“Those who strayed into this abyss… were struck dumb by what they encountered.”
~ Hallie Rubenhold
The Victorian era is hailed as one of the most industrial for Britain. It saw the arrival of the railways, electric lightbulbs and the Christmas tree, and produced eminent writers like Charles Dickens, the Brontë Sisters and Thomas Hardy. Yet it was also a time of extreme poverty, suffering and despair. Not to mention murder. None are perhaps as well-known as those by the mysterious Jack the Ripper…
Like most people I was taught that Jack the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes; I knew two of their names, but didn’t give a second thought to who they were or where they came from; to a 10-year-old, murders are more interesting than people.
Whatever gaps remained in his understanding of slum-dwelling women would have been filled in by ‘common knowledge’: they were all desperate, filthy, foul-mouthed prostitutes.The Five: Just Prostitutes ~ Hallie Rubenhold
Hallie Rubenhold however, has brought us those missing stories and we can now discover more about these women: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. Yet at the same time, we also get a glimpse into Victorian culture, law and order, as well as living conditions for many.
Each woman is given a section of the book, which explores their background, family, carer and relationships. What was surprising to me, was that the women came from all over Britain, and – in Elizabeth’s case – Sweden. These women were wives, mothers and daughters, not just murder victims and now, the time has come for their stories to be told.
The Five is interesting, but not gripping, and there are a lot of gaps. An existing knowledge of Jack the Ripper is expected; in fact, the deaths of the five women are hardly referenced, leaving readers to look them up (or in my case, order a book on Jack the Ripper).
Although I agree that the women should be given a voice, their lives are fairly unremarkable and I struggled to read the book in one sitting. That said, the book dispels some common myths, citing the lack of actual evidence that all the women were prostitutes. Each of them had fallen on hard times through bad luck, circumstance or alcoholism; they may have been poor, but that does not mean that they sold their bodies for money.
Rubenhold does her best to provide evidence to fit her narrative, but there is a lot of speculation and she does choose to omit certain ‘facts’ from police reports. I don’t doubt that there was a lot of misogyny and prejudice from the police department, but a good Historian should always include both sides of the argument.
If the Whitechapel murders served to expose anything, it was the unspeakably horrendous conditions in which the poor of that district lived.The Five: A Tale of Two Cities ~ Hallie Rubenhold
What I enjoyed was the insight into Victorian England, which is described vividly, especially the squalor, overcrowding and working conditions. This is used to ‘pad’ out the women’s stories, but I relished the additional information on the period. Having recently read Gin Glorious Gin by Olivia Williams, it was interesting to have another viewpoint of life in Victorian London..
Overall, it’s worth reading (especially if you’re interested in Victorian history) but it still contains a lot of conjecture.