about 17 years after the novel begins. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.
AM: In Philly but also more broadly, Quakers seem like the heroes in a lot of stories, like the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage, but in this story it’s a Quaker community’s prejudices that put your protagonist into a crisis. And some of the people who give crucial help to her throughout the story are not members of her Quaker community.
JB: Quakers have told me over the years, “I hope you won’t present an idealized version of us, because Quakers are human!” In doing my research, I found something that was very important to me. There’s a publishing company in Maine, Quaker Heritage Press, that publishes what are called Friends Disciplines. This was the code of behavior, and the guidelines for the functioning of Friends Meetings.
The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Discipline from the 19th century was available, and that was so important to me for my understanding of the religious world that really existed. There’s a tremendous amount of beauty in the Friends’ religious practice, and that’s why I made Lilli Quaker. There are lot of reasons I made her Quaker that are important to the story and important to me, like the fact that she could write, the fact that she could be educated. But most of all, the Quaker practice of worship is grounded in the belief that there is no need for an intermediary between humans and God. God will speak directly to a willing human … Not many religions allow you to be the arbiter of your own rightness.
AM: One of your characters experiences homelessness, and I think it’s one of the most harrowing stretches of the book. It does a really good job of conveying that reality of figuring out how to survive day to day, and how this prevents you from getting yourself off the streets in the long run.
JB: One helpful thing was reading about [people experiencing poverty] in the 19th century and a little later … One really powerful book that has information about homeless children in particular is How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis , an early journalist and photographer. He was researching conditions in New York City. [Find riveting images by Riis here.] I also found a lot of really interesting material written by Walt Whitman when he was a journalist.
Whenever I see a homeless person, even if I might be repelled by the smell or the condition of the person … I think this may be someone who has a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Clearly there is no-one in their family who is willing to continue helping them and maybe there are good reasons for that … [But the point is] this is a desperate person here, and I think we protect ourselves by thinking, that could never happen to me. And I think that’s clearly not true. What if a tornado came through and destroyed my neighborhood and family? … There are circumstances where I could become homeless. I think there must be nothing more painful than being on the street in such desperation and having people walk by. That’s why I wanted to have that be a part of the book.
Above: the paperback cover of Lilli de Jong.
AM: Your protagonist becomes pregnant after one sexual encounter. This to me seems like a common theme in movies and fiction, where women and teenagers experience severe stigma for becoming pregnant. For you as a writer, do you think this scenario is effective as a dramatic plot device, or does it say something about our own narrative of women’s/mother’s sexuality? Do we find them more sympathetic if their sexual nature is downplayed?
JB: That was a choice I made, not to have her having sex with him multiple times, because it did seem like it would make her less sympathetic to some people. It also does happen that people become pregnant after one sexual encounter.
I’m concerned about [the portrayal of this] too, and the way that I meant to address that in the book was by making Lilli enjoy sex, and making her say, “My time of shame began in glory.” That’s really important to me … that it was a beautiful experience. I didn’t want to say that it has to be a bad experience.
I did want her throughout to be someone who had sexual feelings and wasn’t ashamed of them. That was another important piece of her character to me and why I made her a Quaker. … I wanted her to be someone who trusted her own experience, her own sense that the man she was with was a good man, though she begins to doubt that later.
AM: I’m a nonfiction writer, and I typically read more essays and nonfiction and biography than I do novels, and when you sent me a copy of your book, you sent me a note.
It seems to me that the underpinnings of your book are historical facts, just as much as your imagination. Are you especially drawn to that type of fiction?
JB: What I like is fiction that creates a rich world that has depth and is believable. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily has to be factual, but I like to believe in the world that the characters are living in.
AM: Is the seed of this book more in your experiences and imagination as a story you wanted to tell, or is it something about those facts or that setting that made you want to hang something on that structure?
JB: I think it was a marriage of those two. I found that when I read about the plight of unwed mothers and their infants in European and American history, my imagination started gathering all sorts of opinions, beliefs, and awarenesses … It started as a small amount of information and a voice that came to me as a result of learning that information. Lilli’s voice came to me in quiet moments when I was nursing my daughter when she was just a few months old.
Above: A photo of a Pennsylvania Rail Road & Reading Rail Road horsecar which operated on Chelten Avenue, near Lilli's neighborhood, circa 1890. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/ Historic Germantown.
AM: You have a book by a woman, about a woman, navigating some fundamental challenges of motherhood. Are you experiencing perceptions that your book is for women readers? What would you say about how it’s a compelling read for men, as well?
JB: Men who have contacted me about it have found it extremely moving, and they have said that they understood things they have never understood before, about women’s experience and motherhood.
I think [Lilli de Jong] would be a great choice for high school and college reading, because many readers have said there’s something revolutionary about it, because it brings you close to the experiences of pregnancy, motherhood, nursing, being an outcast, and really important questions such as, How can a mother be free? If you are responsible for others, can you ever be free? No. There is this model of freedom that is presented by some older male philosophers of the past that doesn’t apply when you’re responsible for others. So how does a woman establish some space for herself? It’s an endlessly relevant question.
Above: Germantown's Market Square, circa 1885. This is a place the fictional Lilli would probably have passed often in the 1880s. The house on the far right houses the Germantown Historical Society today. Image courtesy of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown.
AM: what do you want to say about the novel that you haven’t had a chance to talk about?
JB: For me, the novel rests on the moral statement, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I don’t feel that it has to be God that we mean there. It could be whatever force we believe controls our lives. It could be fate; it could be random happenstance. To me, that’s the foundation of a moral society, and that’s the ethical stance that’s being ripped apart right now. There’s this hateful rhetoric and actions motivated by the idea that one group of people has nothing in common with another, and we don’t need to care for the vulnerable … The idea that depriving and hating others could possibly have anything to do with genuine religiosity or genuine morality is fraudulent. What I hope that my novel does is increase compassion.
Major thanks to Janet for talking with us about her novel! You can get it in paperback, hardcover, e-book, large print, audio, and Hebrew editions. And special thanks to the Germantown Historical Society and Historic Germantown for some of the images here. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, Historic Germantown is full of fascinating sites to visit, dating back to the late 1600s.
and now... EXTRA SUPER-SPECIAL SPOILER ALERT!!
Do not advance unless you want to know how it ends, and why Janet wrote it that way.
Seriously. There are spoilers beyond this point.
AM: The end of this novel is super crafty. It’s kind of a deus ex machina: all of a sudden, there’s Lilli’s fiancé! Now they can get an apartment and everything’s fine because she’s a mother with a man again. But it seems to me, in the last pages of the book, you clearly are setting up a scenario where Johan is frankly kind of useless.
AM: The only important thing now is that Lilli has the status to get back out in the world. I think she’s the one who is going to be supporting their family, not him. So you could think, Thank God her man showed up; everything’s OK now. But that’s not where it ends. It ends with your protagonist still having agency over her own life and her child’s.
JB: In the early years of writing the novel, I was in a writing group with three other writers, and they were reading along. I got about a third of the way into the novel, and they said, “If you make Lilli die, or Charlotte, we will kill ourselves.” Because initially I had thought that Charlotte might need to die … I considered other options rather than having Johan come back. One of them was having Vera Bernstein offering Lilli some kind of job at her fish-stand, or some other thing like that happening. Her literacy could be handy in the market … But I decided I didn’t think it was very possible that a woman could survive without a male partner, without having a family that would take her in. I didn’t want to make her the unrealistic exception. That seemed just as idealized to me as having him come back … I wanted to show that really there wasn’t a way for her to get out of the trap of homelessness, and the only way was that [Johan] came back.
And it was really important to me that it not be the solution to everything. I also wanted to show that he had suffered too, and I gave him an injury … He was a dreamer and a poet, a young man passionate and unrealistic, but it was important to me that ultimately the lesson of the book was not “now my man is back;” The lesson of the book is that motherhood is an initiation into a land where your every act affects others, and you are no longer free. And this is beautiful and powerful and difficult … Lilli writes in her diary about the religious narrative of women being banished from the garden because Eve ate the apple of knowledge.
Lilli reinterprets Eve's story. In the last pages of her diary, she writes, "the apple is the world of pleasure that impregnates us." A woman in labor borders two realms: "the eternal garden and the living-dying world." Lilli goes on:
From this suffering she emerges far more knowing, holding the new life in her arms and her own changed self—delivered of her baby and her innocence . . . she crosses to a land where pain and joy are ever mingled and where her every move has consequence . . . This knowledge is not a curse. Separation from the garden's innocence is not a sin. It is a beginning.