Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2022

Lily, a Tale of Revenge (2021), by Rose Tremain

Lily, the latest novel from prolific English author Rose Tremain, (b. 1943) is a cautionary tale about the perils of revenge.

Set in a Dickensian 19th century England of punitive welfare for the children of fallen women, Lily brings us the story of a child whose mother wrapped her in sacking and abandoned her in freezing weather at the gates of a park in the East End.  Rescued by a passing policeman, she is taken to the London Foundling Hospital.  Her first six years are spent with a kindly foster mother on a farm in Suffolk, and then — of an age to start work — she is returned to this so-called hospital and begins a life of brutal drudgery and abuse.  An attempt at escape fails, her only friend dies, and the most vicious of the staff sabotages an offer of adoption.

As in the best of Dickens’ novels, this catalogue of misery arouses feelings of compassion for the victim and contempt for the perpetrators, but (like Dickens) Tremain has greater ambitions than that. The reader knows from the first page that Lily is a murderer.  No one else knows this, but she is tormented by her crime.

She does not fear being caught: authorities are not even certain that a crime has been committed.  She fears herself.  What she has done has brought no release.  She does not feel the satisfaction that she had anticipated.

Lily cannot unburden herself to anyone.  She cannot fall in love when she knows the fate that lies in store.  No hard work or good deeds can save her, not least because she knows in her heart that she won’t be able to bear the burden forever and will confess.

Any thoughts of justification have lapsed, and dreams of the noose that awaits her haunt her nights and sabotage her days.

She dreams of her death.

It comes as a cold October dawn is breaking in the London sky.

A sack is put over her head. Through the weave of the burlap, she can take her last look at the world, which is reduced to a cluster of tiny squares of grey light, and she thinks, Whyever did I struggle so long and so hard to make my way in a place which was bent on my destruction ever since I came into it? Why did I not surrender to death when I was a child, for children’s pictures of death are fantastical and full of a strange beauty?

She feels the noose, made of thick hemp rope, go round her neck and knows that the noose’s cunning is to be in perpetual coitus with a huge and bulbous knot behind her head.  The knot nudges the base of her skull.  Soon, a trap beneath her feet will open and she will drop into the void, her legs dangling like the legs of a doll made of cloth.  Her neck will snap and her heart will stop. (p.1)

Revenge has brought her no peace of mind.

Author: Rose Tremain
Title: Lily, a Tale of Revenge
Cover design: no credits except the source of the images (Bridgeman and Alamy)
Publisher: Chatto and Windus (Penguin Random House UK) 2021
ISBN: 9781784744571, pbk., 288 pages
Source: Kingston Library



  1. I have no truck with revenge … it’s a fool’s business.


    • Yes.
      It may just be the books I’ve come across, but it seems to me that young writers are presenting revenge as some kind of solution, whereas with the wisdom of years — irrespective of any moral dimension — Tremain acknowledges but does not focus so much on the anger that drives a wish for revenge, but on the damage that vengeance can do to the perpetrator herself.
      There have been times in my life when I’ve sorely wished for revenge, but instead have chosen to focus on being able to look back on my life as it’s ending and to be able to say to myself that I tried to behave well despite the provocation. Mind you, it took an enormous effort of will!


      • This is it – revenge rarely achieves much for either side. I can’t really comment on younger writers or creators versus older ones, because I do try to avoid revenge stories these days, but you may have a point. All I know is that it’s been a popular topic for as long as there’s been literature and it rarely ends well! It does take will, though, I agree to not go down that path. We are emotional beings after all.


        • I was thinking of Revenge, Murder in Three Parts, by S. L. Lim, and My Name is Revenge by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, which I’ve read, and others that I’ve been offered and (like you, avoiding them) have chosen not to read.


  2. It wouldn’t be very realistic in a historical novel set in Victorian England for a young woman to get her revenge without being severely punished for that. Whatever the rights and wrongs, even a total fantasy is going to be more plausible now than then.


    • True. Murder was (almost always?) punishable by the death penalty. But Tremain makes it clear that the authorities aren’t investigating because they don’t think it was a suspicious death and there is only one detective who thinks it is and he isn’t getting anywhere. So the issue is not that she’s likely to be discovered and be punished. She’s likely to get away with it unless she confesses and that’s what preys on her mind. It is her mental state that is the focus.


  3. I like the setting and the theme but before I add it to my read list, one question – is it well written? I ask because I’ve had such mixed experiences with Tremain.


    • LOL, I’ve left out a very important element from my review!
      I would say, yes indeed.


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