Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: Bodies of Light

Posted on 25th April 2015 by Sarah Moss
Read an extract from Sarah Moss' Bodies of Light, shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize.

We continue our look at the shortlisted books vying for the Wellcome Book Prize. Awarded to a book that engages and explores with some aspect of medicine, health or illness, the prize aims to encourage debate around these topics through these books.

Sarah Moss' Bodies of Light is a poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous nineteenth century upbringing set in the atmospheric world of the early suffrage movement. Ally is intelligent, studious and engaged in a losing battle for her mother's approval and affection. Her mother, Elizabeth, is keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally wins a scholarship and is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn't seem good enough. Read an extract below.


They walk to the sea down a green lane, where the trees meet over their heads to form a tunnel of bright leaves. Alfred shows her bluebells and wild garlic edging the path, and points out violets under the brambles. The gorse is furred with yellow bloom and dark blades of thorn and gives off an unfamiliar scent. There is birdsong but no visible birds, as if the day sings to itself. In Manchester, there will be brown fog, and heat. At home, Mary will probably be in the garden, reading under the willow tree whose weeping branches screen her from all but the closest inspection. Mamma will have shut herself in her room. There will be boiled meat and potatoes for lunch, the smell hanging in the air for hours after the meal has been eaten. They round a curve, and the sea is there. Flat rocks make a continuation of the lane onto the beach, into the water, as if inviting her to keep walking into the sea. Sunlight flashes from the waves. Pebbles, grey and pink, freckle the sand. Brown seaweed scribbles the high-water mark. She lifts her skirts and runs, stands on the rocks in the sun with the water leaping at her feet. He puts down the picnic basket and watches her, the ribbons of her hat fluttering in the wind, skirts flapping, face smiling at the sky. She turns to see herself being watched.

‘Come on,’ she calls. ‘I should think we could paddle, couldn’t we, being married?’

He joins her, takes her hand. ‘We could swim, if we wanted to. Being married.’

They find a flat rock on the sand, warm to the touch, and clamber up to sit on it. She opens the picnic basket; no wonder it was heavy. There is a pie with glazed pastry leaves on the top in a blue-rimmed white enamel pie-dish, a lettuce, what must be salt in a twist of blue paper. Two bottles of beer – she has never drunk beer, Mamma does not approve – a fruit like a yellow plum, but with a warm, downy skin from which she almost recoils, as if it were alive, and more bara brith, raisin bread, buttered and folded. Two plates, two knives, two forks, two napkins. Cutlery coupled by her marriage. It is too bright, really, to sit in the sun. Alfred lies back on the rock.

‘The tide’s rising,’ he says.

She needs a spoon to serve the pie and there isn’t one. She opens the crust with a knife. ‘Does that matter?’

He lifts his head. ‘Of course it matters. We’re below the tide-line. It will come up and up and past our rock and we’ll be stranded here for twelve hours until it goes down again.’

He lays his head down again, stretches out his arms until his hand brushes her back. They are perhaps ten feet from the tide-line.

‘We could paddle again.’

‘We could stay here and eat apricots and watch the light on the sea. You could recite to me while I draw you.’

Meat filling, flecked with green herbs, falls out of the pie as she tries to transfer some to his plate. ‘I can’t recite. Mamma says rote learning is the enemy of women’s education. Well, I can repeat German irregular nouns. Or conjugate French verbs. All of them. But nobody ever made me chant the names of the monarchs in chronological order and Mamma won’t buy those ladies’ anthologies of verse. She says we should read poetry or not, but not chop it into bits to patronise undeveloped intellects.’

He salts his lettuce. She serves herself pie, less than she gave him. Mamma considers pastry unwholesome.

‘And do you agree with her?’ he asks.

She takes some lettuce. ‘Yes.’

She wakes in the night. There is no clock in the room, which doesn’t matter, really, since neither Mrs Brant nor Cousin Frances showed any sign of thinking anything of her late rising yesterday. She could, she supposes, rise after eight and breakfast on bacon and eggs for the rest of her life now, if she wanted to. She shivers at the idea. Careful not to move the blankets too much, she turns over, straightens her legs. Alfred sighs, and resumes his slow breathing. Moonlight comes under and through the gap between the curtains, which are made of a shrunken cotton print with a lining too heavy for the fabric. The house is silent in a way that home has never been, the silence of old stone walls and fields lying dark outside, stretching to the sea. She wonders how the sea would look in the dark. She turns her head. She can smell the pomade Alfred puts in his hair, and the laundry-soap on his nightshirt which is different from her own. In time, she supposes, sharing a bed, using the same laundry, the same soap, they will smell the same. Mr and Mrs Moberley. The back of his neck is as thickly furred as his chest; she had not known, Mamma had not told her, that men had hair all over, like apes. 

She wants to go to the window and look out at the trees and the sky. They heard owls earlier, and she has never seen an owl. Her foot itches, and Alfred seems to have trodden sand from the beach into the sheets. She will be sharing her bed for years. Alfred has made the new hangings for Grandmamma’s bed. He asked her, flowers and fruits, flowers and birds? He has been working on a design for a wallpaper where there are bees in blooming honeysuckle. Could it not be plain, she asked, white or cream to show the carving on the endposts? Oh you Quaker, he said, that an artist should marry such taste! Tell me, Elizabeth, would you prefer the pictures on the walls plain to show the frames? The new hangings, he says, will be a surprise for her when they arrive at the house. Their house. He is having the walls painted and papered. Some rooms will be as bare as she could hope for until they can afford the right materials, but it is important that he has drawing and dining rooms where potential clients can be entertained. That, he says, is one reason for buying the house. She has not reminded him that is it Papa who bought the house. He will expect her to provide dinners for these people and to preside at his table. He has given her a book about housekeeping, as if he thinks Mamma’s teaching will not be sufficient guide.

‘Elizabeth?’ he murmurs.

‘Shh. It’s the middle of the night.’ She pats him as she used to pat Mary, years ago when they shared a room and Mary had nightmares.

‘I know. You’re awake.’

‘The moonlight woke me,’ she says. It’s slanting the other way now, over the black-painted floorboards towards the looped skirts of the wash-stand.

He sits up. His hair is tousled and there is the imprint of the rumpled pillowcase on his left cheek. ‘Do you want to go outside? See it properly?’

Does she? ‘What, in our nightclothes? Alfred, what about your Cousin Frances? And Mrs Brant, doesn’t she sleep here?’

‘No.’ He pushes back the bedclothes. His legs, sticking out from his nightshirt, remind her again of apes, apes in white cotton. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if Cousin Frances is out there herself, chatting to her roses or some such.’

He pulls back the curtain. ‘Glorious. Look at it. Come with me.’

She looks away as he steps into his trousers, draws the sheets back up to her neck. Mamma had insisted that they omit the promise to obey from the wedding service. You must be free to do what is right, she told Elizabeth, and we know that Alfred cannot, at least at the beginning, guide you in matters of the spirit. You must lead him towards God. But with this freedom comes the responsibility not to resist for mere wilfulness or self-indulgence. Earn your liberty in great matters through obedience where only your own interests are concerned. Mamma had not foreseen injunctions to go into the sea in her drawers and shift, or to go out in her nightgown in the middle of the night. She rolls onto her side and stands up, neatly, displaying only her ankles. ‘Pass me my cape,’ she says.

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 29th April 2015.


Sign In To Respond

There are currently no comments.