Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. — Rohan Maitzen
Signs for Lost Children
Europa Editions, 2017
368 pages; $19.00
It is a commonplace that historical fiction is always about the present as much as the past—that the stories we tell about what once was are prompted and shaped by what is. Historical fiction is not therefore condemned to anachronism: rather, at its best, it disrupts our tendency to take our own world for granted, and to think of history as a stable set of facts instead of a constantly shifting and contested array of stories.
Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, the sequel to her earlier Bodies of Light, is just such an unsettling novel, refracting Victorian life through a distinctly modern lens. Both Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children tell the story of Alethea Moberley, born in the mid 19th-century to Alfred Moberley, an artist, and his austere evangelical wife Elizabeth. Wholly committed to her charitable work on behalf of poor and ruined women, Elizabeth has little time and no love to spare for her own daughters, Alethea, called Ally, and her younger sister May. When Ally is a baby, she seems to Elizabeth little more than a vexing interruption to her work:
The baby is crying, its rage spreading like smoke through the house, curling under the ceiling. She has lost her blotting paper. . . . When she has finished this one and the next one, she will see what there is for her lunch, and feed the baby. It cries. It is taking the baby a long time to learn that screaming for what we want does not bring gratification.
The girls are raised in uneasy vacillation between their mother’s severity and the sensual bohemianism of Alfred and his artist friends. For better and for worse, it is Elizabeth’s influence that is most enduring for Ally. Elizabeth treats every vulnerability as a despicable weakness: in her eyes “a nervous, silly woman is entirely useless.” Ally “must learn self-discipline,” Elizabeth holds, and she considers it her duty to instill it. When Ally suffers from nightmares, her mother wakes her with a slap, then dunks her head in cold water before locking her in the scullery. “You must and will learn not to indulge yourself,” she tells her shivering child.
Ally carries this lesson with her throughout her life: “She doesn’t want to be hysterical.” It is a paradoxical legacy. Elizabeth’s ruthlessness is oppressive, yet combined with her insistence that women are capable of accomplishments well beyond the domestic trivialities to which so many Victorian women were restricted, it also empowers Ally to pursue a radical ambition: to become one of England’s first woman doctors. “There is strong opposition to women’s medical education,” Ally’s teacher Miss Johnson warns her; “You are choosing not only to be a doctor but to be a pioneer, a fighter in the vanguard.” When Ally goes to the University of London on a special scholarship for women medical students, she knows she carries “the hopes of many,” and that her own success or failure will define the possibilities for those who come after. The responsibility is daunting and the training is difficult, but Ally knows her work represents a great step forward. Looking back on her miserable childhood from the perspective of her aunt’s more humane London home, still suffering the after-effects of her mother’s severity, Ally nonetheless cannot wish “Mamma had allowed her to grow up in bovine contentment, without ambition or self-discipline”—without Elizabeth, she would never have come so far or be set to achieve so much more.
By the time she graduates, though, Ally has realized that the weaknesses she was raised to despise might in fact be not just natural to her as a person but valuable to her as a doctor. Her mother’s quest for impervious perfection is mistaken:
If she is to be a doctor—as she is to be a doctor—she will be a broken doctor, her own hurt as much part of her practice as her healing. A doctor who can see her own damage and not run away to hide.
“Nerves and hysteria show a weak and foolish disposition,” Elizabeth had insisted, but maybe, Ally thinks, what gets called madness in women is in fact an understandable, even a reasonable, response to their circumstances. What if outbreaks such as her own should be treated with kindness rather than condemnation—and considered cause, not for confinement, but for reform?
These are the questions that underly both Ally’s personal development and professional work in Signs for Lost Children, which takes up her story where Bodies of Light ends. Though the plots are continuous (in the North American edition, some chapters from Bodies of Light actually recur word for word in Signs for Lost Children), the two novels are differently structured in ways that reflect their different thematic interests. Bodies of Light interleaves its family story with commentaries on paintings by Alfred Moberley or his close associate Aubrey West (whose relationship with Ally’s sister May forms a subplot of the novel). These insertions highlights tensions in the novel between art and life, especially between inhabiting bodies and gazing at them, and between appreciating and subjugating them. The novel’s title comes from Matthew 6:22 (“if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”); one way of understanding Ally’s struggle in this book is that she must learn to see her body as itself a source of light: look with, not through, it, to inhabit it without shame or fear.
The chapters of Signs for Lost Children, in contrast, alternate between Ally’s point of view and that of her husband Tom Cavendish, an engineer whom she meet and marries at the end of Bodies of Light. This formal structure, in its turn, reflects this second novel’s interest in marriage, which purports to combine two people into one common identity. Across the novel, Tom’s and Ally’s experiences diverge significantly: can the result nonetheless be one family? and if so, at what cost? Given the legal, social, and economic realities of marriage for Victorian women, this is a vexing question especially for Ally, who worries about losing both her individual and her professional identity. From the beginning, she and Tom focus on defining “new rituals” to represent the kind of relationship they want their marriage to be:
Ally will not promise to obey; it seems a bad idea, says Tom, to begin a marriage with an undertaking made in bad faith. Not being a parcel, she declines to be given away.
Her married name, Ally resolves, will be “Dr. Moberley Cavendish”—but to some, as she quickly learns, she will always be only “Mrs. Cavendish.”
Tom is a good partner for Ally. He supports and defends the work she undertakes at an asylum near their new home in Cornwall: “the majority of patients are female,” he explains to a dubious neighbour, “and many of their troubles begin in exactly those crises of life where it is most desirable that women should be attended by women.” When he goes on a business expedition to Japan without her, it is a sign of the strength of their relationship, but also of the risk they are taking in trying to build a marriage on such unusual terms. On the eve of his departure, Tom tries to reassure her:
“You know—Ally, I am sure the time will pass quickly once we are accustomed to it. At least we both knew from the beginning that this separation was to come. And you will have your work, itis not as if you will need to seek distraction.”
Their separation is a sign of their mutual trust and dedication to preserving each other’s autonomy, but they are apart a long time, and the divided narrative highlights the distance that grows between them, both literally and figuratively.
For Ally, this period of separation frees her to focus single-mindedly on her work at the asylum. She struggles to accept its coercive environment, which seems to her premised on the impossibility of actually healing the patients:
It is not an original thought that the overall effect of the asylum is maddening, that the insane compound each other’s insanity. And this, after all, is why her new profession beckons: how might one devise a regime to cure the mind? It is not the taxonomy of madness that intrigues her but the possibility of individual salvation. If some situations are maddening, others must be—ought to be—sanitary.
She worries that her sympathy for the patients is a sign of her own instability. “So which are you, Alethea?” she imagines her mother demanding: “A madwoman or a doctor? . . . You chose the asylum, Alethea, because you indulge yourself in feeble-mindedness. Because despite all your training and all your so-called qualifications, you are still crazed.” Finally, however, she is unable to bear the inhumanity and intervenes on a patient’s behalf: “‘No. Nurse, stop this. You are unkind. . . . She is like you, and like me. Like all of us. Only more sad.’”
That troubling assertion of likeness between the mad and the sane is at the heart of the novel as well as of Ally’s experience. “How is sanity defined?” Ally wonders. How far is hysteria, for instance, not an illness or a defect but a reaction to being a woman—or a way of seeing women as intrinsically defective? What if the family, supposedly women’s natural domain, sickens rather than nourishes them? What if “there are sick households,” she wonders, “as well as sick individuals”?
Her own outburst in the patient’s defense is considered—including, at first, by Ally herself—as a breakdown, but it leads to a professional breakthrough that is also a crucial step in her personal healing. After a disastrous visit to her parents, Elizabeth’s continued severity drives Ally to run away, fearful that she will be labelled mad and unable to escape the self-perpetuating cycle she has seen destroying the asylum’s inmates. She takes refuge at her aunt’s home, where she is allowed to rest and be comforted. Her own recovery prompts reflection on how other women might benefit from being helped rather than punished for their emotional suffering:
She wonders if anyone has tried to invent at least a temporary refuge from both the madhouse and the mad home, a compromise between an institution and a family. A place where people chose to be, not a place of confinement. . . . An institution where the damage of homes, of domestic life, can be undone, or at least healed. A place where the shape of sanity might emerge.
From this idea comes Rose Tree Cottage, where, under kindly supervision, at least a few patients can regain their dignity and return, rehabilitated, to their lives.
As Ally finds her way towards a new kind of personal and professional peace, so Tom’s travels in Japan lead him towards new insights about his life. If the asylum is in some ways all too familiar to Ally, literalizing her own more abstract experiences of repression, in Japan Tom experiences for the first time what it means to be immersed in the unfamiliar—to be out of his element and unable to take anything for granted, from food to baths to myths and mores. He is drawn to the order and ritual of Japanese life. “Europeans mistake quantity for quality,” he reflects,
filling great rooms with useless objects as if the accumulation of possessions is an object in itself. He remembers De Rivers’s house [in Cornwall] and shudders; it is not silks and teapots the English should be importing but houses. Architects, if not engineers. Missionaries, perhaps, to teach us what is worthy of veneration.
Yet he checks his own tendency to idealize the differences: it took “a thousand years of violence and oppression, he reminds himself,” to achieve the very features he finds so beautiful.
Though Tom and Ally get equal time in Signs for Lost Children, it still feels primarily like her book, perhaps because she has the weight of Bodies of Light behind her. Tom’s voyage of self-discovery is tied to the urgency of finding a “new man” to go with what writers of the late 19th-century called the “New Woman”—independent, self-directed, not looking to men or marriage to define her life. What kind of husband, if any, can a woman like Ally have, or would a woman like Ally want, once she has discovered, as Ally does, that “it is not in romance, nor even sex, that we find the human purpose, but in good work faithfully done”? The key lies, or so Ally’s friend Annie suggests, in the kind of re-education Tom has undergone. “I imagine,” she writes to him,
that when you were in Japan you were always trying to guess what people wanted and what they meant, trying to guess how you might appear in their eyes? . . . But if it was like that for you, if you were watchful and hesitant from first waking until sleep, then you know how it is to be a woman and especially to be a woman entering a profession. We are always strangers in a strange land. I think Ally is like that all the time, hunted and cunning, because she has had no safe place, no home. . . . Rose Tree House may be the first place where she doesn’t have to guess or see herself through another person’s eyes.
“So many of women’s griefs,” Ally herself thinks, “begin in marriage, in the expectation of a happily ever after set into perpetual motion by romance.” Though she once vehemently denied Annie’s suggestion that “a woman must choose between her work and her family obligations,” by the time Tom returns “she has found a way to live and it does not involve the institution of marriage”: “She can work, she thinks, she can be a doctor, she can write articles and perhaps eventually a monograph, but she cannot be someone’s wife, not anymore.” Yet Signs for Lost Children ends with a new beginning between them, based on the fragile conviction that there is value in “the act of living, of continuing to be with each other in the world.”
Signs for Lost Children takes up many themes and issues central to Victorian novels, including the social consequences of industrialization that contemporary writers called “the condition of England question.” “In the mills,” Ally thinks as she crosses the country by train,
machinery bangs and roars. Children pull carts of babies through the streets, taking them to be fed by mothers who sacrifice their own moment to eat in doing so. The weight of outrage and unmet need presses down on this country like wet cloud. Burn it all down, wash England away into the sea, and start again.
This is the revolutionary energy that made Victorian writers like Elizabeth Gaskell worry about class warfare and use fiction to call for reform and reconciliation. Moss’s exploration of gender and madness is reminiscent of the sensation novels of the 1860s, especially Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, in which—as Ally fears for herself—the heroine is immured in an asylum, unable to prove her own sanity, her distress only confirming what those policing her behaviour already believe about her.
In its style, however, Signs for Lost Children has none of the prolixity, the sentimentality, or the melodrama often associated with “neo-Victorian” novels. In some respects the result is welcome: Moss eschews the mannered prose, the array of gratuitously quirky characters, and the proliferation of subplots often seen in novels aspiring to be “Dickensian.” Unlike her subjects, her prose in both of these paired novels is distinctly of the 21st-century: deliberate, restrained, well-crafted. The attention to detail, particularly of the landscapes, yields passages of memorable understated beauty:
They walk to the sea down a green lane, where the trees meet over their heads to form a tunnel of 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 signs to itself. In Manchester, there will be brown fog, and heat. . . . 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.
There is a cost to such precision and control, however. Descriptions of scenery are delivered in the same tone as descriptions of cadavers; expressions of love and outbursts of lunacy have the same flat affect. In eschewing overt drama, Moss almost seems to reproduce Elizabeth’s prohibitions against hysteria: the powerful feelings that Ally realizes deserve recognition, that may in fact be destructive if suppressed, remain submerged under the polished language of the novels. There’s something apt about that, of course, but by the end of these two novels, both wholly self-possessed and cerebral, I longed for some of the Victorians’ own urgency and flamboyance to break through Moss’s artfully modern rewriting of their world.
— Rohan Maitzen
Rohan Maitzen teaches Victorian literature in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.