Most people will never have heard of Kate Marsden, a 19th century nurse. Even in her lifetime she was a controversial character. She believed that she had a God-given mission to reach out and nurse lepers. But that seemingly morphed into a plan to travel deep into Siberia to track down a shaman who allegedly knew of a “yellow flower” that healed the disease. With the support of the Tsarina, she would use her travels to identify clusters of Russian lepers and build a specialist hospital for them. This was followed by publicity tours across Europe and the United States to fund these schemes.
Criticisms started to follow her. First – in New Zealand – that she was cheating vulnerable richer women. Then allegations of wider “unnatural practices” (a thinly veiled reference to lesbianism) started to be circulated. By travelling into the great Siberian wilderness she was seemingly confirming this by acting in an “unwomanly” way. But the other allegations were the final nail in the coffin of her reputation. Claims were made of fraud or financial profiteering from donations, to making the tales of her Siberian trip up, to not having any nursing links with lepers at all.
Roberts takes her novel into the depth of this life and its controversies. Through the memories of the elderly Kate in a quiet hospital bed left without friends or family, the tale – or maybe another variation on it – is allowed to unfold. She recounts her difficult family life – the youngest in a large group of siblings some of whom will die early of TB – left in parlous financial straits with the death of her father at 13 and a mother who seems unable to cope with loss of income and status. We hear hints of a career in nursing – first on the battle fields of Eastern Europe in the years after the Crimean War (somewhat unusual), possibly in India, then in New Zealand, before a trip to Russia and Siberia. We are told too of the travails of her travels as a lone women (unable to speak the languages) as she heads to Siberia. We are given the vicissitudes, minor and major annoyances, and the risks and fears in vivid and almost photographic detail.
But as all this unfolds it becomes clear that her story may be false in part or in whole and that she was possibly nothing more than an extraordinary scam artist with an aptitude for publicising herself with varying degrees of success. She had to cope with little guaranteed money in a world were there were strict social rules and limited options for women – unless, of course, they wanted to risk marriage. The allegations of abuse of women friends raises the issue of whether she was just cold blooded or unable to build a life with a woman she loved.
Roberts juggles the “facts”, the historical background, the geography and the realities or not, of this unusual woman. She does it in a visual, poetic and meaningful way with believable characters (even if they shouldn’t be). This is a compelling novel – raising interest in this strange woman. One who was probably at best difficult to live with, but who nonetheless supported herself through a long and challenging life. A woman who did not settle for small things, but had a wider vision and who travelled far.
This is a very fine read, subtly dealing with a range of issues that make it a complex tale that constantly challenges the reader’s assumptions – as indeed life can. A good book for book groups too – lots to get the mind around and generate opinions and discussion.
Hilary White 5/5
God’s Children by Mabli Roberts
Honno Welsh Women’s Press 9781909983953 pbk Apr 2019