Carolyn Kirby has a knack for describing in painful detail how hard life was in Victorian London. The atmosphere, violence, and darkness grip you from page one. She details meticulously how poor people were, the humiliations they suffered, and how few privileged men could really call themselves gentlemen.
The story takes place in 1885. It tells us about Mary B., Cora Burns, Alice, and Violet.
On April 3, 1865 Mary B. gives birth to a girl. Mary is a convict in the goal. Her child is eventually taken away from her. Throughout the book we see how being poor and not being knowledgeable, not even about her own body, slowly drives Mary to a state in which she falls into a melancholic stupor. She is transported from the goal to the asylum.
As Mary stops speaking and eating, the medical officer at the asylum, David Farley, M.D., thinks that the only thing that can create a break-through would be hypno-therapeutic treatment. But how reliable are Mary’s repressed memories?
Farley is very insightful doctor with a genuine concern for his convict patients and their humanity especially as he knows that many ended up at the goal and in the asylum because of their poverty.
Cora Burns was born to a convict inside the goal and spent her life in the workhouse. She learned to read, write, and some arithmetic. She was alone, lonely, but got by. Then one day, Alice pops up at the workhouse as mysteriously as she later disappears again. Her presence turns out to be a great comfort for Cora.
Alice is different from the other children and in many aspects so like Cora that they could have been twins. Alice brings out characteristics in Cora she didn’t even know she had. She encourages Cora to be mean, evil, and contemplate the ultimate crime of taking a life. Cora doesn’t seem to have the social skills to stand up to Alice as she normally would have done with the other girls in the workhouse. Alice has a hold on Cora, a magical hold, and it turns deadly. Cora ends up in the goal.
After her time in the goal, the household in which Cora eventually finds employment as a kitchen maid belongs to Mr. Thomas Jerwood. His home is called the Larches. The lady of the house, Frances M. Jerwood, is incapacitated and in a permanent state of care. The cause is unknown but Mrs. Jerwood suffers from hysteria and monomania for fear of falling out of bed. She often cries and screams and has a violent reaction when she sees Cora for the first time.
Mr. Thomas Jerwood is interested in composite photography and hereditary criminality. He uses photography to see if he can find traits and characteristics that the criminally inclined have in common. He leans towards the theory of Lombroso even if that isn’t mentioned per se in the book by Carolyn Kirby. His fascination with nature versus nurture leads to experiments with the people around him. To him, nothing else matters but the results.
Jerwood is the opposite of Farley. Jerwood is cold and distant with no concern for other people’s well-being. His laboratory and experiments dominate his life. The choices he makes to eventually prove his theory form part of a cleverly crafted plot.
In the Jerwood household is a girl named Violet. Her parents are away in India and the Jerwoods are caring for her until their return. Despite the difference in their status, Cora builds up a relationship with Violet. That’s why she is stunned when one day Violet is not herself. She is Violet in appearance but at a closer look differs especially in one of her eyes. Cora slowly discovers more details about Violet’s life and her identity.
Along the way, we meet Alfred Thripp who uses photography in marketing products. He hires Cora as a model and treats her well. We get to meet the other members in The Larches and all the intrigues that come with a household full of servants.
The book follows Cora’s path of self-discovery. Her paternity is unknown, her heritage is unknown, and she has no identification except for her discharge card from the goal and half of a medallion.
The book mixes the present with the past and every few chapters we get more information about the works of Jerwood and Farley. Through their essays and work journals we finally get a complete picture of what happened to Mary B., who she really is, where she was before she ended up in the goal, and what happened to her child. It is a heart-crushing story.
As Cora keeps pushing to trace her identity, find Alice, discover who her mother was, we see her slowly considering where she should go if she gets all these answers. We follow her through Birmingham’s streets, inside people’s houses, and experience how her emotions stir up violence that at first she doesn’t seem to be able to control.
The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby discusses mental illness and questions people’s morality. As harsh as some women came across, they helped Cora in their own ways by that extra bite of meat, explanations about the body, warnings, materials, and more. The people she should have been able to turn too are all to eager to take advantage of the poor and the uneducated. In the end, Cora has the strength to help herself and makes a beautiful gesture to Farley to help Mary.
The only way Carolyn Kirby could have written this work of historical fiction is with hours of research and it shows. She doesn’t drown the reader in details to show off how much she knows, no. She hands you just enough. If this is a début novel, I feel sure Kirby will conquer the literary world of historical fiction.
Highly recommended reading despite an uncomfortably small font.
Note: I received a copy of this book from Catherine Sinow, Publicity Assistant for Dzanc Books, in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.