BOOK REVIEW / Anatomy of versatile grotesques: 'Poor Things' - Alasdair Gray: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

Mick Imlah
Saturday 29 August 1992 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


THE SETTING (Glasgow) and the subject (sex) are as before, but Poor Things is Alasdair Gray's first historical fiction: that is to say, the procedures of hospitals, brothels and law courts of the 1880s are authentically recreated as the background for events that could never have happened.

The centrepiece of the book is the text of 'Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer', said to be written and published at his own expense (in 1909) by Archibald McCandless. Belying its stolid title, this tells of a student doctor's only friendship with the equally solitary Godwin Baxter, huge, brilliant and sickly, half-Frankenstein, half- Elephant Man, who (according to McCandless) has created an infantile 26-year-old Venus by transplanting the brain of an unborn child into the body of its drowned mother. This is Bella, whom the dour virgin McCandless is to marry, though not before she has taken herself off on a long 'honeymoon' with a notorious philanderer, to the distress of guardian and fiance alike. McCandless's unlikely story is decorated with the sort of visual gimmickry Gray delights in: mock-Edwardian engravings of the principals, facsimiles of tear-stained letters, and illustrations from (the other) Gray's Anatomy - including two choice ones fronting letters from the 'erotomaniac' Bella and her exhausted seducer.

But this memoir is only part of the elaborate package that is Poor Things. Gray's 'Introduction' is a pleasant tease about how the memoir was discovered (in a pile of rubbish by the curator of Glasgow's People's Palace). There are 40 pages of 'Notes, Historical and Critical' which are both jokily and really pedantic, and which force 50 years of British culture to bow to Gray's inventions: poems by Tennyson (real) and Kipling (fake) are commissioned to celebrate one of the outlying characters and Beatrice Webb is made to bear witness to the heroine's subsequent 'embarrassing affairs with Wells and Ford Madox Hueffer'. The jacket is laden with alternative blurbs and ready-made reviews, and Gray throws in a (bogus) erratum slip.

More centrally (though it is printed by Gray, humorously taking sides, as an 'Epilogue'), there is a long letter to posterity from Bella, or Victoria McCandless as she has restyled herself, refuting most of her husband's sensational account of her rebirth and their courtship as a 'cunning lie' to protect him from the truth of her profound love for Godwin Baxter and indifference to him. She asserts that she submitted to be 'remade' by the kindly doctor - that is, to impersonate someone of his invention - in order to escape a sexless first marriage. Rather than by its fantastic content, however, she is revolted by the style of her husband's narrative. She is writing in 1914, as one of the first women doctors, a Fabian, a suffragette, and a pioneer abortionist - a very serious and modern person indeed, and not at all the retarded Alice of McCandless's memory:

. . . to my nostrils this book stinks of Victorianism. It is as sham-Gothic as the Scott Monument, Glasgow University, St Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament . . . stinks as the interior of a poor woman's crinoline must have stunk after a cheap railway excursion to the Crystal Palace.

This is close to the negative review that Gray gives himself - 'yet another exercise in Victorian pastiche'. But Gray's pastiche is acute if frisky, extending to such details as the 'original' chapter glosses: 'Sir Colin's discovery - arresting a life - 'What use is it?' - the queer rabbits - 'How did you do it?' - useless cleverness and what the Greeks knew - 'Good-bye' - Baxter's bulldog - a horrible hand'.

The most parodic yet in some ways the freshest part of the book is the first sketch of McCandless's narrative, a necropolitan mix of Scots melancholy, gas-lit melodrama and medical sci-fi. Baxter is a versatile grotesque. He is the main outlet for the vigorous talk with which Gray honours the Victorian intellect ('Morbid anatomy is essential to training and research, but leads many doctors into thinking that life is an agitation in something essentially dead . . .'); at the same time, his chronic physical disorders provide moments of scholarly mirth.

Much of the later narrative consists of Bella's long letter from abroad, and as her understanding is (as yet) so partial and bizarre, this tends towards the plain transcription of the speech of others, in which a variety of Victorian attitudes are made vital again. Gray's imagination is specially attracted to the mechanics of empire as outlined by a skeptical English conservative: the British Empire has grown rapidly, but in another two or three centuries the half-naked descendants of Disraeli and Gladstone may be diving off a broken pier of London Bridge, retrieving coins flung into the Thames by amused Tibetan tourists.

Gray's tireless pursuit of mischief may leave us flagging over the longer distance, but jokes like these - visionary, ornate and outrageous - are its unique local rewards. Poor Things is full of them.

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