Poverty & mystery in Victorian Birmingham

  • Book: The Conviction of Cora Burns
  • Location: Birmingham
  • Author: Carolyn Kirby

Review Author: JustRetiring



‘Set in the 1880s in Birmingham, this is an atmospheric and gripping novel about a determined young woman who strives to overcome the hardship and violence that plagues her and the dark, fractured memories which haunt her. With a gritty setting, and a fantastic historical and social context, ‘The Conviction of Cora Burns’ explores themes of motherhood, mental illness, memories and the concept of nature versus nurture.’

October 1885. Cora, born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, has always struggled to control the violence inside her. Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she has been offered a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood, in the suburb of Spark Hill. some 3 miles distant. But will she take up the position, joining a staff of four indoor servants and on terms of just £8 per annum, ‘half what she’d got as a laundress’.

I followed in the footsteps of author and character on a cold January morning in Birmingham, seeking out Cora’s path as she was finally released from the institutions that defined her childhood and adolescence. Read my On Literary Location blog post for TripFiction here: https://www.tripfiction.com/on-literary-location-in-birmingham/

After some demeaning false starts in the city, Cora reluctantly takes up the post offered in Mr Jerwood’s household. At The Larches, we meet a host of interesting characters: scullery maid Ellen, who is shaking her petticoats at gardener Samuel; housekeeper Mrs Dix; the kindly Cook, who has her own buried secrets; upstairs ‘the missus’ hides in her chamber, mad and shouting only for Anna; Mr. Jerwood, forever buried in his research papers; and, most intriguingly, young Violet, seemingly the object of a scientist’s experiments…

In parallel with Cora’s new situation, the author deftly weaves in the unfolding story of her time in the Union workhouse some 11 years earlier, where she and her sister Alice may have committed a terrible crime. And research papers and letters from Mr. Jerwood and a madhouse Medical Officer begin to hint at what may have happened to Cora and her family in those dark early years.

I savoured every page of ‘The Conviction of Cora Burns’. Carolyn Kirby has created a lead character who is both inherently bad, and yet not without some kindness and hope. The story is multi-layered, discussing wide-ranging themes, including nature versus nurture, mental illness, memories – whether real or false – class structure and motherhood.

And all this is told with an authenticity of language, place and time that can only reflect a huge investment in research by the author:

‘Boot soles gaped and flapped like hungry fish but didn’t seem to slow Letty down. Sh e weaved over cobbles and kerbs, steering Cora against a wall at the tight corner of Meriden Street as a horse tram clipped by. Cora sensed that the girl was more at home amongst the carts and costermongers and dingy corner shops than she would ever be. ‘

‘They turned into Coventry Street and even though it was Sunday, a sour breeze blew up from the vinegar brewery.’

‘The Conviction of Cora Burns’ is Carolyn Kirby’s debut novel, It was begun in 2013 on a writing course at the renowned Faber Academy in London. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one, Carolyn!


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