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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