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Review: The Five (Hallie Rubenhold)

Thursday, 23 January 2020

‘Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become more famous than any of these women’ -Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper
Author: Hallie Rubenhold
Genre: Non-fiction
Length: 348 Pages (not including the notes, index or bibliography)

The Victims of Jack the Ripper were never “just prostitutes”; they were women. They were human beings.

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.

I heard about this book whilst I was at university last year, ever since it had been on my to read list but I never got around to purchasing it. Fastforward a few months to me opening it on Christmas day. I knew it had to be my first book to read of 2020.

Rubenhold does not dwell on their murders as most do, Ripperologist accounts focus only on the night of their demise and nothing more. These accounts are so caught up in the hunt for the still masked killer that the women are forgotten, this isn’t the case for the five though. The central premise of her account rests upon this, that disproportionately research is still based around the notorious killer rather than the women he killed.

Even now it is assumed that all 5 victims were prostitutes, anonymous and victims to the London east end. Rubenhold dispels this myth, revealing that only 2 of the 5 women murdered were actually part of the sex trade. Her in-depth research instead shows what really tied the women together is the double standard of the era in which they lived, as at some point in their lives all 5 women suffered at the hand of a man.

The research into these women’s lives is drawn from censuses amongst a vast number of other sources to retrace the lives of these women up until the night of their deaths. What I loved about this was that is all we do as a reader, you walk with the woman until she goes to bed and that is it. By walking the women to the last point of wakefulness we take the power away from the actions of the killer, the focus is no longer on how or why, but rather who he killed. Where sources are thin, Rubinhold draws sensible conclusions, leaving the reader with a continual but deeply moving narrative.

Overall Verdict:

The book is split into different sections for each woman killed so I found myself reading it over a few days rather than racing through it. I just had to stop and think for a little bit after each story, just thinking of how their lives may have been different if the world had been just a little kinder or easier. I loved this book though, finally the women who fell victim to Jack the Ripper have been given a voice.

The tales are never sentimental, but deeply empathetic with how Rubenhold has framed the lives of each woman. I found this book incredibly gripping and easy to read, making it feel much more like a piece of fiction rather than non-fiction. The conclusion she draws sat with me, I finished the book yesterday but am still reeling from everything she said. This is a book I think everyone should read, deeply moving and a story that needs to be heard especially now.

If I were to give it a star rating which I did on my goodreads, it is an instant 5 for me.

Have you read the five? What did you think of it?

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