As Jack the Ripper holds London in the grip of the autumn of terror, three very different young women find themselves thrown together to solve the mystery of a mysterious letter. Little do they know that the letter’s contents will take them into the heart of Whitechapel and bring some of them face to face with the killer himself. In her novel From Whitechapel, Melanie Clegg deftly weaves these women’s stories together with the sordid events that occurred in Whitechapel during the autumn of 1888.
It all begins the previous summer in Calais, where prostitutes Emma Johnson and Mary Jane Kelly have found work for the summer. Emma witnesses the brutal murder of one of their coworkers…and the killer knows she has seen his face, for he has also seen hers. As Mary Jane frantically scavenges through the dead woman’s remaining possessions, Emma discovers a letter addressed to a Miss Alice Redmayne in London. She nabs it before Mary Jane can get her hands on it and heads for London, where she hopes she can hide.
A year later, Cora Lee, the daughter of a constable who lives with her family in rooms above Commercial Street police station, decides to seize the day and take a look at something she has never seen before: a corpse. But there’s something else among the belongings of Martha Tabram that captures her attention: a crumpled-up letter addressed to a Miss Alice Redmayne. Cora takes the letter and conceals it, though she is unsure why, and this action will change her life forever.
Alice Redmayne, the daughter of a wealthy artist, lives the life of a society daughter in a posh London suburb, though the uncertainty of the fate of her older sister, Beatrice, who mysteriously left the family when Alice was a child, still haunts her. When a young girl delivers an envelope to her, the return address marked as “From Whitechapel,” Alice’s journey to find her sister and discover answers to the questions she has about her past begins. She decides to start by volunteering at a settlement house in London’s East End, and while doing her charity work, sees how truly horrific the poverty is, all the while never dreaming of where her quest for answers might take her.
Clegg, who is a Ripperologist and history blogger over at Madame Guillotine, gives a vivid picture of what life must have been like in Victorian London, from the narrow alleys of Whitechapel to the glittering ballrooms of London’s West End. Each protagonist gives a first-person narrative of her story, so that the reader not only learns their deepest and most secret thoughts and feelings, but also experiences the trials and tribulations of each young woman’s social class. While some of the characters experience romance in the novel, particularly Clara, who finds herself attracted to two different young men, the romance does not take away from the story, nor from either heroine’s purpose. Clegg’s three female protagonists, while very different, are each driven by their own motivations, and while the male characters do act as helpmeets and help to shape the story, her protagonists are all able to stand on their own.
Clegg, who is very knowledgeable about the era and the case, also takes opportunities to tell the stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims themselves, neither vilifying them nor portraying them as martyrs. She writes them as women who suffered as a result of the social conditions and societal attitudes of the time. Clegg has also included the research she has done on her own family history through the character of Cora Lee, who was based on the daughter of an ancestor who was a police officer in London’s H Division at the time of the murders. We see bits and pieces of each young woman’s life through the smallest details and descriptions, from the busy market streets of Whitechapel to the style of Worth gown Alice is wearing. And yes, I said Worth gown, because what is a Victorian historical novel without some dress porn?
I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It kept me on the edge of my seat with suspense. As someone who is familiar with the case I know some of what is going to happen, though I don’t know how the plot will revolve around it. The last few nail-biting chapters of the book were excruciating and I was hooked and kept guessing to the very end. This is a perfect book for a stormy autumn night.