Review: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Blurb: 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.

Title: The Five

Author: Hallie Rubenhold

Publisher: Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld, part of the Penguin Random House Group

Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical

Review:

Polly Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddows. Mary-Jane Kelly. Five of the most well known names when it comes to the victims of serial killers. But how much do we really know about them? Hallie Rubenhold answers that exact question by providing an in depth look into the lives of these women before they simply became the canonical five.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time and I absolutely loved it. There’s obviously been a really intense research period which comes through with all of the knowledge that the author is able to impart. There’s an extensive list of further reading and source materials for anyone who wants to know even more and I particularly appreciated the collection of images that Rubenhold provides. We get to see these women with their families, dressed up in their Sunday best rather than just the newspaper clippings and crime scene photos. I learned things about these women that I’d never even considered – like that Annie Chapman took pride in showing off family portraits or that Catherine Eddows attended a prestigious school. We all, myself included, fall victim to the narrative that these women were sex workers who lived high risk lifestyles and that there’s not much more to know about them but thanks to Rubenhold’s research we see that that is simply not true. Taking the time and care to reinsert women into the narrative of history, especially in regards to something that involves them so explicitly, is my favourite trend amongst modern historians and is something that I sincerely hope will continue. I loved that this book focuses on the five canonical women killed by Jack the Ripper rather than the killer himself as it’s something that I’ve never seen before. As a society, we’re all too quick to recall the names and stories of killers throughout history but rarely do we devote time to remembering their victims. The book is divided into five sections, one for each woman, and then split into a handful of chapters that take you from childhood to death. The writing style, factual but honest and delightfully readable, feels almost like the telling of a story. The research has been embedded flawlessly and makes for an enjoyably smooth reading experience.

The book ends with the reminder that these women were not simply sex workers, they were wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, but more importantly, they were human beings and that is more than enough to warrant some respect. This not only serves as a reminder to us when looking back to the women of the past, but also when we see violence against women being committed in our modern day society, where a woman’s worth is measured by who she is to others rather than what makes her who she is.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking to pay more attention to women’s history, especially as we live in a society where the acts committed during this period still take place today. Even more than that, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who also falls into the trap of believing that the victims of Jack the Ripper were ‘just’ sex workers – get to know the ins and outs of the canonical five and give them back their voices.

Rating: 5/5

Recommend?: Yes!


Have you read this book? Or maybe you’ve read something similar? What did you think? I’d love to know!

You can always find me over on Twitter if you’d like to discuss this book (or any others that I’ve featured) in more detail 😌

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