The Five

Book Review

Book: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Author: Hallie Rubenhold
Year: 2020
Page count: 416
Synopsis: 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.

Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become far more famous than any of these five women.

Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories.

As someone who has always been interested in serial killers, and the infamous Jack the Ripper, I had never thought about how much my focus on the Ripper was damaging the reputation of the women. Rubenhold opened my eyes to the lives of the women, and almost berated me for not thinking about this beforehand and letting the misogyny of the killer and the reporting after to be the only source of information I had.

The historical background on all of the women was incredibly detailed and brought them to life within the pages. We learnt that they were all daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. It felt so personal, like I was emotionally connected to them and I could relate to the hardships they were going through. Of course the times are different now, but a young girl falling in love stays the same.

I was struck by the hardships that women faced within the Victorian era. I knew it was bad, but I’ve never been forced to relive events that girls my age went through. The double standards of women not being able to be fully educated, and train to be domestic servants (a practice run for their marriage) and yet to just be chucked on the streets if they had no man to cover their rent. I just cannot fathom what it must have felt like, having to live with a man regardless of how violent and brutal they were because you need a roof over your head, and if they died – you were on the streets.

It was also a stark and disturbing reminder of attitude from today, that women “ask for it”. That it wasn’t questioned who they were, only that they must be prostitutes and must work the streets, because that’s where they were found and they may have been homeless at the time. It’s disturbing to know that everything we know about these women has been fabricated by the media, and the misogyny of the Victorian era – worse yet, that we’ve let it happen and not question it.

This book opened my eyes in so many different ways. I have learnt so much about the five, that I never knew. I still can’t get over the fact that no-one has ever questioned whether the girls were prostitutes or not. Everyone is still accepting the tale that journalists wove back then even though there is not any proof of 4 of the girls working the streets.

The conclusion really got to me. A powerful ending and reminder that when we feed into Jack the Ripper, we are romanticizing a man that brutally attacked women while they slept. Every time we feed into that story, the lives of the women fade away more and their dignity is wiped away – at the same time, we strengthen and build more upon the life of the killer.

No one has ever cared about these women, and I’m glad this book was written to remind myself and others that they are no less important now, than they were then.

-Personally, Emma

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