It may be slightly unusual to write a post about another blog. Surely, you will think, I want you to read mine. But I owe so much of my reading to this blog, that I feel it is time to acknowledge my resource.
The writer is more than merely a reader of books, which to all intents and purposes is what I am. The author of this blog gives each book space and time, her/his writing expands into a thoughtful and generous appreciation of the novel and the author, and even when not liked, the book gets a fair hearing.
This blogger has the attention, not only of several publishers who now send review copies – a fact which is always gratefully acknowledged – but is also on several “shadow” judging panels for the more prestigious prizes.
Thankfully there is no room in her/his busy schedule to cover the Man Booker, so I can safely claim that territory for myself, though the shortlist is always presented with any comments on books the blogger has read.
Alittleblogofbooks covers the Man Booker International prize; The Independent Foreign Fiction prize; Women in Translation and the Wellcome Book Prize and much, much more.
It is because of this blog that I have really come to love Sarah Moss. The Tidal Zone, her debut novel is a startling and moving account of isolation, dislocation and loss; to some extent this is an emotional palette that she has explored at length, which is not to say that she writes the same book each time. Very far from it.
Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, published in 2014 and 2015 respectively, cover a period of great change in the lives of women. The leading female character, Alethea Moberley is the daughter of a painter/designer – somewhat in the style of William Morris – judging from the descriptions of his painting and his wallpaper designs. Alfred Moberley is at the beginning of his career in Victorian Manchester; he has married Elizabeth, a Quaker woman of strong Puritanical bent, whose life is wholly devoted to good works amongst the poor and indigent – upon whom she lavishes such efforts as behoves a charitable woman, but without much actual kindness.
They have two daughters, Alethea and May. Charity in this family does not start at home and the strictures of maternal discipline have in many ways warped the lives and characters of these two girls; both Papa, and his friend Aubrey, use the girls for models, often in quite louche and abandoned poses, paintings popular at the time; while the mother drags them to the poor schools and hospitals to show them the darker side of life.
Ally ends up with her mother’s dictums drumming through her head, always to her detriment. However, she does rise above this a little way and through her education and innate intelligence she achieves a place at a London Medical School. She travels to London and lives with her Aunt Mary – ending up after considerable struggle at the top of her class.
The novel, while ostensibly being about Alethea, does present an accurate and devastating picture of the huge barriers to a woman’s life; whether wealthy or poor. Both had nearly insurmountable problems locking them into a stultifying life of idleness and gossip or burdening them with domesticity, childbearing and factory work.
Education, the sort that would provide a person with the skills for professional work, was provided for boys and men. To liberate a woman from home and hearth, whether above or below stairs was to disorder Society, which would never do.
Alethea bucks the trend, and along the way makes a great friend in Annie, another trainee doctor, but at great cost to her emotional life and she remains fragile, even after great success.
The second novel covers her marriage to Tom Cavendish, her life in Falmouth and her work in a local insane asylum; Tom, an engineer, goes away to Japan and the book has the most wonderful descriptions of his life there compared to Ally’s life in Cornwall.
May Moberley has a different sort of adventure, and appears in a earlier novel, Night Waking.
The first person narrator is a writer who is living on Colsay Island with two young children, Raphael and Timothy, trying to finish a book for which the deadline is past while juggling with childcare and Giles, a husband whose sense of entitlement does not often include nappy changing, feeding or caring for the heir and the spare.
In this book, Sarah Moss is also dealing with feminine issues and though set in the twentieth century, the chapters are interspersed with letters from May Moberley, writing in 1878, to Aubrey, to her sister Ally and to her patron Mr Cassingham, who is Giles’ great-grandfather and whose family has owned Colsay for generations. May is attempting to bring some order and hygiene into the lives of the crofter families, but their stubbornness and superstitions make her life intolerable.
Through these letters we are introduced to the life on the Scottish isles in both Victorian and modern Britain. Colsay is fictional, and the description in the novel largely but not accurately adumbrates the history of St Kilda, an island in the Outer Hebrides. Conditions were harsh in Victorian Britain and are merely difficult in the twentieth century; but isolation, loneliness and struggle eat into the very bones of the people’s suffering.
The novel is hung upon the excruciating find of an infant grave in the garden, dug up accidentally by Raph while planting apple trees. The enquiry and the emotional backlash adds to the tensions already described.
I am enthralled, but would not want to suggest in any way that these are novels written for women. The research sits lightly on the text. My aim is contrarily to urge my readers to take a look at this other blog, full of the most wonderful insights and books that might otherwise have past you by.