The murky streets of Victorian London come to life for  ANDREW FFRENCH in our Book of the Month

Historical fiction can be utterly absorbing and I am a big fan of CJ Sansom’s series about the troubled life of Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer who has to deal with the aftermath of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Written well, historical fiction is the nearest you will come to time travel.

But it’s a difficult trick to pull off, and Kate Williams is following in the footsteps of some talented competition, including Sarah Waters, Ken Follett and Michel Faber.

In The Pleasures of Men, Ms Williams’ first attempt at historical fiction, she chooses 1840s London as her setting.

The novel is told from the point of view of Catherine Sorgeiul, a nervous young woman who lives with her uncle in Spitalfields.

A serial killer is on the loose in the East End, targeting shopgirls and prostitutes and Catherine becomes obsessed with the series of murders.

The narrative has a slightly awkward start, beginning in the present tense and Catherine then takes up the tale in a combination of the present and past tense.

The dark underbelly of Victorian London is colourfully evoked, as a murderer dubbed The Man of Crows continues his killing spree.

Not surprisingly Catherine is horrified and fascinated as the killer rips open the chests of young girls before stuffing hair into their mouths to resemble a beak.

I soon began to suspect the killer could be closer to home than Catherine imagines, but at 391 pages I found the novel slightly too long to completely sustain my interest in whodunit.

The story is vividly imagined – it was written while the author was living in a rented flat in Paris in 2008 – and very well researched. It’s certainly a competent debut.

In the acknowledgements, Ms Williams tells readers: “I lived by the Seine and found the streets surprisingly deserted late at night and unlit.

“To me, wandering around at night, some of the darker streets seemed just as they would have done centuries earlier. I began to think about London and how the streets would have appeared to someone who did not know them at all.

“Very soon, Catherine and the Man of Crows came to my head – and then I could not put down my pen.”

She completed the novel while studying for her MA in creative writing at Royal Holloway, London, and conducted some of her research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

I am looking forward to her second novel, which could be out next year.


Kate Williams is a young historian who has become a popular TV commentator. Her first two historical biographies, England’s Mistress and Becoming Queen, were widely acclaimed and she has been described as one of the country’s finest young historians.

She discusses history regularly on TV and radio, including Newsnight, BBC Breakfast, The One Show and the Today programme, and covered the Royal Wedding for the BBC.

She has also presented a Timewatch programme on Queen Victoria.
Ms Williams got her degree at Oxford University’s Somerville College where she was a College Scholar and received the Violet Vaughan Morgan University Scholarship.

She is the social historian on BBC2’s Restoration Home and has a DPhil from Oxford and two MAs from London.

Ms Williams is also the author of Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen and England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton.

The second title was shortlisted for the Marsh Prize for biography.
The historian’s appearances on TV and radio are becoming more frequent — she was on national TV and radio 60 times in 2011 and so far this year she has made 85 appearances.

  • The Pleasures of Men is published by Penguin and priced £7.99 but you can get it for half price by using the voucher in the September 6 edition of the Oxford Mail at Waterstones in Oxford and Witney.