Bodies of Light

Bodies of Light

Interview with Sarah Moss

To celebrate the publication of her latest novel Bodies of Light, Granta Books interviews Sarah Moss on writing, motherhood and feminism...

Your novel tells, in part, the story of a Manchester-based artist, Alfred Moberley.  Is he modelled on a specific painter?  And is art history a passion of yours or did is serve more as a means of framing the book?   

My mother trained as an art historian so I spent a lot of my childhood visiting museums and galleries with an expert guide, but I always felt that visual art was her thing as the written word was mine. So no, it's not a passion, but probably more part of my mind than I realise. Moberley has bits of William Morris but also shades of Burne-Jones and some of what he says about painting is slightly Whistler-ish, but mostly he's made up. I was interested in ways of seeing and representing beauty, and also what it's like to be an intelligent girl in a house where the father's work dominates everything.

Moberley’s daughter Ally is a pioneer in the world of women in medicine – was her character inspired by specific women?  And were you, yourself, inspired by them too or were their stories something you became aware of in the researching of the book?

There’s a group of women called the Edinburgh Seven, who should be much better known and remembered. They were the first to find and exploit a loophole in the charter of Edinburgh University that meant women weren't specifically excluded from the medical degree, although they were unwelcome, bullied and harassed and the University closed the loophole as soon as it could. Like many non-medics, I find the medical world oddly fascinating, and I was drawn by the kind of relentless ambition and drive of those first women, who had to face down absolutely everyone in an era that really didn't value women's determination. They gave each other a great deal of strength and support and were assisted in every way by organised groups of middle-class women. I think we tend to forget the complexity of the Victorian era, but it's really at the roots of a lot of modern discourse.

Your writing draws heavily on the descriptions of material objects: on clothes, food, interiors. Is this something that you particularly enjoy when writing?       

Yes. I like the way things can be characters, and when they come together they tell stories. Just looking around my desk, I have a lemon tree, a hand-made Japanese lampshade and an old golden syrup tin full of pens and crochet hooks. There's a story and the beginnings of a character.

Did you consciously set out to address feminist themes when you started writing Bodies of Light?  How would you feel about people describing it as a feminist novel?                      

Always happy for myself and any of my work to be described as feminist and can't see why anyone wouldn't be! I didn't have an ideological agenda, but I am interested in the duration of the struggle for equality, which begins very much earlier than many people think.

There is a struggle at the heart of Ally’s character of being seen as capable and the equal of men, while suppressing what she sees as signs of weakness that are associated with facets of “femininity”.  Was this a particular problem for early feminists, do you think?  Is it still?    

Yes, absolutely, to both. The first women to enter the professions had to prove themselves better than men, and any sign of ordinary human fallibility was taken as evidence of inadequacy. But then showing no weakness meant they were heartless and unnatural and not "normal women." I think it's a double bind we still see in commentaries on women in positions of power, especially politicians. To whatever extent they appear to conform to femininity (taking an interest in clothes or babies), they're seen as trivial or emotional, and when they use their professional power they're bossy, cold and unattractive. It's not feminism's most urgent battle but it's another way of keeping women down.

While the novel has large themes, the relationships between Ally, her sister and her mother form the heart of it. Is the idea of family at the heart of storytelling, do you think?              

Of course there are lots of stories to tell, but we're all made by families even – especially –  when we choose not to make them. Across all my novels I'm interested in the institution as the answer to the family, in the extent to which institutions can or aspire to counterbalance or contradict the harm of family life.


                                                                                                       What is it about the relationship between artists and their models, and particularly between Victorian girls and adult male artists? The idea of it has become normalised and even romanticised – but to what degree is it exploitative?  

This fascinates me. The modern take is of course that several prominent Victorian writers and artists were paedophiles who would be in prison today, and for people behaving like that today I'd probably agree. But that's a historically specific view. The Victorian idea was that where there was no physical coercion there was no crime, and several of those girls left entirely positive accounts of the relationships. I'm troubled by a discourse that says that girls who say they're not victims and don't feel damaged or exploited just prove their own need for rescue. Who decides who the victims are?

Manchester appears as a wonderful character in the book, as it flourishes in the mid-Victorian era. What is your relationship with the city? And do you think any feeling of Northern-ness affects your writing?                                                                                            

Yes. I lived in Manchester until I was 18 and it didn't really occur to me until I went to university that it wasn't the centre of the world, or at least of England. It was a great place to be an arty, angst-ridden teenager in the mid-nineties. I haven't quite got over my surprise that people think of Manchester as 'northern' - it's actually right in the middle of England and in the south of Britain. I had Yorkshire grandparents and spent a lot of time in Cumbria and later Liverpool, so I didn't think of myself as northern until I moved south and discovered that other people did.

What do you make of the current perceived vogue for historical fiction?                      

"Perceived" is right. All fiction is historical, in that even if you use the future tense you can't write a novel without an ending. Writing is by definition in the past; the fact that you're reading makes it so. Of course there's a difference between setting something in a time and place of your own experience and somewhere else, but making things up is part of the job, and I don't think the date really comes into it.

The cover copy of your book describes it as a “take on the 19th century novel.” To what degree did you allow yourself to be influenced by, or to break loose from the canon of 19th century English writing?

I don't know how much "allowing" is involved. My parents didn't read modern fiction but all the 19th century classics were in the house when I was growing up, so I read them very young and have kept re-reading them, for work and pleasure, ever since. Maybe knowing them so well freed me from them, because I wasn't trying to write pastiche, or to write a 19th century novel, and I was secure enough with the genre not to feel overshadowed. Middlemarch has been written, no-one needs to do it again.

Hanif Kureishi recently spoke out against the teaching of creative writing. As a teacher of it yourself and a successful novelist, what did you make of his comments?

If that's really what he thinks, he shouldn't be teaching. I agree that it would be wrong to tell students that if they take a Creative Writing degree they'll publish a novel, but I don't think anyone is telling them that. The idea that you should learn about something only in order to make money from it is very depressing - no-one says that it's wrong to teach people to play the piano because most of them won't be concert pianists. Our students learn to recognise and wield the power of the written word, to take and give constructive criticism, to stand back from personal experience and use it in ways that sometimes hurt, to fail again and fail better, to understand the value of things they don't necessarily like… Quite a few of them also go on to literary careers and sometimes we can accelerate that process a little.

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