The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan
Published by Virago Press
Available from All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Growing up in a wealthy enclave outside San Francisco, Justine Cowan’s life seems idyllic. But her mother’s unpredictable temper drives Justine from home the moment she is old enough to escape. It is only after her mother dies that she finds herself pulling at the threads of a story half-told – her mother’s upbringing in London’s Foundling Hospital. Haunted by this secret history, Justine travels across the sea and deep into the past to discover the girl her mother once was.
Here, with the vividness of a true storyteller, she pieces together her mother’s childhood alongside the history of the Foundling Hospital: from its idealistic beginnings in the eighteenth century, how it influenced some of England’s greatest creative minds – from Handel to Dickens, its shocking approach to childcare and how it survived the Blitz only to close after the Second World War.
This was the environment that shaped a young girl then known as Dorothy Soames, who was left behind by a mother forced by stigma and shame to give up her child; who withstood years of physical and emotional abuse, dreaming of
escape as German bombers circled the skies, unaware all along that her own mother was fighting to get her back.
What I Say
There are times when books bring you joy, or solace, or help you understand something that has come into your world which you need to find answers for. My Mum was adopted from a Barnado’s home when she was very young, and my Grandparents will always be Marjorie and Frank, who right from the start made sure that she knew how loved and wanted she was, but also made her aware of where she came from. More recently, a family member made the decision to adopt, and after an emotional time, they were able to adopt a child from Coram, which is the charity established by Sir Thomas Coram, who founded The Foundling Hospital in London.
When I saw Justine’s book appearing on my social media, which describes her search for the truth about her mother’s childhood and time at The Foundling Hospital, I knew I needed to read more.
The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is undoubtedly an emotional and at times challenging read. To witness what the children went through in their time at The Foundling Hospital, as these young children were shaped into the moulds that the people running the institution believed were best for them seems so far away from the approach and understanding we have about children today. More than this, and at the heart of this book, is Justine’s quest to try and understand the woman who was her mother. Why did she seem so distant from Justine? What prompted the episodes where she would be unreachable, peppered with moments of maternal love and closeness, so Justine never really knew what to expect every time she went home?
Justine had a fractured relationship with her mother, who in spite of everything was determined that Justine should be raised as a well bred and respected young lady, and her life was filled with classes and activities at a relentless rate. As soon as she was able to, Justine moved as far away as possible and became a successful environmental attorney. However, her mother always kept pulling her back, and when Justine was nineteen, she had returned to the family home when her mother was having one of her episodes and found that her mother had written Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames on a piece of paper.
When her mother passed away, Justine kept coming back to the fact her mother had mentioned the fact that she was a foundling, and decided to try and find out exactly who Dorothy Soames was. When her mother was admitted to The Foundling Hospital, it had moved from London to Berkhamsted, but it was the same austere Institution. It fostered the children out to paid members of society, who then had to return them to The Foundling Hospital when they turned five, irresepective of what bonds they had formed, or even if the foster family wanted to adopt them.
Justine’s search for the truth about her mother uncovered a whole world where children were placed in an Institution and raised explicitly with the idea of them becoming useful members of society – but there were undeniably instances of emotional and physical abuse. Children including Dorothy were placed in solitary confinement, had their heads held under water as a punishment and were left to wet themselves in bed as they are not allowed to get up during the night. In spite of The Foundling Hospital having great acclaim for what it was doing, it is interesting to see how that worked in reality at that time in history. I thought it was particularly heartbreaking to read how each parent who left a child there, also provided a token too, as a way to claim back that child -although once admitted that was very unlikely to happen.
That’s why Dorothy’s case was so groundbreaking in that her mother battled to get Dorothy back – and succeeded. As Dorothy struggled to come to terms with what she had gone through, she attempted to make a life for herself, and emigrated to America and becoming Eileen.
Justine also balances her personal search with the history and influence of The Foundling Hospital, and how Sir Thomas and his contemporaries helped to establish The Foundling Hospital as a way to look after the children who needed it. I thought that it was interesting to learn how the historical and social conventions of the time helped to create an overall picture of The Foundling Hospital, but I suppose I was impatient as I wanted it to be focussed mostly on Justine’s investigations and her relationship with her mother.
There is no doubt from reading this memoir that both Justine and her mother Eileen as well as Justine’s father, suffered immeasurable heartbreak as a result of Dorothy’s life in The Foundling Hospital. Eileen had been shaped by a life of uncertainty and routine, a world where her childhood was regulated and controlled so closely that to be a mother with all the emotion and chaos it sometimes brings was perhaps why she tried to push Justine to be what she wanted her to be. I also got the sense from reading this book the sense of immense control and purposefulness Justine had in trying to piece together the puzzle of her mother’s life to try and rationalise her actions. I wondered if Justine did this because she had been used to living her life with a guard up, and to reveal everything that she has gone through would be too much.
The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is a thoroughly absorbing and incredibly revealing book that makes the reader aware of how imposing and overwhelming The Foundling Hospital must have been for both the children and the parents who made the devastating decision to leave them there. However, for me, this book was unquestionably Justine attempting to try and find a way to collect and process the very difficult relationship she had with her mother. Maybe in being able to articulate and write down her journey in this memoir Justine now has a way to connect with her mother and although she may not have loved her, she can at least try to rationalise the immense and life changing impact of being a foundling.
Thank you so much to Grace Vincent at Virago for my gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.