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The Five by Hallie Rubenhold - Review

Tuesday, April 26, 2022


I've heard of this book, which does deep dives into the lives of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper in autumn 1888, but I probably wouldn't have ever picked it up to read. I know people who have raved about it, but I don't know a lot about Jack the Ripper in general so I never thought to pick it up. But then someone chose it for my book club, so I picked up a copy on eBay for just a few quid. I read it at the beginning of April and now want everyone who considers themselves a feminist to read it. 

You've probably heard the same as I have, that Jack the Ripper killed sex workers. Here, the author looks very closely at the lives of each of the women - Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane. The overriding thing I came away with was that nearly all of them had problems with alcohol, and honestly it's hard to blame them. Their lives were hard, filled with tragedy, and they had all lost many people close to them. I think I would have turned to alcohol too. 

Each of them also seemed to have like a turning point in their lives where it meant that they ended up in the East End, in poverty, far away from where their lives began. Polly Nichols's marriage dissolved and she ended up in dosshouses the workhouse. Annie Chapman lost a child and may have had another with foetal alcohol syndrome due to her drinking. Her marriage also broke down and she ended up in dosshouses and the workhouse. Elizabeth Stride was born in Sweden and ran a coffee house in London with her husband, until her marriage broke down and she took up with someone else and again lived in the dosshouses and a workhouse. Catherine Eddowes tramped for a lot of her life, living an itinerant life for a long time; her body was found with many things she could have sold on it. Mary Jane was known to have worked as a sex worker, firstly in the West End, but then she was trafficked to Paris and on her return ended up in the East End. Rubenhold argues that there isn't much proof that the other women DID work as sex workers. I can see why some people have criticised her for that, as if she is arguing that their lives meant more because they weren't just "common prostitutes". I don't think she was saying this, but I think it's a valid criticism. I do think she was a bit snotty about the women's use of alcohol. Alcoholism is a disease like any other, first of all. Second of all - all these women had suffered tragedies that we would find hard to cope with. They nearly all lost children, they had nearly all lost their parents in their teens, and they lived in poverty that is so deep it's hard to fathom. I think I would have turned to drink, too. In context, I think it was easy to understand. 

I did feel like the book painted an excellent picture of the sheer poverty that many people lived in at that time in the Victorian era. It was shocking at times, and Rubenhold definitely drew upon contemporary accounts to prove her point. 

I think you definitely get a good study of each of the women, instead of just the macabre details of their deaths. I ended up feeling sorry for all of them, and honestly, if all of them had turned to sex work in order to make a living in a time and place where it was difficult for women especially to make a living, I would have completely understood it. I would now like to read more about Jack the Ripper (which is useful as it turns out I've got a book about him), but I'm glad this came first so that I can understand the women before trying to understand anything about him. I'm giving this four out of five. 

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