Historical Fiction Mystery Fiction
Pulchritudinous: physically beautiful. (Merriam-Webster). Wow! I don’t think I have ever come across this word before. Apparently it was one of the many words that Richard Burton used to describe Elizabeth Taylor when he first met her. It is also a word used by the heroine of this novel – in a sentence no less. It sounds like a medical condition but it is actually derived from the Latin root word “pulcher” meaning beautiful. My spell-check doesn’t even want to let me use it – so wow! So I read this entire book and this is all I took away from it. No, just kidding.
This is actually a compelling, but grim, first novel by a Scottish author named Kaite Welsh. The narrative is drenched in misery, and centers on a female medical student at an Edinburgh university in 1892. Sarah Gilchrist had been a London debutante from a wealthy family when a single night changed the course of her life. She was raped by the son a of a Lord and the response from her family and society was to blame her entirely and to send her to a sanitorium to be treated for hysterics and melancholy. After she was released from the sanitorium , she was ostracized by her immediate family and forced to reside with an Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh.
She is one of a dozen female students admitted into medical school to the consternation of – well – everyone. She is determined to obtain her medical qualifications but she faces an uphill battle. The Aunt and Uncle with whom she resides can barely hide their contempt for her unladylike obsession and she also receives opposition from the other female students. Two nights a week she volunteers at a woman’s clinic in the poorest, and most downtrodden area of the city. She administers to prostitutes, addicts, thieves, and runaways and begins to realize how grim life can be for a woman with few options in a male dominated world. She has her “aha” moment when she realizes that their crummy life is worse than her crummy life. Eventually she discovers one of the prostitutes she had treated at the clinic, on the slab in her dissection class and she is sure the young lass has been murdered. Sarah yearns to unravel the mystery surrounding this girl but she is hampered by restrictions too numerous to count until she finds an unlikely ally.
The author very successfully captures a sense of powerlessness that would have defined a woman’s life in Scotland one-hundred and twenty-five years ago. The restrictive nature of women’s lives comes through loud and (painfully) clear. There are places in the world today where women live under conditions this prohibitive – or worse. It is heartbreaking but it is something worth taking away from this novel – something to think about.
The Wages of Sin …by Kaite Welsh (2017) Pegasus Books 287 pages