Genre fiction is littered with predictable heroines—unassuming yet magnetizing women with innate talent and much to learn. It’s a cliché that rings hollow, and thankfully, it’s nowhere to be seen in Janet Ellis’ debut novel. Although it lulls the reader into complacency using well worn tropes, The Butcher’s Hook then rips them apart to reveal something far darker.
Raised in a loveless home in Georgian London, protagonist Anne Jaccob is an uneducated young woman enamored with the butcher’s apprentice, Fub. But her father plans to marry her to Mr. Onions, a cruel man who underestimates Anne’s cunning. So she hatches a plot that reveals just how terrifyingly far she’s willing to go to be with the man she loves.
At its heart, the novel explores the dangers of underestimating women, a message as relevant today as in the book’s 1763 setting. Anne has been undercut at every turn—by a tutor who viewed her burgeoning adolescence as an invitation to abuse her, by a father who doesn’t value women’s education enough to fill his daughter’s hungry mind, by the boy she loves and the man she might be forced to marry who both see her as another weak woman in need of direction. Even when Anne reveals her true nature, they view her as a silly girl rather than a dangerous woman who gets a thrill from committing violent acts.
Anne proves to be an unapologetic sociopath, and her story is thrilling as she casts off the virtues that make for shallow, perfect leading ladies. But Anne also underestimates the women in her life, and this is the book’s greatest disappointment. Through Anne’s limited perspective as the narrator, we only catch glimpses of her mother, a nurse, a maid, and her baby sister. To Anne, these women are either competition or steps on a ladder she can outwit to escape her own fate. Her relationships with other women require more fleshing out, and Ellis could have developed this to complement the larger theme of men overlooking women.
Even so, Anne is a delightful avenging angel who proves equally challenging to like and to hate. It’s easy to imagine the many Annes throughout human history—intelligent young women whose wings were cut at a young age to limit their happiness. One would hope that few went as far as Anne in her quest for fulfillment. But as Anne moves through the shadows cast by the men in her life, it’s easy to imagine others hiding in plain sight.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.