Book Review – ‘The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper’ by Hallie Rubenhold


Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London – the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. 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. [Description from Waterstones]

I really found this book totally engaging and interesting. It’s not about the murders so much as the lives of the victims before their deaths, which is an avenue not much discussed, even among Ripperologists as far as I can tell – the focus is on the murders and the identity of the Ripper himself. Here Rubenhold looks at what some term “the forgotten victims”.

The main supposition of the book is that the women killed by Jack the Ripper weren’t all prostitutes, as is generally accepted, but instead were killed while sleeping – the idea of them being prostitutes is “arbitrary supposition informed by Victorian prejudice”. The only exception to this is Mary Jane Kelly, the final victim, who was the only one who associated herself with the sex trade at the time of her death. This is a suggestion I’ve never heard before, but the way that Rubenhold puts it forward really makes it seem logical and possible.

I knew the basic background of the women – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stryde, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – but some of the detail in this book really shocked me and made me question some assumptions about the victims and made me think more about their lives before they met the Ripper. From their births to their deaths, and even what was revealed about the women in the inquests, Rubenhold covers it all, and makes a good case for her argument that the women weren’t all prostitutes. However, whether it will change long-established presumptions remains to be seen.

It’s engagingly written and Rubenhold lets it be known where she found her information, and where facts are sure, or it’s merely supposition (the latter largely in the case of Mary Jane Kelly). I listened to it as an audiobook rather than reading it, but it was very easy to listen to and well done. I think perhaps I might have found it a bit too difficult to read in places, given how the lives of these women panned out, but it was great to be able to listen to it instead.

Anyone interested in Jack the Ripper, or in social history during the Victorian period needs to read this book. It is really engaging and might change your mind about something you thought you knew.

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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