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Holy tragedy, Batman.
If this book hadn’t been what it was, I might say I needed a drink after reading it. I learned about it from the horror podcast Good Mourning, Nancy when they covered the movie From Hell in July 2020, and as the hosts discussed this book, I knew that I needed to add it to my library list. I’m so grateful for them spreading the word of this good book and for its existence at all.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper is not your typical Jack the Ripper book; in fact, it hardly is one at all, and that’s one of the best parts about it. Hallie Rubenhold’s collection of biographies on the women who fell victim to one of history’s most notable killers is an important book to recognize and to read. Rubenhold teaches readers about the individual lives of each woman; we get to know them, feel for them, and weather the ups and ultimate downs of their lives with them one at a time as Rubenhold guides us through the Victorian London of Jack the Ripper’s victims.
There are clear themes and threads weaving throughout each woman’s life—alcoholism, patriarchy, and sometimes sheer bad luck. So many of these women were not who we’ve been taught they were. They weren’t caricatures of sex workers; they were victims of circumstance. Sometimes we forget that they were real women with real lives, but Rubenhold’s book strives to readers of that with intensity. Her thorough research and direct presentation of each woman’s life demonstrate a passion, frustration, and empathy not often seen in tales of Jack the Ripper. This isn’t his story; it’s theirs.
Sometimes, though, it could be a bit too thorough. Rubenhold’s commitment to presenting the history could at times become wearisome. I found myself having to go back and reread pages once in a while, either because I’d lost focus and hadn’t retained what I read or because there was so much information presented at once. It’s admirable, but the tone was a bit too textbook for attention keeping at times. This isn’t a historical retelling or a fictional representation; it doesn’t even stray into creative nonfiction. With the exception of speculation presented by Rubenhold over unknown details of the women’s lives—Mary Jane Kelly, in particular—the book is quite straightforward in its presentation of facts. Part way through reading, I switched the audiobook in the hope that it would keep my attention easier, and I’d recommend this approach for anyone who might find the tone challenging.
Overall, though, The Five is a fascinating and necessary look at the lives and the London of the women destined to become a part of a dark history. Rubenhold’s passion can’t be denied, and it’s a commendable endeavor to show the world these women were more than “just” the sex workers that the media, and by extension history, have painted them to be. It’s taken nearly 150 years for their narratives to be set right. Their tragedy wasn’t the deserved result of an “immoral life” as the newspapers of the time would have people think. It was the culmination of challenges presented by the time in which they existed. It’s owed to their memory to present them as more than the archetypal fallen women destined for destruction. They were victims not only of Jack the Ripper but of a harsh world that wasn’t built for their success.
Polly Nichols. Annie Chapman. Elizabeth Stride. Catherine Eddowes. Mary Jane Kelly. They were the victims. They were the women. They were the five. They are the women lost to the inky pages of history, salacious rumor, and the knife of a killer. Their stories are important, and Hallie Rubenhold’s book details their lives to provide an alternative to the history that we all thought we knew. This book is exactly what she presents it as: It is truly the untold lives of these women, and it’s something they’re owed after decades of being side characters in a psychopath’s story.
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