As an archaeologist, I have extensive knowledge of objects used by European cultures in the nineteenth century in The New World. After reading Amy McKay’s The Virgin Cure, I realize I know very little about life in the nineteenth century, particularly amongst the lower classes. In The Virgin Cure, preteen Moth is sold into servitude by her alcoholic, promiscuous mother. She goes willingly and is beaten on a whim by her mistress, Mrs. Wentworth, treated poorly by the rest of the servants and escapes to the streets. She is taken in by Miss Everett, a woman who offers homes to girls with intact virginities, trains them in the art of how to please a man, and then sells their virtue off. She strikes a friendship with Miss Everett’s doctor who offers to take her in herself, but Moth refuses. The title refers to the belief that men with sexually transmitted diseases may be cured of their illness after having sex with a virgin. Young girls like Moth live under the ever-present danger that they may fall prey to this practice. Though Moth remains safe throughout, one of her friends is raped by a syphilitic man in an alleyway and succumbs to the disease. In the end, Moth survives the experience and grows to leave Miss Everett, only to follow in her footsteps, eventually opening a similar house for wayward girls of her own.
McKay’s narrative style, in the first person present tense from Moth’s point of view is extremely compelling. Moth is precocious and streetwise, though naïve when it comes to male-female relations. She looks fondly upon her life in the tenements, yet has no desire to return. Intermittent throughout the narrative are “author’s notes” in the persona of Dr. Sadie. Though intended to enlighten the reader with respect to nineteenth century customs and practices, they interrupt the flow of the narrative instead, adding little to it as the information is eventually imparted elsewhere in Moth’s story. Newspaper articles documenting events in the plot are unnecessary as they add little to what the reader has already experienced. The same can be said for Dr. Sadie’s notes and letters.
In McKay’s afterword, she explains that this novel is based on a picture of her great-great-grandmother (the inspiration for Dr. Sadie) and her daughter and research she undertook in an effort to learn more about her great-great-grandmother, a pioneer with respect to elevating the role of women in society. This may explain why, aside from a few beatings and following through with selling her virginity, little happens to Moth in the book. Most of the intrigue is in what Moth hears or witnesses, first at her employer’s erratic behaviour, then from the girls at Miss Everett’s and in her role as a “Circassian Beauty” – slash – fortune-teller in Mr. Dink’s museum.
Given the build-up, I expected a more vivid description of Moth’s first time and was disappointed. I also expected her to find redemption in the favour of the upper-class she so fantasizes about and was disappointed there as well. Rather than join Dr. Sadie on a crusade to save girls from falling prey to the same fate as herself, Moth opens her own brothel, offering up girls as naïve and pure as she once was to dirty old men. The Virgin Cure is a slice-of-life novel, offering the reader a glimpse into the plight of women, especially the destitute in late nineteenth century North America, and is well worth the read, in spite of the lack-lustre climax.