The Cry from Street to Street by Hilary Bailey
Hilary Bailey’s novel The Cry from Street to Street focuses on the dreadful events in Whitechapel in 1888, when the notorious murderer known as Jack The Ripper brutally killed a number of women and instilled fear and panic into the East End community.
A huge industry has grown up around this gruesome episode, much of it until recently focusing on the identity of the perpetrator, which has never been established, and the details of his crimes. In these, some would claim more enlightened times, the balance is being redressed. In fiction and in non-fiction, the five victims who are reckoned to be definitely his victims are named: Mary Ann ‘Polly’, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. Their lives and backgrounds are explored. They are humanised.
Living life hanging by a thread
But writer, critic and editor Hilary Bailey (1936-2017) was there already. Her 1992 novel The Cry From Street To Street puts the Whitechapel murders in the context of hardship and desperate poverty and creates a world where the existence of many women hangs on a thread, a thread all too often controlled by the men who own them, use them, beat them, pimp them out.
The decline from relative prosperity to a life on the streets can happen in a moment.
The main protagonist of the novel is far from being a victim. In 1880, Mary Kelly gets out of London for her own safety and takes a steamship to Canada, where she triumphantly carves out a successful career as the keeper of a bar and brothel, Esmerelda’s. Mary is as sharp as a tack. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway brings gangs of workers into town, and there is ‘a bright future for saloon keepers and whores’. She runs a tight ship and is proud of the standards she maintains. She is on the ball, planning ahead for the way her clientele will change when the railroad is finished and the trappers, loggers and cowboys give way to lonely clerks and respectable farmers.
In 1888, Mary leaves her thriving business to return to London to belatedly fulfil the promise she made to her dying mother to look out for her two sisters, who she fears will have got into trouble in her absence.
If you have some knowledge of Jack the Ripper, there is added tension in the gripping account of her search as you spot the references and allusions to the real-life cases. We are told that the Kelly girls’ French mother named each of her daughters a variation of ‘Marie’, a detail which assumes horrific significance if you know that two of the women murdered in those awful nine weeks in 1888 were called Mary Ann and Mary Jane.
Pimps and ‘Pigs’
As we read, we can’t help trying to spot the likely perpetrator. There are some truly appalling men in Mary’s life, one of whom, Jim Bristow, is the 16-year-old’s ‘pimp and sweetheart’ and the reason she had to leave England.
His activities give a flavour of the sleaziness, inhumanity and greed in this underworld life. He takes a young girl, Ginny, away from her mother on the pretext of getting her a position as a servant, and sells her on to a nobleman. ‘Lord Pig’, as Mary calls him, flings the girl back because she isn’t a virgin, as had been promised. Broken, bruised and bleeding, the girl dies.
When her mother threatens to report Jim to the police, a deal is struck. A doctor gets half a guinea for saying that the girl died of consumption and the mother gets two guineas for a burial and mourning clothes, although it is obvious that there will be no proper burial and certainly no mourning for the death of Ginny. In the horrific account of her young life, we almost miss the information that she was ‘a little girl of eight or so’.
The gap between the rich and the poor is constantly emphasised, and the grinding effects of poverty are graphically portrayed. We read about ‘the real smell of poverty, made up of overflowing privies at the back, broken drains, damp houses, cooking, unwashed bodies living at close quarters’. Poor people linger outside slaughterhouses to pick over the innards. When you live in poverty, each hour is unpredictable, confused, a battle. The descent to alcoholism and homelessness is a constant threat.
The wider context of Victorian London is nicely established with references to the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria, the Savoy Theatre where Mary and Jim enjoy The Mikado, the new Underground train to Baker Street. There are snatches of music hall songs: ‘Only a violet I plucked from my dead mother’s grave as a boy’ and ‘While we’re Britons true The Russians shall not have Constantinople’. The political background is further touched on — riots and demonstrations about unemployment, threats to public order, the mention of Gladstone.
Panic in the streets
With each reported murder, the tension increases. Fear runs through the area ‘as if the whole neighbourhood was rotting like a piece of meat.’ The women who are likely to ‘end up rotting in a basement room without food or fire, raving mad with disease in the Lock Hospital or jumping into the river to finish it all’ are potential victims. Because of the nature of their lives, the significance of their deaths is diminished.
Whether the women killed by this man were prostitutes or not is relevant to their accurate representation, but absolutely irrelevant to our horror at the nature of their deaths. Redressing historical imbalance is, of course, essential, and we need to recognise the changing moral and social contexts which shape our judgement. In the present era of heightened awareness of the humanity and status of victims of crime, we are more sensitive, more compassionate, less quick to blame and condemn.
But if a murder victim meets their fate at the hands of a pretty girl with a stunning wardrobe including a remarkable pink organza frock, a silk Valentino dress and a modicum of Burberry, we can stretch a point, right? Killing Eve is a fiction to be sure, but when the murderer’s knack of choosing stylish outfits for her ‘kills’ tilts the axis of judgement in her favour and directs our attention away from the victim and the nature of the crime, doesn’t our claim to the moral high ground become just slightly compromised?
The imaginative and emotional impact of The Cry From Street To Street is an example of the power of literature to heighten our understanding of people and events in a different way from documentary reports. It’s a gripping and often uncomfortable read, not least because it prompts us to consider the differences between then and now, and just how much or how little things have changed.