Book cover: Bodies of LightAlly is mad, or so her mother assures her. Mad, weak and sinful. Only physical penance and dedication to a good cause can save her.

Religion, art, psychology, women’s suffrage and Victorian medicine all come under the scope in this excellent historical novel about one girl’s journey to define herself and claim her future.

I am an unabashed fan of Sarah Moss‘s work. Her first foray in historical fiction, this is the story of Alethea Moberley – elder sister of May, whose history on Colsay inspires Anna to return to work in Night Waking. Alethea’s parents are the oddly matched Alfred Moberley, a Manchester artist in the mould of William Morris, and Elizabeth Sanderson, an evangelical feminist campaigner and lifelong do-gooder.

Raised to do her duty – or rather, to do whatever her mother says – and to repress her emotions as self-indulgent hysteria and madness, Alethea makes for a quiet, nervous heroine. She applies herself to her studies, her housework and eventually her calling as a doctor more to avoid disappointing others than to fulfil a lifelong dream. Yet she is fierce under that meek veneer, embracing both duty and calling to make them her own in this fascinating portrait of the struggles of Victorian women to be taken seriously.

I was enthralled by this moving tale and – as with other books by Moss – rapidly found myself fully emotionally engaged. I was furious with Alethea’s parents and sister for their behaviour and at times frustrated with Alethea for martyring herself to their opinions. In between, the glimpses of the impossible position Victorian women found themselves in (such as being subjected to brutal examinations by policemen to prove they weren’t ladies of ill-repute when found out after dark) cast the hard-won freedoms of the 20th century into sharp relief. We may sometimes reflect that there’s still a long way to go – even in modern Britain – but it is good to be reminded how far we have come.

This won’t be for everyone, as present tense narrative can be a turn-off (although seriously, this is beautiful prose) and the pace is measured. Those looking for more action and less introspection (and angst) in their historical dissections will be disappointed. As far as I’m concerned though, it’s a firm favourite for the year.

*****