Historic Heroines

Reviewed by Rachelle Delaney

At first glance, Marthe Jocelyn’s Folly and Sharon Jennings’ Home Free appear to have little in common¾aside from having been written by talented, award-winning Canadians. Jocelyn’s Folly tells of a young girl turned away from her father’s home by his new wife and forced to navigate her way through late-1800s London. Home Free, on the other hand, centres on an eleven-year-old aspiring Canadian writer stifled by 1960s rules and expectations.

It turns out, however, that Canada in the sixties wasn’t as different from 1880s London as one might assume. At least, not for a girl.
Folly’s heroine, Mary Finn, is only fourteen when her father’s crotchety new bride insists she leave home to earn her living. She ends up working as a scullery maid in London, where she falls for a dashing young man who disappears when she announces that she’s pregnant with his child. Refusing to house an unwed mother, her employers send her out into the streets.

Mary’s narrative, told in a spirited, unpolished brogue, alternates with that of young James Nelligan, an orphan whose mother left him at London’s Foundling Hospital as a baby. Raised by a foster mother in the country, he returns to the Hospital at age six and must fend for himself among bullies, austere teachers, and arrogant Londoners.
Masterfully written in a memorable narrative voice, Folly’s short, punchy chapters are full of suspense. The alternating points of view allow readers to witness misunderstandings between characters and anticipate the consequences. Both Mary and James are admirable, empowering protagonists who accept the hardships they’ve been dealt without self-pity. Young readers will cheer them both on while waiting impatiently for their stories to intersect.

Folly is an excellent work of historical fiction; the Foundling Hospital did indeed exist, and Jocelyn herself has a personal connection to it: her grandfather was left in its care at nine months old and raised in a similar manner to James.

Home Free, a finalist for the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award, is also a fine work of historical fiction, but for a younger, less mature audience. The narrator, Lee Mets, is a budding writer and an incorrigible romantic with a passion for Anne of Green Gables. When she learns that a “real-life orphan” will be moving in next door, she can’t contain her excitement; orphans, she believes, always have the best stories. She also can’t understand why her mother disapproves of their new neighbour—but then her mother disapproves of almost everything. However, the orphan Cassandra Jovanovich is not, to quote Anne Shirley herself, “an open book.” She refuses to tell Lee her story no matter how much Lee prods.

As Lee introduces Cassandra to the neighbourhood, the beliefs and sensibilities of her community begin to unfold, particularly in regard to expectations placed on girls and women. What, the girls start to wonder, does it mean to be a “good” girl? Why are girls encouraged to become nurses and teachers, but not writers or actresses? And why are certain women in the community shunned by others? What have they done?

Which brings us back to Folly and its parallel themes. For just as in 1880, an unwed mother in the 1960s immediately lost all respect, and her child—often sent away—would be forever seen as a lesser person. Placed side-by-side, conditions for orphans actually seem marginally better in Jocelyn’s novel; at least the Foundling Hospital raised its children with the belief that they would succeed at something. Cassandra is made to believe she will never amount to anything.
Both Jocelyn and Jennings avoid sounding didactic as they paint their respective pictures of the conditions girls faced in the 1880s and 1960s. And both manage to leave readers with a sense of hope and empowerment. Neither Lee nor Mary’s spirits (nor James’, for that matter) will be quashed by the societies and circumstances into which they were born. If Home Free is, as Second Story Press has designated it, a “Gutsy Girl Book,” then Folly is certainly a “Gutsy Young Adult Book.” Both have excellent potential for classroom discussions about prejudice and women’s rights.

This review “Historic Heroines” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 165-166.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.