By now, it's something of a critical commonplace that neo-Victorian fiction is often "neo-sensation" fiction, drawing heavily on novelists like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon for both forms and themes.1 Even neo-Victorian--or neo-Edwardian, at least--ballet likes to trace this path. Kate Williams' first novel, The Pleasures of Men, is very much in this mode. Strongly reminiscent of Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, The Pleasures of Men imagines a Jack the Ripper serial killer avant la lettre, the Man of Crows, hard at work in 1840. The Man of Crows has a thing for primarily working-class women (although he later branches out) and what appears to be a fetish for braided hair. We perceive him through the heated imagination of the mysterious and possibly insane Catherine Sorgeuil (in other words, not the world's most reliable narrator), an orphan fresh out of an asylum who is forced to reside with her increasingly impoverished uncle. Besieged by her own murderous dreams, her unsettled memories of how her family imploded, and her homoerotic desires, Catherine becomes obsessed with the Man of Crows and the women he murders. In desperation, she begins to write about the Man of Crows and his victims, only to find that her narrative may or may not be leaking over into the real world and his actual activities.
I might as well get my opinion of the novel out of the way, which is that while the atmosphere and historical details are handled vividly, the book as a whole is not a success. At this phase in her novel-writing career, Williams does not understand how to manage pacing, make complex plot elements play off against each other, or write successful dialogue. A flat exchange near the end between Catherine and a would-be male friend, Constantine, is the low point, even though it's supposed to be leading up to one of the novel's Big Reveals. The Pleasures of Men runs through a smorgasboard of potential neo-Victorian hot topics, including race (Catherine's racial identity is called into question repeatedly), empire (her uncle's collections), class oppression (the maids, models, and other workers), madness (see my first paragraph), gender (women! treated badly!), and sexuality (for a change, it's women exploiting their maids, as opposed to men). But it doesn't work through them with any seriousness, with perhaps the exception of gender issues and Catherine's fears of her own mind; the plot has a bric-a-brac-ish feel. Why, for example, does the novel repeatedly "other" Catherine--as an Indian, as a Malay with "coppery brown" skin (251)--without ever exploring the meanings of such a difference? Are we to link this otherness to her violations of Victorian gender norms, to her fragmented mind, or to something else--and what, quite frankly, are the implications of doing such a thing? The "experiment" peformed by Catherine's uncle, which seems to owe something to the kind of psychological "vivisection" done by Oscar Wilde's Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray and, as Mark Ravenshill points out, to Gaslight as well, is more ludicrous than otherwise. So too is the identity of the Man of Crows, which deflates the plot with a slow retreating hiss. In its favor, at least, the novel actually manages to avoid most of the Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels, with the conspicuous exceptions of #5 and #9.
However. That being said, Williams does do something interesting with one of the tropes of both neo-Victorian fiction and feminist theory more generally: she deconstructs the connection between women's writing and self-empowerment. Catherine's first epiphany about imagining the Man of Crows is that telling his tale, working her way into his consciousness, will liberate her from the prison of what she believes to be her own derangement: "I would throw myself into the Man of Crows, be bound up into him and his atrocity and find release" (43). Her vision of authorship, with its sadomasochistic overtones (the orgasmic quality of "find release" playing off against "bound up"), is perversely Keatsian. Writing is about the act of subjective self-erasure, becoming the character. In the act, she is "the possession of the story, swept up in its arms and forced to write" (47): storytelling as classic (but implicitly violent) romance. Yet Catherine also perceives the outcome of such writing in terms of adolescent heroics, for by imaginatively inhabiting the Man of Crows, she will "find him, and then, once I had helped the city, people would think me good, and I would be free" (44). Her fictional descent into violence thus takes on the air of a redemptive quest, in which being re-viewed by other people will finally liberate herself from herself. This problem of being thought "good," or not, echoes one of the dominant problems of Jane Eyre. "Well, Jane Eyre, and are you a good child?" asks Mr. Brocklehurst; thinks Jane, "Impossible to reply to this in the affirmative; my little world held a contrary opinion; I was silent." Like Jane, Catherine suffers because her mind has been invaded and taken over by others' assessments of her value, or lack thereof--in fact, the aunt who schleps Catherine off to the insane asylum is strongly reminiscent of Aunt Reed. But in her fantasy, Catherine embraces, instead of undermining, this reliance on the judgment of others.
In practice, Catherine's narrative identification with the Man of Crows, who carries out the murders she has always fantasized, turns out to be inflected with power imbalances that make it the opposite of liberating. Although it's easy to miss, Catherine is the author of the plot's alternative POV narratives: the prologue, for example, features an "I" who is actually the Man of Crows, and Catherine's description of the Abigail section matches up with the prologue's contents ("I felt her unwashed hair catching at the sides of her face, the cramp in her back from bending" ). There's a tension here between Catherine's fantasies about the murderer and her fantasies about the victims: she yearns to occupy both positions simultaneously, powerful man and comparatively weak woman. To write her tales, she "must follow their route, go where they had been" (95), insinuating her own body into the gritty slums occupied by impoverished victims--and yet she does so under the aegis of class privilege, knowing that "he was a man who craved poor, lower-class girls" (97). This is class masquerade, a woman slumming in search of "the real London" (98). As it happens, this is also one of the core strategies of neo-Victorianism: produce your reality effects by multiplying all the ugly signifiers of the worst sort of poverty. The success of this fantasy rests on Catherine's embrace of her own social status, even though she rejects it elsewhere in her refusal to act like a proper, marriageable young lady.
On the one hand, the alternative POVs break down the easy gender binary of male predator/female victim, especially in the case of the sexually manipulative Grace Starling. Similarly, one of Catherine's fantasies about the Man of Crows involves him sewing (246). On the other hand, it's difficult to read incipient feminism into Catherine's choice of a murderous male alter ego, given that it allies her with the pathological masculinity of her uncle and his evil friend Mr. Trelawny. "There are men, all over the country, thinking about these deaths" (93), says Catherine to herself, sure that these men fantasize about committing the very same deeds--but isn't she doing the same? One notes the slippage as she thinks about the Man of Crows murdering Jenny Amber, as she moves from speculation about his sexual motives to definitive claims about how he felt when "he leant and seized a woman's throat" (172) to a detailed narrative about the origins of his obsession in his rejection by a French courtesan. This last soon shifts, in turn, into vividly explicit renderings of "Frederick's" violent sexual and murderous escapades, in which the markers differentiating Catherine's voice from the third-person "he" quietly vanish altogether. It's hard not to read this as the deformed expression of Catherine's own nascent eroticism, wish-fulfillment gone haywire (or is it?).
But as it turns out, Catherine's belief that finding the Man of Crows through storytelling will empower her falls apart. To begin with, the Man of Crows writes back: "Write about your maid," he directs (258), and she does, only for him to come back and erase part of the manuscript (281). Her dream of submerging self in this evil other runs aground on his own investment in the narrative. Worse still, her uncle (or is he...?) and Mr. Trelawny have been reading her manuscript as it goes along, finding it "'so very original'" (347). Not only do they trivialize the manuscript as a form of dilettantish pleasure for themselves, but they have also been circulating her true story (father, drowned; mother, suicided; brother, kidnapped) amongst their immediate circle; even her dreams of her own evil turn out to have been carefully amplified by her uncle (351). Catherine's depravity, which she has identified all along as the core of her identity, thus turns out to have been somebody else's construct. What self is there? Who, or what, has been writing all along? Worst of all, the Man of Crows mirrors back Catherine's own state as an individual whose mind has been forever warped by others. "'You could complete your story,'" he tells her, "'write that I was seized by repentance, and then I would be so'" (363). Who is the subject and who is the object here? As fiction and reality braid together, it becomes harder and harder to discern how one might write a self into being who has not already been written by someone else. The characters refuse to stay put. Which, perhaps, is why Catherine ends the novel contemplating her students' hair, like the murderer she has supposedly laid to rest.
1 Beginning with Kelly A. Marsh, "The Neo-Sensation Novel: A Contemporary Genre in the Victorian Tradition," Philological Quarterly 74.1 (1995): 99-123, although Marsh is interested in how sensation novel conventions also play out in novels outside the neo-Victorian genre (e.g., A Thousand Acres).