The Five by Hallie Rubenhold Book Review

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Title: The Five
Author: Hallie Rubenhold
Publication date: 30th January 2020
Page length: 432
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd

About the book
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.

Admittedly, I don't often venture into the world of non-fiction, even though when I do, I get really, really invested in the book. Fiction will always be my go to, but there's something about delving into a story and knowing it's real that's really gripping and makes for a more emotional reading experience.

I'd seen a few people talk about this book prior to its release, and its premise instantly had me hooked. It's quite simply actually, the author focuses not on Jack the Ripper, but more so on 5 of the women he killed; Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. Ask your friends and family what they know about the five women Jack the Ripper murdered and I can guarantee you they won't know much, and what little they will know, will be something along the lines of 'they were prostitutes'. But here's the thing; there is little to no evidence that 4 of those 5 women worked in the sex trade.

What this book aims to do, is remind us that these women were real. They were mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. They might not have had the most fortunate of luck with little opportunity to change their circumstances, but that doesn't mean they weren't human. They were real people, with real lives, but yet everyone seems so focused on their death that they forget they lived a life.

It's clear that the the author did a tonne of research to give the reader an in-depth profile of each of these five women. The historical details the author provides paints a picture of a devastating, depressing, and bleak portrait of London at that time, examining how it wasn’t the sex trade that made these five women targets, but poverty, addiction, and abuse which ultimately led to their vulnerability. The author does a great job at detailing how, because these women were exactly that - women - their options were limited and the laws stacked against them.

I'll be the first to admit that, before this book, I didn't know the names of the women killed by Jack the Ripper, but this book gave me so much more than 'just the names' of these women. It told me what their life was like. Who their family was. Where they grew up. Who they married. I absolutely loved that the author didn't dedicate any time whatsoever to describing the murders of these women, because that's all they've been for so long - murder victims. This book is solely about their lives, how they lived and the people they left behind. There are hundreds of books dedicated to their deaths. This book isn't one of them. If you look up any book about Jack the Ripper, I'd harbour a guess that 99% of them are trying to identify the killer, but what about the victims of his crimes? This book, the one that aims to give the lives back to three women, is solely based on doing just that; telling us that these women really lived and yet, we only remember them for their deaths.

It is a very educational book, documenting real history. The Five is not a book about Jack the Ripper, and his crimes are not specified in this book and there are no theories thrown about as to his identity. I think we've had enough of those types of books already.

This is an eye-opening book, and a humbling experience and whilst I never really viewed these women as ‘just prostitutes’, I also never really stopped to consider if the information about them was true or not. This book challenges what many people have always presumed to be 'facts', but ultimately it helps to restore dignity to these five women.

Verdit: ★★★★

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