The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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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…
I enjoyed The Wages of Sin! It was a fun, light read with a little bit of feminism thrown in for good measure. However, I’m not sure it was a particularly well-written book.
Sarah was an interesting protagonist. In a time when women were fighting tooth and nail to gain even the most basic of rights, they were still expected to be demure, modest, Christian housewives. Sarah is none of those things. On top of that, she is followed by a scandal. What most people don’t know is that she was raped by a gentleman. This experience gave Sarah a unique perspective on the society surrounding her, and a particular empathy for poor women forced to turn to prostitution.
However, Sarah (and most characters) weren’t written particularly consistently. One chapter Sarah would be putting her life and virtue at risk to investigate the death of a prostitute, and the next she would be saying that she needed to put her own needs, especially finishing medical school, first. She would say that the thought of upsetting her mother again was unbearable in the same sentence as planning to upset her mother again. Clearly the thought can’t be that unbearable! She destroys the relationship with her only friend beyond repair, only for it to be mysteriously fixed at the end of the novel by … nothing.
While the time period was well-researched and masterfully recounted, it was also inconsistent. Welsh’s descriptions of the time period were very convincing, and I feel that I have a good idea what it would have been like to be a woman and to be a medical student in the late 1800s. However, occasionally modern words, phrases, or ideas would squirm their way in. In particular I found this theme of rape to be a little unrealistic. The idea that a young gentleman in this era would have raped, in his own house, a gentlewoman of good fortune and standing, a potential wife, didn’t really work for me. A servant, sure, I wouldn’t put any man past it. But it just seemed as if Welsh wanted to make a statement about rape, but couldn’t find a more realistic way to get it in there.
Finally, The Wages of Sin was labeled as a mystery novel, but the mystery played only a very small part in the book. Sarah is a terrible sleuth and manages to find out basically nothing. The mystery is solved, in the end, when the murderer seeks Sarah out, not the other way around. Another character close to the end of the novel indicates that they are also investigating, and that they have significant sleuthing experience, but they also find out pretty much nothing. Instead this novel focused mainly on gossip, Sarah’s difficulty leaving her scandal behind, her strained relationship with her family, and her interest in medical school. I think the mystery label was misleading. Historical fiction would have been more accurate.
Obviously these inconsistencies and modern sensibilities didn’t ruin the book for me. I very much enjoyed it. It’s a quick-paced semi-thriller that I think any lover of historical fiction would enjoy. Welsh set herself up well for a sequel, which I will definitely be looking out for. I want to know what becomes of Sarah Gilchrist!