Meet Sarah Gilchrist…

June 1, 2017

Feminism, 1890s Edinburgh and a twisting murder mystery . . . what more could you want from a read this summer? Read on for the opening of Kaite Welsh’s THE WAGES OF SIN, and meet our feisty heroine, Sarah Gilchrist . . .

The corpse on the table smelled rancid, and I pressed my handkerchief to my mouth. The scent of rose water mingled with embalming fluid as I tried not to gag – if I vomited, there was no hope for me. I had been waiting for this for so long; I could not lose my nerve now.

My specimen was a sorry spectacle and doubtless had been so even before he died, with his scrofulous neck, broken veins, and legs that bore all the hallmarks of rickets. He was thirty-five but looked older, and it was a miracle he had survived this long. It seemed cruel that he was to suffer this further indignity, and crueller still that I was happy to benefit from it. The smell hadn’t been pleasant when he had been rolled in from the cool air of the university mortuary, and in the stifling atmosphere of the cramped room that doubled as a lecture theatre, he stank to high heaven. His eyes were sewn shut, his eyeballs no doubt in a jar of formaldehyde somewhere in the building awaiting dissection away from their former owner, and his head was poorly shaved so that only androgynous patches of dark hair covered it. He was naked to the waist, with a sheet of dubious cleanliness covering his lower extremities for the sake of those of us who lacked his gentlemanly attributes.

Professor Williamson looked flushed and hot, clearly resenting the room full of ladies in front of whom modesty forbade him from removing his tie, loosening his collar and allowing himself to cool down a little. I lacked even that option, encased in my whalebone corset, copious layers of underlinen turned damp with sweat, my hair heavy in its knot at the nape of my neck. I knew that when we were finished, we would be exposed once again to the freezing November air and the constant rain that characterised a Scottish winter – or any other season in this blasted country for that matter. I longed for the temperate climate of the university library, or even the blustery winds of the crags above the city. I could hardly think in this stuffy, overcrowded room.

As I stood there, trying not to inhale, I heard the sound of slow handclaps behind me, and my chest tightened. I gripped the table, my nails sinking into the wood, willing myself not to tremble.

‘Are you unwell, Miss Gilchrist?’ Professor Williamson’s unflinching gaze bore into me, and I shook my head weakly. I could not help noticing that he had done nothing to silence the mocking applause. ‘Good. The operating theatre is no place for ladies. If you must abandon both your upbringing and God’s plan for you, kindly do the same with your delicate maidenly sensibilities. Once you walk through these doors, you are a doctor – nothing else. Understand?’

‘Yes, sir,’ I managed, feeling my face redden in embarrassment. Someone giggled suspiciously close to where Julia Latymer was sitting.

‘In your own time, Miss Gilchrist,’ Professor Williamson said behind me coldly, his tone implying that if I didn’t pick up the knife right now, he would, and it might not be the corpse in front of us that he’d be dissecting. I pulled off my gloves, crumpling up the damp fabric and looking for somewhere to stow them. William McVeigh, the monosyllabic assistant-cum-porter, deliberately avoided my eye, looking faintly disgusted at the prospect of touching a lady’s personal items, and the professor sighed audibly, tapping his foot. I swallowed my dignity and tossed my gloves onto the front bench, wiping my palms on my skirt.

I felt a dozen pairs of eyes on me as I picked up the knife and, willing my hand not to shake, made the first cut – a strong, neat incision down the abdomen, deep enough that the skin and muscle could be retracted to expose the peritoneal membrane. I sliced through the tough, fibrous tissue and fumbled around with sweating, shaky hands for the retractors on the tray next to me. I paused as McVeigh took up his place opposite me. His demeanour was sullen, and though he smirked as he caught my gaze, even that didn’t reach his eyes. I placed the two flat blades of the cold metal instrument against the sides of the incision and cleared my throat awkwardly.

‘Mr McVeigh, could you please pull on the retractors?’

He gave a mumbled ‘aye’, and took hold of the handles, taking especial care for his clammy hands to linger over mine. Shuddering, I turned my attention to the contents of the abdomen. I described to Professor Williamson what I saw, starting with the liver, the enlarged organ the colour of burnt sienna courtesy of a decade of cirrhosis.

After I had described everything immediately visible, I reached into the cavity to scoop out the intestines. The soft, ropy viscera were wickedly slippery. I bit my lip to stop myself from swearing. Everyone knew that O’Neill had cursed up a blue storm in one of the men’s lectures the previous week and received nothing but laughter and scattered applause in response, but I had little doubt that one oath would be all it took for the professor to ban me from his operating rooms.

‘Try both hands, Miss Gilchrist. They are rather on the small side, after all. Suitable for sewing, perhaps, but not much use for surgery.’ Bastard. I heard him chuckle, and plunged both my hands into the cavity with renewed vigour. My fingers slithered, trying to find purchase on the slick twists of flesh, until finally they closed around my prize. I ran the guts through my fingers like strands of pearls, feeling for any abnormalities. Sure enough, the intestines were studded with small pouches, and I ran my thumb over one, feeling the soft protrusions give beneath it.

‘There’s considerable evidence of diverticula,’ I told him, fascinated by the yards of slimy grey tube. ‘But there’s no sign of inflammation. Would you like me to continue?’ My pulse was racing again, but my earlier anxiety was forgotten. This, I thought, up to my elbows in human viscera, was what I had abandoned my mother’s plans of marriage, motherhood and good social standing for. Not that, in the end, I had been given a great deal of choice.

Professor Williamson waved me away. ‘No, no. You’ve proven that you’re perfectly adequate. It’s time to close the poor bugg— ah, the poor gentleman up. Miss Latymer, if you will?’

Dismissed, I looked around for my abandoned gloves. They were gone, but Edith Menzies’ pockets were bulging suspiciously, and she smirked at me as I returned to my seat. My glow of triumph dimmed as Julia swept past me, clearly furious to be left with the easy task. I ignored her, mentally calculating how much of my saved allowance I would have to dip into in order to replace my gloves without Aunt Emily noticing. I took my place in the cramped row of seats next to one of the stone-faced chaperones, an elderly former teacher at a local school who appeared unfazed by the mass of human innards on the table in front of her. It wasn’t even a real lecture theatre, I thought bitterly, merely one of the smaller rooms normally given over to the faculty for their private use. Our number meant that we were all too frequently shuffled out of sight if the proper lecture halls were required by the ‘real’ medical students – in other words, the gentlemen. Whilst the first-year students numbered well over a hundred, only a dozen of us were female. A dozen too many, if our critics were to be believed.

If you were to ask the man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus what a female medical student looked like, he would probably describe a greying spinster with her bespectacled face buried in a textbook – that being the closest thing to the male anatomy she was likely to get – and the kind of dried, desiccated look about her that could only have been brought on by a bout of intensive education. The truth was, not one of us was over thirty, and there wasn’t a wart or a moustache between us. If you had seen us taking tea, you would have assumed we were serious-minded but perfectly normal young ladies – New Women, perhaps, of the kind that had sprung up in the past decade, who fancied themselves equal to men in terms of intellect, but nothing that a good dose of marriage and motherhood wouldn’t cure.

We were but two months into our studies, and whilst we had adjusted to the long hours, bad smells and frigid rooms, the rest of the university had yet to accept us. From Buccleuch Street to the South Bridge, ‘undergraduettes’ had infiltrated the higher echelons of learning in every department of one of Scotland’s most elite establishments, much to the horror of their male fellows, but none were regarded with such disdain or suspicion as the immoral witches bent on a career in medicine.

The sudden influx of women into such a male institution had thrown up a whole set of problems for the faculty, not least that of propriety. The prospect of young, unmarried women being allowed to mingle with young, unmarried men was horrifying, and to prevent undesirable assignations, most universities employed chaperones to keep an eye on us. They were older women, God-fearing enough to be considered respectable, but sympathetic enough to our cause that they could be trusted not to order us home with every breath to our fathers, brothers and husbands. The women were silent, following us from room to room and sitting primly in the back row so they could keep their beady eyes on us. Some were silent from disapproval, some from an unwillingness to address those of us they deemed their betters. They were not the stern schoolmistresses of our childhood, nor the relatives sent to escort us at balls; neither they nor we knew how we should interact with them. Their job was simple and, for once, unvarnished. They were there to protect our virginity. Our reputations might have been irrevocably damaged, our innocence stripped away, but these widows and spinsters and suffragists could still safeguard that one remaining barrier, that tiny scrap of forbidding flesh that separated us from the wretched creatures that haunted the city’s slums. We were ladies in theory, at least. Of course, if there was one thing we were all learning in these hallowed halls, it was that theory and reality could differ wildly.

Concluding the lecture, Professor Williamson twitched the sheet back across the waist of the dead man with a prudishness I doubted he displayed in front of the male students. He treated corpses the way our grandmothers had treated the legs of their pianofortes, covering all but the essential parts to avoid embarrassment, seeing spectres of sex everywhere, and painfully unaware that by doing so, they were calling attention to what they so doggedly concealed.

Williamson was a popular lecturer, and when he pronounced the session over, he was met with the whoops and foot-stamping that marked the end of every class the students enjoyed. Even though his attitude towards us was repressive at best, the women applauded him with a gusto that would have been unthinkable in our previous existences. Bred to be decorous and reserved, we hollered like the rowdiest of men, encouraged rather than intimidated by his black scowl. We withdrew from the makeshift lecture hall as though from a dinner party, leaving Professor Williamson and his assistant to their embalmed body instead of port and cigars.

I trailed behind the others to join the throng of jostling students all heading home for the weekend. What began as a demure single file that would have put a governess and her charges to shame soon turned to a surge of bodies, all eager for a few days of relative freedom. Convention dictated that the male students let us out first, but as we had defied convention in entering these hallowed halls of learning, so they defied it by obstructing our exit.

I steeled myself to follow the others into the corridor, shrinking inwardly from the pressure of close to a hundred students – mostly male – shoving and laughing as they forced their way to the fresh air and space outside. Pressing in against us, their clammy hands pushed and nudged, taking liberties they would never have been granted elsewhere. Our chaperones finally intervened by means of pointedly cleared throats, and in one case a well-placed jab from a walking stick. Granting us safe passage through the throng – a feat the paternalistic Professor Williamson had not even thought of attempting – they marched ahead like generals and we followed in their wake, humbled at the display of a nerve we only feigned.

By the time I stumbled out into the open courtyard, I was dizzy and trembling. I breathed in deeply, less bothered by the sting of formaldehyde than by the smoke and sweat of the men. The peculiarly male odours were yet another reminder of how out of place we were, how outnumbered and at their mercy. I would not be one of those fragile flowers who had to resort to smelling salts at the slightest hint of impropriety. If I showed even a moment of weakness, our detractors would have won. I stood to the side, gulping in lungfuls of icy autumn air, whilst the others talked lazily about a supper party they were attending that evening.

Alison Thornhill glanced over at me, a half-question forming on her lips. A look from Julia quelled any overture of friendship she would have offered.

‘Oh leave her, Alison,’ Julia snapped. ‘I’m sure she has gentlemen to flirt with.’

I felt my cheeks flame, and kept my gaze averted so that she wouldn’t see how much her words stung.

Like me, Julia Latymer was from London, although being among the only Englishwomen in a group of Scots hardly endeared me to her. We had never moved in the same circles – the Latymers were far too liberal for my parents’ liking – but I knew her well enough to nod a greeting at public lectures and women’s suffrage meetings. We had enough acquaintances in common that by the time I had quit London and my old life, she believed she knew my character intimately – and did not like it one bit.

It didn’t help that my uncle’s profession was a source of considerable disgust. Julia and some of our cohort had signed the pledge abstaining from all forms of liquor, and the only spirits they came into contact with were preserving body parts. It was no secret that she and the rest of her wretched Temperance League thought that I lived a life of alcoholic decadence when I came home from lectures, despite the fact that no one but the servants would even consider drinking the ale my uncle’s company brewed.

Buchanan Breweries was omnipresent in the city, from the brewer’s drays that delivered casks to almost every public house in Edinburgh, to the very air itself. Although the smell was considerably less foul than when I had arrived in the middle of August, the fug of fermenting hops hung over the city year-round, and I had come to associate it inextricably with Uncle Hugh. At home, he was a shadowy presence confined to his study or his club, but in the city, his influence was everywhere. Even in the courtyard of the medical school, where I would eventually win my independence, I was not free of him.

As if summoned by my thoughts, the carriage drew up nearby. The driver was late – I knew my uncle believed I could not be trusted to spend a moment unchaperoned. If he could have ordered Calhoun to drive me from the lecture halls to the library he would have done so, and any tardiness on my part was invariably reported back.

Calhoun offered nothing by way of a greeting as I settled against the soft green leather of the seat and arranged a blanket over myself to ward off the November chill. He had clearly decided at the beginning of term that discretion was the better part of valour where the subject of my education was concerned, and as for my nightly activities – well, I doubted that he could have phrased his objections in a manner suited to the ears of a lady. Then again, if the servants gossiped as much as I suspected they did, he would have realised long ago that his employer’s niece was no lady.

Despite the driver’s dour countenance and gimlet eyes that missed nothing, I wasn’t sad to leave Julia’s mockery, or the reminder of yet another gathering to which I would not be invited. Let them have their cocoa and petty gossip. I had a much more interesting evening planned.

I gazed out of the window into the dying light, watching as the genteel environs of the university were quickly replaced by the shabbier tenements of the slums that crowded the city. Centuries ago, entire wynds had been bricked off, inhabitants still within, in an effort to contain the plague that had ravaged the city. The intervening years had done little to improve life for the remaining communities, and even those who had survived the cholera epidemic of a decade ago no doubt wished they had not.

At Greyfriars Kirk, we began the steep descent leading us into poverty that, until a few months ago, I had never seen outside a penny dreadful. As the horses made their tentative way over cobblestones slick with remnants of sewage and late-afternoon rain, I glanced out of my window at the rapidly disappearing sky and shivered. Although I could not see it, several feet above us lay the graveyard where my predecessors, the Williams Burke and Hare, had dug up bodies by candlelight and sold them to the university for a tidy profit – until they grew greedy and hit upon a bloody scheme for providing much fresher corpses. The proximity made my skin crawl, and for once I was thankful as the carriage swung into the Cowgate, plunging us into darkness.

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