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Let us not forget the sisters who struggled before us

Bodies of LightI’m at a loss to know where to start to adequately praise this excellent, layered novel from Sarah Moss, who has the stunning ability to write novels ‘about deep and complex stuff’ , engage with both the heart and the head, create real, properly dimensional, complex characters, write beautifully and unindulgently, and do all this within the discipline of a pacey narrative drive

Moss’s territory is the complex lives of girls and women, caught between their own personal identity, their calling, vocation and creativity, and the counter-pull, whether of a society which limits and curtails women, or the counter-pull imposed by the biology of mothering and the fierce demands of children

I read, some time ago, Moss’s last book, Night Waking, which I found brilliant, distressing, disturbing, but for me, there were some irritations, which pulled me back from 5 stars. Night Waking concerned a professional couple, with 2 small children, engaged in their work on a Scottish island. There was the tension of the children, affecting, differently, the mother and the father, with the mother least able to ‘follow her own star’. That book also twinned a long ago thread from the nineteenth century. And in fact, that thread skeins back to Bodies Of Light, her latest book. Though there is no need to have read the previous one. Except, you might later want to. Or indeed, as I shall do, revisit the earlier one.

Bodies of Light is set primarily in Manchester and London, between the mid-1850s to the 1880s The central family is that of Alfred Moberley, an artist and craftsman, and his increasingly successful circle, and Elizabeth, his wife, an idealistic Christian woman with a passionate commitment to female rights, to the burgeoning movements to achieve equality of opportunity for women in the field of education, primarily, and also to expose the vicious hypocrisy of the sex trade, criminalising prostitutes but not their clients. Elizabeth and Alfred have two daughters, Alethea and May, whom Elizabeth effectively sacrifices to the cause.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first UK female doctor

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first UK female doctor

This book is primarily the story of Ally, Alethea, who is raised to do her duty, by a mother who effectively resents and dislikes her, except she is the one who is raised to be the sacrificial victim for the better rights of future generations of women. Ally is one of the first groups of women to train to become doctors, so that women, particularly poor women, should be treated by members of their own sex, respecting their modesty, respecting their vulnerability.

Elizabeth is a deeply unpleasant, sadistic woman, but as a clear demonstration of Moss’s subtlety, we meet Elizabeth as she is on the eve of her marriage to Moberley, with his much more expressive, but weaker, nature. What Moss does is to show us Elizabeth’s own, steely upbringing, child of another mother wedded to fierce ideas. So one strand which returned for me, again and again, is how difficult might be the lives of the children of idealists, who are prepared to sacrifice, not only their own lives, but also the lives of others for the sake of ‘the future generations’ These are people implacable, made of steel, sometimes without the softness of empathy. Hard people to be around, often, but the people who forge beneficial and forward movements (as well, at times, as retrograde ones) The believers in isms, the ends-justifies-the-meansers.

And I believe that generations of our sisters yet to be born will thank us for what we give. And indeed what we take from others. There is no principle worth having that does not exact a price. We must recognise the cost of our principles and take responsibility for that cost. We must not deny the consequences of our own actions

Ally is a complex, damaged character, at times terrifyingly fragile, but she too, has steel. In her case, the steeliness is visited against herself. Her journey is at times unbearable, as is being reminded of the real struggle many made in order to win rights of opportunity for those who came after.

Just occasionally, she feels herself on the crest of a wave, the weight of water bearing her along. She herself has only a small role, but the fellowship of women is a tide, and it cannot be turned

But I don’t want to make this sound too worthy a read – Moss’s craft is that she is a superb novelist, and for the most part paints her characters and her story with complex and beautiful shapes and colours, rather than in big bold cartoon strokes of black and white.

Berthe Morisot; The Cradle, 1870

Berthe Morisot; The Cradle, 1870

Perhaps nowhere did I get this sense more strongly than in the character of Elizabeth Moberley. I was reminded, in some ways, of the horrible Mrs Jellaby in Dickens’ Bleak House, who sacrifices her own children’s well-being because she is more concerned with doing philanthropic works. Dickens makes Jellaby one of his enjoyably ‘love to hate and poke fun at’ figures. But we never really see her as a real person, and understand her psychology from the inside. We stand outside, watch, judge and, in superiority, laugh at her. Elizabeth, by contrast, hateful as she is, came from somewhere, and Moss makes us empathise and understand the terror of the young mother who did not want to be a mother, and was terrified of her own feelings.

She woke up thinking of knives, took only porridge for breakfast, because even a butter-knife seemed a bad idea. She is still thinking of knives. The baby is still crying…

She is weak. She is slovenly. The baby has defeated her. If she goes out she is afraid she will buy laudanum, and if she stays in the house, there are knives. And fire, and the staircase. And windows high under the gable. The baby cries. She cannot pick it up because of the windows and the staircase, and she cannot walk away because of the knives and the laudanum

I particularly liked the structure of this book, each chapter illustrated in the description and later provenance of a piece of artwork, either painted or crafted by Moberley, or his artist friend, Aubrey West. The painting or crafted object is a capture of the story and subtext of the ensuing chapter.

Google Search was, as ever, of interestSarah Moss

A wonderful, rich, book, which is at the same time an easy to read one, challenging much thinking, much feeling, but without any self-indulgence. Just as her central character, doctor in training Ally, was learning how to be a surgeon, and master the arts of scalpel and suture, so Moss demonstrates equally precision with her pen, knowing what to cut out as well as what to stitch together

Bodies of Light Amazon UK
Bodies of Light Amazon USA