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.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was really interesting.
I listened to this one via audiobook, narrated by Louis Brealy whose voice, tone, accent, pronunciation, and pacing fit the story well, I’d highly recommend.
The focus of untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper was different than what I thought it was going to be. It actually told in parallel, each woman’s life with the societal norms of the time and gave tribute to their personal lives which I thought was typically unique for true crime books.
It took on a different angle, distinguishing formal versus informal acts of prostitution, views on homelessness, poverty, marriage, sexuality, social expectations and achievements, and told compelling stories of murder victims and ideas that I was less familiar with.
Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was bogged down with speculation, phrases like “this would imply… which would have been… likely this or that…” but I actually found myself appreciating this stance the more I read on. Perhaps it was because I think that it was somewhat of a risky, bold choice and took a unique skill, often a difficult one for nonfiction authors to convey when trying to tell a story in which we really don’t know all the facts, but know enough facts to support certain theories and show a likelihood of certain premises to make for a readable story that can be turned into a book.
Then tell a compelling yet information heavy piece without being overly speculative or watered down, overly bias, conveying agenda driven tones, or presenting overly academic narratives, in which I wondered thoughts one might have when deciding whether to change a powerful nonfiction story depicting true injustices toward women into historical fiction that may or may not be just as powerful.
But this book stuck to it, presenting true stories and interjections of theory that I felt was incredibly interesting and engaging, though not completely seamless because the phrases had to be there, but they all made sense and helped me gain an entire perspective of society of the time, what the thought process was, and evoke a relatability factor to today’s issues of importance, which was actually quite timeless.
The press time was given to the victims instead of the killer and the main argument was whether or not they were sex workers and whether that made them a target in exploring other vulnerabilities to crimes against them and whether empathy on either front made the crimes less tragic and the women less worthy.
And I think this took great skill not only from a research level but the writing took it to the level of daily living, from what they ate and drank, a pint and potatoes, infusing details, depictions of humanity, finding common ground in struggles, community living, to make the stories of these women strong and explore the inaccuracies in which these women are often mislabeled.
Which almost in a statistical sense could be seen as dismissive and contradictory to what the author was presenting, yet proposed the question of ideal and deserving victims, dark figure of crime, coercion, isolation, stigmas, reparations, and then what has become of moral, social, and political response and how outlooks may or may not have changed over time.
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