The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis review – the ex-Blue Peter presenter’s gothic debut

A bloody-minded 18th-century heroine is brought vividly to life in this dark domestic drama

The legacy of Blue Peter runs deep: perhaps in an internet age of lost innocence, the presenters of that iconic children’s programme stood for a generation as the last bastions of wholesomeness and incorruptibility. Whatever the reason, it is clear from the advance publicity that Janet Ellis, who fronted the much-loved show in the mid-1980s, caused a sensation when news broke of her darkly gothic debut. There is nothing wholesome about The Butcher’s Hook.

Set in London in the 18th century, the novel tells the story of Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter of comfortably-off parents. Girls then were in many ways freer than their counterparts 100 years later: in the 1760s, they could at least venture out without a chaperone and spoke with a candour that would have scandalised a Victorian drawing room. But those like Anne led lives that were for the most part stiflingly narrow and sequestered.

It is Anne’s misfortune that her father is an ill-tempered bully who has no patience for women’s education and lambasts the cook daily for sport. Her mother, while kind enough, is little more than a barely-there breath in a nightgown, hollowed out by a succession of miscarriages and stillbirths. None of them has ever recovered from the unexpected death of Anne’s beloved baby brother. Years later, her father’s words, uttered in despair to the mother, continue to ring in Anne’s ears: “‘You are not enough!’ And again, ‘You are not enough.’”

It is from these inauspicious seeds that the protagonist grows, a clever, spiky, sharp-pointed thistle of a girl but one with a huge untapped capacity for devotion. When first her tutor and then the young girl with whom she longs to be friends betray her and trample on her affection, she feels their treachery bitterly. When her father insists on her gainful marriage to the repulsive Mr Onions, rage and hostility combine with grief and boredom and loneliness to distill a desire for a different future so pure that she will turn the world upside down and back-to-front to get it.

Anne is uncompromising, brutal, the kind of girl who will cheerfully pray for another’s unhappy end. And yet, and this is Ellis’s great achievement, Anne remains, for all her clear-eyed callousness, a funny, hopeful, vulnerable child. Shrivelled from lack of love and attention, seemingly free from scruples or remorse, she is nonetheless capable of great warmth. And though she lies to anyone who will listen, when she falls for Fub, the butcher’s boy, the rough-edged tussle and spar of their increasingly intense flirtation, all knife tricks and jokes and showing off, is shot through with moments of pure emotional truth. Anne is uncomfortably thrown by Fub’s new, unfamiliar haircut, angry “that he did not stay as he was”; when at last he stands in her room, she has imagined him there so often that “his presence seems false”. Ellis (pictured) has an eye for such details, the one-skin-too-few exposures of new love. They tie the prickly Anne to us across the centuries, bringing her vividly, entirely to life.

The novel is far from perfect. The Butcher’s Hook is unevenly structured: what little plot there is in its first, frustratingly slow chapters is stretched too thin while the dramatic denouement is taken at a wild gallop. Too many scenes are repetitively similar in shape, indefatigably detailed, their pace too doggedly consistent. One longs for elision, for light and shade. Ellis’s tendency to overload the narrative with incidental description, particularly during sequences of dialogue, weighs the story down, preventing it from fully taking flight.

For all that, however, this author remains one to watch. She has a sharp eye and a sharper wit. More importantly still, she possesses a subtle and compassionate understanding of the human heart. In Anne she has created a memorable heroine, if such a word can be used for someone so little given to heroics, a damaged girl who sets out, fired by hope and anger and sheer bloody-mindedness, to mend herself. Surely Blue Peter would approve of that.

• Clare Clark’s latest novel is We That Are Left (Harvill Secker). To order The Butcher’s Hook for £11.99 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Clare Clark

The GuardianTramp

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