Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for February 2022.



Lily’s story is set in 1860’s Victorian England with all it’s high moral values laced with hypocrisy and double standards. From the outset we know that Lily has committed a murder for she tells us so. She is haunted by her crime and she persecutes herself to the point of illness as she fears discovery and subsequent punishment by hanging.
          The reader has to wait before finding out who the victim is and why a young girl of sixteen would be driven to commit such a heinous act but when we do find out the circumstances it is hard to condemn her, there are no moral certainties in this book.
          Lily’s beginnings read like a folktale. Abandoned at birth and left in a sack at a park gate in London she is rescued by a young constable, Sam Trench. He takes her to the Coram Foundling hospital where she is nursed back to life and as was the policy of the hospital Lily is fostered out for the first six years of her life.
          Lily’s foster home is the idyllic Rookery Farm in the Suffolk countryside run by Nelly and Buck Perkins with their three young sons. While farm life was hard with animals to tend to, fields to be cleared of stones and endless domestic chores, it was a happy home mostly due to Nelly’s loving nature. Nelly and Lily form a close bond and Nelly teaches Lily how to sew as she knows she is going to need skills for the future.
          This happy life is shattered for Lily as she has to return ‘by law’ to the Coram Foundling hospital. It is a very moving description of the separation of Nelly and Lily at the orphanage as both are heartbroken and Lily cannot understand why she has to live there. She is angry and rebellious, she runs away with her friend Bridget, is caught and returned where punishment awaits them both.
          But it is Lily’s defiance and disobedience that singles her out for particular cruelties by one of the upstanding members of staff, nurse Maud. She tells them “they were evil and that all through their lives this evil would be in them”. Yet it is nurse Maud who is evil and subjects Lily and some of the other girls from when they are about ten years old to her own form of punishment she calls absolution.
          Many of our readers found this part of the book very hard to read as it dealt with childhood cruelty and abuses. The book could easily have descended into misery literature but the author has Lily retain an essence of goodness as she goes out into the world at sixteen.
          Lily starts working for Belle Prettywood at her Wig Emporium and because of her sewing skills she becomes one of her best workers. Belle is a very successful businesswoman and socialite. She has many paramours and knows the value of connections, especially in a male dominated world. She favours Lily and becomes a sort of mentor, taking her to the opera where their wigs are on show and offers her lodgings in her home, but Lily refuses knowing she must live alone with the guilt of her crime. However, Lily nurses Belle when she is ill with shingles and half confesses her crime to her, saying that she had been violated and suffered but had put an end to it, but Belle cannot believe Lily could ever kill anyone.
          During this time Lily becomes reacquainted through her church with Sam Trench the constable who rescued her. He has been keeping an eye on her all through the years and is now a superintendent and a married man, his wife Joyce tells Lily “he says it is the most important thing he ever did in his life”. Strong feelings develop between Lily and Sam and although nothing has happened between them she fears he will find out her crime and bring her to justice. She has decided that she will only confess the fullness of the murder to him and so when he comes to her flat one night she thinks he has found her out and so tells him the full story. But Sam did not suspect her and his reason for calling was to confess his love with the hope of a liaison. He is stunned and in shock but he does not arrest her. He gives her one day to disappear and never to return to London.
          With Belle’s help Lily returns to the only place she loves, Rookery Farm. It is only Nelly living there now with her son Jessie and they welcome her back like a long lost daughter. Lily knows she cannot ever be totally at peace as she still has the guilt of her crime and the fear of being caught hanging over her. But in the meantime she will care for her beloved Nelly in her dotage and help Jessie rebuild the farm, while always looking over her shoulder for the long arm of the law.
          Most of the book club readers found it a good read despite the harshness depicted of childhood cruelty and the poverty of the times.

Alison Claffey
Dublin Unitarian Church