Ally is intelligent, studious, and engaged in an eternal battle to gain her mother’s approval and affection. Her mother is a religious zealot, keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn’t seem good enough.
The first in a two-book sequence, Bodies of Light is a poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous 19th-century upbringing set in the world of Pre-Raphaelitism and the early suffrage movement.
This was an interesting, if not exactly gripping, account of a middle class family in Manchester during Victorian times, times when women were not expected to want more than a husband, house and children.
Like her mother before her, Elizabeth Sanderson is dedicated to helping the impoverished and downtrodden of Manchester. Her marriage to Alfred Moberley appears to be a marriage of convenience that allows her to continue her good-works. Alfred is an artist and interior designer who designs wallpaper and fabrics for wealthy home owners and although his business is doing well, Elizabeth's upbringing does not allow her to employ servants to do the work she feels she should do herself. When Alethea (Ally) is born Elizabeth is totally out of her depth and has no idea how to care for this squalling baby, so she puts her out of earshot. This neglect continues throughout Ally's life and as a result, she is always striving to impress her mother, or even to be noticed.
She is a studious, conscientious child, in an era when girls did not receive much in the way of education, but she is driven to study and eventually to become a doctor, determined to finally make an impression on her mother. Her sister, May seems less affected by their mother's behaviour and much less serious. She is motivated by the more frivolous side of life.
I was fascinated by the mention of the the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, which allowed police to detain and inspect any woman walking alone, on suspicion of prostitution. Under the pretext of reducing sexually transferred diseases, women could be subjected to invasive testing on little evidence and it became hazardous to leave the home without a male escort.
This Act was one of the motivations for Elizabeth to press Ally into the medical profession. She felt that women should receive attention from sympathetic female doctors rather than uncaring male ones.It was a very difficult time to become a female doctor, though doors were finally beginning to open. Male colleagues tended to be skeptical and scathing of their female counterparts.
During this time, Ally stayed with her less zealous aunt and realised how different other families were from her own. She also developed a close friendship with another student and finally found a guy who she could relate to.
The story continues with Signs for Lost Children, which follows Ally's work in a mental institution and her husband's time as an engineer in Japan.
I listened to the audio version, well read by Meriel Scholfield, but one problem of this medium was that the introductory descriptions of artworks and their provenances at the beginning of each chapter didn't really work in an audiobook and they became a bit irritating.
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