The question of nature versus nurture lies at the heart of Carolyn Kirby’s dark and fascinating debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns. Are people born good or bad or is it their upbringing that determines their behaviour? Is it inevitable that some people will commit acts of evil or does this depend on their early influences and the way they have experienced the world? These ideas are explored through the fictional story of Cora Burns.
Born in a prison cell, Cora is raised in Birmingham’s Union Workhouse before going on to work as a laundry maid in the Borough Lunatic Asylum. It’s not the best of starts in life and by the time Cora is twenty she has served a prison sentence herself. At the beginning of the novel, in 1885, she has just been released and is about to take up a new position as ‘between maid’ in the household of the scientist Thomas Jerwood – not her ideal job, but she quickly finds that other opportunities for women in her circumstances are very limited.
A fragment of a bronze medal engraved with the words ‘Imaginem Salt’ – a reminder of her childhood friend, Alice Salt – and vague memories of a crime so terrible she has blotted out the details from her mind are all she has left of her earlier life and she is determined to make a fresh start. As she settles into her new home, Cora begins to befriend Violet, a young girl who appears to be the subject of Mr Jerwood’s experiments. But is Cora being experimented on herself – and if so, what will be discovered? Meanwhile, she decides to track down Alice Salt, the friend she hasn’t seen for years but who she believes holds the key to that terrible incident in her past.
As well as the nature or nuture debate that I’ve already mentioned, the novel incorporates many other interesting issues and themes, such as the effects of poverty, the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill in Victorian Britain, and advances in science, psychology and technology (particularly photography). All of these things have an impact on Cora’s story, which is told in non-linear form, moving backwards and forwards between her present situation in Thomas Jerwood’s household and her childhood in the workhouse. Interspersed with these narratives are Jerwood’s reports to a scientific journal describing his latest research and theories and occasional updates from another doctor whose work may also shed some light on Cora’s past.
This is not an ‘easy’ read – you do need to concentrate to keep the various strands of the plot straight and you also need some patience as it takes a while for the different pieces of the story to fall into place, but it’s definitely worth it in the end. I should also warn you that the crime in which Cora was involved is a particularly chilling one and is described in detail, but I think this was necessary in order to illustrate the worst of Cora’s nature. Despite this, though, I could also see that Cora had plenty of good qualities and I hoped that she would eventually be able to move on from her past and find some happiness. Whether this does happen or not I will leave you to find out for yourself.
Finally, I loved the decision to set the story in Victorian Birmingham! It made a nice change from the many books set in Victorian London. This was an impressive first novel and I will be looking out for more from Carolyn Kirby.
Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.