Originally published: February 2019
Author: Hallie Rubenhold
Published by: Doubleday
Genre: Historical Non Fiction
Length: 432 pages
Reading dates: 1-6 August 2020
‘The Victims of Jack the Ripper were never “just prostitutes”; They were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings.”
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.
The Five was absolutely incredible. It is an historical account of a short period of British history but Hallie Rubenhold has done a remarkable thing and made it really accessible to everyone.
Jack the Ripper is one the most notorious serial killers of all times. He has had books, films, songs, plays and even tours of London dedicated to his life but his identity has never been known. Because his victims were written off as “just prostitutes” by authorities at the time, they have been largely forgotten and have never been humanised before.
The book dedicates a chunky section to each woman, starting from their childhoods, what happened to them as they grew up and how they ended up in the position where Jack the Ripper was able to murder them. Looking in detail of what life was like in London, the squalor and the slums, the poverty and homelessness; how disease was rife and scarlet fever and tuberculosis could take out whole families; how very hard it was to be a woman in that time, with no rights. But also the welfare measures that were being put in place.
Rubenhold has undertaken a remarkable piece of detective work in putting together this book. By looking at official records and interviews with friends and family at the time, she is able to trace the paths of the women and makes valid assumptions as to why they made the decisions they did. What I liked especially is that it didn’t linger on the grisly details of the murders – this is truly just about the women.
“It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. “
A very accessible book, I have an interest in social history and found this absolutely fascinating. A map in the front, detailed the locations of each woman as they moved around London in their lives and I referred to it often. I read this as a buddy read with Kerrie over at I Loved Reading This and Cath who is Sandladysbooks over on Instagram and it was great to be able to discuss it with others – we all agreed it was an awful time to be a woman, even without the threat of a serial killer!
About the author:
Hallie Rubenhold is a bestselling author, social historian, broadcaster and historical consultant for TV and film.
The Five; The Untold Lives of The Women Killed by Jack the Ripper won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction.
In 2005, Hallie published The Covent Garden Ladies, which brought to public attention the true story of the Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Since its publication, her history of this notorious guidebook to Georgian London’s prostitutes, along with her edited compendium of The Harris List of Covent Garden Ladies has succeeded in capturing the imagination of millions. Hallie’s work has been the subject of three television programmes, including the hit drama series, Harlots (ITV Encore, Amazon and Hulu). In 2006, BBC4 broadcast The Harlots Handbook, a documentary based on Hallie’s book which she presented.
Her equally celebrated second book, Lady Worsley’s Whim (entitled The Lady in Red in the US) about the 18th century’s most infamous adultery trial became BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in November 2008. In August 2015, it appeared as a 90 minute drama for BBC2 entitled The Scandalous Lady W, starring Natalie Dormer and Shaun Evans.
Hallie is also the author of a series of novels set during the period of the French Revolution. The first of these, Mistress of My Fate was published in 2011 (2013 in the US). The second, The French Lesson was published in the UK in April, 2016.
In addition to writing books, articles and reviews, Hallie regularly appears on TV as an expert contributor to documentaries.
Hallie has a passion for telling a great historical tale and has a nose for unearthing previously unknown stories from little-known sources. She loves challenging our preconceived notions about our ancestors lives and revels in history’s surprising, unpleasant and gritty truths. Her extensive academic experience extends to research, teaching, lecturing and curatorial work. In the past she has been employed as a curator for the National Portrait Gallery, a university lecturer and a commercial art dealer. In 2014 she curated an exhibition on women’s reputations in the Georgian era for No.1 Royal Crescent in Bath and has been involved with several projects at the Foundling Museum in London.
Hallie received her B.A. in History from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an M.A. in British History and History of Art from the University of Leeds. Remaining at Leeds, she embarked on her studies for a PhD and later completed her thesis on the subject of marriage and child-rearing in the eighteenth century.
She lives with her husband in London.