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Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Bodies of Light

by Sarah Moss

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I enjoyed this book but it didn't seem to have the same intensity as the other Moss books I've read ( )
  oldblack | Dec 3, 2017 |
The early days of female doctors.

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.
3.5 stars. ( )
  DubaiReader | Nov 14, 2016 |
This superb novel is set in Victorian Manchester, and is centered on Alethea (Ally) Moberley, the first child of Alfred, a successful but eccentric painter and interior designer, and Elizabeth, a devoutly religious and strict Quaker who is completely invested in the well being of poor women within and outside of England, and to ensuring that Ally and her sister May stay on a very narrow and righteous path and devote their lives to the downtrodden.

In the 1860s and 1870s women were only just beginning to be accepted, begrudgingly, into colleges and professions that were previously denied to them. Girton College, the first for women at Cambridge, opened in 1869, which was followed by Newnham College in 1872, although Bedford College for Women at the University of London had preceded Girton College by 20 years. Formal medical education was denied to women, as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman licensed to practice medicine in 1865 and the first to be accepted to the British Medical Association in 1873, remained the only female member of the BMA for nearly two decades, after the organization voted against allowing any other women to gain admittance. Those women who did attempt to gain entry to male only bastions, including medicine, were greeted with hostility and derision, or were simply ignored.

In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed by Parliament, which was initially created to limit the spread of sexually transmitted infections to soldiers. Policemen in ports and army towns searched for women who were known prostitutes, and any others who were suspected of soliciting sexual favors from clients. Any woman who was walking alone could be taken into custody, even if she was married or had a legitimate reason to be out in public. Those accused of solicitation were arrested and taken to police stations, where they were strapped onto tables and forced to undergo painful and humiliating pelvic examinations with a metal speculum by male officers. Thousands of women were taken into police custody under the Contagious Disease Act; those who were found to be infected were transferred to Lock hospitals for treatment of venereal diseases, where they could be held for up to a year, and those who were uninfected were released. Some of the innocent women were so badly traumatized that they committed suicide shortly afterward, and undoubtedly many others were infected by the use of contaminated specula, thus contributing to the spread of the disease. For single men and soldiers, having sex with prostitutes was considered to be a necessary evil, and they were frequently released by police with little more than a warning. In later years, the Contagious Diseases Act was employed in larger cities and towns, to limit the spread of disease amongst the general public.

Elizabeth Moberley, like many independent women in the Victorian Era, was horrified by this Act, and because of this and the woeful health services available to women, she single mindedly determined that Ally would become a physician, and devote her life to women's health. The repressed but strong willed Ally agreed with her mother's decision, although she didn't have much choice in the matter, and the latter half of the book describes her pursuit of a medical career, and how she overcame numerous obstacles in the clinics and difficulties at home to achieve that goal.

Bodies of Light starts with the marriage of Alfred and Elizabeth, their difficult but successful marriage of opposites, Ally's birth and the profoundly negative affect her infancy and early childhood had on Elizabeth, Ally's largely unhappy childhood spent under the hard thumb of her inflexible mother, and her relationship with her far more carefree younger sister May. This was a wonderfully written and captivating story, with vividly portrayed central characters, and I was emotionally invested in Ally and cheered her on throughout the book. My only minor critiques are that I wished that it was a longer novel, with fuller descriptions of her medical education and the challenges she faced along the way, and it ended too abruptly for me, although it could be that I wasn't ready to leave Ally behind at the conclusion of the novel.

I look forward to reading Signs for Lost Children, which was published last year and picks up where Bodies of Light left off. I'm very surprised that this book wasn't chosen for last year's Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, as it would have been a fabulous choice for the longlist, at least. ( )
9 vote kidzdoc | Feb 2, 2016 |
I am an unabashed fan of Sarah Moss's work, and her latest novel is no exception. This is the story of Alethea Moberley - the 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 and designer in the mould of William Morris, and Elizabeth Sanderson, an evangelical feminist campaigner and lifelong do-gooder (except at home).

Raised to do her duty - that is to say, to do whatever her mother tells her - and to repress her emotions as self-indulgent hysteria and madness, Alethea makes for a quiet, nervous heroine who 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 beneath the duty and embraces 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, 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 (not least 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. ( )
2 vote imyril | Dec 21, 2014 |
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"We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not for disturbing persons."

R. D. Laing and A. Esterton, Sanity, Madness and the Family (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964)
First words
Alfred Moberley, 1856
Oil on canvas, 72 x 68
Signed and dated '56
Provenance: John Dalby, Manchester, after 1860; James Dunn (dealer, London) 1872; Sir Frederick Dorley, 1874; bequeathed to the National Gallery, 1918

A woman sits at a desk.
She woke up thinking of knives, took only porridge for her breakfast because even a butter-knife seemed a bad idea. She is still thinking of knives. The baby is still crying. For shame, Elizabeth, says Mamma, think of the club women, who care for four or eight children in a dwelling smaller than this drawing room, who only have a fire for cooking and that only there is money for coal, who work all day as well as rising at night with their infants. You disappoint me, Mamma says. That I should see a daughter of mine a sloven and a coward! Mamma is right, has always been right. She is weak. She is slovenly. The baby has defeated her. If she goes out, she is afraid she will buy laudanum, and if she stays in the house, there are knives. And fire, and the staircase. And windows high under the gable. The baby cries. She cannot pick it up because of the knives and laudanum. So she stands there, in the doorway, and the baby cries. The baby drives her to evil thoughts. Its perpetual screaming calls her towards damnation. Before the baby came, she was full of light.
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With informative but accessible text, the sport is brought to life. This work offers an in-depth look at the sport, from its history and beginnings to the modern game, how it's played, who plays it and the rules that govern it. Packed with facts, stats and full-colour photographs, this is the essential guide.… (more)

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