22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Beginning in Manchester in the mid 1850s, Sarah Moss's third novel focuses on the Moberley family and, in particular, on Alethea Moberley, the elder daughter of Alfred and Elizabeth. Alfred Moberley is an artist, interested in elegant compositions, who paints in the Pre-Raphaelite style and who has a clear eye for beauty; however, his wife Elizabeth, like her mother before her, spends her days visiting the slums, helping the poor and campaigning against child prostitution - all very worthy activities, but ones which she carries out with an evangelical zeal, to the detriment of her two children: Alethea (Ally) and May. Towards her daughters, Elizabeth is extremely strict; she gives them practically no physical affection, she refuses them warmth, and only allows them to wear plain clothes and eat plain, wholesome food, continually reminding them that they are so much better off than the poor wretches who live in the slums. May, the younger daughter, does not allow her mother's zeal to affect her too badly, and she manages to escape the many chores her mother expects her daughters to perform, spending some of her time posing as a model for an artist friend of her father's; but Ally, desperate for her mother's love and attention, strives to live up to her mother's expectations, to the serious detriment of her physical and mental well-being. When her mother decides that Ally, an intelligent and hard-working student, should aim to train as a doctor, Ally devotes herself to her studies, working through the night to achieve good grades - but can Ally, who is overworked, under-appreciated and suffering from bouts of hysteria, ever hope to meet the exacting expectations of her mother? And should she try so hard to do so?
The first in a two book sequence, this intelligent, well-researched and very well-written novel makes for an absorbing and interesting reading experience. Sarah Moss describes her Victorian world evocatively, making it easy for the reader to envisage the setting of the story and the characters' roles within that story. Ally is an intriguing creation and I found myself feeling intensely sympathetic and slightly exasperated with her at the same time, especially when she cannot let an opportunity pass to sermonise to those around her about the plight of women - but being the product of her mother's zealous aspirations, and of the times in which she lives, where women are regarded as second-class citizens, she should, of course, be forgiven. This novel is very much Ally's story, but I would have liked to have read more about her sister, May, who left home for Scotland to become a nurse - I understand that May featured in Sarah Moss's second novel: Night Waking, so maybe the author thought it was unnecessary to write too much about May's life in this book, but I would have been interested in reading a little more about her here, in fact I would have liked to have read more about some of the other characters too. That said, I found 'Bodies of Light' an entertaining and absorbing read and I shall certainly be looking out for the sequel - which, I believe, the author is already well on her way to completing. In the meantime, I am off to find a copy of 'Night Waking'.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 April 2015
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss is a historical novel set in 19th century Manchester. As we follow the growing-up years of the main character, Alethea "Ally" Moberly, until she earns her medical degree, we learn about the social and legal plights of women during the early suffrage movement in Britain. We also become acutely aware of the truly terrifying male attitudes towards women, particularly those held by the all-male medical establishment who were spectacularly ignorant of the female body.
The novel begins when artist Alfred Moberly weds Elizabeth. Throughout the book, Alfred works as an increasingly successful designer of elegant rooms and ornate fabrics for wealthy matrons. In stark contrast, his wife Elizabeth, austere and frugal, is a religious zealot and social activist devoted to feeding the destitute, to saving prostitutes, and to achieving equality for women. Motherhood was the last thing on her mind.
This strongly character-driven story focuses on the first-born Moberly daughter, Alethea and, to a lesser degree, her younger sister, May. Alethea -- meaning "truth" -- is intense, driven and very intelligent -- so much so that she wins a scholarship that allows her to become one of the first female students to read medicine in London. Yet despite her academic and intellectual strengths, Ally is emotionally fragile, exhibiting a life-long pattern of self-harm and experiencing frequent, debilitating anxiety attacks -- thanks to her mother's physical cruelties and endless harsh criticisms. In contrast, younger sister May is more resilient, appearing to survive Elizabeth's severe child-rearing practices unscathed.
Ally's true passion was learning, so it was Elizabeth, not Ally, who decides that she should become a medical doctor. Elizabeth came to her decision because she resolved that women, especially poor women and prostitutes, should receive medical treatment from female doctors, who would respect their modesty and safeguard their vulnerability. Ally's devotion to medical studies was motivated by her desire for her mother's love and approval -- neither of which ever arrived, regardless of how successful she became.
Elizabeth Moberly is certainly easy to despise, but the author complicates matters by peeling back her heartless veneer to provide us with a glimpse of her own inner turmoil. It turns out that Elizabeth was also an unloved daughter who was physically tortured by her own religiously fanatic mother. In this passage, we gain insight into Elizabeth's desperation; how trapped she felt by her newborn baby, and how, even as an adult, she was still tormented by her own mother's impossible demands:
"She woke up thinking of knives, took only porridge for her breakfast because even a butter-knife seemed a bad idea. She is still thinking of knives. The baby is still crying. For shame, Elizabeth, says Mamma, think of the club women, who care for four or eight children in a dwelling smaller than this drawing room, who only have a fire for cooking and that only there is money for coal, who work all day as well as rising at night with their infants. You disappoint me, Mamma says. That I should see a daughter of mine a sloven and a coward! Mamma is right, has always been right. 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 knives and laudanum. So she stands there, in the doorway, and the baby cries. The baby drives her to evil thoughts. Its perpetual screaming calls her towards damnation. Before the baby came, she was full of light." [p. 44]
This thoughtful novel paints a rich portrait of sharp contrasts -- poverty versus wealth, austerity versus elegance, colour versus darkness, confinement versus display, marriage versus prostitution. Ally's parents are a fascinating juxtaposition between unfettered imagination and rigid conformity, of enthusiastic independence and resigned submission. And then there's Ally, lacking self-esteem, guilt-ridden and desperate to please her mother, who contrasts with her sister May, who somehow managed to remain unscathed by Elizabeth's cruelties.
In addition to being a quietly intense reminder of how much women have achieved since Victorian times, Bodies of Light is a psychological, sociological and historical study of the history of medicine, of feminism, and of poverty in Victorian England.
A sequel is forthcoming.
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Trust Book Prize. The prize winner will be announced on 29 April 2015.
This review was originally published on The Guardian: http://gu.com/p/47kjy/stw
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I'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 mid1850s to the 1880s The central family is 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.
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.
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 made 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 the4 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 interest
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
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a very subdued novel and I initially found it lacking in passion, but it grew on me as I went along and I became ever more eager to pick it up again. It's the story of Ally, an unloved child, tormented by a prickly mother whose love and approval she is unable to win. Growing up in the mid 19th century in a family with advanced ideas, Ally is destined to become one of the first women doctors and to carve a life for herself that doesn't depend on the approval of her parents.
It's beautifully written in rather long chapters, spanning a period of some 25 years, each beginning with a description of a painting by Ally's artist father or one of his friends, one in which she or another family member acted a model.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 October 2014
Very well written but, for me, much less enjoyable than this author's previous 3 books. A book that will be much appreciated by woman readers, it deals sympathetically with the travails of a rather nervous, submissive Victorian woman who has to cope with an overbearing mother and with male resistance to women becoming qualified physicians. It does not 'flow' easily because there are sudden jumps in the timescale which are sometimes difficult to follow. It seems that there may be a sequel - which I shall certainly read because Sarah Moss is one of my top authors
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This is the third novel by Sarah Moss, following her debut, “Cold Earth,” and “Night Waking.” It is linked, loosely, to “Night Waking,” in that May Moberley features as a character in the historical aspect of that novel and is the sister of the main character in “Bodies of Light.” However, this is not a sequel, or indeed really a prequel, and it is not necessary to have read the wonderful “Night Waking,” before reading this – apart from the fact that you will have missed a wonderful read. However, the joy of discovering an author is that you can go back and re-discover their past work and this moving and poignant novel is certainly a great introduction to this author.
Most of the book is set in Victorian Manchester and begins with the marriage of Elizabeth Sanderson to Alfred Moberley. Elizabeth’s mother is heavily involved in religious works and charity and has brought up her two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, to be serious social campaigners. Alfred, who is an artist and a designer of rooms and fabrics, seems to be ill-suited to Elizabeth from the start. His tastes are ornate, Elizabeth’s simple and frugal. He takes tea with wealthy women who wish to have a beautiful dining room and she spends her time at the Manchester Welfare Society in social campaigning. The fact that Elizabeth’s father has purchased their marital home is merely passed over in a brief comment; but you later feel it may have a great deal to do with why this young designer, not yet established, had proposed to his young bride.
The couple’s first daughter is Alethea (Ally), followed by May. From the start, Elizabeth feels trapped by her baby, unable to live up to her own mother’s harsh demands and this sets her on a difficult path with her children. She is a determined and uncompromising woman, who looks on Ally’s childish nightmares with an almost vicious disregard. Every emotion is unworthy, when people are coping with so much worse, and Ally is full of guilt and a desperate desire to please her mother. Meanwhile, despite his dislike at the bullying and controlling behaviour of his wife, Alfred retreats into his work and his friendship with his friend, Aubrey. Elizabeth is a fascinating character. Despite her truly disagreeable behaviour, the author’s allowing us to peep behind the facade at the beginning of the book, allows us to give her a degree of sympathy. She truly is a campaigner too, particularly for women, and her attitudes allow her daughters to pursue academic careers in a society where women are branded as unnatural for wanting to join men as equals in professions such as medicine.
We follow Ally throughout her childhood and into her attempt to become one of the very first women to practice medicine. However, although this story tells the story of Ally, it also says so much more and touches on so many different issues – both historical and familial. This novel is not an easy read and it confronts many issues which are, at times, difficult to read. There is an understanding between Ally and May that their life at home is not typical and in one moving scene Ally sees her aunt lift her hand to her son and expects her to strike him, only to see him receive a playful cuff. Little glimpses, such as that example, remind us of how damaged this young woman is. Yet, we realise how strong, how intelligent and how capable she is as well – even if she does not have faith in herself. This is really the perfect novel for reading groups, as there is so much to discuss. I believe there will be a further book by Sarah Moss, with links to “Night Waking,” and “Bodies of Light,” and I look forward eagerly to reading it. Her novels are moving, perceptive, intelligent and thought provoking and this is another great addition to her work.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 January 2015
I thoroughly enjoyed this historical fiction based on a main female character as she grows up and into a woman at a time when the suffrage movement was in its infancy. At times dark, but not traumatic to read, I'm pleased it ended positively. Both psychological and sociological, it kept my interest till the end.
on 18 September 2014
This is well-researched and well-written historical fiction, detailing the struggles of women in Victorian Britain to take control of their bodies - by rescuing young girls from prostitution and by training female doctors with the skill, knowledge and understanding lacking in the male profession. It is also a "good read" with strong characters in an engaging narrative. Sarah Moss also uses her principal character to offer serious reflections on what it means to be and do good.
The next bit of this review contains spoilers. So don't continue until you have finished the novel yourself.
The heroine is Alethea Moberley, her given name meaning "truth". We meet her as a difficult baby - for her Mamma at any rate - and follow her through hard times until she becomes Dr Moberley and Mrs Cavendish. A sequel is in the works.
Her mother was one of many middle-class women whose religion sent her into the slums. She was, however, very hard on her two daughters, indeed cruel. That said she drove - rather than inspired - "Ally" to medicine. The account of her training contains graphic descriptions of female illness and the painful, futile treatments of the time. Futility and pain were heightened by ignorance of the female body in a universally male profession. Many ailments could be attributed to men, too - venereal diseases and multiple pregnancies. This history is dealt with very well.
But there is more to Bodies than bodies. The title comes from the Gospel of Matthew/Luke where singularity of purpose in the pursuit of true goodness will flood the body with light. Ally certainly tries to follow this, to be obedient in all things, yet plagued by guilt internalised from her mother's cruel chastisements. No request is too much - she offers to play the part of a child prostitute so her Mamma can publicise the existence of this evil. She is as forgiving towards others as she is hard on herself "We are all of us ..damaging persons. Our best hope is to own the damage we do".
Some of the writing is just wonderful. In a moving passage Ally, cleaning her sister's boots before May leaves home, reflects how her sister's little feet that once could barely stumble now carry her boldly to an unknown future and fate. Clothes are a recurring motif as they display and confine, express and repress their wearers. The chapters are all prefaced by notes about paintings, ostensibly by Papa. The works are all fictional but clearly in the fashion of John Waterhouse [use Google image]. This device, used elsewhere [for example The Paris Winter] works well.
The only quibble is the conclusion and the "love interest" who is just that - a "love interest". Ally's husband - in the end - is all strong arm and rippling muscle - from where did Sarah Moss get him, I wonder?! As the book flows towards the final pages the sun is made to shine a bit too brightly. The ending is a bit too fine - but there is a sequel so we shall see.
I would suggest this as a must read for today's young women training to be "healers". Remember those who went before and remember your imperfections, because as Alethea says, "the healers are not whole". Truth.
Set in Manchester in the 1870s, the book opens with the marriage of rising young artist Alfred Moberley to Elizabeth, a devout Christian, rigidly raised by her mother to care more about the plight of prostitutes than her own family. Nothing is more important to Elizabeth than her work at a home for 'fallen women'; the arrival of her own mewling baby sends her spiralling into a depression which we now recognise as 'baby blues'. Victorian attitudes, forged in ignorance, make this truly pitiful to read.
As daughter Alethea grows up, she struggles to live up to her mother's sanctimonious standards and a pattern of self-harm emerges triggered by Elizabeth's cruel physical punishments. Ally's younger sister, May, is a freer spirit and one more able to stand up to her mother's extreme child-rearing methods.
Sarah Moss introduces each chapter with the provenance and a 'critique' of various art works by Alfred Moberley and his friend Aubrey West. The author herself paints a terrifying picture of male attitudes to women at the time, particularly with regard to the medical establishment. She gives us a poignant, heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story, as far from the usual child-abuse weep-fest as you could possibly imagine. Though weep you surely will.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I’ve read all three of Sarah Moss’ novels released to date – Cold Earth, Night Waking and now Bodies of Light. They are all three very different from each other, and all quite remarkable as novels of insight, depth and emotion into the human psyche. In this book, we follow the life of Ally Moberley, whose father Alfred is a painter, and whose mother Elizabeth dedicates her life in the way she has been brought up, to aiding women who are destitute or ‘fallen’ in Victorian Manchester. The book moves in chapters prefaced with a description and provenance of a different painting by Alfred Moberley each time – from 1856 on the eve of his marriage to Elizabeth, through to 1879. But it’s really Ally’s life we follow – as she struggles with the juxtaposition of growing up between bohemian artistry and Christian fortitude, she seeks to find her own path. And in Victorian London, the path she chooses to follow is one that will require her own strength and purpose.
Wonderfully written, lyrical and emotive, this book tells not only the move to adulthood of Ally, but also the awful way in which so many women lived, suffered and died in a brutal and cold world. Women had no legal rights, poor education, sadly lacking medical care and ghastly pre- and post-natal suffering, and the world which Ally inhabits brings all that to the fore. Delightful, I find that Sarah Moss’ books are always worth looking out for, and I look forward to more by this author.