He is my husband.
To honour and obey.
Until murder do us part.
– People of Abandoned Character
[ About the Book ]
London, 1888: Tormented by the death of her secret lover, Nurse Susannah Chapman rushes into marriage to a doctor. While attracted to her adoring, younger husband, she is more than aware her decision is at least partially driven by her ambition to escape a life of servitude to the labouring poor of the East End of London. After a passionate honeymoon, she returns home confident in her marriage. But then everything changes.
She quickly learns she has swapped her profession for a type of captivity; that of a Victorian middle-class housewife, feeling isolated in her home as her housekeeper refuses to acknowledge her as mistress. Her husband becomes increasingly volatile and distant, he stays out all night, returning home dark with secrets.
Following the first death in Whitechapel, Susannah’s interest is piqued. Lost in boredom and self-doubt, she becomes obsessed with the string of violent murders terrorising the city. Horrifyingly, she finds herself beginning to believe the charming young man she thought she had seduced for economic security, could well be involved in the crimes.
Is it coincidence? Or is her husband the man they call Jack the Ripper?
[ My Review ]
Now this was something rather different indeed!
People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield is published today with Head of Zeus and is a book that brings Victorian London alive with powerful descriptions and a gripping tale. Described as ‘a chilling debut thriller’ it is quite difficult to believe that this is the first novel from Clare Whitfield. Inspired by Jack the Ripper, it recounts the story of Susannah Chapman, a woman who enters into an unfortunate marriage and a life that was never what she had imagined for herself.
Susannah Chapman left her home town of Reading after burying her aunt, intent on becoming a nurse in London. Susannah’s life had begun in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and now she wished to return, to aid and assist those in need. Susannah was quiet, unused to communicating with folk her own age and she struggled at the beginning. She made one very good friend, Aisling, a trainee from Kildare in Ireland and was content. But circumstances changed when Susannah found herself betrothed to a young surgeon. Thomas Lancaster was of good stock, with prospects and a promising career ahead. Their honeymoon was everything and more and Susannah saw an exciting future ahead for them
“I wanted nothing more than to be like him. Now that I was married to an upper-middle-class doctor, I pictured a life free of the exhausting, ever looming fear of poverty, free of the drudgery of hard, physical labour, of never being able to earn enough money to put a bit aside. Now at last I had the opportunity to create wealth rather than merely exist. This was my chance. I only had one job: to stop myself from ruining it.”
As the days rolled into one Susannah soon began to realise that all was not right in the place she now called home. There was a strained atmosphere in the house with the housekeeper, Mrs.Wiggs, having more than just a servant’s influence on the running of the household. Susannah was out of her depth from the beginning. She knew her own personal backstory did not make her a good match for the Lancaster family, yet Thomas Lancaster had chased her down and eagerly looked for her hand in marriage. But weeks into the marriage and everything changed. He was angry, impatient, very much a different man. What was she doing wrong to cause such behaviour? Where did he go when he disappeared beyond the front door? Why was his attic office forbidden to her? What was inducing such a disheveled appearance?
As Susannah’s life collapsed in on her, strange happenings were also afoot in the Whitechapel area. The bodies of a number of women were discovered, mutilated, following brutal murderous attacks. Initially, after the first macabre discovery, it was thought it was a one-off. The death of a prostitute didn’t deserve much print space but when the second and third body was stumbled upon, London folk began to pay attention to the idea that there was a potential serial killer in their midst.
Clare Whitfield paints the most graphic, grim, atmospheric and, at times, rather depressing, but yet very authentic picture of Victorian London in 1888. The smell emanating off the pages is palpable. The poverty, the dirt, the claustrophobic feelings are all wonderfully depicted. There is a sense of doom and gloom, with the sinister vibes just rising up from between the pages. (You can read an extract here which I hosted previously as part of the recent blog tour with Midas PR)
‘The terraced buildings were dry and brittle on the outside and dank and swollen inside. They were crammed to bursting: a single terrace would have sixty or seventy residents, with every adult paying an extortionate rent as a percentage of their pathetic earnings. Many had more than one family sharing a room, with only a hung sheet to separate them. Adults and children slept naked like fish in a bucket; babies were made and waste was excreted all in the same room. Rotten staircases and ceilings collapsed and the wallpaper ripped with vermin. Some lived in inches of filthy water in the flooded cellars, breathing in bacteria and disease….Windows were either black with coal dust or broken and patched up with sacking or newspaper. Not that anyone ever opened them, as the reek from outside was worse…’
Susannah becomes obsessed with the newspapers, reading all she can about these heinous crimes, searching out every source looking for information. As the days pass, her husband’s behaviour seems to get more erratic. Paranoia sets in with Susannah and her, once occasional, use of laudanum becomes more habitual. She no longer knows who to trust as her suspicions arise about the possibility that her husband could be the man now known as Jack the Ripper. This person is terrorising London, the population fearful of who could be next. Could Susannah be correct? Is Thomas Lancaster really Jack the Ripper? Susannah is about to open a Pandora’s Box with very shocking consequences.
People of Abandoned Character is a novel exploring toxic relationships and it does so with aplomb. It is a dark and malevolent read, wonderfully capturing the horrors of life for many in London society in 1888. Clare Whitfield was inspired by the stories of Jack the Ripper and ‘wanted to create a complex and strong female protagonist who was prepared to do anything to keep her head above water, and succeed’ Susannah Chapman is a feisty, strong woman but she has her weaknesses, all portrayed in quite a splendid manner throughout the novel.
People of Abandoned Character is a fabulously disturbing tale. It really is a truly impressive debut, one that will appeal to all looking for a slightly alternative, and eerie, read.
Ominous. Tense. Immersive.
[ Bio ]
Clare Whitfield is a UK-based writer living in a suburb where the main cultural landmark is a home store/Starbucks combo. Clare nurtures an obsession with female characters that are as much villain as hero, and enjoys lurking in the blurry landscape between perception and reality. She is the wife of a tattoo artist, mother of a small benign dictator and relies on her dog for emotional stability. Previously Clare has been a dancer, copywriter, amateur fire breather, buyer and a mediocre weightlifter.
People of Abandoned Character is her first novel.
Twitter ~ @whitfield_riley
Instagram ~ @clarerileywhitfield