The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

29th Feb 2012


She also has a PhD, worked as a consultant on The Young Victoria, and now she’s a bestselling author of historical fiction thanks to her début novel The Pleasures of Men, a spine-tingling ramble through madness and murder in Victorian London.

In a talk at Foyles bookshop a few weeks ago, Kate Williams told her audience how she came up with the novel whilst wandering the streets of Paris late at night. It’s an impressive feat – I read the book in bed, with the light on and I was still terrified.

Her narrator, Catherine Sorgeiul, is a morbid, nervous young woman living with her uncle in Spitalfields a few years after Queen Victoria has taken the throne.

An orphan recently discharged from Lavenderfields asylum, she spends her days haunted by the events that led to her incarceration and obsessing over a serial killer who stalks the streets of London, murdering young women and stuffing their hair in their mouths to resemble the beaks of birds.

The Man of Crows has London both terrified and fascinated, and Catherine’s fragile mental state latches on to him as a means to escape her claustrophobic existence and find salvation for the horrific crimes she may or may not have committed.

So much of the novel takes place in Catherine’s head that the plot itself is secondary. The identity of The Man of Crows is supposedly revealed towards the end of the novel – I found his unmasking to be at once disappointing and slightly obvious and it’s hard to tell if that’s a flaw in the writing of a début novelist or Catherine’s mind latching on to a possible suspect and constructing a version of reality around it.

By the end of the novel I was unsure if she had gained her release, was still being stalked by an unseen menace or whether she had even left Lavenderfields at all.

It would be easy to describe the tone of the novel as overwrought, but that’s the point – rather than a coherent narrative, it is a jumble of Catherine’s sensory perceptions, whether real or imagined.

The novel flits between her perspective and that of the victims, Catherine’s maid, a bored, vicious young woman of her acquaintance and The Man of Crows himself, but it is never made entirely clear if these sections are real or if they are merely the product of Catherine’s fevered imaginings. It’s less a novel, more a full-scale immersion in the sights, sounds and particularly smell of early Victorian London. It’s dizzying, confusing and almost too richly written.

The staples of my favourite genre of Victorian novel, sensation fiction, are there in all their gory glory. Criticised by moralists of the day, it was accused of “preaching to the nerves instead of the judgement”, and combined the lurid events of the gothic novel with a domestic setting that made it even more terrifying.

Like Sarah Waters, Williams’ inspiration echoes through the novel. Catherine’s uncle, who seems to care more for his bizarre mausoleum of exotic treasures than for his niece, is a grimier version of Mr Fairlie, the fasitidious art-collecting uncle whose lack of interest in his niece precipitates disaster for the heroines of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

The name of the madhouse in which she was incarcerated recalls the lavender fields where that other recent heroine given to Grand Guignol-inspired fantasies roamed in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. Add a killer clearly inspired by Jack the Ripper and you get a nightmarish world where the strands of the novel are familiar but warped almost beyond recognition.

If you like your plots neatly wound up, this isn’t the book for you, but if you can handle days of lingering doubt and nights where you wake up, heart hammering against your ribcage and eyes searching the dark for any sign of The Man of Crows, then enjoy – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Published last month, you can buy it in paperback for £7.89.

Kaite Welsh