Book Review: People Of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield
This Gothic gaslight thriller presents a genuinely fresh twist on the subgenre of investigating Jack the Ripper. In Victorian England, Susannah Chapman leaves the Reading home where she was raised by her grandparents, in order to become a nurse at the London, a prestigious training hospital located in Whitechapel, one of the poorest slums of the city. The work is hard and gruesome, and the zeal for independence Susannah originally started with begins to fade with each patient she can only patch up temporarily before sending back to a life of squalor and ill-use.
When the rich, handsome Dr. Thomas Lancaster sweeps her off her feet in a whirlwind romance, she giddily embraces the prospect of moneyed matrimony, handing in her notice to the hospital matron as soon as they’re married. Their honeymoon is a dream of bliss, but after they move into his Chelsea home, presided over by the watchful housekeeper Mrs. Wiggs, their relationship begins to fracture. Her wonderful husband becomes a cold, cruel stranger, and Susannah soon finds herself isolated amidst his self-satisfied high society friends:
I wanted to interrupt, inform them that gentlefolk were only taller because they were better fed, that bad skin could be fixed with good food, fresh air and decent hygiene. I wanted to talk to them about the children who left the hospital in better condition than when they were admitted but who would certainly get sick and malnourished again, their parents being too poor to cover the rent and feed them. But I didn’t. I was a coward. I disliked myself. I had been disgusted by the patients and happy to marry upwards myself, yet here I was, piously offended by the wealthy and their offensive assumptions that their status was due to their innate superiority and nothing at all to do with luck, or greed, or theft.
Worse even than her estrangement from her husband and his friends is his newfound behavior, staying out all night then returning home injured and covered in blood that a protective Mrs. Wiggs is only too happy to scrub away. With reports filling the news of brutal murders in Whitechapel, murders that remind her of several of the patients she was powerless to help while at the London, Susannah begins to wonder whether her once-beloved husband could possibly be involved in such terrible doings.
Her fears, as well as the violence she’s exposed to in her own home, lead her to seek out and find her own physician, one she’d known while still a nurse. Dr. Shivershev had never seemed as taken with her husband as so many others had, and he provides a listening ear to the distraught Susannah. But even his sense of empathy has its limits. When she confides in him her fascination with the Whitechapel murders—though she does not outright accuse her husband of involvement—Dr. Shivershev asks her in return:
‘Tell me something, Mrs. Lancaster. Why be so taken by these murders? It is a subject I have heard other doctors express confusion about, that their wives are also fascinated by these crimes. It seems… perverse.’
‘Such gruesome crimes. Why would ladies especially be so enthralled by the macabre? It seems a misguided romanticism.’
‘Please, Dr. Shivershev! I can think of a million reasons for being interested in the murders, yet it is so typical of men to assume a woman’s interest can only be of a romantic nature; about men, in essence. As if in between our busy day of daydreaming of children and wedding dresses we must now make time to swoon over a murderer. For goodness’ sakes! What of curiosity? The will to survive? Strategy and intrigue? These are not the sole domain of men.’
Susannah is a compelling protagonist, a product of her age desperately fighting against the strictures that are trying to crush her into miserable conformity. The Victorian milieu provides uncanny, uncomfortable parallels with contemporary times and issues, from the rich exploiting the poor and thinking themselves the morally superior for it, to even well-meaning men not understanding the struggles women continue to undergo to ensure not only that we may survive but also thrive in a world that too often diminishes our personhood. Even more interestingly as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Susannah isn’t the most reliable or virtuous of narrators. But does that make her any less worthy of sympathy as our heroine?
People Of Abandoned Character interrogates this fascinating aspect of storytelling while positing an unconventional solution to the Jack the Ripper mystery. I personally found the conclusions drawn to be as wholly satisfying as the ending the book gives to Susannah’s tale. This is a smart, thrilling narrative that doesn’t shy away from gore or trauma, steadfastly reflecting through its Victorian lens how our own modern societies continue to treat women and the poor. That this is Clare Whitfield’s debut novel only adds to how impressive it is as a feat of empathetic, feminist storytelling.