A vivid picture of Victorian London is aptly presented by Kate Williams in her novel ‘The Pleasures of Men’. It is a historical thriller based on a dark Victorian age of repression. Catherine Sorgeiul, an orphan lives with her uncle in his rambling house in London’s East End. Her troubled past along with her uncle’s Gothic endeavors gives the story it’s much needed stimulation. As soon as Catherine, a meek girl who fancies the company of her quaint imaginations, comes to Spitalfields, a series of murders transpire. The mutilations are suspected to be committed by a serial killer known as the Man of Crows who rips open the chests of young girls and stuffs hair inside them to resemble the beak of a crow. As the murders prolong, Catherine finds herself trapped in her own flamboyant imaginations leading to terrifying revelations.
If you are someone who has been following the case files of Jack the Ripper, then this is a must-read book for you. You can read about the case here : http://www.casebook.org/intro.html. The book gives a tantalizing perspective of the women living in the era of terror in the Victorian society.
The protagonist, Catherine Sorgeiul is the reason I personally found this book intriguing. Catherine’s obsession with the serial killer and her predictions about the killings gives the book a very restive approach. Certain sections of the book also have inclinations to the supernatural and lesbian tendencies but the author doesn’t divulge into the issues which were so prevalent in the reticent Victorian London. The constricted life of a young Victorian girl is well expressed here, not just that of Catherine with her idiosyncratic situation but also of her repressed social contacts, who sexually torture their maids and daydream about serial killers while slyly keeping an eye for prospective young grooms.
Kate Williams, who is a historian, is well known for her exploration of women histories often referring to their personal diaries delving on their personalities and preferences. “History is not only for men”, as she rightfully exclaims and wonderfully stirs up their circumstances in the novel. Being a historian her historical biographies are known for precision. Though ‘The Pleasures of Men’ is a work of fiction, there are excerpts from the realistic happenings of the early Victorian age in the book. London during this time was under severe recession and the poor East End of London was haunted by a psychotic murderer. Queen Victoria had just ascended the throne of the British Empire but none of the civilians believed that a young woman could eliminate the despondency hounding Britain. And the already less privileged vagrants in their attempts to survive took on to the life of the criminals, and the already privileged once were reduced to their miseries. This state of anguish gave birth to a bloodcurdling serial killer called Jack the Ripper. I personally found a lot of similarities in the persona of the real life ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the fictional character of ‘The Man of Crows’. Kate Williams gives us a clear understanding of the state of the women who were petrified of being victimized at the time of the uncertain murders.
While reading the book, I realized that the narration has a very claustrophobic feeling; maybe Williams wanted to give her readers a feel of Catherine’s inner insecurity and obsession with the killer and his victims. The plot line is immensely riveting with Williams explaining the series in which the murders took place. The illustration is grotesque and the attempts made by Catherine to understand the lives of the victims before the murder along with the thoughts of the perpetrator of the crime shows us the sinister and highly subdued side of Catherine.
Though a lot of readers find the novel to be a passive read, Catherine’s bizarre past gives the story a tantalizing edge. Catherine feels that she is accountable for her young brother’s seizure and loss and the consequent splinter of her safe bourgeois family, who send her to a lunatic asylum rather than to face up to her sorrow and remorse. This particular occurrence in the book tells us a lot about the rampant corruption in 1840s England. The story is designed to be active and keep the reader engaged. It is the not the kind of book that one can read in a day and escape into history rather it has the ability to absorb the readers into their own special investigation.
Another character worthy of note would be Catherine’s uncle, Mr. Crenabon. Catherine’s parents for reasons unknown had restricted her to meet her uncle in her childhood but after their demise, he was the only relative she could depend on. Her uncle’s house is pretty much symbolic of his own secretive personality. His anthropological treasures and uncanny acquaintances give a twist to the astonishing disclosure of the murder mystery. The murky tone of narration used by Williams to describe Mr. Crenabon pushes the readers to make assumptions unsaid in the book.
The mania for the crimes and the killer intensifies when Catherine starts using her brush and conjectures as a tool of evil and the picturesque suppositions regarding the criminal’s unstable psyche. During the Victorian age, due to the prevalence of poverty many women went down the road to prostitution and endured the risks that came along with it. And as a matter of fact many were victimized by ‘Jack the Ripper’; the same is shown in the story. But the sudden disappearance of Grace, Catherine’s maid leads to tumultuous terror and suspicion.
The Victorians were finely honed on dark baroque paintings which gave a scenic view of their society packed full of faces, stories and activities. This exploratory nature of the Victorian society is pertinently showcased by Williams. We find such expounding qualities not only in the story but also in the cover page of the novel which has a very mysterious and gloomy feel to it rendering bleak serenity which is metaphoric of all the characters in the novel. A lot of critics have compared Kate Williams to Sarah Waters, possibly due to the enormous research done by both of them on the state of affairs of women during the Victorian age. The authoritarianism of patriarchy is evidently reflected through their works. Predominantly the domineering and exploitative nature of men who would allocate an ornamental value to the women and keep them down for their pleasure thus the title of the novel also seems accurate.
As a result of emotional and psychological agony Catherine’s voice often gets irregular making the narration confusing but the author manages to keep the attention of the readers intact throughout the near emotional collapse of her protagonist and narrator. Catherine’s tendency of disassociating herself from reality in an erratic manner actually serves to heighten the suspense and thrill in the story. The novel becomes thought provoking and captivating when every man in Catherine’s life becomes a plausible suspect of the murders committed by ‘The Man of Crows’.
The paranoia surfacing the story is amplified in the end when the identity of ‘The Man of Crows’ is finally revealed and Catherine’s postulations are found to be wide of the mark. The ending of the novel is abrupt and the eye-opening exposure pretty unexpected but the author leaves the reader speculating a lot of unquenched answers.
The fact that makes this book a page turner is the fantastic use of various themes and sewing them up with reality. Several episodes mirror the idea that being salvaged can be as agitating as being deserted. Williams also manifests that psychological brutality is as harrowing as physical. There are echoes of sexual hysteria throughout the book which are unavoidable, in the same way in real life we try to overlook subjugation and despotism but the truth is they are inescapable. The characters in the novel are possessed by their fears and by their past and there is a passing reference to the building of Nelson’s Column which is emblematic of the idea that Britain during this time was geared up or desired to posses the entire world.
The book overall is a critique of the tyrannical Victorian society encapsulated in a story seen through the eyes of a woman. I would say anyone who enjoys a murder mystery or a thriller that challenges ones perception of good and bad will deftly grasp the underlying message of the obscure story line. Though a few things in the story are unpersuasive and can take you off guard, but still the novel overall is an enticing read.
About the Author:
Dr. Kate Williams is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, is a British author, historian and television presenter. She is a social historian and has discussed her books on BBC Breakfast, CNN and Sky News on Mariella Frostrup’s Sky Arts show and on the Simon Mayo Book Show on Radio 2, Radio 4’s Open Book, Woman’s Hour, the Today Programme and BBC News. Read more about her and her books on her official website : https://sites.google.com/site/kwilliamsauthor/home
You can find the book here :