Victoria’s Book Reviews: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

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“There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known; the other is not.”

Hold the front page because this Sunday Times bestseller and winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction is now out in paperback. It took the bestseller list by storm last year, winning over both readers and critics and now FINALLY I have read it. And it is bloody amazing.

One set of readers this ground-breaking historical investigation (and correction) has NOT won over though is the misogynistic subset of Ripper-ologists who were up in arms with the results of Hallie’s research that challenged the conventional wisdom that the five women murdered by the person who became known as Jack the Ripper were not all prostitutes but, more often, ordinary women who – as the result of the institutionalised discrimination against women in 19th century England – had found themselves homeless and destitute.

“Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, or so it has always been believed, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of his five victims were prostitutes at all.”

The Five reopens the book on the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. Hallie’s new research examined the full lives of these women in a way that was never done at the time or since. She brings to life the communities and worlds these women lived in – whether it be the torturous workhouses or the grand estates of the upper class.

She reveals women who fell in love, married, had children, lost children, held their families together or drove them apart. Hallie shows these women were no different to us today – they too had hopes and dreams; and they too fell on appallingly hard times though in a world that was unforgiving to women, censoring their activities and behaviour and curtailing their freedoms. Men lived freely; women faced consequences.

“If the Whitechapel murders served to expose anything, it was the unspeakably horrendous conditions in which the poor of that district lived.”

But Hallie also shows us a London that is so rarely talked about – a city overwhelmed with homelessness, thousands on the street each night. A migratory workforce that spent summers working in fields out of town only to return to the cold streets of the city for the winter. A city where workhouses and hustlers were only a few roads away from grand mansions and society parties. A city where new coffee houses competed with pubs and where workers would come from overseas as well as from other parts of the UK to find their fortune.

What we find in The Five is a heart-breaking collection of lives, but what we also have on our hands is a revolution. Hallie deliberately removes all the usual sexualised gruesome accounts of the women’s deaths; instead the focus is on their lives. And, in that, this book shines a spotlight on all the lives of unforgotten women in these times; women who history never recorded or barely even recognised.

The Five is nothing short of a reclaiming of history. A phenomenal phenomenon.

 

The Five is published by Penguin Random House; paperback RRP £9.99.

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