As Rubenhold makes clear in her vividly written, carefully researched chapters on each victim, it was a convenient fiction at the time to assume that these women were prostitutes... This book is a poignant but absorbing exploration of the reality of working women’s lives in the late 19th century — and how perilously easy it was for married women with children to find themselves reduced to seeking shelter in the dank courts and alleyways around Spitalfields, where the Ripper operated.
The police, the press and the public egged each other on in demonising these destitute females as prostitutes – a view that persists in the macabre myth of the Ripper, the crazed killer of sex workers.
Hallie Rubenhold argues in this humane and convincing book that this interpretation is wrong. Only one of these women was “on the game”; another had briefly been so in her youth, and a third may have occasionally indulged in paid sex to keep herself alive in desperately straitened circumstances... These stories are not unknown. But Rubenhold fleshes them out with details from court reports, workhouse records, and contemporary sociological studies by writers such as Henry Mayhew. She cleverly incorporates gobbets of social history – for example, on the workings of the Poor Law, or the use of the casual ward or spike in the workhouse – without interrupting her narrative flow.
What makes The Five an outstanding work of history-from-below, and Somebody’s Mother, Somebody’s Daughter an almost unbearable grind is wholly a matter of authorship. There is — depressingly — not as great a difference as you might expect between the life of a woman at the edge of society in the Victorian era and one in the 20th century. In both periods, the biographies are marked by male violence and alcohol abuse. In this context, the women’s final encounter with their killer often appears as less of an unforeseeable cataclysm, more just another incident in a catalogue of cruelty... Rubenhold, on the other hand, has a clear political angle, although she doesn’t make it explicit until near the end of the book. ‘A woman’s entire function was to support men,’ she writes of the Victorian social order; ‘the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the weight of everyone else’s demands.’ It’s a typically vivid image from a magnificently vivid book.
Many of the headlines thus far have focused on Rubenhold’s assertion that the women were asleep when they were murdered, but the book is so much more than this. It is a highly readable work of rigorous scholarship that plunges the reader into the claustrophobic world of late 19th-century London... The story of these five women – Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – is not one of death, but one of life, in all its sad, strange and saucy glory.
The Five is an attempt at rehabilitation...seeks to restore to these victims the dignity “brutally taken away”... While Rubenhold’s argument is credible, she does the victims no favour by telling their story in purple prose... Conjecture looms large in this book for the simple reason that, but for their murders, these women were members of the anonymous poor. Little is known about any of them... It occurred to me that these five lives would be better told as a novel... However, occasional uncertainty doesn’t alter an important general truth about these women. Their lives were precarious at the best of times...
Hallie Rubenhold, author of this powerful and brilliantly researched examination of Jack The Ripper’s five named victims — ‘prostitutes’ whose throats he slit in the nights of autumn 1888 in Whitechapel — certainly believes so.
Soon after the murders, a reader wrote to The Times observing that the Ripper ‘at all events has made his contribution towards solving the problem of clearing the East End of its vicious inhabitants’.
Even nowadays, we tend to brush such women aside. The judge in the 2008 Ipswich serial murders trial felt the need to instruct the jury to ‘lay aside their prejudices’ against the five victims who were prostitutes.
The Five is not simply about the women who were murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888: it is for them. This is a powerful and a shaming book, but most shameful of all is that it took 130 years to write.