July 12th 2021

Saint Alethia? On Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

How are you meant to write about an unfinished emancipation? Bodies of Light is a 2014 book by Glasgow-born Sarah Moss on the stirrings of women's suffrage in an arty clique in nineteenth-century England. Set in the intellectually smoggy cities of Manchester and London, we follow the studious and intelligent Alethia 'Ally' Moberly, who is struggling to gain the acceptance of herself, her mother and the General Medical Council.

'Alethia' may be the Greek goddess of truth, but our Ally is really searching for wisdom. Her strengths are her patience and bookish learning, and she acquires Latin as soon as she learns male doctors will use it to keep women away from the operating theatre. In fact, Ally's acquisition of language becomes a recurring leitmotif: replaying a suggestive dream involving a love interest, for instance, Ally thinks of 'dark, tumbling dreams for which she has a perfectly adequate vocabulary'. There are very few moments of sensuality in the book, and pairing it with Ally's understated wit achieves a wonderful effect.

The amount we learn about a character is adapted for effect as well. There are few psychological insights about Ally's sister, for example, and she thus becomes a fey, mysterious and almost Pre-Raphaelite figure below the surface of a lake to match the artistic movement being portrayed. By contrast, we get almost the complete origin story of Ally's mother, Elizabeth, who also constitutes of those rare birds in literature: an entirely plausible Christian religious zealot. Nothing Ally does is ever enough for her, but unlike most modern portrayals of this dynamic, neither of them are aware of what is going, and it is conveyed in a way that is chillingly... benevolent. This was brought home in the annual 'birthday letters' that Elizabeth writes to her daughter:

Last year's letter said that Ally was nervous, emotional and easily swayed, and that she should not allow her behaviour to be guided by feeling but remember always to assert her reason. Mamma would help her with early hours, plain food and plenty of exercise. Ally looks at the letter, plump in its cream envelope. She hopes Mamma wrote it before scolding her yesterday.

The book makes the implicit argument that it is a far more robust argument against pervasive oppression to portray a character in, say, 'a comfortable house, a kind husband and a healthy child', yet they are nonetheless still deeply miserable, for reasons they can't quite put their finger on. And when we see Elizabeth perpetuating some generational trauma with her own children, it is telling that is pattern is not short-circuited by an improvement in their material conditions. Rather, it is arrested only by a kind of political consciousness — in Ally's case, the education in a school. In fact, if there is a real hero in Bodies of Light, it is the very concept of female education.

There's genuine shading to the book's ideological villains, despite finding their apotheosis in the jibes about 'plump Tories'. These remarks first stuck out to me as cheap thrills by the author; easy and inexpensive potshots that are unbecoming of the pages around them. But they soon prove themselves to be moments of much-needed humour. Indeed, when passages like this are read in their proper context, the proclamations made by sundry Victorian worthies start to serve as deadpan satire:

We have much evidence that the great majority of your male colleagues regard you as an aberration against nature, a disgusting, unsexed creature and a danger to the public.

Funny as these remarks might be, however, these moments have a subtler and more profound purpose as well. Historical biography always has the risk of allowing readers to believe that the 'issue' has already been solved — hence, perhaps, the enduring appeal of science fiction. But Moss providing these snippets from newspapers 150 years ago should make a clear connection to a near-identical moral panic today.

On the other hand, setting your morality tale in the past has the advantage that you can show that progress is possible. And it can also demonstrate how that progress might come about as well. This book makes the argument for collective action and generally repudiates individualisation through ever-fallible martyrs. Ally always needs 'allies' — not only does she rarely work alone, but she is helped in some way by almost everyone around her. This even includes her rather problematic mother, forestalling any simplistic proportioning of blame. (It might be ironic that Bodies of Light came out in 2014, the very same year that Sophia Amoruso popularised the term 'girl boss'.) Early on, Ally's schoolteacher is coded as the primary positive influence on her, but Ally's aunt later inherits this decisive role, continuing Ally's education on cultural issues and what appears to be the Victorian version of 'self-care'. Both the aunt and the schoolteacher are, of course, surrogate mother figures.

After Ally arrives in the cut-throat capital, you often get the impression you are being shown discussions where each of the characters embodies a different school of thought within first-wave feminism. This can often be a fairly tedious device in fiction, the sort of thing you would find in a Sally Rooney novel, Pilgrim's Progress or some other ponderously polemical tract. Yet when Ally appears to 'win' an argument, it is only in the sense that the narrator continues to follow her, implicitly and lightly endorsing her point. Perhaps if I knew my history better, I might be able to associate names with the book's positions, but perhaps it is better (at least for the fiction-reading experience...) that I don't, as the baggage of real-world personalities can often get in the way. I'm reminded here of Regina King's One Night in Miami... (2020), where caricatures of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke awkwardly replay various arguments within an analogous emancipatory struggle.

Yet none of the above will be the first thing a reader will notice. Each chapter begins with a description of an imaginary painting, providing a title and a date alongside a brief critical exegesis. The artworks serve a different purpose in each chapter: a puzzle to be unlocked, a fear to be confirmed, an unsolved enigma. The inclusion of (artificial) provenances is interesting as well, not simply because they add colour and detail to the chapter to come, but because their very inclusion feels reflective of how we see art today.

Orphelia (1852) by Sir John Everett Millais.

To continue the question this piece began, how should an author conclude a story about an as-yet-unfinished struggle for emancipation? How can they? Moss' approach dares you to believe the ending is saccharine or formulaic, but what else was she meant to turn in — yet another tale of struggle and suffering? After all, Thomas Hardy has already written Tess of the d'Urbervilles. All the same, it still feels slightly unsatisfying to end merely with Ally's muted, uncelebrated success.

Nevertheless, I suspect many readers will dislike the introduction of a husband in the final pages, taking it as a betrayal of the preceding chapters. Yet Moss denies us from seeing the resolution as a Disney-style happy ending. True, Ally's husband turns out to be a rather dashing lighthouse builder, but isn't it Ally herself who is lighting the way in their relationship, warning other women away from running aground on the rocks of mental illness? And Tom feels more of a reflection of Ally's newly acquired self-acceptance instead of that missing piece she needed all along. We learn at one point that Tom's 'importance to her is frightening' — this is hardly something a Disney princess would say.

In fact, it is easy to argue that a heroic ending for Ally might have been an even more egregious betrayal. The evil of saints is that you can never live up to them, for the concept of a 'saint' embodies an unreachable ideal that no human can begin to copy. By being taken as unimpeachable and uncorrectable as well, saints preclude novel political action, and are therefore undoubtedly agents of reaction. Appreciating historical figures as the (flawed) people that they really were is the first step if you wish to continue — or adapt — their political ideas.

I had acquired Bodies of Light after enjoying Moss' Summerwater (2020), which had the dubious honour of being touted as the 'first lockdown novel', despite it being finished before Covid-19. There are countless ways one might contrast the two, so I will limit myself to the sole observation that the strengths of one are perhaps the weaknesses of the other. It's not that Bodies of Light ends with a whimper, of course, as it quietly succeeds in concert with Ally. But by contrast, the tighter arc of Summerwater (which is set during a single day, switches protagonist between chapters, features a closed-off community, etc.) can reach a higher high with its handful of narrative artifices. Summerwater is perhaps like Phil Collins' solo career: 'more satisfying, in a narrower way.'

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