This is the first book I’ve read by Sarah Moss, an author I had never really thought about trying until I saw so much praise for her latest novel, Ghost Wall, last year. Bodies of Light is apparently loosely linked to an earlier book, Night Waking, but I didn’t feel that I’d missed anything by reading this one first.
The setting for Bodies of Light is Victorian Manchester where, as the novel opens, a newly married couple – Elizabeth and Alfred Moberley – are moving into their new home. Even this early in their marriage, there are clues that suggest they might not be very happy together; Alfred is a painter who appreciates the finer things in life while Elizabeth is passionate about social reform and women’s rights. Their two daughters, Alethea (Ally) and May, grow up trying to please both parents, being asked to model for their father’s latest portrait one day and accompanying their mother on one of her missions to help women in Manchester’s poorest areas the next.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book; after a slow start I found that I had become completely drawn into the lives of the Moberley family. Each chapter starts with a description of a portrait painted by Alfred or one of his circle, giving an idea of what will follow in the pages to come, and I thought that was a nice touch. As the novel progresses and the children grow older, we see that Elizabeth, despite her good deeds in public, can be a harsh and unloving mother; to explain this, Sarah Moss spends some time at the beginning of the book showing us what made her the way she is, focusing on Elizabeth’s relationship with her own mother and the depression she suffered after Ally’s birth.
The second half of the novel is devoted mainly to Ally, as she goes to London to study medicine at the first medical school to accept female students. She is pushed into this career path by her mother, who believes very strongly that women – particularly ‘fallen women’ – should be entitled to request treatment from a female doctor and who likes the idea of her own daughter becoming one of these doctors. Ally is an intelligent young woman who loves learning, so she throws herself into her studies, but there is always a sense that she is doing this mainly to make her mother happy – and yet, whatever she does, it seems that Elizabeth is never happy.
I felt so sorry for Ally, who self-harms and suffers from nightmares as she is growing up, longing for some comfort and compassion from her mother but receiving only criticism and impatience instead, told that she has no right to complain about anything ‘because there is always someone else worse off.’ Interestingly, her younger sister May, who has the same upbringing, doesn’t seem to suffer from Ally’s anxiety-related problems, possibly due to the fact that Ally, as the eldest, has always felt under more pressure.
Once Ally had left home to begin her medical studies, I found the story a bit less compelling but still interesting. It certainly made me appreciate the educational opportunities that are open to women today and how difficult it must have been for those who were among the first to try to enter a field dominated by men. This is a fascinating book and I do like Sarah Moss’s writing, so I now want to read the sequel, Signs for Lost Children, as well as the earlier Night Waking, which I think tells some more of May’s story.