As soon as I read the synopsis for Clare Whitfield’s debut novel, People of Abandoned Character, following Daniel Bassett’s Instagram review (@Dantheman1504) I just had to read it. Like many, I am fascinated by the Jack the Ripper case focusing on the unsolved 1888 murders of five women in Whitechapel, London. The very concept of unsolved cases which have remained at the forefront of public knowledge for over one-hundred years and the continuous research surrounding both the perpetrator and his victims has remained fascinating since my early high school years. Discussions of Victorian surgery, nursing and doctors often come hand-in-hand with discussions of Jack the Ripper and his victims, so People of Abandoned Character also piqued my academic interests due to the focus on the body. You can imagine, therefore, how ecstatic I was to see the invitation to this wonderful blog tour pop into my inbox. I’m so happy to be participating in the Head of Zeus blog tour running from September 21st to 27th so please check out my fellow reviewers.
If this book sounds right up your street, I highly recommend reading it either alongside or directly preceding Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, the ground-breaking historical account of the canonical five women’s lives and a powerful condemnation of the misogyny surrounding them.
London, 1888: Susannah rushes into marriage to a young and wealthy surgeon. After a passionate honeymoon, she returns home with her new husband wrapped around her little finger. But then everything changes. His behaviour becomes increasingly volatile and violent. He stays out all night, returning home bloodied and full of secrets.
Lonely and frustrated, Susannah starts following the gruesome reports of a spate of murders in Whitechapel. But as the killings continue, her mind takes her down the darkest path imaginable. Every time her husband stays out late, another victim is found dead.
Is it a coincidence? Or is he the man they call Jack the Ripper?
— Retailer synopsis, Waterstones
This book details both historical attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community and a character’s personal experiences traversing their sexuality so, if you’d like further details regarding this specific representation, please do seek out own voices reviewers from those within the community. I will also give content warnings for abuse, poverty, and detailed descriptions of injuries.
This was a book which, seemingly easily, delivered on the promise of the synopsis. It left me the very opposite of disappointed as, despite the risk of approaching a cut and dry finale determining involvement in the famous Ripper case, Whitfield crafted a high impact narrative culminating in an ingenious conclusion drawing on parallels, revelations, and the predetermined facts of each character slowly determined throughout. The revelations and ending we did have surprised me which was the most pleasant surprise throughout this reading experience. As a detailed Victorian literary researcher, especially relating to medicine and these cases, my primary requirement for this book going in was to be shocked, surprised and enjoy the twists. People of Abandoned Character certainly delivered during that intriguing, and satisfying, ending.
As I mentioned above, I highly recommend reading this either alongside or just before reading The Five. I think it’s a perfect fictional counterpart to Rubenhold’s historical research as Whitfield places all of her female characters in the central narrative positions compared to the previously more famous Ripper and includes the very process of determining each woman’s life narrative, specifically focusing on the victims and Susannah’s fascination with their lives.
Avoiding sentimental decadence in her writing whilst depicting perhaps the most Victorian year of the Victorian era, the dark wit and almost surprising humour of Susannah’s voice had me genuinely chuckling at her gutsy responses throughout. I believe Whitfield effortlessly blends fact into her specific fictional craft and she does so beautifully. The almost traditional historical fiction themes remain strong, including poverty, science, the Ripper and feminism, but are intertwined strongly throughout. All of this comes together in a highly readable novel which I tore through regardless of my glacial reading pace.
As a lover of Gothic/horror narratives, it was awesome to see the inclusion of those brilliantly classic Gothic conventions, from an overbearing and sinister housekeeper, Mrs Wiggs, to the mysterious attic and, of course, graphic murders kept my turning pages. However, this is where my in-depth love of Gothic, and reading these conventions pretty much once a month, can come back to bite me. After reading similar conventions in, for example, Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and the classic starting point in Rebecca I’ll admit that, while I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations surrounding these aspects within this narrative, they felt slightly predictable and highly similar to general revelations commonly seen across previous texts. I was hoping for that special little something which just stood apart from the crowd simply taking this from a five to a four.
I also felt that some revelations, specifically relating to character, did not have that direct impact on the narrative that I initially expected based on their set up. This extended into some revelations which I would have loved to have seen explored in greater detail specifically through character discussions. For example, Susannah was quite well crafted, including her previous experiences and back story, but I think Thomas’ character suffered for the comparisons between their development. Thomas quickly becomes a slightly pigeon-holed character so, while I am by no means defending his character, I would have liked to see more of his personality in the opening and his wider influence in Chelsea society alongside seeing Susannah adapt to this wider social life outside of their house. This would have contrasted with the wonderfully atmospheric depictions of Whitechapel and just present that full package. In the beginning and middle of the narrative, I was looking for that initial credibility in their marriage which set up both characters as equal players throughout.
Overall, I am so happy that this book lived up to my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in a classic piece of Victorian historical fiction with all those Gothic aspects you expect. It also excelled in representing the women at the true heart of the narrative and exquisite forms of body horror in the depictions of surgery and injuries. Pushing it to the forefront is Whitfield’s darkly humorous writing in all the right places and after this successful debut, I will be keeping my eyes peeled for her future releases.
I am always on the lookout for Victorian historical fiction, particularly including surgeons, healthcare and biologically centric crime. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!
People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield will be published by Head of Zeus on the 1st of October 2020 by Head of Zeus.
I was invited to take part in the blog tour by Gabriella Drinkald (Midas PR) who provided a physical ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Gabriella, Midas PR and Head of Zeus for this opportunity.
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