Bodies of Light is the second Sarah Moss novel is what I call, ‘Alice reads everything Sarah Moss has ever written’. I’ve decided her books will always surprise me, as I never get what I’m expecting from the synopsis.
“Bodies of Light is a deeply poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous nineteenth century upbringing set in the atmospheric world of Pre-Raphaelitism and the early suffrage movement. Ally, is intelligent, studious and engaged in an eternal – and losing – battle to gain her mother’s approval and affection. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a religious zealot, keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally wins a scholarship and is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn’t seem good enough.” GoodReads.
Bodies of Light follows Ally Moberley, in Victorian England, as she grows up mentally stifled by her overbearing and hard to please mother, Elizabeth. Her father is a famous artist Arthur Moberly (I was very disappointed when I discovered her wasn’t real) and her mother a religious zealot and feminist. Actually, I’m not sure feminist is the right word, she wanted freedom for women, but forced her daughter into a life she decided was best for the cause.
Elizabeth Moberly was a fascinating character, Ally and May’s mother, she was so utterly radical, but also so tyrannical and closed-minded. She suppressed every part of herself for a piety that was irrelevant. She was more concerned with appearances. She devoted her life to the care of poor ‘fallen’ women, yet, her care wasn’t empathy, it was arrogance. She saw herself as better, and these women as incapable of helping themselves.
Ally’s anxiety was so familiar. I am drawn to anxious characters. It’s both relaxing and stressful to see thought processes you find so familiar on the pages of a book because momentarily you become that character. Her anxiety comes out physically, with fainting and hysteria. Unlike her sister May, Ally constantly believes her mother and thinks she is weak or unworthy. So much pressure is put on her, from both her parents and while you feel as though her father may be the better parent you see he too is just as disappointed in her actions. They are a selfish pair.
Each chapter begins with a painting (either by Moberly or his friend) a history of the hands it has passed through, and a description of the painting itself. These descriptions give you a hint of what will happen the chapter ahead. They also remind the reader that you only get a glimpse of the part of their lives that correspond with the painting. It’s a private history, of women in his paintings, and the women connected to them.
Bodies of Light snuck up on me, I felt fairly indifferent to it until I realised just what it was giving to me and how intelligent it was. I’ll have to read Night Walking next, which features May Moberly, Ally’s sister.
Have you read The Tidal Zone or Bodies of Light?
Did you enjoy them?