People of Abandoned Character had me hooked in one summary sentence: What would you do if your thought your husband was Jack the Ripper? You’re intrigued, right? And so sets the scene for this tantalising Gothic historical novel set in 1888. It follows Susannah Chapman, the woman who believes she may have made a terrible mistake with her choice of husband…
Opening sentence: It was a bad day for a funeral: the wind was high, the sun weak and the threat of rain too strong.
Who was Jack the Ripper?
Technically a nickname given to an uncaught serial killer; one of history’s most intriguing and talked about unsolved crimes – which is why the premise of this novel works so well. From August – November 1888, at least five women (five are attributed to him – the same killer – but there are other women who were potentially killed by him too, including Martha Tabram who appears in this book) were brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper in and around Whitechapel, London.
Due to the gruesome yet precise nature of the crimes, it is widely thought that someone with a medical background was responsible. And our lead character, Susannah Chapman just so happens to be married to a surgeon, Dr Thomas Lancaster.
A woman’s will to survive
Susannah has a medical background herself, having met her husband at the hospital they both worked at while she was a nurse. She really was the star of the show for me: a great, layered and complex character who is vulnerable but has a real feisty edge, that comes with a highly enjoyable sarcastic, cutting tone. This means you were never quite sure what she would do next. Always exciting.
Born into poverty, her main drive is to survive and she does whatever she needs to do to ensure that happens.
Was I already of abandoned character, like my grandmother had insisted?
When her husband goes from showering her with affection to being moody, aggressive and secretive, she starts to wonder what’s got into him. Then when Thomas’ mysterious all-night adventures coincide with the dates of the Ripper murders, she starts to suspect. Unfortunately, her husband then turns his attentions back to her, causing Susannah to have to employ her own doctor, the wonderfully named, Dr. Shivershev for her own physical and mental safety.
But if he wasn’t out murdering women, what was he up to?
From the overbearing and sinister housekeeper, Mrs Wiggs, to the mysterious attic and, of course, graphic murders, there are a lot of brilliant Gothic conventions present here that really made me keep turning those pages.
When fact and fiction blend so well
Susannah becomes obsessed with documenting every part of the murders and shines a light on the women as individuals, not just victims. (This reminds me that I really want to read Hallie Rubenhold’s non-fiction book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper):
I began to wonder how these women must have felt. What was going through their minds when they realised what was about to happen to them?
Claire Whitfield’s imagining of what may have occurred and back-stories for each of the murdered women was just fantastic. Historical novels that are based on real facts in any way are some of my favourite books. I love Googling as I’m reading to see if the author has taken poetic licence or is giving me some history education, and I did learn more about the Ripper legend. (Other books that are great for Googling while reading are: Circe and See What I Have Done.)
I completely fell for the dry, funny tone running through this book and the wonderful story arc that weaves all its threads together and develops at a perfect pace, while leaving just enough ambiguity at the end to keep you satisfied. People of Abandoned Character is a brilliant Gothic murder mystery rooted in history. It also happens to be Clare Whitfield’s debut novel, so I’m definitely putting her on my new author radar.
- Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC;
- Published by Head of Zeus 1st May 2021;
- 432 pages;
- My rating: