Janet Benton chose to write about a Quaker mother in her debut novel, “Lilli de Jong” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2017) in part because the character’s background resonated with Benton’s own as a Jew.
As a child Benton was part of a Reform congregation in Connecticut. Her mother could no longer afford the dues after her parents divorced, and although her family continued to observe the holidays, Benton’s Jewish education, she told NJJN, “is not complete.”
Nonetheless, she said, “The older I get, the more rooted I feel in my Jewish identity; I know it is essential to who I am and how I think.”
Another inspiration for her novel was her family’s strong tradition of social activism, in particular with regard to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Her great-uncle was a founder, her grandmother was president of the national women’s division, and her great-grandparents ran HIAS’ European operations through 1946, aiding the immigration and rescue of thousands of Jews.
In homage to these activist ancestors, Benton gave the family’s surname, Bernstein, to a character in her book: Vera Bernstein, a fishmonger and widow who is kind and solicitous of advice to the main character, Lilli. (Benton said her family eventually changed the name to Benton to evade New York quotas for Jews in higher education.)
“Lilli De Jong” is about an unwed Quaker mother in Philadelphia in the late 19th-century. A 2003 New Yorker review of “The History of the European Family” sparked Benton’s interest in the subject matter. From that book Benton learned about the high numbers of illegitimate births in Europe and of single mothers in modern America. She also learned of the high mortality rate for babies less than a year old who were sent to wet nurses in 18th-century France.
Benton, who lives in the Philadelphia area, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing in 1992 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and she mentors writers through The Word Studio. She spoke to NJJN about the process of writing “Lilli de Jong” and how her experiences shaped the story:
NJJN: Why, as a Jew and a writer, did it make sense to write about Quakers?
JB: Germantown was settled by Quakers and Mennonites, and as a Jew I felt like I could do a much better imitation of a Quaker: Quakers didn’t rely so much on the New Testament, and Quakers have a real sense of each person having the light of God within them, like our notion of the Shechinah [God’s presence]. They feel obligated to take ethical positions and improve the world, which was also something I could relate to from my background.
Quakers also believe that God speaks directly to them, and I felt like this gave Lilli the competence she would need to make the decision to keep her baby despite all the people saying it was wrong. They also believed in the equality of males and females so they educated boys and girls equally. Since the novel is a diary, I wanted an educated woman writer who would write in a style more natural to me.
NJJN: Why did you choose Germantown, Pa., as the setting?
JB: It was a neighborhood that spoke so much to me of the period, the 1800s. … I felt like I could walk down the streets and really imagine earlier times.
NJJN: How did your sister’s death from Tay-Sachs disease the day before your birth play into this novel?
JB: The loss of my sister certainly sensitized me to the risk connected to childbearing, and I saw how devastating the loss of a child was. It played a part in my understanding of how Lilli might feel with her child far away [with a wet nurse] and at risk. … When I had my own daughter [now 16], it filled in the gap of me not knowing how to love a child to that degree, and it made me understand what women went through when forced to lose a child through prejudice.
NJJN: How are the perceptions of women in the 19th century similar to or different from today?
JB: Your ideas of what women might have felt or thought in the past are probably the result of a very small number of sources that came through history books into schools. Women in the past have been as radical as and far more radical than women today. They saw marriage as slavery and advocated for free love. In the 1800s, women traveled the country talking about the imprisonment of marriage — they had no right to own property, couldn’t keep their own wages, couldn’t keep their own children, and if their husband died everything would go to the oldest son.
Someone like [the fictional] Anne Pierce [director of the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants, where Lilli went to deliver her baby] was seeing regularly the abuses of young women and the shameful treatment of them by society and would have been an outspoken advocate. … I don’t think of Lilli as a radical character, but as a rational character. She’s not trying to change the world — she just wanted to keep her baby.
NJJN: What was the basis of the character Clementina, a well-off society woman who hired Lilli as a wet nurse but cared little about her as a person?
JB: She was based on an actual [person] in Illinois who did not think of her wet nurses as fully human and forbade a wet nurse in her employment to go to her own baby’s funeral. There were some women at that time who were upper class and believed in their own freedom and rights, but really didn’t see the same need for their servants.
NJJN: Describe some of the research you did to make sure the novel was authentic historically.
JB: It could take an entire day or two to find out what kind of herbs a doctor might have given Lilli’s mother that might have killed her or how long it would take two characters to get to Pittsburgh. You can’t take anything for granted when you are writing about the past. I tried to make the book almost like a dollhouse: a miniature world that was as accurate as I could make it.
If you go
Who: Author Janet Benton
What: Book talk, signing of “Lilli de Jong.” Attendees are encouraged to bring donations of bras and packages of feminine hygiene products to be distributed through I Support the Girls.
When: Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m.
Where: Congregation Beth El, Yardley
Cost: $15, late-19th-century Philadelphia-themed refreshments served
RSVP: Register at bethelyardley.org or call 215-493-1707, ext. 4.