Poor Things

Alasdair Gray

Bloomsbury 1992
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 http://dannyreviews.com/
The largest part of Poor Things is Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer, the memoirs of one Archibald McCandless. This describes how he befriends the deformed Godwin Baxter in medical school, and how Baxter takes a drowned woman and replaces her brain with that of her unborn daughter. Educated by Godwin to be his companion, Bella Baxter engages to marry McCandless instead, and then elopes with the rake Duncan Wedderburn. As revealed through their letters, the innocent, inquisitive and confident Bella drives Wedderburn to madness and to God, while she furthers her education with the help of an American missionary doctor, a cynical English businessman, and a Parisian prostitute. Her return to Britain precipitates a confrontation with her first husband.

McCandless' story is followed by a letter from his widow, written after his death in 1914. She presents a rather different version of events, and an acerbic critique of his tale:

"My second husband's story positively stinks of all that was morbid in that most morbid of centuries, the nineteenth. He has made a sufficiently strange story stranger still by stirring into it episodes and phrases to be found in Hogg's Suicide's Grave with additional ghouleries from the works of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. What morbid Victorian fantasy has he NOT filched from? I find traces of The Coming Race, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Trilby, Rider Haggard's She, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and, alas, Alice Through the Looking-Glass; a gloomier book than the sunlit Alice in Wonderland. He has even plagiarized work by two very dear friends: G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion and the scientific romances of Herbert George Wells."

All of this is framed within a narrative of discovery, involving old records being thrown out by a legal firm, and accompanied by an introduction and "historical notes". The last and longest of these describes Bella "Victoria" Baxter's career, as an early female graduate of Edinburgh's medical school, an advocate of family planning, and a suffragette and socialist, down to her death in 1946.

Poor Things is a glorious romp. It mixes styles and sources in unrestrained pastiche. It switches amusingly between perspectives — the "historical notes" go off on amusing tangents all of their own. And it offers farce, melodrama and humour at all levels, from Gordon Baxter interpreting the plot of Hamlet as a public health problem to the use of illustrations from Gray's Anatomy.

Poor Things is also, however, a political novel, in the Scottish progressive tradition. This too is approached in different ways, through Bella Baxter's response as an innocent to the cruelty and hypocrisy of Victorian politics and morality, and through Victoria Baxter's struggle for rights in the first half of the twentieth century.

June 2006

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%T Poor Things
%A Gray, Alasdair
%I Bloomsbury
%D 1992
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0747512469
%P 317pp