“Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.
Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.
Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…”
This book has every component needed to create my ideal book. Historical fiction? Check. Victorian medicine? Check. Crime and mystery? Check. Feminism? Check. Amateur Sleuth? Check. This really could have been written especially just for me!
Enter Sarah Gilchrist, sent to Edinburgh from London by her family for bringing shame and scandal upon their good family name. On meeting Sarah I instantly admired her and respected her. Sarah was raped by a man in London, and as no one believed such a thing had happened she was sent to a sanatorium to be cured of her “hysteria” and evil impulses surrounding men. After leaving the sanatorium Sarah travels to Edinburgh to stay with her Aunt and Uncle where she begins studying to become a physician, amongst the first ever female intake of medical students in Scottish universities. These women’s pursuits of a career of their own are met with ridicule and disdain, the general consensus being that women should be taking a husband and running a house, nothing as ludicrous as becoming equal to men. When not studying or attending lectures, Sarah volunteers at “The Saint Giles” Infirmary for Women, this is where she meets prostitute Lucy. The next time Sarah sees Lucy she is dead on a table in the university, ready for dissection. Sarah’s certainty that Lucy was murdered leads to Sarah visiting some of Edinburgh’s most undesirable places and puts her own safety in danger as she desperately tries to unmask the culprit and achieve justice for Lucy.
I absolutely LOVED this book. Historical Fiction, in particular Victorian, is an indulgence of mine and the slow burning, compelling story drew me in from the first couple of pages. The dark, atmospheric mystery combined with the tale of female medical pioneers attempts to break down the patriarchy and lay the groundwork for equality was a pleasure to read. Sarah is a fantastic character, the protagonist of a feminist’s dreams. Sarah does not care about place in society, nor does she care whether she gets married or not. Sarah cares about those less fortunate than herself and is determined to find her place in a man’s world, doing something that makes her happy.
Kaite Welsh has clearly well researched this era and paints an iconic picture of Edinburgh in the late 19th century; social standing, money, social engagements, nice clothes and servants. On the flip side of that we see brothels, disease, opium dens, prostitutes and poverty, and on occasion these two sides overlap each other. Her exquisite writing brings the Victorian era alive from the pages, and I could clearly imagine the horrific sights and smells from the underbelly of Edinburgh.
There are clear feminist themes running throughout this story that also meet with themes of social justice and equality, issues that are all still pertinent today. Welsh demonstrates that although we have come a long way since 1892 there is still a fair distance to go.
The characterisation is perfection, each individual multi-dimensional and varied. A lot of characters are not as they first seem, and I changed my opinions on them multiple times as another layer of their personality was peeled back to reveal something even more shocking. Some got under my skin so much that I was infuriated, and Sarah understandably earned a place my heart.
This engaging, entertaining and inspiring story is a must read for fans of Historical Fiction and Crime Fiction alike, and if you enjoy Historical Crime Fiction you are onto a real winner with this one. Wages of Sin gets a massive five stars from me. Thanks to Kaite Welsh, Tinder Press and NetGalley for the advanced copy.