Janet Ellis’ début has been variously described as bold, dark, weird, and brutal – all of these adjectives suit the first-time author’s historical fiction romance but still don’t quite do justice to its brash and unapologetic narrative.
” ‘In this world we, not an invisible deity, are the architects of our lives.’ He waited to see what I would say, bouncing his fingers against his lips. I said nothing.”
Set in 1763, Ellis paints a realist picture of Georgian London through the eyes of nineteen-year old Anne Jaccob, a daughter of sufficiently wealthy parents whose entire life is confined and constricted to the walls within which she lives. As all respectable young ladies, she is educated only enough for good sense (no less, no more) but her determination to be more, to pursue more for herself than the insipid husband her parents have organised for her to marry, leads to an education in life that few would expect initially from a book that bears the phrases ‘Georgian London’, ‘historical fiction’ and ‘romance’. In fact, the Georgian society that Anne walks amongst is worlds away from the gentility of country balls and careful courtship seen in the likes of Jane Austen’s novels, and the great strength of The Butcher’s Hook lies in the (at times) horrible and surprising turns that the path of this novel takes its readers down from the very first pages.
In fact, leave your expectations at the door, because they’ll be dashed in the space of a chapter or two of Ellis’ novel. The Butcher’s Hook grapples with ideas of God and morality, female entrapment and empowerment, familial loyalty and dishonour, loneliness and companionship, education and awakening, melancholy and euphoria, and, finally, animal meat and human flesh (for the two aren’t as dissimilar as we would like to think).
The author’s skill is in the subtlety with which some of these themes are woven into the narrative without immediate appearance, where others become so bold and unavoidable that the comparisons are sickening. I speak, of course, of the butchery suggested by the novel’s title. Cunningly, of course, the hook itself is not merely the physical object utilised by the butcher but also the indescribable something that hooks the protagonist, Anne, after her first encounter with the butcher, or rather the butcher’s boy, Fub.
” ‘A perfect design. Whichever way up you use it, it’s always ready. One end to hook, the other to hang. It has only one simple purpose.’ He stands on a stool and fixes it over the bar above him. It waits there, empty.”
To assume that this is a story of impressionable well-to-do young lady meets dashing rogue of a lowly working class would be a disservice to the novel and, frankly and alarmingly, proven wrong as the novel charges forwards under the steam of its protagonist. Anne is not a meek and docile young lady – the beauty of Ellis’ employment of the first person narrator is that we are granted an all too intimate look at Anne’s thought process and motivations as she begins to become more wise to the world around her, and what it will take for her to get what (and who) she wants out of this world that has other plans for her future.
This intimacy with Anne’s thoughts make for uncomfortable moments within the novel, where the reader is complicit in Anne’s vulnerable state, but these moments are turned into events of surprising empowerment by Ellis. Events which perhaps might have traumatised other young ladies have the opposite effect on this protagonist, and this is what serves to make her an interesting and complex character from childhood onwards. As she matures, this only deepens, into darker and more brutal territory.
“They are all made up of skin and bones as we are, have the same muscles, organs and hair, all as capable as I am of using their bodies for pleasure, but instead they are only flaccid and desiccated and flatulent.”
In fact, the men in this novel figure as largely insipid, ridiculous or become plain impotent, at the end of the day. Through Anne we encounter the figures of the teacher, the father, the brother, the suitor, the priest, all alleged figures of masculine authority and power within the institutions they inhabit. Though her encounters with each of these men build her character, they, pleasingly, do not define it – she does not allow it to, as she firmly asserts a sense of self separate from what they might dictate, no matter the effort required or cost incurred.
“… a great sadness hung about me, but it was like a garment that didn’t suit any season, it made me either too hot or too cold. I shrugged it off. I do not want such covering any more, I am happy in my bare skin.”
In concluding, the dark morality of this novel is shocking, and the very act of being surprised by this, as a reader, brings reader and characters closer than before. There is a sense of incapability and unwillingness to believe such an astute darkness could exist within a woman’s mind, but to think so is to do the female sex an injustice that is just as bad as presuming them to be insipid wives in waiting, incapable of pleasure or power within their own lives. Wielding of power over one’s own destiny takes violent and brutal turns within Janet Ellis’ novel, but, really, this reader ought to have guessed that from the novel’s ominous title.
“I am a little world made cunningly.”
(from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets)