In March last year, I wrote a post about Stacey Hall’s captivating debut novel, The Familiars. I was delighted to receive her second novel, due out from MIRA Books next Tuesday, but I’d already signed up to interview another author for my podcast. So I asked if Stacey would be willing to answer some written questions, and she was kind enough to say yes.
So read on for my questions and her answers, and definitely seek out The Lost Orphan. I promise you: I couldn’t put it down!
The Lost Orphan is your second novel. What can you tell us about your earlier book, The Familiars?
The Familiars is set during the Lancashire witch trials that took place in the north of England in 1612. It’s about two women—one of whom is accused of witchcraft, which was a crime punishable by death—and how they try to save each other’s lives. I grew up in Lancashire, and the witches are very much a part of the fabric and history of the area, so I knew about them from a young age. Eleven people were accused of witchcraft; one of them died in prison, one was acquitted and ten were executed. I had the idea for the story when I visited Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire, an Elizabethan property that has views of Pendle Hill, which is synonymous with the witch trials. I wanted to write a story about the trials told from the point of view of someone who lived in this house, who was trying desperately to save someone.
The Lost Orphan—called The Foundling in the UK—opens in London in 1754. A young woman named Bess Bright is taking her newborn baby, Clara, to the Foundling Hospital. Who is Bess, and what has driven her to surrender her infant daughter?
Bess is a shrimp seller from Billingsgate Market, which is London’s fish market. She is a street hawker, selling her produce from a basket she carries on her head. The portrait Shrimp Girl by William Hogarth inspired her job—I came across the painting while researching the period, and thought this girl just looked luminous.
She has a baby daughter after a one-night stand with a merchant, and as she is unmarried and lives with her father and brother, and has to work, she is forced to surrender the baby to the care of the Foundling Hospital. She is a victim of circumstance—there was a lot of shame around illegitimate pregnancy at that time, perhaps not as much as in the Victorian era, however her low status and poverty leave her no choice but to give up her child.
Clara almost doesn’t make it, because entrance to the hospital depends on a lottery system. What can you tell us about that?
Lottery night was devised as a “fair” admissions process in the hospital’s early years. Women were invited to the hospital with their babies, where they would draw colored balls from a bag while wealthy revelers watched. The color of the ball determined whether or not their child was admitted—a white ball meant their child got a place, red put them on the waiting list, and black meant they’d lost. It was such a striking image, with such high stakes that determine the course of the lives of the woman and her child, that I made it the first chapter of the novel.
Six years pass, and Bess slowly gathers her savings. But when she goes to reclaim her child, what does she discover?
Bess is told that child 627—all the children were Christened on admission and given new names, but Bess remembers her daughter’s number—has been collected by her “mother,” who has given Bess’s name and address. The child’s father is dead, so Bess sets out to find out who has claimed her daughter and why.
At this point, the novel switches from Bess’s point of view to that of Alexandra Callard. Who is she, and what connects her to Bess?
I can’t say much without giving away who she is! I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
And tell us, please, about Dr. Mead and his part in the story.
Dr. Mead is Alexandra’s friend, who works at the Foundling Hospital and lives not far from her in Bloomsbury. His grandfather (also Dr. Mead) is the only “real” character in the novel—he was one of the Foundling Hospital’s founding members and physician to the royal family—but he only appears in one scene.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing my third novel, which is set in Edwardian Yorkshire and is about a nanny who goes to work with a wealthy but troubled family there.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Stacey Halls was born in 1989 and grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has written for publications including The Guardian, Stylist, Psychologies, The Independent, The Sun, and Fabulous.
Her first book, The Familiars, was the bestselling debut novel of 2019. The Lost Orphan is her second novel. Find out more about her and join her reading club at http://www.staceyhalls.com.
Images: William Hogarth, Shrimp Girl (1740s), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Foundling Hospital. London (1753), https://wellcomeimages.org via Wikimedia Commons.