Review: Rose Tremain's latest historical novel is a fairytale melodrama set in Dickensian London

  • Lily, by Rose Tremain. Chatto & Windus, $32.99.

London's Coram Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young people". It was essentially an institution for abandoned or unwanted babies. However, for their first five years, they were sent to families in the countryside before returning to live in the hospital until their teens, when they were apprenticed.

Coram Hospital became a very fashionable charity, supported by many in the aristocracy, high society and the arts. The most famous of the artistic benefactors was Handel, whose generous donations included an annual performance of his oratorio Messiah.

However, there is little benevolence in Coram Hospital in Rose Tremain's Lily, set in the 1850s. Rather, it's a place of misery, deprivation and punishment for the foundlings, who are constantly told they are children of "undeserving mother", who were "shameful sinners" and they should "thank the Lord Jesus that you were saved by us".

Tremain has won many awards for her memorable, intricate historical novels, particularly Restoration (1989), a Booker shortlisted novel, and Music and Silence (1999), which won the Whitbread Prize for literature.

In Lily, Tremain creates a young heroine whose resilience, in the face of hardship, is reminiscent of Oliver Twist. Newborn Lily is abandoned outside the gates of a park near Bethnall Green, swaddled in a sack. A young policeman on night watch rescues her and walks through the night, and a great storm, to the Foundling Hospital.

Lily's early life is idyllic and full of love, as she's sent to Rookery Farm in Suffolk. Memories of the farm stay with her "across almost seventeen years of life and bring her consolation", as she endures years of physical abuse from Nurse Maud, who labels her "Miss Disobedience".

Lily's life does improve after she leaves the hospital and is apprenticed to Belle Prettywood in her Wig Emporium, becoming an adept wigmaker and Belle's favourite.

But Lily hides a dark secret. As the novel begins, we know Lily is a murderer and dreams of her death on the gallows. But, we don't know who she has murdered. As Lily meets again the young policeman who rescued her, now a superintendent with the Metropolitan Police, all is revealed in a series of flashbacks.

Lily is an intriguing mix of melodrama and fairytale, all set against the backdrop of a Dickensian London, where living in dirt and poverty can be hard and cruel.

Tremain vividly evokes the disparate social layers of Victorian life, while highlighting individual kindnesses. Itmay be subtitled "a tale of revenge", but is also a tale of hope and redemption. It's compulsive reading.

This story Melodrama and fairytale in Dickensian London first appeared on The Canberra Times.