Signs for Lost Children: Respectability is all in this an Untidy World… Mari Howard

Living room at my maternal grandparent’s first home…

**Last month my blog post for Authors Electric partly looked back at couple of interesting facts about my own family ancestry, including two studio photographs showing middle class women smartly dressed in the fashion of the time. In this post I want to talk about Sarah Moss’s follow-up novel, Signs for Lost Children, which continues the story of Alethea, (once ‘poor baby’), begun in Bodies of Light, the book which brought to mind for me the strange fact that the two families who would be later joined by my parents’ marriage both had connections to the Pre-Raphaelites.

One thing which has really struck me reading these novels, and was brought to the fore of all our minds in the past week or so, is that the position of male and female has not changed since Victorian times. What do I mean by this? Surely today’s woman is an independent person, capable of earning her own living in any field she chooses, spending her own money without necessary reference to any male relative?  Of course she has the vote, won by the hard campaigning of the suffragettes, and we hope should she be walking alone at night, she would not be taken for a prostitute, picked up by the police, and subjected to an ignominious,  degrading, painful (and ultimately meaningless) “virginity test”.  (The intrusive tests are considered a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations, which want to see them banned. e.g.

I say we hope – this lawful abuse of women was a common occurrence at the time Signs for Lost Children is set. The streets were dangerous, made even more dangerous for a woman on her own, (for what decent woman would be out alone in the dark? it was argued). Obviously, only one who is a sex worker, seeking clients. Such was male thinking of the time, at least where the law and the police were concerned.  Does your memory resonate here with events of the past week? Is this not a hideous irony? 

In this sequel to Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss has written how her protagonist of that story, newly qualified as a medical doctor among  the very few women so qualified at the time, and also newly married, begins work in the Truro asylum. I will not spoil the story of Signs for Lost Children for you, but her conclusion, after six months working in the terrible conditions and reflecting on the treatment of the assumed mentally ill, is this: “It is not that some people’s minds are so fragile that they require the permanent protection of an institution but that some people’s homes are crazier than institutions for the mad.” * 

As anyone who has read Bodies of Light will know, Alethea – known as Ally – was raised by a kind and ineffectual father more concerned with his art than his children’s welfare, and a mother fanatically obsessed with the plight of the poor, especially of poor women. This wasn’t bad in itself, but it was carried out as an all-engaging duty, accompanied by contempt for all those who weren’t concerned. She also skimped on any comfort both for herself and for her family, denying warmth (physical and emotional), interesting  food, and more. Whether her motivation came from religion or not, her attitude towards her children and all other middle-class people amounted to hatred for soft and easy lives. Ally, already rejected as an infant due to her mother’s post-natal depression, suffered terribly from her mother’s cruelty. It is surely this which gave her adult self insight and compassion into how asylums were being used, and the (convenient?) medical assumption that all unconventional behaviour must be the result of madness. One example from the inmates whom she had to treat is of a teenage girl who constantly attempts to take her own life: clearly this poor girl had suffered rape, (possibly within her family?).  Totally traumatised, she had been committed to the asylum as mentally ill. After all, this tided life up, didn’t it?

As a professionally qualified woman herself, Ally, at a low point, thinks about public attitudes: she was, in their eyes, ‘An unnatural, undomesticated being, very probably subject to mental instability herself, , for what woman would declare herself unsatisfied by her own family life and seek to usurp the feminine role?’

It is not really the place here to continue with descriptions of the treatments –  to discuss whether the attitude comes from the practice of religion (no doubt we have often seen its misuse across the centuries and across the world). The salient point for us today is that we have been woken up to the continuing existence, hardly camouflaged by talk about equality, of institutionalised misogyny, and this is supported by some of those very women who have benefited from the chance to appear to compete and succeed in what continues to be a man’s world. Signs for Lost Children is certainly a significant book.

* apologies for no page numbers, as reading on an old Kindle

**This piece was first published on Authors Electric March 2021

10 thoughts on “Signs for Lost Children: Respectability is all in this an Untidy World… Mari Howard

  1. Pam Lazos April 13, 2021 / 12:00 pm

    Sounds like two very engaging books, Mari, although speaking as a woman, gosh darn it, are we going to be stuck in the second class place forever obedient to the whims of men, because while we are ostensibly better off, men are still trying to control our bodies with anti-abortion laws and that is the whole ball of yarn 🧶 right there. Control a woman’s reproductive freedom and you control the woman. 😡

    Liked by 1 person

    • MariHoward April 13, 2021 / 3:47 pm

      Interesting: I also actually feel that there is much to be thought through around the whole subject of reproduction: the world population is too large, at the same time, fertility is dropping, some people are deciding not to have children, while others are going to any lengths to acquire them via various treatments and surrogacy. This is disturbing: are children in danger of being regarded as a ‘product’ which increases one’s ‘status’? I know, this is a different question, but it’s there – is a child a product, a right, or a consequence? Food for thought!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Pam Lazos April 13, 2021 / 4:17 pm

        And with all the genetics testing going on pretty soon you’ll be able to order your baby to specifications! I just read “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Most disturbing and very prescient!

        Liked by 1 person

      • dunelight May 25, 2021 / 11:46 am

        To bowlderize Shakespeare, ‘Some are born for children, ‘Some achieve children, ‘And some have children thrust upon them. In the USA the movement to strip the rights of women to self-autonomy by controlling their bodies is a powerful and frightening one. As Pam Lazos said, control her reproductive rights and you control the women. A Handmaid’s Tale is a popular, frightening tale of a such a future you speak of being played out in an America in the too near future.

        I too noted the drop in fertility across the world…we’ve poisoned ourselves. I haven’t seen you in a long while. Hello!


  2. dawnfanshawe May 1, 2021 / 8:43 pm

    I grew up living opposite a very large ‘mental Hospital’ in Nottingham and have heard many stories from local people who back in the day were sent there for several dubious reasons… I also thought of the film “Girl Interrupted” which this brings to mind. A film weel worth seeing too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MariHoward May 1, 2021 / 9:28 pm

      Yes, when I was a child I remember some overheard conversation when a woman was recounting to my mother, and some other people (who were sitting in deck chairs on the lawn of some flats where we lived a few year) how her sister had had electric shock treatment, and a further time when they had done that awful thing where they ‘drilled into the skull’ as she put it. Dubious treatments as well as dubious reasons – even in the early 1960s. And way back, for rebelling against parents, or getting pregnant and being unmarried…

      Liked by 1 person

      • dawnfanshawe May 1, 2021 / 9:34 pm

        as you said – ‘tidying up the neighbourhood’ of things folk would rather not admit.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. MariHoward May 25, 2021 / 1:36 pm

    Replying to Dunelight: More people than ever are deciding on one child. This will alter how people relate to others, and could encourage increasing the already-too-much individualism. But, more people than ever are probably not having children because who knows what climate change will bring in terms of disastrous destruction not only of species but of land (ie space to live) – we move far from the book here of course, but that’s what conversation does, it widens out!


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