The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

The title The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper sums up this nonfiction nicely. Rubenhold narrates the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly, from their birth to those fateful days in 1888. Along the way, she also explores Victorian society as a whole.

Rubenhold’s extensive research means the women’s voices are reclaimed and their stories told. She doesn’t look down on them for their choices, and also doesn’t leap to conclusions, unlike the police operating in Whitechapel. Instead, she explores the reasons why a woman might become destitute in Victorian London. The reliance on alcohol (many of the women here suffer from alcoholism), the lack of jobs for the working class, the belief that destitute women and prostitutes were essentially the same. All these factors contributed, and it was in turns fascinating and horrifying reading about the conditions the women faced. It was an interesting reading experience: I wanted the women to better the lives, to get a lucky break, whilst knowing how their lives ended. Whilst Jack the Ripper is barely mentioned in The Five, his presence lurks within every page.

Yet Rubenhold doesn’t focus on their deaths – for example, the gruesome pictures of their bodies are omitted, replaced with images or drawings of them whilst alive. They are, of course, mentioned, but it is ultimately the women themselves that take centre stage. And this idea Rubenhold also explores: that the perpetrator is often the one in the limelight, rather than the victims. This is especially true for Jack the Ripper. Books, documentaries, movies, even video games have featured him as a prominent character, with the women often sidelined or reduced to mere corpses – and this fascination with criminals extends even today. This idea gave me pause and made me think of my own interest in true crime and why discussion seem to centre around the person committing the crime, rather those it is happening to. Rubenhold also links this idea with violence against women and how that is perceived, both in Victorian London and today. The linking between past and present was very effective and highlights problems today within our discussions of violent crimes.

The Five isn’t only for people interested in the Jack the Ripper case, but also those wishing to know more about Victorian society. Rubenhold goes into depth about subjects like workhouses, family dynamics, even laws or societal norms which affected women in a negative way. It is an interesting, though sobering, read and has made me question a lot of the assumptions I held regarding these women and their killer.

The Five is published by Doubleday and you can find more information here.

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