Friday, April 28, 2017

Kaite Welsh's The Wages of Sin, a feminist crime novel of late 19th-century Edinburgh

Kaite Welsh’s debut, The Wages of Sin, is described as a “feminist Victorian crime novel.”

What this means: the story is seen from a female perspective and features women battling against gender inequality at a time, the Victorian era, when they weren’t accorded equal rights or treatment. Today’s women often forget what their forebears endured, but reading about Sarah Gilchrist’s experience will remind them.

As one of twelve “undergraduettes” at the university medical school in Edinburgh in 1892, Sarah faces disdainful treatment from her instructors, bullying from her male counterparts, and a definite lack of understanding from her stern Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily, who treat her like an adolescent in need of discipline rather than a mature 27-year-old woman.

They feel their behavior is justified, based on Sarah’s traumatic past—which adds more facets to her character. Once a young woman in London society, she was sent away to Scotland to avoid ruining her younger sister’s marriage prospects. Her narrative doles out the details slowly, as if she must work up sufficient courage to reveal the truth.

The mystery subplot involves the death of a sex worker named Lucy. Four days before her corpse shows up on Sarah’s operating table, her neck with visible signs of bruising, she’d been a strong-willed, mouthy, and surprisingly literate patient at the charity clinic where Sarah volunteers.

When a novel opens mid-dissection, you know you’re in for a reading experience that oozes atmosphere—among other things. The differences between now and then are grimly emphasized. This is a time when women wore gloves for society outings, but took them off when wielding scalpels and digging into people’s innards. Late 19th-century Edinburgh is shown in all its contrasts, from the city’s elegant parlors to its opium dens and underground boxing venues. Life is clearly rough for the lower classes, with people aging long before their time. The plotline is intricate and not predictable, although one clue is essentially given away before it’s explicitly revealed later.

There are some hints of possible romance, too, with the love interest in question being one of Sarah’s superiors—a dicey situation in academia. The mysterious Professor Merchiston, one of her few supporters, clearly has an unusual past.

In the end, Sarah finds hope in female solidarity—despite the many examples of women holding back their own progress—and comes to see the plight all women share in this day and age, regardless of social status: “Why were we so desperate to believe that anything separated the people in drawing rooms from the people in the slums other than sheer luck?”

Although Sarah's a forward-thinking woman, the author avoids making her an overly feisty anachronism. The story remains in its temporal place, while its message rings out clearly. At a time when men in power seek to shut down women’s choices, the themes in The Wages of Sin couldn’t be more relevant.

The Wages of Sin was published by Pegasus in March in hardcover; thanks to the publisher for approving my Edelweiss access.


  1. "At a time when men in power seek to shut down women's choices..." Many of my readers are astonished to realize how limited women's freedom was back in the late 1800s. It's one of the themes that has kept me glued to the Victorian era since I had to "do" the Victorians back in high school.

    I rushed to put this on my TBR list only to find it was already there. Thanks for reminding me of this novel!

    1. I'll be curious to hear what you think of it, Jane. It is pretty shocking to see what women had to endure back then.