Writing about Mary Kelly

28 August 2010

My name is Mary. Or maybe it is Maria, Mary Anne, Mary Jane, Marie or Marie Jeanette. I’ve told so many lies now, spun so many different highly coloured and fanciful versions of my life and deceived so many people, most of whom didn’t deserve it that I often don’t even think I know myself any more. I’m not a total fool, I don’t lie awake in my cramped bed at night and wonder who I am and why I am here, I leave that sort of nonsense to the poets and philosophers amongst my clientele, but sometimes, just sometimes I find myself looking in the little tarnished mirror that I have carried in my pocket since I was a girl and frowning a little as I try to recognize myself.

‘Who are you?’ I whisper, my breath steaming up the glass, as I peer closely, taking in every detail of my face, missing nothing and at the same time not really seeing anything at all. Yesterday I was a painted courtesan, dancing sensuously in front of a bedazzled business man, this morning I was foul mouthed and aggressive with the other women at the water pump while this afternoon I wept bitter but becoming tears of pure boredom as a besotted poet read me his latest work while I lay naked and shameless upon his threadbare russet velvet sofa. Tomorrow I’ll be someone else, maybe demure and artless for a slumming Lord or perhaps as brazen and magnificent as a fallen angel for one of my actors.

I’ve wanted to write a novel about Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth and final canonical victim of Jack the Ripper for a long time but have always felt really daunted both by the subject matter and also the expectations that people would have about such a work. Every time I thought about starting it, I would imagine the howls of rage from my fellow Ripperologists and would be instantly put off.

The main problem for me was also that so little is known about Mary Kelly, thanks partially to her position at the bottom of the London food chain but also and most crucially because of her own tendency to name change and spin yarns about her background and past. How could I write about someone so elusive?

However, when I was at my Arvon course, I suddenly found myself making a start on the book that I never thought that I would write, that in fact the words were spilling from me and it soon became clear that actually there is a story to be told and that Mary Kelly’s own ambiguity was far from being a hinderance but actually a bonus, a gift to a historical novelist.

I’m currently at the very start of this project, which involves a lot of reading, thrashing out the plot and research but as I work and ponder and write, the shadowy figure of Mary Kelly, whoever she may or may not have been, is starting to become real to me, with all of her trickery and complexities and vulnerabilities.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I am really interested in giving a voice to the unknown and forgotten women of history and so tackling the story of a woman who came to such a tragic and infamous end is one that I really relish. I have no doubt that whatever I write will be very far removed from the truth, but I hope that I will do her justice nonetheless.