Book Review: The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

The Conviction of Cora Burns

Carolyn Kirby

March 19, 2019

In Carolyn Kirby’s debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, Cora’s buried past begins to unearth itself, and Cora must find out where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts. 

Victorian England is a terrible place for an impoverished woman. Cora Burns knows this firsthand. Born to a mother she knows only as a convict who gave her away at birth, Cora was raised in a workhouse, friendless and alone but for Alice Salt, a little girl so alike to her as to be mistaken for her sister. But it isn’t just appearance that draws the two prepubescent girls together. A streak of wildness runs in them both, as they egg each other on to more daring and terrible things:

As the year went by and the air in the dormitory turned from damp to stuffy, the two girls’ need to speak when the others were around seemed to evaporate. Language became not words but a glance or the turn of a head. When the other girls came close, Cora and Alice would both scowl. Alice learned quickly how to make even the biggest girls back off with the stamp of her foot. Cora started to dare Alice to be bolder; to rub a muddy finger down Emma Jeake’s clean pinny or spit in Mary Smith’s water cup. Alice never refused a dare and Cora burned with pride as her friend became stronger and more fearless. The thrill of mischief bound them closer. They would entwine their fingers and press their bodies together, standing on tiptoes and beaming, delirious with the triumph of getting away with it.

When Alice abruptly disappears from the workhouse, Cora is bereft. As the years pass and Cora is transitioned to work in the laundry at the nearby asylum, she never lets go of the thought of looking for the person she loves most in all the world. But a lack of education and care will soon throw her into prison, and only a seemingly chance encounter will allow her to escape the nightmare of life on the streets once she’s discharged nearly two years later.

Cora accepts the proffered position as a servant in the household of Thomas Jerwood with reluctance. She knows she has few relevant skills, but her one night fending for herself in Birmingham taught her that opportunities are few and far between for a young woman without connections or means. At The Larches, she applies herself to learning her new trade and keeping her head down, but she soon finds that her new master is hiding secrets of his own.

Jerwood, you see, considers himself a scientist, and seems to be engaged in the study of a young girl named Violet, who lives under the care of himself and his invalid wife. He writes monographs which contain passages such as this:

[My scientific rival] will, I daresay, argue that temperament is separate from anatomy but his predictable scepticism has done me a service by stimulating my imagination. Through unceasing contemplation of these questions, I have devised a rigorous method for the study of criminal character using moral tests combined with the numerical measurement of human behavior. The method proceeds thus: a convict is released into a normal domestic setting and presented (under clandestine observation) with a range of dilemmas designed to probe moral fiber. These choices may be trivial or more perplexing. Traps, as it were, can be laid.

Cora doesn’t necessarily mind Jerwood taking an interest in her for scientific reasons, but as she builds a friendship with Violet, she begins to find that his interests are far more sinister, and go back far further than she’d imagined. Soon, Cora must decide what kind of person she’s going to become, whether she can escape the shadow of her parentage or whether she’s doomed to violence and madness.

The Conviction Of Cora Burns is a harrowing meditation on morality through the lens of Victorian society and its often skewed ideas as to what was considered healthy and proper behavior. The scientific monographs that pepper the text shows quite starkly the need for modern ethics and the importance of consent in experimentation. But the monographs are merely a part of a larger problem endemic to that era: that of devaluing the concerns of women, especially in regard to childbirth and reproductive health.

Caroline Kirby handles all this with a steely grace, never flinching away from the horrors of the world she’s depicting, even as she makes sure to note the kindness and decency that did flourish wherever it was able. And where it’s not, she dives deep into the psyche to show how women might cope, looking for strength in each other and in themselves. Her exploration of the bonds of female friendship and sisterhood, especially, struck a deep chord of memory in me. This is an astonishing debut novel, filled with twists and psychological insights that pit those age-old rivals, nature and nurture, in a battle for one young woman’s soul.

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