March 10, 2021

Book Review - The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

by Hallie Rubenhold

Genres: True Crime, Nonfiction, History, British History, Biography, Mystery, Feminism
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 333 pages
Published: April 9, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Official Book Summary:

"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, Elisabeth, 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 coffeehouses, lived on country estates; they breathed ink dust from printing presses and escaped human 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, but 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 women."


“It is for them that I write this book. I do so in the hope that we may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.”


“Just as it did in the nineteenth century, the notion that the victims were 'only prostitutes' seeks to perpetuate the belief that there are good women and bad women; madonnas and whores. It suggests that there is an acceptable standard of female behaviour and those that deviate from it are fit to be punished. Equally, it assists in reasserting the double standard , exonerating men from wrongs committed against such women. These attitudes may not feel as prevalent as they were in 1888, but they persist - not proffered in general conversation... but, rather integrated subtly into the fabric of our social norms.”


My Book Review:

Brava to the Hallie Rubenhold for her extensive research delivering the truth behind the lives of the five women brutally murdered by Jack the Ripper. I cannot commend her enough for the work that she did in this book paying tribute to the victims of a mass murder and correcting what so many of us got wrong.

I feel like I’ve waited years for this book. Ever since I started studying Victorian literature, the infamy of Jack the Ripper has been a part of the cultural and historical backdrop. However, I've always been disappointed by histories that focus on the madman and dismiss the whole story about his victims. We've never really known who these women were and what we were told about them--they were prostitutes--was nowhere near the truth of what these women had gone through and who they were. By reducing them to a category, we failed to understand their humanity. Rubenhold corrects that mistake.

The research Rubenhold presents in The Five was detailed and informative, but never felt overwhelming or distracting. She proceeds one by one through each of these women's stories, carefully piecing together the truth of their lives and their relationships. I respect how difficult this venture would have been and so because there were pieces missing, Rubenhold had to research the contexts of their lives in order to best fill in the gaps. It would have been easy for her to make something up, but wanting to be accurate led her to include moments of wonder as she places together what we do know with what we might suppose.

I really respected the author's choice to entirely leave out the scenes of their murder or the horrors of what Jack the Ripper did to them. That information can be readily found on any internet search, but what she does in telling their stories is so much more important.

If you want to learn more about these women, this is the only book you need.

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