People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield – Review
By Sandra Callard
This unusually named new novel by Clare Whitfield, People of Abandoned Character, is also an unusual story. Set in London in 1885-88, it is narrated by Susannah Chapman, a young woman alone in the world since the death of her grandmother. After the funeral in Reading, she sets off for the London Hospital in Whitechapel to train as a nurse. She is a good nurse, but withdrawn and unsure about making friends, so is amazed when a young and attractive doctor, Thomas Lancaster, approaches her. They marry and Susannah is ecstatic, but very soon things begin to change.
The year is 1888, the year when the horrors of Jack the Ripper begin, and slowly Susannah is drawn into the periphery of the barbaric murders. Her wonderful and handsome husband begins to change character as she begins to doubt the veracity of her husband’s conversion. He becomes violent, stays out late and comes home with blood on his clothing.
The tension in the story builds up steadily as Susannah’s husband’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and violent and she begins to wonder if she is actually married to the Ripper himself. The signs, in fact, are blindingly obvious, and the reader becomes aware of the terrible plight that Victorian women suffered when they became bound to a violent husband. But Susannah is made of sterner stuff and makes plans.
The domestic horrors of the Victorian poor are vividly depicted in all their unbelievable squalor and savagery, as is also the callous response of the rich to their suffering. No offers of help or understanding are forthcoming; merely a shrugging off of any responsibility and a general feeling that it is their own fault. London was a cesspool of poverty and fear, and all this as the British Empire beat its way across the world prior to becoming the richest country in the world.
Not once does any character evince any sympathy for these unfortunates, not even the heroine of the story, which does depict the total acceptance the Victorians, both rich and poor, had of these terrible circumstances. These factions are shown in all their tainted glory amongst the fiction of the book and are a grim but necessary accompaniment to the story.
The story swings along nicely with short punchy numbered chapters, and others which have text in italic script of happenings away from the core of the story, but which are completely relevant to it – an unusual and captivating method of forcing the reader to work out why they are there. After a few chapters it becomes very apparent and very disturbing why they are there.
The denouement of a mystery novel is massively important and, again, the writer keeps the reader on their toes. In fact, there are three surprising, and perhaps not always welcome, climax moments, all which are unexpected. Perhaps three denouements in a short final chapter is too much to take, but it is, even so, remarkably clever and entirely unusual.
The story is a superb edge-of-the seat thriller and a fascinating scenario of the times as the tension builds up to a slow and complicated unravelling of the truth. And just when you think it’s over…
‘People of Abandoned Character’ by Clare Whitfield is published by Head of Zeus, £12.99 paperback