Rethinking the Ripper with The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The narrative surrounding the women killed by Jack the Ripper pretty much begins and ends at ‘they were just five prostitutes’.

Hallie Rubenhold is here to change that.

Giving a voice to the voiceless, Rubenhold’s meticulously researched work aims to set the record straight. Divided into five parts – ‘Polly’, ‘Annie’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Catherine’ and ‘Mary-Jane’ – the real, lived stories of these women are now the focus for the first time. In shifting the narrative away from the Ripper, Rubenhold details childhoods, marriages and motherhood against the backdrop of grimy London in 1887.

While I’d guess that 99% of the books written about Jack the Ripper are dedicated to uncovering his identity, does anyone actually care who he was at this point?

Taking an entirely different turn, Rubenhold rewrites the events of 1887 as we’ve never heard them before; without the sensationalism and gory details.

‘She had been brought into the world on the Street of Ink, and it is there, riding on its column inches, its illustrated plates, its rumour and scandal, that she would return: a name in print.’

How great is that line?

She makes it clear that – with the exception of the census – the lives of the working classes were barely acknowledged in print. Instead, a desire to document the very worst, the gore and the violence overshadowed the real stories of the Five. It has to be said though, this definitely does pose a problem when trying to write a detailed account of what happened to these women.

A lot of what Rubenhold writes is undeniably speculative – at the end of the day, The Five is a 400 page book written from extremely limited source material. There’s a lot of context, to the point that can seem like it outweighs the stories of these five women and so kind of takes away from the novel’s purpose. Having said that, it’s not like she’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes or write something untrue. I just saw this as a case of her working with minimal sources but still pushing to create a vitally important piece of work.

‘At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killers deep, abiding hatred of women. Our cultural obsession with the mythology surrounding Jack the Ripper only serves to normalise its particular brand of misogyny. We’ve grown so comfortable with these stories – the unfathomable male killer – that we’ve failed to recognise that he continues to walk among us.’

The Five is an uncomfortable read for anyone who loves a serial killer documentary. Remember a few years ago when everyone was obsessed with Ted Bundy? Then Netflix released The Ted Bundy Tapes on the anniversary of his death? And then he was played by Zac Efron in a biopic of his trial? Rubenhold’s work acknowledges the wider issue that as we mythologise murderers, we gloss over the victims themselves. It makes it all the more important that we remember their names; Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane.

I’m giving The Five four stars. While there is the issue of historical context being a little heavy, this doesn’t take away from the brilliance and cultural resonance of Rubenhold’s work. I’ll never look at Zac Efron the same.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

p.s. I have been very slow on the book reviews this month, but I’m trying to sort myself out and I have lots of ideas!! As always, if there are any recommendations please let me know!

Published by Lily Evans

writing about books

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