In her third novel, Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss explores the ideas of family, maternity and inheritance across three generations and beyond. In 19th Century Manchester, Elizabeth Moberley is a crusader for the poor, down trodden and exploited women of Victorian England. Her husband Alfred (a pre-Raphaelite painter and decorator of drawing rooms) has long ago given up seeking warmth and affection from her, finding it instead in the arms of another woman. Her two daughters, May and Ally, are subject to her tyrannical rule, her evangelism and her often cruel discipline. While May possesses the strength of character and independence to shrug off her mother’s criticism, Ally finds herself burdened by the constant need to seek her mother’s approval; something which is never forthcoming despite Ally studying to become one of the first female doctors in Britain.
We meet Elizabeth and Alfred immediately prior to their impending marriage. Elizabeth is self-disciplined and austere, devoted more perhaps to the teachings of her equally evangelical mother than to those of her God, and seems to take no joy in her upcoming marriage and honeymoon. She chooses to face backwards on the train as she prefers “to see where I have come from”. The almost immediate arrival of their first child brings with it what we would now recognise as a period of post-natal depression and a hatred of her daughter which Elizabeth never seems to lose. She sees Ally as “a venomous insect. A reptile”. We might question whether Elizabeth ever really develops any maternal feelings for her children. As she struggles to care for her daughter and battles with thoughts of suicide and infanticide, she portentously berates herself with thoughts of her mother’s disapproval.
This glimpse of Elizabeth as fallible and human, as a victim of her own mother’s upbringing the same way Ally is of hers, should preclude us from merely hating her as the villain of the piece, which it would be easy to do. However, as soon as Ally is old enough, the focus of the novel shifts to her, and we are given no other point of view for the remainder of the book. It is easy to forget that Elizabeth Moberley has reasons for her actions that have given her, as Ally begins to suspect, a “need” to hurt people. Her sterile style of motherhood and constant demands for more lose their impact for the reader as the book progresses with this different focaliser, and it is difficult to imagine how Ally can still feel such disappointment at her lack of approval. By the time Elizabeth refuses to attend her daughter’s wedding, we are almost bored with her heartlessness, an effect, perhaps, of our being excluded from her thoughts for twenty one years. It is frustrating to find Ally, despite coming to realise something of what her mother is, still believing that her strict upbringing has been a great benefit. In this way, Moss leaves the ending disturbingly open for Ally to continue the tradition and inflict a similar upbringing on children of her own.
In focusing almost entirely on Ally, Moss not only excludes us from Elizabeth’s point of view, but also from that of Alfred and May. We are blinkered by Ally’s perspective. Alfred’s affair is mentioned only twice, May’s relationship with Aubrey barely touched upon and, after the initial pages of the book, Elizabeth’s mother appears a mere shadow. Despite being beautifully written, one criticism that could be made of Bodies of Light is that it leaves so much unsaid, favouring instead to focus on Ally’s repeated nervous attacks and her mother’s disapproval. While this allows us a deep insight into Ally, perhaps a similar insight into other characters might make the book a bit more fulfilling. Despite this, the book’s historical details and graceful prose make it a visceral and poignant story which is simultaneously distressing and enchanting.