Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

It took me a while to appreciate Bodies of Light. I think, perhaps, my habit of reading non-fiction, the pleasure it brings, has dulled my appetite for fiction. Yet I have spent years reading fiction. It is, then, perhaps fitting that non-fiction takes priority for a while. In any event, read it I did. My appetite, as I’ve mentioned before, has been whetted for stories of women fighting for self-realisation, for suffrage, for acceptance, in the Victorian era and Bodies of Light is a book which absolutely fulfils that appetite.

The story follows the fortunes of the Moberley family. Alfred Moberley, artist, designer and painter, and his wife Elizabeth come from quite different worlds with quite different expectations. Alfred as an artist follows his emotions, he is keen on luxury and sensation, his morality is guided by his art. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is somewhat severe, religious and dedicated to improving the lives of the poor. Consequently their two worlds are often in conflict. This, it seems, affects their marriage but the impact is most heavily apparent to their 2 children: Alethea – Ally – and May. Elizabeth has the greatest impact on the two girls, drawing them into her severe world of care for the poor and self-denial. Her view is that the girls must serve their sex and the community, at the cost of their personal comfort. She constantly reminds them what poor children have and don’t have, and despite their relative wealth forbids them warmth and idleness. To keep them from weakness, she forces them to self-harm, burning themselves as a reminder of their errors. This pressure tells the most on Ally, the older of the two, who takes her mother’s instruction to heart and works excessively hard to secure her mother’s approval, which seems to be elusive.

Their father, Alfred, on the other hand along with his artistic friend Aubrey West, indulge the girls but without ever challenging the severity of Elizabeth’s regime. And whilst their behaviour is, on the surface, more caring there are suggestions of a different kind of torture and expectation, as the girls model for the men often in uncomfortable positions for hours and often in the nude. It doesn’t seem that either parent cares much for the needs of the daughters. Ally is the most aware of the hypocrisy of the men, as she describes here:

“He circles his hand in the air, scrapes his foot and bows like a Renaissance courtier. Mamma is right; men dismiss women’s opinions because the woman expressing herself is pretty, or because she is plain, because she is young or old, single or married, because, in the end, all women’s speech is considered to be merely personal. It must then be the duty of every rational woman to demonstrate with every word that she is reasonable, measured, objective, to prove herself and therefore her sex capable of speaking without emotion.”

Ally is bright and studious and her mother designs for her to become a doctor. Always desperate to please, to avoid conflict, Ally complies though the act of becoming a doctor places her under considerably more pressure, Ally living in an era when women were denied the right to become a doctor. Yet she believes in it, sees the logic and the need as she describes here:

 “And so you are to leave us Miss? You and Miss Mary both?

She nods. ‘I for London and May into Scotland. I will be a doctor, Ruth, and take a university degree. There are new worlds opening to us.’

Ruth narrows her eyes to thread a fresh needle. ‘To the likes of you, maybe, Miss. And I’m glad for you and for others. But it would take more than university degrees to make a new world for us, wouldn’t you say?’

Miss Emma, replacing Mamma’s favourite supervisor who married last month, puts down her on work. ‘Enough, Ruth. I’m sure we’re all pleased for Miss Moberley. And, of course, sorry to see her god.’ She nods to Ally.

‘It’s all right, Miss Emma. Ruth is right to say that at this moment such changes seem to offer little to her class. Ruth, listen. I want to be a doctor so I can treat women. So we need no longer choose between modesty and health. So there are healers who know what it is to inhabit a woman’s body. Our opponents have said that no man would ever accept treatment at the hands of a woman doctor, and yet they require us to expose our most intimate parts to men. And I won’t just treat ladies. I want to open a clinic like our Children’s and Lying-In Hospital here, only for poor and working women with any kind of sickness, where they can come in the evenings and pay only what they can spare. Think how many you know who could have been saved by such a thing, Ruth.’”

This desire to please is seen by Elizabeth as a weakness, a view which is compounded by the fact that Ally becomes ‘hysterical’, suffering panic attacks and fainting fits. Elizabeth’s response to this is as severe as ever, putting Ally under more pressure and possibly compounding the problem. Yet Ally perseveres. She eventually goes to London to live with her Aunt Mary, Elizabeth’s sister and a more caring person, where she studies to become a doctor. In the course of her studies she makes friends, softens and eventually falls in love. Her experiences with her own ‘hysteria’ draw her down a route to specialising in mental health, another ground-breaking move for such a seemingly mild-mannered person. Yet Ally is strong and determined, her weaknesses only coming from the perceptions of others.

One of the elements covered by the book, which propels Ally down her path towards doctorhood, is the Contagious Diseases Act, which I had known nothing about. If there is ever an example of why women need to be represented in Parliament, in all the privileged professions – doctors, lawyers, teachers, public offices – this Act is the perfect example. I had known nothing of it until reading this book, but have read more about it since. Ostensibly designed to reduce the instances of venereal diseases in the military, the Act allows police officers to detain women who were ‘prostitutes’ and subject them to forcible examination to determine if they carried a venereal disease. If they did, they could be detained for treatment. The Act did not require forcible examination of, or treatment of, men. Inevitably women who were not working the streets (and arguably many women only worked the streets out of desperation and poverty, because women had no economic independence or were permitted access only to the poorest paid work) were lifted and forcibly examined too, as described here:

“The Contagious Diseases Act is now part of English law, and all that Mamma and Mrs. Butler feared is coming to pass. Respectable women have killed themselves after forced examination, girls who had not fallen have done so after being so degraded in the police station that they have no modesty or dignity left to lose. You are a good girl after all, the police doctor in Chatham had said to a sixteen-year-old picked up on her way home with a pint of porter for her father. Look, the speculum made you bleed. They unfastened the straps holding her ankles apart and her arms to the table and without bothering to pick up the clothes they’d torn off she walked to the dock and kept walking over the edge.”

It’s a horrifying thought, the stuff of dystopic fiction, and yet it really happened. How awful.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it took me a while to see what it was about Bodies of Light that was so great, and yet by the end of the book I was hooked and kicking myself for my earlier dismissal. It is an excellent read, informative and beautifully written. It has made me interested in reading Sarah Moss’s other connected works: Night waking, which I believe follows May’s story, and Signs for Lost Children which follows up on Ally. It is a powerful book, intelligent and delicately written. Worthy of its praise (just like Ally).

Bodies of Light is published by Granta

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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3 Responses to Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

  1. I’m glad that you persevered with Bodies of Light. I thought Ally’s battle to be admitted to study medicine was very well handled. I can thoroughly recommend Signs For Lost Children, too, although I still haven’t got around to Night Waking.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Susan. I’m glad I persisted too, it is an excellent book. The kind that seeps under the skin, slowly. I think my reluctance at the beginning is very much linked to my current predominance of reading non-fiction. It’s a very different way of thinking.

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