Reviewing Hallie Rubenhold's 'The Five'
'We may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.'
In an attempt to re-write a history that is dominated by the villain, Rubenhold makes a nuanced, intelligent aim to tell the stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims and give the women back their autonomy. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane fell victim to the horrific crimes of the notorious killer, but their lives prior to their deaths are scarcely known and rarely debated. Rubenhold is committed to changing the conversation.
One thing that really struck a chord with me was Rubenhold’s exposure of how poorly handled the police investigation was at the time the Ripper was active. They were so determined to prove that the victims were prostitutes (as if this meant they were undeserving of justice), they were blind sighted and therefore failed to achieve what was truly important - finding the Ripper. Rubenhold’s book is enough to make any feminist angry, but I also felt ashamed by the fact that I have never before taken an interest in the lives of these poor women. Taking the example of the Ripper's first victim, Rubenhold highlights 'Polly was just another impoverished, ageing, worthless female', and 'there was nothing the police, the coroner, the newspaper scribblers or their readers needed to learn about her.' The belief that the victims were prostitutes was a supposition governed by Victorian prejudice that has driven the debate for centuries, and Rubenhold tackles this sublimely in her book. Society didn't feel their stories were worthy of interest, so their biographies remained untouched. She shows how, because we have enforced the opinion that the women were 'bad women', we have altered the debate to suggest they deserved to become victims, and that 'prostitutes' are a sub-species of female.'
'At the time of the murders, the belief that 'Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes'...served an agenda in 1888...it is still the one 'fact' about the murders upon which everyone can agree, and yet it bears no scrutiny.'
I loved how Rubenhold provides a balance between the lives of the victims and her exploration of key contextual factors of the Victorian Era that undoubtedly had an affect on the lives of the victims and shaped the Ripper’s ability to succeed in murdering them. With unemployment rife, crowded housing, lack of contraception and dangerous diseases infecting the population, Victorian England was a dismal, dark place to exist. This book becomes much more than a consideration of the victims of the Ripper, but additionally provides the reader with key historical information that is crucial for understanding the environment the Ripper was working in. Rubenhold draws attention to how the victims were born into a society that deemed them unimportant, their worth compromised before they could even learn to speak due to being products of a brutally sexist society.
'That which has continued to cling to and define the shape of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane's stories is this: the values of the Victorian world. They are male, authoritarian and middle class. They were formed at a time when women had no voice and few rights, and the poor were considered lazy and degenerate.'
In addition, I appreciated Rubenhold’s comments on the issues at play here towards the end of the book; she not only comments on the inherent bias that lied within the justice system at the time, but focuses our attention to how the Ripper has arguably become a glorified, worshipped figure in our history that means we have taken our attention away from the reality that he was a vicious serial killer who preyed on innocent women. Framing the murders through this lease is damaging, as 'by embracing him, we embrace the set of values that surrounded him in 1888 which teaches women that they are of a lesser value and can be expected to be dishonoured and abused.'
'Over the centuries, the villain has metamorphosed into the protagonist: an evil, psychotic, msyertious player...The larger his profile grows, the more those of his victims seems to fade. With the advance of time, both the murderer and those he murdered have become detached from reality; their experiences and names have become entwined with folklore and conspiracy theories'
However, I am afraid I wasn’t completely won over by this book. I was really looking forward to reading it, yet I felt slightly deflated after closing the pages. In her commitment to bestowing autonomy on the victims, they become shrouded in such factual density that it almost achieves the opposite affect. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with this book and the presentation of the victims of COVID-19: when we see the daily death tolls, the people who have lost their lives to the virus become numbers, and so we react differently than if they were named and their faces shown. In my opinion, this is unfortunately the effect of Rubenhold’s book. If you are intrigued by the Victorian Era and want to understand more about the context of the Ripper’s crimes, this book is for you, although I would not necessarily recommend this if you aren’t a history lover, as the factual elements of this book are heavily concentrated.
As Rubenhold so rightly says, the women 'are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for.' The book shows how the victims of the Ripper were not alone in their experiences, as their lives mirror so many Victorian women. This book has taught me that to examine and investigate is to do so in the broadest sense possible, and consider all aspects of the debate - in this case, that means taking interest in both the villain and the victims.