Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane. Recognise their names? They’re all famous for the same thing: being murdered, in 1888. That’s basically all we know about them, because the values of Victorian England have clouded our view of them for the past 130 years. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold sets out to correct (i.e., expand) the record. These five women are far more than simply victims of Jack The Ripper.

The Five - Hallie Rubenhold - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In the introduction, Rubenhold gives broad context for the murders of these five women. A drought in 1887 had led to poor crop yields and high unemployment in Victorian London. This, in turn, had lead to a growing unhoused population and a movement that might effectively amount to Occupy Trafalgar Square. It sets the tone for The Five, which is a history book more so than a true crime one.

Each woman is given her own section, a biographical sketch that Rubenhold pieces together from scraps of records (like marriage certificates and landlord ledgers), coroner’s inquests and journalism (always emphasising the unreliability of these accounts), historical accounts (written by other people about similar circumstances around the same time), and educated guesses (based on extensive research). It gives a fuller picture of the lives of the five women than we’ve ever had before.

The cards were staced against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit… Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

The Five (Page 339)

Rubenhold also examines how these women came to be known and remembered as sex workers (though she uses the term “prostitutes”, as many observers and commentators have done). In reality, they led full and complex lives, and only two of them (Elizabeth and Mary Jane) ever formally exchanged sex for money. Her approach is compassionate, but unsentimental – angry at the injustice of the historical record, rather than wistful or tawdry.

There were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness, and not all of them were as obvious as street soliciting. Those without homes or families, those who drank heavily and those who were dispossessed did not lead lives that adhered to conventional rules. No one knew or cared what they did or where they went, and for this reason, rather than for a sexual motive, they would have appealed to a killer.

The Five (Page 344)

Rubenhold makes a fascinating point – though very briefly – that it is precarious/unstable housing that is the thread linking the five women together, not sex work. I wish she’d explored that more, because it felt like a lightbulb going off for me. Even though the five women never met and had little else linking them other than the man who murdered them, they all had unreliable access to safe shelter and all were asleep (rather than in the throes) when he encountered them.

You’ll notice that The Five contains very little information about how the women were murdered. Plenty has been written about that already, after all. This book is about their lives, and the unfortunate domino effects of poverty, inadequate contraception, alcoholism, and homelessness that led to their violent ends. “The larger [Jack The Ripper’s] profile grows,” Rubenhold writes, “the more those of his victims seems to fade,” (page 345).

So, zooming out for a second, The Five is a book about challenging long-held assumptions. Rubenhold encourages us to think critically about what we accept as historical fact. What we “know” about the past is inevitably shaped and coloured by the values of the time, and the hangover of those values on our perspective today.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents… by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

The Five (page 348)

The Five is a fascinating and insightful read, one I really wish I’d got to sooner. If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, let me be the one to tip you over to the side of “yes”. True crime readers will likely find it dry and scant on grisly details, but hopefully will recognise the reason for that and understand its importance in the broader context.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Five:

  • “If this had been a lecture, I would have slept through it.” – michelle whitehead
  • “Imagine reading a very. Structured. College. Essay. About a topic that is so overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Imagine trying to describe what a world of life was like and then overwriting the heck out of it. And not well. I just didn’t care. And the author really really wants you to care.” – Kindle Customer
  • “This is why I’m becoming hesitant to read female historians, because they cannot remain objective when telling the story. It always has a feminist bent to it.” – William Lyons
  • “Very slow. Too detailed for me. Will be enjoyed by others with patience. Worth a try if you are patient.” – Cecilia Steel

2 Comments

  1. I found this fascinating too. The amount of research she did was astonishing and it really brought these women to life as people not just names in newspapers.

    One of the factors that seemed to link a few of them was their love of alcohol but given the misery of their lives, we can’t be surprised that they sought solace in a nip of gin.

    • Sheree

      October 15, 2023 at 2:01 PM

      I too have been known to drown a few sorrows – it’s confronting to realise how thin the membrane is that separates us from people who experience the unthinkable.

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