Postal Reading group
September 2023
Notes on the book Poor things by Alisdair Gray

I believe that I can, with some justification, claim that Poor things by Alisdaur Gray is an original book. Similarly, I can agree that this might be one of those books which divides opinion. Gray has a repuation as being one of Scotland's leading authors, and this book confirms that. He also has a particularly distinctive style, and this book is equally representative of that.

The basic story is that Godwin Baxter brings a drowned young lady back to life as Bella Baxter using the brain of her unborn child, and tries to bring her up to be the companion he has always craved. Unfortunately, however, her affections are captured by the jealous love of the medical student Archibald McCandless. While Godwin might have been resigned to this, both are concerned when Bella instead elopes with Duncan Wedderburn, a solicitor with a reputation for shady deals. Having exhausted Duncan and his money, Bella returns intending to marry Archibald until an episode from her past forces her past and Godwin’s secret into the open.

Although this is a hilarious tale of love and scandal, I found this was a difficult book to read. One significant reason contributing to this is the lack of a significant plot. The story develops only very slowly, and even the scandal fails to achieve the significance that the reader expects. In a way this isn't the entire story, as it is followed by Bella’s perspective. However, with so many other perspectives in the book it is difficult to know who to believe. In addition to the problem of multiple unreliable narrators (if we include Wedderburn's letter, there are at least three), the several sections of this book gave the impression of a confusing agglomeration. Even the layout and typography of the book reinforce this impression. Although not without interest, it is questionable whether the illustrations really add anything. One interesting, if small, point is the presence of the Forth bridge in the background of the illustration of Bella ‘Caledonia’ (p. 45). For a novel set in Glasgow this seems surprising unless the implication was that she was the fairest in all Scotland!

In some other respects, however, this is a clever novel and offers an effective satire of the Victorian gothic novel. Adding Bella’s perspective was, in principle, an interesting idea and it was certainly a refreshing change to see a woman, and their prespective, being given equal prominenence. Similarly, Bella’s lengthy narrative of her European tour with Wedderburn offers an interesting commentary on the independence of women. Many other parts of the book also succeed in being very thoughtful, and despite the Victorian sensibilities of McCandless' experiences, still seem relevant today. For example, despite significant progress in medicine, many of Godwin’s comments remain true: “If medical practitioners wanted to save lives ... they would unite to prevent diseases, not work separately to cure them” (p. 23). Prevention is still better than cure, but remains a low priority at a time when the NHS lacks the resources. This is also a reminder that improvements in life expectancy have been as much a product of improved sanitation as they have of medicine.

Equally refreshing were Godwin’s views on organised religion: “Only bad religions depend on mysteries, just as bad governments depend on secret police” (p. 100). Sadly, this remark might equally apply to medicine, as much as it still applies to religion, as much medical language seems to be deliberately obscure. Similarly, the remarks from one of Bella’s sons that we should focus more on hydroelectric power than fossil fuels (p. 253) would have been extraordinarily prescient in the early 20th century, even if the geography of Britain limits how much we can generate from this source (currently Britain has only about 1 GW of hydroelectric capacity, compared with a peak demand which can sometimes exceed 40 GW).

Another theme running through the book is a critique of the political establishment and the patriarchy. Through her experience gained during the European tour, and later in her clinic in one of the poorer parts of Glasgow, Bella, or Victoria as she was later known, was to become an active Suffragette. Although Bella's socialism never gained widespread popular support, the need for an alternative to capitalism and right-wing populism is needed as much as ever. Interestingly Bella herself seems to have created some controversy from across the political spectrum by supporting voluntary measures to limit population. Her pamphlet A loving economy remains very little known as I was unable to find it on the catalogues of either the National Library of Scotland or the British Library.

In conclusion, I agree that this is a book which may divide opinion. I personally found it to be a difficult read, with a potentially interesting story spoilt by a weak plot. On the other hand, it is a brilliant satire of the Victorian gothic style, and many sections are thought provoking, while remaining stragely relevant today. With at least three viewpoints it is difficult to know what to believe, but the story of Bella's ‘creation’ surely strains my credulity too far. As to whether the novel as a whole is a work of genius I suspend judgement!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler