Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London – the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.
Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.
The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told.
Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.
I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, which is something I need to rectify, so I was pleased when our ‘book club that isn’t a book club’ selected this as our May read. I’ve been wanting to get to The Five for a while, and I was not disappointed.
I really liked the writing style, which felt almost novelistic. Rubenhold writes in a vivid, engaging way, painting a portrait of life in late-nineteenth-century London that takes in all the contrasts and contradictions, the huge disparity between the lives of those who exist practically side-by-side, the shocking hardships experienced by so many. It is really eye-opening, a social history that brings the past to life.
I was so impressed by how the author manages to construct coherent, rounded narratives about these five women based on the often scanty facts that survive. It is always clear where she is conjecturing, and there is a real sense of respect and, at times, protectiveness towards these women. The false narratives that have been perpetuated are meticulously picked apart, and there is a deeper lesson here about how readily we accept the conventional ‘wisdom’ of any given historical event. I especially liked the way that the murderer himself was relegated to little more than a footnote – he does not get to define these women, he is not given space in their stories. It feels right that the shift in focus should be so extreme as to almost cut him out completely.
In reclaiming the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, in letting us see them as individuals, and in upending the convenient, lazy labelling of them as ‘prostitutes,’ Rubenhold performs an incredible feat with The Five. It is a remarkable book, and I am so glad I finally read it.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold is published by Transworld and is available to purchase here.