Folly / Marthe Jocelyn
Toronto: Tundra, c2010.
Folly, the latest teen novel by local-to-me author Marthe Jocelyn, is an historical novel set in late Victorian England. It is inspired by Jocelyn's family history: her grandfather, known to the family as an orphan, turned out to be a foundling -- upon research, she discovered the name and family situation of her great-grandmother. This inspired a tale of a young woman caught up in circumstances which end up forcing her to give up her young infant son to Coram's Foundling Home, and then about what happened to him there.
I'm not a huge reader of historical novels, so was pleased to find this an absorbing and atmospheric read. I like Jocelyn's style (other favourites of hers are Earthly Astonishments and Mable Riley) and so was sure that this book would be a great read, and was very correct in that guess.
The style is straightforward; we meet young Mary early on, and her voice as a young girl being sent out to service is blunt and believable. She is a young teen when her mother dies and she takes over caring for her siblings. Her father decides to marry again, however, and the stepmother is not overly fond of Mary. From a loving childhood she moves into a cold and difficult adolescence and then is expected to go out to work.We see how she could have easily fallen victim to the blandishments of a handsome young man, and have ended up with a son whom she loved but could not care for. Her story is told in the first person, and her speaking voice is captivating.Her chapters are interspersed with third person chapters focused on her unusually clever son who is growing up in Coram's foundling home. These chapters paint a clear picture of what these children went through; being nursed in foster homes until the age of 6 when they were ripped away from what they thought of as their families and sent back to the home for schooling. The essential loneliness of such a life comes through, but James is a survivor and finds what he needs through a steady love for his distant foster mother and an attachment to Oliver, a kindly young schoolmaster.
There are also brief chapters throughout (in third person as well) from the perspectives of Oliver and of Eliza, a maid Mary works with who is jealous of her charms and their appeal to the man Eliza has her eye on, a situation which leads to Mary's eventual troubles.
Both stories come together near the end when a new nurse with a kindly eye for young James appears at the school. She and Oliver are James' supports as he struggles to make a life for himself, and there is a hint of potential romance between these two adults. However, the story does not lazily conclude with the easy, sentimental scenario which it very well could have. It recognizes the complexity of love and of family feeling, and the social conditions within which all the characters move, and concludes with a satisfying, believable and hopeful situation.
I don't want to say too much for fear of ruining the plot and the reading experience. I will say it is an engaging read which I sped through, and the setting and voice of each of the characters is clear and individual. Historical novel fans will love it.
If you want to learn more about Coram's Foundling Hospital, try reading A Home for Foundlings, also written by Marthe Jocelyn.
Passionate Booklover calls it "a gripping tale that left me longing for more".
Lavender Lines says "I stayed entranced with her story. Love, lust, longing, deceit, envy. This book has it all."
Emily at Emily's Reading Room states "Marthe Jocelyn has created a masterpiece of historical fiction that I will not soon forget."