In Kate Williams’ The Pleasures of Men, reality is an evil mask as a serial killer haunts the streets of 1840s London. Manipulative, dangerous and lush, this novel is reminiscent of Dickens and Thackeray, displaying the grimiest, rat-infested alleys to the over-laden dining tables and servant-ridden passageways of the rich. Through the eyes of Catherine Sorgeiul, we see the taverns, music halls, fashionable parties and grubby brothels. There is no want of squalid and graphic Victorian detail, especially of the bloody kind.
Not for the faint of heart; at stake is Catherine’s very sanity. Living with her uncle in a three-story house
on Princes Street in the eastern part of London, Catherine spends her days in this grim dark place, a shadowy, paneled house in a part of London no one would wish to visit. Surrounded by her uncle's African death masks, Catherine finds herself plagued by dread, as though she knows that her life life will turn into a deadly dance of flirtation and manipulation. She misses her maid, Grace Starling, who suddenly disappeared without a trace,
remembering how she was seduced by the way Grace brushed her pale, silken hair.
Ruined by depression, Catherine struggles with her everyday existence as London sears with temperatures “like those of India.” The poor are rumored to eat rats; heat and disease fill every page. Britain seems to be dying in the embers of power,
but London is alive with crime. When milliner Abigail Greengrass is found near Spitalfields Market, her body torn apart, the newspapers call the perpetrator “the Man of Crows."
Amid this landscape, Catherine writes about her life, given sufficient information to complete her diary of crime. Her uncle insists
that she devote her time to more worthwhile pursuits, but she ignores him, taking up his old newspapers and reading them frantically. Lonely and disconsolate, she brims with anger at her dark life, eking out her days in the parlor and imagining
that she can discover the identity of the Man of Crows. In an effort to free “myself and the other girls and perhaps the city,” her mind scrapes with fear, flashing to the tragedy of her brother, Louis, and to her youth at home in Richmond when her mother cried out in pain.
There are secrets here, not the least of which are the voices of Abigail, Grace, and other girls--perhaps victims of the killer--who dress in heavy red silks and satins and style their hair like ladies. Death becomes a precipice, throwing Catherine’s mind into the brink.
A well-educated young woman thrust from a lonely environment into London’s gritty streets, Catherine at first seems content to leave her past behind.
Her uncle’s stolen map jumpstarts her journey into Spitalfields where, amid bundles of rubbish and tumbledown houses, candles shine for girls who sew late into the night and for children forced to forge coins in acid. Holding up her skirts to the dirty roads of Bishopsgate, Catherine discovers a place the rich will never know.
Bit by bit Williams unfolds Catherine’s history, a past rife with intrigue, double dealings, and tragedy. Plagued by her wicked failings and
her belief that she is the embodiment of evil, Catherine writes of the “murdered”
in hopes that she can stop her growing sin. What makes her revelations so mysterious
are their relevance to the Man of Crows as his true nature hangs in the balance.
The precise manners and dress of Catherine’s various acquaintances--most notably the wealthy Belle-Smyths and slack-jawed Constantine Janisser--recall the hypocrisy we have come to accept as endemic to the Victorians, both high and low.
Williams' lyrical, fragile prose reflects an agile elicitation, so much a part of Catherine’s efforts to escape the desires of others. The tale’s focus is less on the twisted terrain of long-buried secrets than
on the torments of servants, street sellers, dressmakers, and shop-girls who were so much a part of the London's underclass at the time.