All The Books I Can Read

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Review – The Five: The Untold Lives Of The Women Killed By Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

on November 11, 2020

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Transworld Digital
2019, 415p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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. 

In participating in the Reading Women Challenge for the past two years, I have relied on the Goodreads group for a lot of suggestions in the categories I am less familiar with. There’s a lot of incredibly widely read people in there who have some excellent suggestions for even the trickiest of prompts. This was one that came up a lot in the thread for suggestions and recommendations of books that fulfil the “non-fiction by a woman historian” prompt and given it wasn’t particularly long (it says 415p but it’s probably close to 80 or so pages less than that as a large portion at the end is taken up with footnotes, photos and a bibliography) as well as the fact that it was $4.99 on Amazon kindle, I decided it would be a good choice.

I don’t know much about Jack the Ripper – just the basics. Never caught, murdered women that were apparently mostly prostitutes however this book tackles that assumption head on. There are five women that people are sure were definitely murdered by the person called Jack the Ripper, these are known as “the canonical five”. However there are other murders in different areas, some of which are similar some of which are different, where there are disputes about whether or not they were committed by the same person, by someone who attempted to mimic the Ripper style or just by someone completely different. This book focuses on the canonical five and delves deep into their lives. It is meticulously researched.

This isn’t just about the lives of the women, although as I mentioned, they are gone into with thorough detail. It’s also about poverty, Victorian morals and sensibilities, as well as how women were treated especially if they were homeless, or alcoholics or not even prostitutes, but women who aligned themselves with a man for protection in a relationship of convenience. For women without a fixed address, this was often a necessary part of the life. Having a male partner not only helped protect them from men who might seek to take advantage of them or hurt them in other ways, it also meant that sometimes, the meagre income was doubled and if one couldn’t afford a room or bed for the night, sometimes two could. But for women who slept rough or tramped around parts of greater London, a common-law marriage was often the best way to protect oneself, even if it meant that women who often moved around as relationships dissolved, were often looked down upon or mistaken for being prostitutes. And by entering into something like this, at least the woman could make an active choice about who she gave her body too, rather than the threat of someone taking it. This book even delves into the definition of prostitution and how it was a difficult label to apply.

Most of these five women were born into and perpetuated a cycle of extreme poverty. They were generally from a large family (common during the time) often ravaged by disease and hunger. Even when the fathers of these families had what would be termed good working class jobs, those good jobs didn’t stretch to supporting households often upwards of 8 or even 10. The mothers in the families were trapped in a cycle of getting pregnant and having babies, some of which died young. Many of which died young. These women often died young themselves, leaving the children behind even more disadvantaged. Sometimes they were placed in workhouses or forced into marriages – women in these times, in these lives, had few options. Not many were educated, few could read or write. Almost, if not all of the five, had fallen into alcoholism one way or another. Some had left behind lives of “respectability” – marriage and children. In the case of the first woman, Polly, she voluntarily turned herself over to a workhouse in order to escape from her husband after it was clear he preferred someone else. In these times, few options were available to women for them to leave their marriages and in doing so, they’d almost certainly be left homeless, destitute and vulnerable. To make such a choice, one would have to have been desperate.

This is an excellent book – I found it written so well, so compellingly. The lives of all these women were interesting to me but it’s the circumstances as well, down to the police investigations, the reporting by the newspapers and how testimonies at the inquests were twisted (still happening today, really). It says a lot about how women have been treated when they’re victims – from being made to register as sex workers and inspected for disease (it was believed they spread syphilis, however men were not monitored, checked or considered to be spreaders) to the way they were looked down on if they were out at night and, when and if they were the victims of vicious crimes, it was “because they shouldn’t be out late at night/selling sex/ etc”. This was a time when it was still legal for a man to beat and rape his wife and if way to blame a woman for any circumstance could be found, it would be and applied. When a lot of the focus has been on Jack the Ripper – who was he, how did he never get caught, why did he do it, how many was it really, why did he cut them/remove their organs and why did he stop? – this book is focused purely on the five canonical victims and their lives, their stories. And it’s done really, really well.


Book #217 of 2020

This book checks off prompt #6 – Nonfiction by a woman historian. It’s the 20th book read for the challenge! I have just 6 left to read and I actually feel like I can do this.


2 responses to “Review – The Five: The Untold Lives Of The Women Killed By Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

  1. Fantastic review. I thought this was such an illuminating and well done book too, I loved it. Great to read your take on it! And I agree, it’s the circumstances that made this so much more interesting.

    • Thank you! Yes I found it way more interesting than I expected even though it wasn’t actually about the murders themselves and the “whodunnit” aspect. It was so thorough and I really felt like the author did a great job of highlighting what it was like to be a poor woman during this time.

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