The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As always, it is best to point out that what follows will not be an academic review. Although the late nineteenth century is an area of academic interest for me, it is not my focus, so this book was bought as reading for pleasure.
With that in mind, I can confirm that this is a thoroughly entertaining and gripping read, successfully evoking the life of late nineteenth century London. Rubenhold works with her meagre research findings to paint a portrait of the women whose stories are virtually always lost behind that of the man who murdered them – Jack the Ripper. Now, while you will note I have used the word meagre to describe Rubenhold’s research findings, this is not a criticism of her methodology. It is, instead, an accurate reflection of what there was available to find, because, as is depressingly familiar to anyone who studies women’s history and women’s stories, there is often not a lot of source material to refer to, and what you end up with is having to piece together a narrative based on what other people have said, non-contemporaneous recollections of those speaking sometimes long after the events and the deaths of the women they are recalling, newspaper reports of the events, police reports and other snippets of information that are buried deep in archival records.
Rubenhold therefore has to place the women within the context of the society in which they lived, often resorting to speculation and educated guess-work. The book is commendable in that it retains its focus on the lives on the women, refusing to descend into a prurient, voyeuristic or graphic recounting of the manner of their deaths. In fact, their deaths are simply stated as fact. The other thing that Rubenhold excels in is deconstructing the myth that all the victims of this serial murdered were prostitutes. Her work, more than anything else, encapsulates how these women were merely trying to survive in a world which gave women little choices, little power, and little options.
I was fascinated that another commonality between the women was alcoholism, in part to try and deaden the relentless monotony and misery of lives that were often bordering on subsistence living.
It is in its depiction of what life for these women must have been like that is the most compelling aspect of this book. We have a tendency to romanticise the past. But there was nothing romantic about being a woman vulnerable to exploitation, living in near, if not absolute poverty, constantly at risk of sexual assault, unwanted pregnancies, and having so many barriers to being able to earn a living wage.
This is a herstory worth reading.
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