The Five – The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold won the Baille-Gifford prize for non-fiction in November. And what an incredible book this is, despite its miserable subject matter. Thankfully, there’s no revelling in the gruesome murders at all, in fact, this book is all about humanising the victims who’ve been so despicably treated by history. I was glued to the page from the start, impressed by the incredible research Rubenhold has undertaken and moved by the terrible plight of poor women in Victorian times. Highly recommended.
Rubenhold, a social historian, set out to restore the reputation of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper’s five victims. ‘Just prostitutes’, was the label the Victorian press and history has assigned to these women, deciding to focus on the perpetrator instead. They were not ‘just prostitutes’, only two of the five sold sex, and what is ‘just prostitutes’ anyway? Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly had lives, families and dreams; they simply fell on hard times.
Combing through innumerable church registers, council archives, police and Home Office records, poverty surveys and prison records, the author has meticulously and lovingly reconstructed their lives. Poverty combined with loss of parents, children, siblings (one of them no less than five in nine days), jobs, health, sometimes all of the above, spiralled these women into destitution.
Worst of all, in terms of security, was the break-down of marriage. A poor, single woman in Victorian times, was as good as worthless. Soon enough, perhaps understandably, alcohol became their sole friend and from there to sleeping rough, the road was short. History has allowed these victims of horrific crimes to become part of gothic myth, of entertainment.
To some merchandisers, they are no longer human beings, but cartoon figures whose bloody images can be printed onto T-shirts, whose deaths can be laughed about on postcards and whose entrails decorate stickers. Is it any wonder that there has been no public appetite to examine the lives of the canonical five, when they have never seemed real or of any consequence to us before?
This amazing book seeks to fix that.
The Five – The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold is published by Doubleday, 348 pages.