During my teenage years some of my favourite books were big English classics like “Bleak House.” Partly told from the point of view of a female character named Esther, we follow her path of self discovery as she was born into a complicated situation in late-Georgian England. She is achingly modest in character while being capable of astute observations. (This led to a lot of criticism of Dickens’ taking on the voice of a female narrator.) Then there were other books like “Jane Eyre” which I came to quite late compared to most people, but I was completely enraptured following the trajectory of the tenacious narrator’s journey towards hard-won love. These are both great immersive tales, but a potential problem is how essentially “good” the narrators of these stories are no matter the obstacles presented to them. Both possess strong personal moral convictions which they adhere to even if it means sacrificing what they want most in life. Now, Janet Ellis has given us a tale set in Georgian London which possesses all the well-plotted intrigue and gritty reality of these great predecessors – yet Ellis’ heroine has a steely determination to break out of the constraints of her circumstances and get the man she wants at any cost.
Anne Jaccob is the canny and passionate narrator. She’s a nineteen year old girl from a prosperous family who are no strangers to bereavement. Anne’s mother has lost many babies in her quest to produce a healthy son – something her irascible father is determined to have. After Anne helped care for a baby brother throughout his infancy only to lose him at an early age, she carefully guards her heart from love even when her mother gives birth to a new baby sister. Grief has caused her to lose a crucial sense of empathy. However, her ardour is awakened with force when she meets a roguishly handsome and confident young butcher named Fub. The couple have a passionate physical and romantic affair. Anne ardently resolves to be with him despite a marriage her father arranges for her with a calculating and evocatively-named older man Mr Onions. She wittily manipulates those around her and isn’t afraid of resorting to brute force to be with her suave butcher boy.
This is a distinctly original novel of a young woman’s sexual awakening. Anne is someone who has been deeply emotionally damaged. The loss of her brother and the abuse she suffers at the hands of a particularly unsavoury family friend/teacher combine with all her teenage passion to make her a formidable individual. She is savvy enough to see the shortcomings of those around her and play them to her own advantage. Anne’s narrative is so vivid it invokes the sensory experience of the time period and the unsavoury habits of those around her. Yet, Ellis doesn’t cut short small insights a reader can make into other character’s internal struggles including the Jaccob family’s housekeeper, the baby’s nursemaid or even the strict father.
Ellis writes so well about that all-consuming infatuation we’ve all felt in first love. It’s not romanticized, but deeply physical and tied to a strident rejection of Anne’s circumstances. Anne comments that “We do not need pretty rainbows, Fub and I. We will not brush hands at a dance or exchange covert glances in the back of a carriage. That is a sugary romance, collapsing in brittle shards when you bite. Ours is as chewy as glue.” Even when it becomes clear that Fub isn’t invested in their future as a couple, Anne is stuck to her vision of their future together. This romance is ignited by disturbing forces which inspire Anne to take drastic action. It’s refreshing to read about a character set in this time period that is in many ways sympathetic, yet is also capable of horrifyingly monstrous acts. The drama escalates throughout the novel making it an increasingly gripping read as the story progresses.
Since I actually work near London’s historic Smithfield Market (which still functions as a meat market today), it was grimly fascinating being able to walk through it and imagine the setting of “The Butcher’s Hook” as the butchery where Fub works is close to this location. The brutality with which meat is carved into portioned and carried off reflects Anne’s savage spirit. Janet Ellis has created a fierce, memorable heroine and an inventive atmospheric story. It has all the richness of Dickensian detail and the modern flair of Sarah Waters. I also have to mention that the cover design and colour of this book is exceptionally beautiful.