Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (Granta Books, 2014)
I put this book on my Christmas list after seeing it recommended on a literature page on Facebook. I can’t remember why it piqued my interest now because it’s not a book I would usually choose for myself.
Bodies of Light is a historical novel set in Victorian Manchester and revolves around the two Moberley sisters, Ally and May and their parents, the evangelical “Mamma” and their painter father.
It’s a difficult and thought-provoking read about family and familial abuse. We start the novel with the marriage of Elizabeth to Alfred Moberley and the domineering presence of Elizabeth’s mother who likes to assert control by doing things such as putting a stone in boots and lacing them up tight so that “each step will remind you how you have disappointed us.” She even keeps a basket of stones in the hall just for the purpose. “Mamma’s methods,” remarks Elizabeth, “are not exactly violent but she does believe in the salutary effects of pain.”
I thought this first section of the novel was slow and rather drawn out but, it is rather important as we see the cycle of abuse continue when Elizabeth has her first child, Ally. As Ally grows we see Elizabeth transform into her mother and in turn, inflict pain upon Ally. I was slightly troubled that Elizabeth is shown to have post-natal depression – not because I think we shouldn’t talk about it (we definitely should!) but because I didn’t want it to seem as if the depression was an excuse for the violence inflicted on Ally. It wasn’t used as an excuse and Moss handled the subject brilliantly.
Alexandra Harris states, in her review of Bodies of Light, (in the Guardian, 19th April 2014), “Moss is too challenging a novelist to allow us simply to despise Elizabeth. We must respect her tough commitment to her work as she pushes into the brothels and asylums of mid-Victorian Manchester’s dismal underworld.” I don’t agree. Whilst I admire Elizabeth’s work, I despise Elizabeth more for knowing that she can show more kindness, more generosity to those who aren’t of her own flesh than to her own children. Not to say the “fallen” shouldn’t be helped, of course, just that to not show your own children love and affection and then to show it to others is something I have a great deal of difficulty with. At one point, Elizabeth takes in a child who has been exploited as a prostitute, but then Elizabeth seems completely oblivious to the fact that her own daughters could be in danger. One of them is even coaxed into taking her clothes off by her father’s painter friend so that he can paint her. As you can probably tell, this novel messed with my head in several ways!
Ally manages to escape Manchester and moves to London to study as a doctor. This section was riveting for me, as a woman, seeing how Victorian women had to fight to achieve anything. Although, the ending did seem a little rushed as she meets and marries, Mr Cavendish. Ally still has intentions to study as a doctor, but, it just didn’t sit right with me for her to marry quite so easily (not that there’s anything wrong with marriage). Perhaps it was just the way it was slotted in at the end. It does give the novel a “coming full circle” feeling as it begins and ends in marriage. I just hope Ally doesn’t go on to transform into her mother!
Even at the end, Mamma casts a shadow over the marriage proceedings even though she doesn’t attend. There’s an over-arching sadness that broke my heart in this novel. A child, even as an adult, still desperate for her mother’s affection and acceptance. I have a particular interest in the motherhood myth and the way mothers are presented in society and what happens when a mother has a personality disorder. I have written about it myself in my Bones, Ashes and Dust Trilogy. It’s also the subject of another novel I’m working on.
And yes, these types of mothers do exist!!
Overall, I’d give Bodies of Light 3.5/5. The historical detail is fabulous and even taught me a few things I didn’t know about the plight of women in Victorian England (and Paris). The subject of family and familial violence was handled well, although, sometimes it was drawn out a little.
Good for those who don’t mind thought-provoking literature and discussions on familial abuse with a great dollop of historical fiction. Not so great for those who want a little bit of light reading.