Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99
This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Hallie Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.
She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.
However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders. This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.
This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’. Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).
It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.
I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.
Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.
I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.
Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?
It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.
So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.
As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.
This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.
This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.
Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.
I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.
*And other women listed in the Police File (held at the NA).
NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more.