The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
Publication date: 28 February 2019
Genre: Nonfiction history
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review
I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when I do pick it up I tend to lean toward history books. My friend Amber listened to the audiobook for The Five over the summer and it sounded so intriguing! I ended up picking it up and absolutely loving it too, not just for the social history aspect but because it, for the first time, gives a voice to the women who were murdered by England’s most infamous serial killer.
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.
I’ve got a serious interest in true crime, however I have never been interested in the Jack the Ripper case. I couldn’t quite figure out what my reasoning was, but The Five helped me realise that it’s due to the glorification of this sinister figure. These days, Jack the Ripper seems to be remembered in a way more similar to a folk hero than a murderer who did unspeakable things to his victims. Those women, often referred to as the canonical five, seem to have been lost in the fascination with their murderer. Rubenhold does not hold back her anger and frustration over Jack the Ripper’s glorified legacy, and that’s one of the things that made me absolutely love this book. Anyone who considers themselves a feminist and has an interest in true crime must read this book.
I think if you go into The Five expecting a true crime book, I think you will be disappointed. Instead, this book dives into the lives of the canonical five and how they, and the other women of their class, would have lived and survived. She dispels myths about these five women (particularly the idea that they were all prostitutes) and examines how alcohol played an instrumental role in destroying their lives, putting them in a position to be noticed by a notorious murderer. Each woman is represented in her own section, starting with her birth and background and examining her life up until the murder, but does not go into detail about the case or the investigation. The incredible research that Rubenhold does really helps bring these women to life and gives them a level of respect and dignity that has been so lacking in their legacy thus far.
The Five is not only an insight into how these five women lost their lives, it also reflects on Victorian society and the horrible treatment of impoverished and homeless women at the time, which played into the reporting of these crimes and how the victims were portrayed. It not only dispels the myth and legend surrounding Jack the Ripper, but also our often glorified image of the Victorian age. This is easily one of the best history books I’ve read, and is well deserving of its recent Baillie Gifford Prize win.
Want to pick up a copy of The Five for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):