If you’re looking for a book filled with the gruesome details of Jack the Ripper’s murders, or dwelling with loving length on the psychology of a serial killer, this book is not for you. Jack himself is, rightfully, relegated to just a few lines. Instead, this is a book chronicling something much more meaningful and yet even more horrible than the depraved actions of a single lunatic: the life and living conditions of working-class women in 19th-century London.
Based on Polly Nichols, the Ripper’s first victim, “A Brutal Chill in August” is a novelized account of her life, beginning in adolescence and continuing until her murder when she was in her forties. We see how the teenage Polly, who secretly longs for adventure and excitement, or even just a little material comfort, spends her days doing piecework in the privies and being beaten by her father until she escapes, she thinks, into marriage. Only of course her marriage bring even more brutality, abuse, and back-breaking labor. Polly tries to escape into alcohol and infidelity, but each step she takes causes her sink further and further into misery and degradation, until she finally meets her end at the Ripper’s hands.
If this sounds brutal, it is. As the novel makes clear, the London working class, especially women, lived lives of horrifying poverty and struggle, such that serial killers walking the streets were the least of their worries. However, “A Brutal Chill in August” is ultimately, in its own odd way, an uplifting read. Polly jumps off the pages as a lively, sympathetic, and fully formed character, one who is constantly struggling and searching for redemption and self-forgiveness, something she finally finds in the book’s final pages. The writing style is beautifully clear and spare, putting us straight into Polly’s head and experiencing Victorian London through her eyes, ears, and nose. There is plenty of period detail, but it is included naturally, rather than being dropped in willy-nilly as is so often the case in historical novels. The effect is somewhat like reading a book actually written in the 19th century, but more accessible to the 21st-century reader. I hesitate to say that this is an easy read, but the pages flow quickly and smoothly as we become immersed in Polly’s world. A highly worthwhile read about a fascinating period in English history, seen from an unusual and under-utilized perspective.