HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold

Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London—the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Polly, 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.

Cover and blurb via Amazon

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I read my first Ripper book as a teen, some twenty years ago, and had to lock it in my parents’ back shed, as the photos of Mary Jane Kelly were so disgusting. But every book on the subject is the same – lurid sexual innuendo, infinite bloody detail, the cunning of a killer, oh, who could he be?

This book answers who Jack the Ripper really was – he was no one. No one. A weak man preying on the weak. This book gives us the information we really need – who the victims were, where they started, what went wrong, and how they ended up alone in the dark in Whitechapel.

Women are beaten and/or killed and then discarded every day. Prostitutes? No one even bats an eyelid, they are just a thing, not a real person. Did no one ever find it odd that these victims were older women, not your typical prostitute trope? Did no one ever bother to check if these all women were prostitutes, or if that fact was simply a note written down by a policeman in 1888, who wouldn’t have cared either way?

We have been fed books on Jack the Ripper for years, all using the same so-called facts, same accounts, same coroner observations, same eyewitness stories. Rather than relying those details, which have been proven as unreliable, lacking, vague or just sloppy, Rubenhold has gone back further, and found a jam-packed history of these women’s lives, far from what happened the night they died. Their lives, their realities, their struggles. The strict and cruel reality of having to have a man in your life, whether you wanted one or not. The reality of alcohol destroying lives and families. The reality being young and brutalised, and needing to start all over again. In Mary Jane Kelly’s case, the reality of being young and pretty, and ending up as a prostitute to greedy and unforgiving men. All of the victims grew up away from the misery of Whitechapel, but forced into the slum due to the misfortune of being single or a discarded wife.

Was Jack the Ripper a doctor? Royalty? A lunatic, a butcher, a rich gentleman? He was just another man who hated women and took out his rage on whoever he could. These five women were vulnerable and alone, and a pathetic man chose to kill them while they were alone. Five women, who didn’t even get the chance to fight for their lives, were not murdered by some hero, but by someone who could barely call themselves human. How the Ripper could be considered interesting is so puzzling. These five women have complex and heartbreaking stories thanks to Rubenhold, a wonderful palate cleanser after years of books salivating about sex and murder.

This book will show you that society hasn’t moved on as much as we like to think, and the hatred spewed towards the author for writing about the victims instead of a weak and lazy killer is a sad indictment indeed.

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Tired of Inaccuracy in Historical Fiction? Try the Queenmaker Series for $1.99 in June

Stumble into any discussion or comments section on historical fiction, and you will hear the constant complaints about accuracy. Why change facts for dramatic purposes when history is already incredible? Any chat on the recent movie Mary, Queen of Scots, or the recently released/leaked The Spanish Princess series has been bombarded with inaccuracy complaints, and these are just the tip of the iceberg.

My own opinion on reading books and watching shows? Fiction is fiction and authors/screenwriters will change things for a range of reasons – much of it for practicality, but also to speed up timelines and to fill in gaps, as so much of history is lost to time. I personally don’t mind changes in accuracy because I aleady know the real story, or can easily find the truth. I can google, I have contacts, I have my own library, so inaccuracy doesn’t bother me. My favourite Shakespeare play is Richard III, and I love the real Richard III. I don’t get worked up by people mixing up one or the other.

But when it comes to writing historical fiction, I take accuracy seriously. While writing my current Thomas Cromwell books, I have found myself up to my eyeballs in primary sources to make sure I have as much detail as possible.  Thomas Cromwell’s professional life is recorded in excellent detail, while his private life is much quieter. There I have been able to create a fictional life around an extraordinary public face.

As I have been seeing a lot people complaining about historical inaccuracy lately, I decided to put both Frailty of Human Affairs and Shaking the Throne on special for $1.99 on Kindle for the month of June. Don’t let the price fool you – these books aren’t quick fiction, they were an exceptional amount of work, years of research and the books come in at 600 pages each. The cheap price doesn’t mean a cheap read; I just feel like offering readers a challenge.

For $1.99/€1.78, feel free to dig through the historical details of Thomas Cromwell’s career, while also enjoying fictional tales about Nicóla Frescobaldi living in Cromwell’s shadow.  Stop calling poor Margaret Beaufort a mean old cow who murdered the Princes in the Tower, and try reading something designed by historical accuracy. Let me know what you think!

The price deal is available on all local Amazon sites, or click on the book covers below  for the link to U.S/International Amazon:

Continue reading “Tired of Inaccuracy in Historical Fiction? Try the Queenmaker Series for $1.99 in June”

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 142: 80th Anniversary of the Final Offensive 26 March – 1 April 1939

March 26

General Yagüe and his troops advance north and east from the Sierra Morena mountains, on the Andalusia/Castilla La Mancha border. Any remaining Republican soldiers in the country are ordered to drop their weapons and retreat from any remaining front-lines. Nothing can be done to stop the Nationalists now. In a single day, the Nationalist troops take 200,000 square kilometres of land and take 30,000 Republican prisoners. Escobar Huerta surrenders the city of Ciudad Real to Yagüe inside an old casino, and is then shipped off to be executed.

March 27

General Solchaga’s Navarre Corps, General Garcia Valiño’s Army of Maestrazgo, and General Gambara’s Italian troops are ordered to take the city of Toledo, which has spent much of the war on the front-line, and just 70 kilometres from Madrid. The city suffers unconditional surrender and prisoners are quickly captured. Anyone Republican must be swiftly rounded up.

Troops head from Toledo to Madrid

March 28

Republic Colonel Prada officially surrenders Madrid to the Nationalists, who have had the city surrounded for almost three years, and the Nationalists are able to enter the city without a fight. All remaining leaders of the Republicans who are in Madrid flee to Valencia in the hope of escape, including General Casado, who had been trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Franco.

Troops mingle with locals as they enter Madrid

March 29

The Nationalists now hold the main centre of Jaén, some 90 kilometres north  of Granada, and have also marched 250 kilometres southeast of Madrid to Albacete and Cuenca, so most of Castilla La Mancha is now occupied. The port town of Sagunto, just 30 kilometres north of Valencia city, is occupied, leaving Republicans refugees almost nowhere else to go.

March 29

The ports of Valencia, Gandia, Alicante and Cartagena are still in Republican hands, and 50,000 Republican refugees are stranded along the coast, without any Republican navy to aid them from the coming onslaught. British and French ships in the regions cannot take refugees, as their governments have recognised Franco’s control over Spain. Hundreds of Spaniards rich enough to bribe foreign ship captains are able to escape, General Casado included.

Refugees wait in Alicante

March 30

The Nationalists take Valencia, marking the final demise of the Republican effort to save their country. Gambara’s Italian troops take Alicante and its port, taking 15,000 refugees prisoner at the port. Gambara is prepared to allow political refugees to leave the country, but the Nationalists shall not allow it. At the port in Alicante, refugees start committing suicide in huge numbers, to avoid the Nationalists, who are only one day away from arriving.

The British Stanbrook leaving Alicante with rich refugees, bound for Algeria.

March 31

After taking the regions of Almeria, Murcia and Cartagena in the far south-east, all of Spain is now under Nationalist occupation. All remaining refugees in Spain are huddled in Alicante port, hoping their chance to be evacuated will still come. The Nationalist troops arrive, and the refugees are slowly lined up to be taken prisoner. But there are 20,000 terrified people, and they have to suspend capturing people until the next day, giving more the chance to commit suicide at the port before being taken away. The suicide toll runs into the hundreds.

April 1

Generalissimo Francisco Franco broadcasts what will be his last radio message of the war:

Today, after having disarmed and captured the Red Army, the Nationalist troops have secured their final military objective. The war is ended. Burgos, April 1, 1939. Year of Victory.

As of April 1, only the Soviet Union does not already recognise Franco’s government. Franco already has a new Non-Aggression Pact with Portugal and a treaty of friendship with Germany, leaving Spain to be neutral in WWII, while they recover from civil war. Within a week, Franco backs the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan to denounce Communism. German and Italian troops leave by June 1939, in preparation for the coming European war.

The Final Offensive saw 150,000 Republic soldiers and civilian rounded up in the concentration camps, bringing the total of Republic prisoners in April 1939 to upwards of 500,000. Within just several years, over 50,000 will have already been executed. 

Franco celebrates in Madrid

After three years of bloody battles, of murder, rape, pillaging, looting, of destruction of cities, towns, communities, ways of life, ideals, and families, evil emerges the winner. All sides of political spectrum have fought, the rich against the poor, the workers against those desperate to hold onto the monarchy, religion, and landowning feudal rulers, everyone and everything has been pitted against one another for a horror show of gore and misery. Approximately one million people are dead, murdered by people of their own country. From the sprawling rural plains to the ancient cities, everything has been reduced to nothing, every way of life hacked to pieces. Civilians have been herded and lined up to be executed, women raped until they died and left sprawled in the dirt. Bodies of nuns were dug up and displayed, family members ripped from their homes in the dead of night and shot in ditches, their families still to scared to speak up eighty years later.

Nationalist victory parade in San Sebastian

While April 1st marks the end of the Spanish Civil War, the war didn’t end for many. Franco’s first decree was to ensure all Republicans would suffer for their choices. More than 1000 concentration camps were erected in Spain, holding people well into the 1950’s. Many didn’t survive the camps. How many people died between 1939 and 1975 isn’t known, but one estimate is almost one million. Fascism and staunch Catholicism wormed its way into every part of Spanish life, its people silenced as Franco systemically destroyed everyone who hated him. Right up until Franco died, he signed death warrants, a miserable old bastard who got to die warm in his bed.

With WWII starting just a few months after Spain was brought down, Franco and what he did has been largely ignored, by history and anyone not directly affected. Franco couldn’t have won the war without Hitler and Mussolini, whose European exploits shot memories of their fascist cruelty into the hearts and minds of everyone, unforgettable despotic hatred. Franco allowed the Germans and Italians to aid him, and they used Spain as their own practice killing fields, testing new methods of warfare, such as carpet bombing, testing men and artillery, preparing for the fight to take Europe. Countries such as the UK and France sat idly by, hoping to avert a European war by doing nothing, when they could have potentially stopped Germany, Italy and Spain before the Nazis took over. But not the UK, France, nor any other country in the Non-Intervention Committee bothered to help, countries overrun by Germany soon after. The Germans and Italians assumed the UK would quickly intervene when the war started, and  were surprised that nothing happened in retaliation. The US was as unhelpful in the Spanish Civil War as it was in the first two years of WWII. The only people desperate to stop all this were the Spanish Republicans, and the thousands of individuals who risked their lives to find their own way to Spain to help. Many never made it home, many who did were punished for their bravery.

I will do a separate post as to the fates of the main players of the war on both sides, as well as the struggles faced by the people in their home cities and towns in the aftermath. I will also post about the ongoing discovery of ‘disappeared’ Spaniards still being reburied, the fates of the refugees who walked into France, and what happened to the International Brigades. I will also do a post on the many sources I have used for these three years of postings.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 138 – 141: 1 – 25 March 1939

March 3

Now that the Republicans have lost Catalonia, they have no chance of winning the war. The Republicans still holds Madrid after almost three years of being surrounded, and another thirty percent of the country. But Barcelona is the head of the war industry, all now in Nationalist hands. More than 220,000 men and women have died fighting the Nationalists, Republican president Azaña has quit, and the UK and France have recognised Franco’s government. Prime Minister Negrin still wants to battle on, supported by the PCE Communists, while the CNT, the SIM and the PSOE and UGT are also working together, but want to stage a coup against the Prime Minister and the Communists.

Spanish refugees in concentration camps on French beaches

March 4

Negrin sends Communist PCE Francisco Galán to Cartagena to take over command of the naval base. Cartagena has been under the control of General Casado, and remaining Republicans revolt in Cartagena, and Galán is arrested. The Fifth Column members in Cartagena decide to join Casado’s rebellion and take the coastal batteries of Los Dolores and the local radio station. They broadcast a call for help to fight the coming Nationalists and name retired General Rafael Barrionuevo as governor of the city. The Nationalists have already sent 16 ships with 20,000 men towards Cartagena, but the coup members have the coastal batteries, meaning landing is impossible.

March 5

The Nationalists bomb the harbour of Cartagena from the air so their ships can dock in the city. The surprise attack by five bombers sinks the Republican destroyer Sánchez Barcáiztegui, but those all on board manage to escape. Republican Commander Miguel Buiza orders the entire Republican fleet to leave Cartagena in an attempt to escape damage before they plan their next move. They still have three cruisers,  Miguel de Cervantes, Libertad and Mendez Nuñez, as well as another eight destroyers all in good order, which head for Bizerte in Tunisia. None of the ships will ever return, interned by the French.

March 6

The Republican government flees Spain into France in permanent exile. General Casado, having staged his coup against the Prime Minister, is backed by General Miaja in Madrid, and sets out to arrest all communists in the city, believing they are going to rise up and try to take Republican Spain. Fights begin breaking out all over the city as Republicans start to turn on one another in desperation. Casado appoints himself the Commander of the Republican Army of the Centre and leader of the National Defence Council, who wish to negotiate with Franco. Colonel Barceló, who had been Commander of the Army of the Centre, resists these moves, but General Casado is supported by the heads of the Levante, Extremadura and Andalusia armies.

Franco orders his ships heading for Cartagena to hold off, as the Republican coup still have the batteries ready at the port. All ships pull back, except for the SS Castillo de Olite, which is fired upon three times at close range. The ship quickly breaks in two and sinks. While 700 Nationalist troops are rescued and taken prisoner, another 1,225 soldiers drown in what is Spain’s biggest naval tragedy.

The SS Olite prior to sinking

March 11

Five days of fighting in Madrid has led to Colonel Barceló and his men marching into Madrid to take control of the city and out of General Casado’s hands. But Barceló and his men are defeated after bloody street battles. Barceló and his commissar Jose Conesa are arrested and put before a military tribunal in Madrid a day later. Up to 2,000 are dead in just five days.

The National Defence Council, Casado on the left

March 12

General Casado, leading the Consejo de Defensa Nacional (National Defence Council) with many supporting factions – Julian Besteiro, Wenceslao Carrillo, Gonzalez Marín and Eduardo Val (CNT), Antonio Perez (UGT), and Republicans representatives Miguel San Andrés and Jose del Río. They group attempt to negotiate with Franco, but Franco wants nothing but total surrender, with massive repercussions for Republicans supporters.  Casado wants safety for surviving Republican soldiers and civilian sympathisers, which Franco will not agree to in any form.

Fighting has also been taking place in other Republican held areas. In Ciudad Real, Extremadura army troops rise against Communist deputy Martínez Cárton and take control of the city. Cartagena, scene of the initial uprising, is now firmly in the hands of rebel Republicans, and the Communist factions have lost all control over the port and city.

March 15

The executions of Colonel Barceló, his commissar and their supporters take place in Madrid. The Communists among the Republic have no power, and neither do any of the groups which have clung together throughout almost three years of war. Madrid cannot hold out against Nationalists troops any longer and Franco is ready to march upon the city.

Madrid ready to surrender

March 20

Franco and his men are planning the final offensive of Spain. No negotiations from Casado or Madrid have worked, and Nationalist troops are slowly heading into every remaining Republican area to take total control. Republican troops will fight the Nationalists, lacking men, food, clothing and ammunition. The ports of Valencia and Alicante are the last place that people can run to, fleeing the coming Franco troops. All ports are blocked, all ships captured within three miles of the coast, but Valencia and Alicante are still in Republican held zones, meaning people have a slim chance of getting on board a foreign ship. Many would rather kill themselves on the dock at Alicante and Valencia than be captured by the Nationalists. For the leaders of Republican troops, such as Casado, they must flee the country before the arrival of Franco’s men, or they will be immediately executed.

2,638 people managed to get on board the Welsh Stanbrook in Alicante when the captain took as many of the 30,000 refugees as he could fit in what was a trip to collect oranges and saffron.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me” by Matthew Lewis

King Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. Matthew Lewis’s new biography aims to become a definitive account by exploring what is known of his childhood and the impacts it had on his personality and view of the world. He would be cast into insecurity and exile only to become a royal prince before his tenth birthday.

As Richard spends his teenage years under the watchful gaze of his older brother, Edward IV, he is eventually placed in the household of their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker; but as the relationship between a king and his most influential magnate breaks down, Richard is compelled to make a choice when the House of York fractures. After another period in exile, Richard returns to become the most powerful nobleman in England. The work he involves himself in during the years that follow demonstrates a drive and commitment but also a dangerous naïveté. 

When crisis hits in 1483, it is to Richard that his older brother turns on his death-bed. The events of 1483 remain contentious and hotly debated, but by understanding the Richard who began that year, it will become clearer what drove some of his actions and decisions. Returning to primary sources and considering the evidence available, this new life undoes the myths and presents a real man living in tumultuous times.

cover and blurb via Amberley Publishing

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I have to be honest, I am very much Ricardian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Richard III get vilified by Shakespeare (well, by 21st century actors, anyway) and barely contain my rage.  I don’t think Richard is perfect, a completely impeachable hero (no one is), but I also don’t think him a child-killing villain. There are few like Richard, a man who had suffered a great deal in a short time before his fateful battle at Bosworth. And it takes an author as fine as Lewis to dig into the details of Richard’s life. Most books either love or hate Richard, whereas this writer doesn’t go down either road, and instead gives us an insight into the mind of a man who became king, lost his own family, and then was overthrown by a man with a flimsy claim. Richard was a king, now a legend, but he was also just a man, and here is a book where we finally get to meet Richard. I moved books around on my Richard shelves to make room for this biography before it even came out.

While many books write about 1483 onwards, so much happened in Richard’s life leading up to the crown. The first half of the book digs deep into Richard, those in his life, the battles he fought, his ideals in life and religion, all as he grew into the king people focus on now. Much happened to Richard in his short life – overcoming a spinal deformity would have shaped his thoughts. He grew up around powerful people, like the Nevilles, who would do anything for power. Richard was prepared to lay down his life for his brother Edward, and yet his brother George betrayed them both, harm which would cause a wound that could never truly heal. Edward was king on the back of Richard’s hard work, and Richard ran the north in England and kept an eye on Scotland for his sovereign, all before the age of thirty.

But when King Edward died in April 1483, all the moments in Richard’s life which shaped him would come in play. The next three months have been debated since the moment they happened, but this book gives a reader a more detailed insight into why Richard acted as he did, thought as he did. It seems Richard was neither a murderous villain desperate for power, or an innocent caught up in a disaster. The illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower is well discussed too, whether Richard was fooled, or did he simply miss important details, or was he the master? I can’t tell you, because spoilers, but the murky situation and Richard’s handling is a reflection of many events long before the mess with the Princes. Another important detail in the events of 1483 is the death of Hastings, a particular favourite subject of mine. Again, in the interest of spoilers (as in the excellent research on Lewis’ part) I won’t share all that is written, but the whole situation felt fresh to me, a tough feat after 500 years and a whole lot of writing on the subject.

Richard’s life went from a powerful ruler in the north after years of fighting, to having brother George executed, to his brother Edward dead before his time, to being thrust onto the throne, to his nephews disappeared, to his precious wife and son dead from illness, to betrayal by men he trusted… how much can one man take in only a few years? By the time Richard faced Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Richard’s life was circling the drain, yet he remained confident of victory. This book talks of Richard in a positive way, without soundly like it is gushing with adoration; rather, it shows the whole life of an extraordinary man. England could have had a fine king, had Richard been given the chance.

This book is worthy of five stars. Matthew Lewis wrote The Survival of the Princes in the Tower not to long ago, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Loyalty Binds Me is an excellent addition to any library. Imagine saying you like Richard III but don’t have Lewis in your collection?