Stacey Halls is the author of the new historical novel The Lost Orphan, which takes place in 18th century London. She also has written the novel The Familiars, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She lives in London.
Q: You note that a visit to the Foundling Museum in London inspired the idea for this novel. How did you create your characters Bess and Alexandra?
A: Bess was who I came up with first. When I got the story idea I thought about who would need to leave their baby at the Foundling Hospital, and why. There were various reasons, but the main ones were poverty and illegitimacy (and most often both).
I wanted Bess to be very ordinary and relatable; she is a victim of her circumstances but would never describe herself as that.
Alexandra is Bess’ opposite; she is rich, she has been married, she doesn’t have to go outside. She is much more insular and controlling.
I wanted both Charlotte’s mothers to be very different, and it be a tug of war between the reader thinking who should have her. Alexandra is able to give her everything she needs except the most crucial thing of all, which, arguably, is not the most crucial thing of all in those times: money and safety were far more important than love.
So it’s a lot of back and forth, a moral dilemma. I’ve been interested to see how readers react, too; they usually come down quite hard on Alexandra.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Sometimes I wish I didn’t want to write historical novels because every time I get an idea I know how much research will be involved. It’s a pleasure and a chore: it gives me tons more ideas but sometimes I wish I could just start writing the story.
There’s nothing stopping me from doing that but it has to feel authentic to me, I don’t like filling in a lot of gaps or thinking: “I’ll get back to that.” I do as much research as is necessary for me to feel like I have some sense of atmosphere; it’s different for every novel.
I don’t usually fill more than about half a notebook with notes about the period or specific areas - such as Billingsgate or the Foundling Hospital, which are two settings in the book - because by that point my attention runs out. I’d be an awful academic or historian, I just take the shiny bits and forget the rest.
And history is full of so full of surprises I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’ll go with the fact that lions were kept at the Tower of London, and if you couldn’t afford the entry fee to see them you could take a dead dog to feed them as payment.
Q: What do you think the novel says about women's roles in mid-18th century London?
A: This is a difficult question for me to answer as I don’t try and “say” anything about women or gender roles in my writing; I’m more invested in my characters’ interior lives and how that projects outwards and forms a story, rather than the other way around.
But I suppose I am very interested in reading and writing historical fiction because of the limitations that have been placed on women historically: what they can’t do, rather than can. Boundaries and how women navigate these small spaces allotted to them is far more attractive to me than, say, writing about the pioneers or the history-makers.
I suppose that’s why I haven’t had an idea to write from the perspective of a male protagonist, because they aren’t so constrained in the same way, though history hasn’t been wholly kind to men either.
What I did learn about the 18th century, though, is that poorer women seemed to have a bit more freedom in their personal lives than their more wealthy counterparts. Children born out of wedlock was a problem, but it wasn’t so much in the lower classes.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: As Philip Pullman says, I’m not in the message business, I’m in the once upon a time business. I’d never want to push any agenda or takeaway on readers. If they enjoyed the story and would recommend it to someone else, that’s good enough for me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing my third novel, which is set in West Yorkshire in the Edwardian period, which is, incidentally, my favourite period. I love the clothes and houses.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For aspiring writers, Scrivener>Microsoft Word. This was a realisation I made too late in the game.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb