Hetty Feather, By Jacqueline Wilson

A Victorian foundling for 21st-century girls
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The Independent Culture

Thomas Coram's legendary London Foundling Hospital "for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children" has now been blessed with its second excellent children's novel. But nothing could be more different from Jamila Gavin's 2000 Whitbread award-winning Coram Boy than Jacqueline Wilson's first excursion into historical fiction, Hetty Feather. Gavin's somewhat gothic teen novel brought in every issue under the sun abuse of women, double standards, a lost heir, slavery, even George Frederic Handel. Wilson, writing for the 8 to 12 age group and setting her story a century later when the hospital was much more mercifully run, sticks to simpler muttons: the inner world of one penniless orphan girl.

As usual, Wilson adopts a pacy, first-person narration (in this case beginning a shade unbelievably in the cradle) and magics up a colourful cast of characters, some scary, but none overly cruel. Hetty Feather is a precociously clever little carrot-top orphan with a vivid imagination, who is brought up in a big family by a kind but firm country foster-mother. She sneaks in to Tanglefield's Travelling Circus, and is picked to career around the ring with a glamorous red-headed artiste who, she decides, just must be her mother.

Then comes the nadir of her life: a return to the Foundling Hospital to be trained as a servant, something she now feels a cut above. Cropped hair, solitary confinement and spartan rations plague her, but her zest for life keeps her afloat as she gradually learns the value of friendship, loyalty and true worth rather than snobbery and glamour. Without giving prurient details, the plot doesn't shrink from the harsh realities of the time several children die, and corporal punishment is severe. There is also a glorious evocation of the London celebrations for Queen Victoria's 1887 Golden Jubilee.

As always with Wilson, innumerable subtle add-ons touch on the issues closest to her readers' concerns: best friends and physical appearances, shyness and insecurity. The final message is both uplifting and improving. Indeed, Hetty Feather is interestingly akin in its naughty-children-see-the-light-theme to that delightful and genuinely 19th-century romp Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair.

Wilson's style is given colourful period flourishes Hetty asks for the privy, is "galvanised into action" and "fervently hopes". A good deal of modern slang slips in she is also "suddenly in a funk", and "so totally alike" the circus rider she worships. But it never does to over-egg the period vocabulary when writing for modern children, and Wilson's swift-moving narrative doesn't miss a beat.