The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

Another great book by a graduate of and now lecturer at Royal Holloway (where I went). Must be something in the water…

I’d been eyeing this book for a while on Amazon and GoodReads, and finally bought a copy in Waterstones. As a huge fan of Sarah Waters and a good unreliable narrator, this is just my sort of thing. Plus there’s a haughty, faceless Victorian lady on the cover holding a bloody knife. And that title…  all very intriguing, if unpleasant.

2012 Penguin paperback edition

First of all, Kate Williams is amazing. She is one of those super-duper amazing overqualified people that have spent their life at university and are highly respected and praised and revered… and to boot, she’s also a great writer. This is her first foray into fiction, having previously worked on historical biographies (I particularly want to read England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, and only partly because I first heard of Hamilton in Blackadder the Third) and academic hoohah. She has a DPhil and two MAs and now teaches an MA, as well as all her writing and researching and appearing on the BBC looking amazing and knowledgeable. Jealous, moi?

Kate Williams

Now, to the book. The Pleasures of Men is set in 1840s London and centres around Catherine, an orphan living with her mysterious uncle on Princes Street near Spitalfields, one of the most dangerous parts of a very dangerous city. 1840s London was not a nice place to be. An economic crash left the city’s inhabitants with little money and even less hope, meaning that the entire place was uncared for and desperate. Catherine has a mysterious past and her uncle pays her little attention. The house is ‘rambling’ and covered with African masks and various other souvenirs from her uncle’s youthful travels to Africa and the Far East. Catherine has few possessions and her only friend (if you can call her that) is the maid, Jane. She tells the reader early on that she grew up in affluent Richmond, and we wonder how she ended up where she is, and what happened to her family.

Satisfyingly, a lot of questions about Catherine’s past are answered for the reader, but she remains mysterious in herself and hard to pinpoint. It becomes clear she has spent some time in some sort of psychiatric hospital, and, as they say, the plot thickens. Keepsakes were taken away from her there, and she has never got them back. Left alone and an outsider, Catherine lives with her uncle – a last vestige of family, of somewhere to go; but she is lonely and lives in a bare room. The reader feels sorry for her, but also wonders why she is her current situation and whether it is best for her or not – could she lead a normal life with the ladies of society and one day marry? Or is she destined to remain alone in a rambling house in a bad part of town?

London, near Spitalfields, 1840

A series of murders capture the attention of the London press. The murderer is dubbed The Man of Crows after the plural noun – a group of crows is a murder of crows. He picks on young working class girls, and leaves them mutilated, their chests open and their limbs splayed to make them look like birds. Everyone is scandalised and fascinated by the gossip, Catherine included. Her past has convinced her that she is evil and bad (for reasons the reader will discover), and she decides that by taking an interest in The Man of Crows and trying to discover his motives and who he is, she might be rid of her own evil. She convinces herself that her past sins will protect her from him. As she hears about the murders through newspapers and gossip, she begins to imagine the story of each girl and how they felt as they were stalked and cornered by The Man. She writes her ideas down, as if it is a novel, and becomes more and more fixated on the mysterious killer.

Catherine is a brilliant creation. With her family gone and her blaming herself for all her misfortune, she is tormented by her ‘dark thoughts’ and bad dreams and is fascinated by the pain and suffering of others. Her uncle is creepy and strange, his house dark and full of odd objects. Even Catherine’s room has African masks staring out from the walls. Catherine is at times afraid of him, at others bored by his talk and his nagging her to try with visitors. Early on the Janissers visit with their son Constantine, hoping to make a match between him and Catherine. Suffice to say it does not go well. Everyone in society thinks Catherine is strange and though they pay her attention you get the feeling they shake their heads and laugh at her after she is gone.

Spending almost all her time alone, Catherine is swept away by her own imaginings. She becomes obsessed with the dead girls, picturing their faces and their hands, the blood on their clothes and in their hair. She imagines The Man of Crows as he plans which girl to choose, watching groups of them on the street. They are prostitutes, shop girls, maids, and he hates them. Catherine tries to get inside his head, and she gets lost inside her own.

Romola Garai as Victorian prostitute Sugar in the BBC adaptation of Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

Williams’ writing really is brilliant. Catherine is so vivid, so real, that the reader feels as she does and gets so wrapped up in her thoughts that there is no time to feel emotion for her plight other than her own sadness. The sections that are extracted from Catherine’s manuscript on the girls and The Man of Crows are just as vivid and at times really rather frightening and unnerving. Williams knows just how to make her readers uneasy and nervous, roping them in to the scenarios and putting them right there with the frightened girls and the deadly Man.

Two chapters are narrated by Catherine’s now-missing maid, Grace, while she was at her previous job with the Belle-Smyths, whom Catherine knows. She and Catherine each describe their first meeting at the Belle-Smyths’ house. Catherine is enchanted with her, a pretty girl and so skilled and graceful. Grace is likewise intrigued by Catherine, and soon comes to work for her. Initially, from Catherine’s narration, it seems that her relationship with Grace was a very significant part of her life, but as the story progresses it fades and is placed amongst Catherine’s other memories and the fears of her current existence. Grace is interesting. Even though she narrates, we discover little about her and her motives, only that she is manipulative and Catherine thought her better than she was. In the end, her role is more as part of Catherine’s psyche, another lost girl for her to obsess over. Towards the end of the book Catherine convinces herself that The Man of Crows has killed Grace and insists on telling everyone this, but she actually seems to think about her less as a person, more as an image of a girl murdered in her youth, with so much more life to live.

More than anything this is Catherine’s story. We find out about her family and the evil thing she is convinced she has done at stages throughout the novel, and her character takes shape. Her obsession with the dead girls at least means that she begins to think about someone other than herself and her own misfortune. She has suffered greatly, but not like these poor girls who were murdered in alleyways. Her experiences in the novel are a harsh reconnection with the world outside her family and the psychiatric hospital, but in the end it does her good. She is a troubled girl, but her obsession with evil forces her to look at and analyse the supposed evil within herself.

*

Published by Penguin in January 2012.

 

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