The Goodreads Challenge – July’s slight change, Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Hello all! Now I know what you may be thinking – it’s not the beginning of a new month, let alone the end of the last, so why am I updating my Goodreads Challenge now? Well, it’s because I have failed. Semi-failed, let’s call it.

As you may recall, for July I was meant to be reading Ben Wilson’s history of the British Navy, Empire of the Deep. However, it is the last week of the month and I am barely a quarter of the way through. I’m enjoying it but it’s hard going. There’s a lot of history, a lot of people and place names, and a lotta lot of writing. Sometimes, after a hard day’s work, I don’t fancy ploughing through a thesis on the Spanish Armada.

So I’m tweaking my Goodreads Challenge – just for July. And since I’ve had this book on my shelves for longer than Empire of the Deep, and began and finished it in the month of July, then my month’s read will be Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss. And according to my Goodreads, I have read 11 out of my pledged 12 books to read this year! (I have the rest of my own challenge to read too, so I should be well on my way to a good book year.)

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A bit of a blue theme for the current books. If I knew anything about photography I would make more of this…

I was drawn to this book because of its connection to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, prolific in Victorian England. My favourite artist is John William Waterhouse, who wasn’t a core member of the Brotherhood but affiliated nonetheless, and one reason why I chose to study my MA at Hull was because they offered a module in Victorian Literature and the Visual Arts. After reading this book, I wish I had encountered it when I was writing my dissertation, as it definitely ties into my study of the female protagonist/antagonist and the use of hysteria/lunacy to demean and belittle women.

To begin with, I was quite confused, as the part of the book the blurb talks about happens much further in, so for a while I wondered if there was a typo on the sleeve, the characters of Ally and May bearing too much similarity to the names of Elizabeth and Mary, who we encounter first. Elizabeth is the mother of Ally and May, married to Alfred Moberley, a painter and artist, and if it was her goal to transform into her own mother, she achieves it perfectly, and then some. The story is set mostly in Manchester, though we move to London later on, and follows chiefly Ally, who struggles to achieve the nigh-impossible aspirations her mother has dreamt up for her, inspired both by her own upbringing and issues following Ally’s birth. As she aspires to things only just becoming available to her gender, her unresponsive mother just sets the bar higher, even as Ally smashes Victorian versions of the glass ceiling as she studies and works herself nearly to death to qualify as one of the first female doctors.

I really enjoyed this book, once I got over the initial hurdle. Moss writes – I don’t know if this makes sense – like an Oxbridge graduate, but her descriptions are sparse and evocative of the Victorian family life. The exchanges between Ally and May, particularly when they are left alone as their parents go away and the girl who works for them disappears, are so believable, and I loved their arguments about the laundry. Poor Ally lives in terror of her mother’s disapproval but May is the typical second child – can do no wrong.

I would have liked more about the artwork, and the artists, purely for my own interests. But I soon got caught up in Ally’s life and invested in her progress as she faced the trials against her. Moss skilfully depicts Ally’s mental health, outbursts of nightmares and episodes of suffocation brought about by her mother’s gargantuan expectations and treated in typical Victorian ways – bruising, burning, slapping and the general demeaning treatment of medical staff and the people around her. Elizabeth, Mrs Moberley, works with poor and abused women and mothers and constantly compares her daughter’s struggles with those of people who have no money, no opportunity and never seem to grumble despite the horrors thrown at them. It is a powerful parallel to today’s treatment of those with mental health problems. While we might acknowledge the illness nowadays and be trying to tackle it, Moss’s novel exposes the Victorian attitudes most people hold towards it today. Mental health is not directly comparable – it is so individual and particular, what would be manageable to Person A just tips Person B off the cliff.

So I would definitely recommend this somewhat secret gem of a book to anyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites/Arts and Crafts movement, Victorian literature, gender studies and mental health.

I’m still persevering with Empire of the Deep. It’s a worthy read and I’m learning loads, and it will run nicely alongside my nautical fantasy novel I’m writing. To keep me ticking over till August I’ve picked up Amanda Owen’s A Year in the Life of the Yorkshire Shepherdess, though I do have the new Robin Hobb book ready and waiting in the wings. My next book, for August, will by Lucky Jim. My book that I’m writing has a university setting for part of it so this book will help with that.

What are you reading? Have you read Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light? Or anything similar? Let me know in the comments!