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 more famous than any of these women.
Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories.
I read this as a readalong with Clair alwaysneedmorebooks.com and Cath who talks about books on Instagram @sandyladysbooks if you want to check out her feed.
As per the description, this book details the stories of the five women believed to be killed by the man we all know as Jack the Ripper. Each woman has their own section of the book, detailing what is known about them from childhood onwards. Reflecting on the book a couple of days after finishing, I am increasingly astonished at how these women have been remembered and spoken about. What was perhaps more surprising was a comment by the author at the very end of the book about how women continue to be perceived and reported about in cases of violence (particularly sexual) against them. This was recently noted in the Chanel Miller case where the fact that she was intoxicated was very much portrayed as a factor in what happened to her and attempted to place some blame with her and this was 2016!
Anyway on to the book, The Five serves to reclaim the identities and lives of these women, to show them as women; as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, rather than through the narrow lens through which they are seen, as prostitutes. I was surprised and honestly it took me a little while to process the fact that for most of these women there was little to support the profession ascribed to them. Furthermore the author correctly points out the broadness of the job, the vagueness of the description and the fact that only one of these five women self identified as a sex worker.
In learning the stories of these women, Clair, Cath and I all noted the pervasive use of alcohol and how this was a factor for all of the women. Circumstances were not ever on their side and their disadvantage due to their gender was stark. They all ended up in poverty and as women, homeless and destitute their vulnerability was almost tangible. The role of men in relation to women was surprising, specifically how dependent working class women were on men, however they were harshly judged regarding their decisions in relation to men and this double edged sword made me relieved that I was not living then as a female in the late 19th century.
Despite a glum subject matter the author has created a highly readable book, offering a social history of these women in the late 19th century. Their varied backgrounds served to broaden the historic aspect of life then and their paths to destitution and ultimately death was sad and grim.
Reading the book as a group read was helpful because we all drew different parts from the story and I noted at one time that I was finding the book too long and at that moment the stories had merged and were too similar. Cath helpfully highlighted the differences and this led to some interesting points about women and pregnancy, alcohol, discrimination, STDs and laws around this, the list goes on.
Overall a very interesting social commentary that I felt was an empowering read in highlighting the lives of these women, making them more than what they have become in death. The winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non Fiction 2019 and continuing to receive much accolade on social media, deservedly so, this is a book I would definitely recommend, potentially as a book club read and not a book that needs to be read quickly, but perhaps a gradual read, to process the information contained and to really clarify the women, each as individuals.
About the Author
Hallie Rubenhold is a social historian whose expertise lies in revealing stories of previously unknown women and episodes in history. By drawing upon a wealth of formerly unseen archival material and adding a full historical context to the victim’s lives, The Five promises to change the narrative of these murders for ever. Rubenhold’s books include Lady Worsley’s Whim, dramatized by the BBC as The Scandalous Lady W. and Covent Garden Ladies: The Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List, which inspired the ITV series Harlots. She lives in London with her husband.