There’s always a worry when a novel gets built up as much as The Conviction of Cora Burns has been. Will it be able live up to the hype? The answer is, emphatically, yes. This is a superb historical novel, it’s both original and thought provoking, but more importantly, it’s a damn good story well told. Cora’s tale is fascinating and emotionally gripping. This novel is brim full of local character and historical detail that bring the story to life and allow the reader to be in the moment with the characters. The Conviction of Cora Burns also explores scientific themes that are still relevant and topical today, so we can contemplate Cora’s story through the prism of our twenty-first century understanding of the issues she faces too. Cora battles adversity with courage and intelligence, she is a heroine for any age and a truly memorable character.
This novel hits the mark in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin. This is a totally gripping gothic tale set during the late Victorian era, absolutely grounded in reality but also the stuff of nightmares. It’s a perceptive tale of the effects of poverty and loss and the impact of trauma on mental health in an age with little understanding of psychological illness. Using the on-going debate around nature versus nurture, Kirby explores the scientific knowledge and values of the time. The negative attitudes of Victorian society towards working-class women (including the views of the working class themselves) are central to the plot. The Conviction of Cora Burns delves into the lives of ordinary people brought low by circumstance (or is it character flaw?). The women of the workhouse and the asylum, of the prison, those in minor roles in affluent and semi-well-off households and, in the case of Violet and Cora, as guinea pigs for scientific research. It never occurs to Jerwood to consider the feelings of his studies when he uses them to further his research and confirm his beliefs.
1885, Cora Burns is at the end of her nineteen-month sentence with hard labour (Oakum picking). She is shamefaced and distressed by the terrible crime she committed to land up in Birmingham gaol. She is consumed by the loss of a child, the memory is still too raw to bare. Cora was a laundress at the Borough Lunatic Asylum before going to gaol, and before that she was brought up in the Union Workhouse, she has only ever known institutional life. Cora was even born on the floor of the very prison she is now incarcerated in. All she knows of her mother, Mary, is that twenty years before she left Cora behind when her sentence ended.
On her release, the wardress hands over Cora’s pitiful possessions (her money was confiscated for her board). She has 4s 6d to tide her over until she finds a job. Cora’s one comfort is the memory of Alice, the little girl she took as her sister in the home years before, they have lost touch. At the photography shop of HJ Thripp & Son, Cora pays to have a ‘likeness’ placed in the window, in the hope that Alice might see it. An offer of employment as a between maid in a gentleman’s house in Spark Hill has been arranged by the governor. £8 per year, half what a laundress makes. Cora has no intention of taking the maid’s job, even considers a bed in Mrs. Small’s brothel. However, Cora is beaten and robbed and left with little alternative but to take the Spark Hill job. She befriends Ellen, who teaches her the tasks expected of her. It is obvious to Cora that something is not right in this house, only the housekeeper sees the mistress, the master, Thomas Jerwood, makes strange requests of her, her employment is not an act of altruism. Jerwood is convinced that there is a criminal physiognomy, that house burglars, for example, have prominent chins. Cora is co-opted into an experiment in which Violet, a girl who has the status of a ward but doesn’t appear to be related to the Jerwoods, is the subject. A series of “dilemmas” are designed to gauge Voilet’s moral fibre. Jerwood is fascinated by the nature versus nurture debate. Cora likes young Violet and the girl comes to trust her, now they are both pawns in Jerwood’s games. Cora is trapped in a world where her status as a working-class woman and an ex-convict means that Jerwood sees her as fair game for his social experimentation. Can Cora discover what Jerwood is up to and find a way to help herself and Violet escape the trap they are in? To do so she will have to confront her own past.
From the original idea to the published page this novel was a long time in the making. Kirby researched the science, the Victorian world and the experience of working-class women to give the story its authentic feel. The descriptions of the streets of Birmingham are wonderfully evocative, from the canal tow path to the institutions. The inspiration for Thomas Jerwood was Victorian Francis Galton, a man who made many important scientific discoveries but harboured a number of bizarre ideas too. The authenticity of the story is also underpinned by the real-life stories of Hannah Mulcay and Hannah Cullwick, fascinating stories you can find on Kirby’s blog. They reveal the strength and independence of women refusing to be cowed by circumstance (or is it nature?)
The novel tells the story of women experiencing traumatic child birth, we would now recognise postpartum depression and even PTSD, but at the time were put down as “hysteria”. Any kind of middle-class malaise in women was seen as melancholy. Kirby’s descriptions of the situation Cora finds herself in at the laundry are heart rending. The tragic way working-class women were written off, the plight they found themselves in and the heart-breaking choices they had to make are set against the religious and scientific attitudes of the time, the patriarchal system. Despite her start in life and the adversity she suffers, Cora emerges as an immensely powerful woman, ill-educated but intelligent and strong.
I think that Cora gives a voice to the experience of many ordinary women, either forgotten or never noted by history, part of an important untold story. This atmospheric and compassionate novel will tug at your heart strings. Fans of Laura Purcell’s Silent Companion will love it, although I think this novel has more depth. Check out the interview with Carolyn Kirby published with this review, she is fascinating on the inspiration for the novel. If you are interested in the lives of Victorian women I would recommend the recently published social history, The Five by Hallie Rubenhold, which explores the lives, not the deaths, of the victims of Jack the Ripper.
Paul Burke 5/5
The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby
No Exit Press 9780857302946 pbk Mar 2019