There is a considerable amount of interest in the dark side of the nineteenth century, and recently this has manifested itself in neo-Victorian fiction, including novels such as Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and The Ballroom by Anna Hope. The rapid shifts in cultural interests and anxieties, combined with the growing discipline of psychology, makes the institutions which were intended to support those in need, particularly prisons, workhouses and lunatic asylums, fruitful areas not only for academic research but also for fiction. I teach a module on Victorian literature and psychology, and find these fictional representations fascinating, especially when they draw on a solid base of research. The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby, due for publication later in March, offers an insight into the world of a Victorian institutionalised underclass deprived of kindness and dignity.
Cora Burns has spent her life in institutions, born in Birmingham Gaol, growing up in the workhouse and later working in the lunatic asylum, before returning to prison as an inmate. The system through which she has been churned has sustained her physically – just about – but the narrative gradually unfolds the damage which impersonal institutions can do, and emphasises the gender and class disadvantages of a woman such as Cora, who is fictional but representative of many nineteenth-century unfortunates. The novel gives an excellent flavour of Victorian Birmingham, with places recognisable to those who know the city now, and it also conjures the sights, smells and sounds of the workhouse, prison and asylum, as well as the domestic home; a great deal of research has clearly gone into this novel.
Cora is seeking a way to make sense of her life and to take control back from the institutions which have shaped her. Rebellion and violence seem to come naturally to her as the only way to assert herself, and she questions whether this comes from her inherent and inherited nature or from the life she has been forced to lead. In this way the novel becomes a psychological study of Cora Burns, who herself seems to be a subject of study. As psychology developed along with the asylums in the nineteenth century (the asylums providing conveniently grouped subjects for study), topics such as nature versus nurture, the hereditary nature of criminal instincts, and the effects of education and exercise on the minds of the young, were widely explored, and these aspects are significant in the novel, with the inclusion of perfectly-pitched ‘articles’ on psychology by one of the characters. It’s interesting to see how Kirby also weaves in the new art (or science) of photography, exploring its uses in the asylums and psychological research, along with the pseudo-sciences of mesmerism, phrenology and physiognomy.
As Cora’s past is revealed, and her crime (sad, violent, but not uncommon in the period) is uncovered, we begin to have more sympathy for the angry and isolated girl, though she is defiantly unrepentant and unempathetic in her presentation. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is clear that ignorance and misery, coupled with the mechanistic brutality of the institutions to which Cora is subject, have created her circumstances and shaped her nature, which she is determined ultimately to rise above. The conviction of the title is unravelled as a pun, being not only the conviction for her crime but also her personal conviction or self-belief which she gradually develops, aided by the few kindnesses she experiences. I was impressed by the research that underpins the novel, though it is a shame that a bibliography or at least an acknowledgement of major sources isn’t included, as I’d be interested to know what Kirby read (though I read a proof copy and this may be addressed in the published edition), and the author resists modern interpretations of her characters. The plot is also compelling, with a twist I didn’t see coming, and with sensitive treatment of some dark material. I must admit I found the ending a bit unconvincing, but it works in the context of the novel; it just wouldn’t have happened like that in the nineteenth century. But this is fiction, and it’s good fiction, which I don’t say lightly.
Carolyn Kirby will be speaking at the Birmingham & Midland Institute about her book on March 25th – find out more and book tickets here.