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Jul/Aug 2014 Reviews & Interviews

Bodies of Light

Bodies of Light
Sarah Moss.
Granta. 2014. 311 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84708 908 3.

Review by Ann Skea


"Lay not up for yourself treasures upon earth."

Buy now from Amazon! It is the mid 1800s, and Elizabeth Moberley hangs the full Biblical text of this passage above her daughter's bed. Elizabeth was brought up in a strictly Puritanical home where pleasures are dangerous, pain must be stoically borne, and the only way to spend your time is in good Christian works. This is the way she lives her life, and she is determined that her two daughters will also learn these lessons. Alethea (Ally), her eldest daughter, does; May, like her Aunt Mary, Elizabeth's sister, rebels.

It is Ally's life we follow in this book, learning first of the rejection and cruelty Elizabeth inflicts on her. Rejection, firstly, because Elizabeth is not prepared to deal alone with the pains, difficulties, and demands of a small baby, and at times she feels guiltily suicidal. Rejection, secondly, because Elizabeth puts the needs of her Welfare Society women before her own and the family's comfort, believing that this is the right, Christian thing to do. Cruelty, in the name of teaching Ally virtue. She burns Ally's arm with a candle to teach her fortitude and blames Ally's nightmares on nervous weakness, which needs to be punished by a strict regime of diet and deprivation. Her ambition for Ally, however, is for her to become a doctor, so that she can help underprivileged women, and in many ways the pursuit of this frees Ally and gives her the courage and balance she badly needs.

Ally's experiences as one of the first group of women to undertake medical training are full not only of her own struggles against the values Elizabeth has instilled in her, but also full of her struggle for survival in a misogynist, male-dominated culture. Women in this society are expected to practice embroidery, not stitch wounds. Moss shows realistically the mixed attitudes of doctors and male students to women who are trying to enter their profession, and the grim experimental nature of much medical and surgical practice at that time. In 1880, however, Ally becomes one of the first women physicians to graduate, and one of the first to practice surgery.

Balanced against all this grimness is the world of Ally's father, Alfred, and his artist friends. Each section of the book begins with a description of a painting, written in the style of a reputable auction house. And each painting relates in some way to Ally and her sister, May, at different stages of their lives. As young girls, they pose in charming disarray for their father's friend, Aubrey West, whose pre-Raphaelite style favors soft flesh, rich fabrics, and mythical heroines. Alfred himself designs rooms for wealthy clients, painting samples of wallpaper, choosing furnishings, and enjoying the Victorian richness his wife rejects in his own home. For Ally, he is a remote figure, unable to help her resist her mother's control.

Sarah Moss does many things in this book. She shows the harshness of Elizabeth's beliefs, but also the value of the work she does for poor women who have become the victims of Victorian hypocrisy about sex, illegitimacy, and prostitution. She shows that radical behavior sometimes does bring about change. And she immerses the reader in a world where luxury, beauty, comfort, and joy are choices for some but are denied to others—by poverty, but also by self-imposed rules.

Bodies of Light is a thought-provoking and absorbing novel. Moss leaves Ally's story open for future development, and although May's story ends in this book, her life has been told more fully in Moss's earlier novel, Night Waking.

 

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