Tinder Press | 2017 (1 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1892 and, for the first time, the University of Edinburgh’s medical centre permits women entry to train to become doctors. Sarah Gilchrist is one of the first cohort of female students and, every single day she and her classmates are reminded how unpopular they are – by the male students, their lecturers and by society in general, which regards them as unnatural to their sex. And Sarah Gilchrist has it tougher than most. Sarah is an exile from London. From among the upper classes, which in itself marks her out, Sarah has been expelled from her family on account of a scandal for which Sarah was blamed entirely. She now lives a virtual prisoner under the roof of her aunt and uncle whose instruction is to improve Sarah and make her suitable for marriage. Studying to become a doctor is the last thing they want for Sarah but even they understand that this disinherited and discarded young woman must earn a living somehow. And there are worse ways…
The Wages of Sin immerses us in an Edinburgh that is stricken by that Victorian disease of hypocritical and dishonest morality. The city is itself divided in two, between its respectable side which lives in the streets under the sky, and then its poverty-stricken and dangerous side, which hides in buried sewer streets of brothels, taverns and opium dens. Sarah moves between the two, training to become a doctor in the University, scrutinised by chaperones, and helping out in a hospital for the deserving poor, attending, among others, prostitutes and drunks. And when one of Sarah’s patients from the hospital, a young prostitute, ends up on the dissecting table of her medical class, the two worlds collide and Sarah is determined to find justice for the poor girl, no matter the danger to herself. Sarah believes that the greatest weapon anyone can hold over her is her past. She is wrong.
I love Victorian mysteries and the darker they are the better, and The Wages of Sin is steeped in atmosphere. Everything is described so richly, from the medical hospital to the slums to the parlours of the rich and respectable. The colours are so well painted. I felt like I was moving through a world of brown velvet, of wood-panelled walls and cold, ill-lit streets. But the atmosphere is squeezed and oppressed by the prejudice that these young female students face day in day out and, in particular, the absolute injustice that Sarah has been dealt. Sarah’s story is agonising and made even more powerful that we only hear it bits at a time and what we learn is shocking. It’s not often when I read a book that I feel rage but I felt it for Sarah Gilchrist.
The origins of feminism can be found in this marvellous novel and it doesn’t always make easy reading. The chauvinism of the students and the lecturers towards the female students pales by comparison against the cruelty of Sarah’s own family. On top of this we have the hypocrisy of Victorian philanthropists and the brutality suffered by the poor. There is a great deal here to make my hackles rise and that’s even before we get to the murder mystery!
The Wages of Sin is as much a scrutiny of its times as it is a crime novel and it is very well done indeed. It takes its time to build up this world. The story is told by Sarah herself and it is weighted by the burden she carries. She is so easy to like but the risks she runs! The mistakes she makes! It’s such a good story and a wonderful debut by Kaite Welsh. The good news is that this is the first in a series. I am so pleased that we’ll be seeing Sarah again and I’ll be cheering on this pioneering young woman.