Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold

Hardcover, 333 pages
Published April 9th 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: Library
The Five_

From Goodreads…

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.

Can we just take a minute and first be glad we were not born poor in Victorian England? Even more so born a poor girl in Victorian England. Now to the book- The Five was fascinating and also just really sad. No gore, no murder theories, just the details that could be dug up about these women and about the reality of life at the time.  And life at that time – it was not easy. I would never have imagined it was easy truly, but this book broke down the day to day for women and girls in a way that really made me think. The final indignity for each of these women is of course that they were all assumed to be prostitutes because they were out on the street at night and I love how Rubenhold takes a new look at each of these lives so the women can be remembered differently. While there are no gory imagined scenes of The Ripper in The Five I still found myself cringing at the dirt and disease, at the child labor and at the brutality of life.

I was also raging at the mistreatment of women from all sides – the police, the press, the societies allegedly for the benefit of the poor if they were deemed worthy. Raging. I was impressed at the amount of research that Rubenhold must have had to do for any records of these women – especially Elizabeth who came from Sweden and  Mary-Jane who left behind the most mystery. Census records, apartment rentals, workhouse registers – the details she went to are pretty incredible. Rubenhold brings The Five to life while you’re reading and restores them as women – mothers, sisters, friends and not prostitutes (save Mary Jane) and not just victims. They all have stories and they should be known.

As I read many of the names of London streets I flashed back to reading Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation series or Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister. But these five women would have been blessed to be so lucky as to be a maid to the Pink Carnation or one of Milan’s Dukes. Such an entirely different London to read about. I feel like this book is going to alter my perspective during my fictional reading in the future and I’m thankful for that.  

Now to decide if I want to follow the rabbit hole into reading about the Ripper? Or if I’m just going to be content with reading Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell- A Murderous Relation – which comes out this week!  Maybe that will give me all I care to think about the murders. And if you haven’t read that series yet – Get on it because I’m obsessed. But aside from that – any books about Jack the Ripper that I should read?

2 Comments

  1. >Can we just take a minute and first be glad we were not born poor in Victorian England?

    I THINK ABOUT THIS ALL THE TIME. Honestly I am very glad that I was not born in Victorian England at all. Even being a rich lady in Victorian England seems quite terrible! Rights-wise!

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