Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Five

Ok, so this is *technically* cheating, because I finished it yesterday, but as this is where a lot – if not the majority – of my reading time went last week, so it’s a fair pick really guv.

Cover of The Five

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper does exactly what it says on the tin – and that is the opposite of what most books about Jack the Ripper do.  Rubenhold has researched what the lives of the canonical five victims were like before they were killed.  She’s not interested in who they were killed by – or the gruesome details of their deaths.  She is interested in their lives and whether prevailing idea about them – ie that they were prostitutes – is accurate.  Thus she puts the victims back at the centre of a narrative that has long dismissed them as incidental to the identity of their killer and at the same time gives an important insight into what life was like for working class women in Victorian London.

As a rule, I’m not interested in books about Jack the Ripper.  I was wracking my brains to think what the last one I read was, and I think it was probably Laurie Graham’s novel The Night in Question three and a half years ago.  I don’t want gruesome details of murders and rampant speculation.  But The Five has caused something of a stir.  Rubenhold’s book has got the Ripperologists’ knickers in a twist – because of her assertion that three of the five women were not sex workers.  The angry push back – and her measured responses – were enough to make me want to read this book for myself.  And it was well worth it.  The women in these pages are three dimensional people with messy complicated lives and they deserve to be at the centre of their own stories, not pushed aside in favour of the speculation about who killed them.

As a journalist, I’ve worked on a lot of coverage of murders and killings and one of the common themes when you’re deciding what how to cover them is how to refer to the victims and their killer.  All too often serial killers names are remembered but not their victims.  The first case that I was in court for after I qualified was the Ipswich murders.  Most people probably know the case as “Suffolk Strangler” or worse “the Ipswich Ripper” and could probably tell you who carried out the killings, but not the name of any of the victims (Paula Clennell, Anneli Alderton, Gemma Adams, Annette Nicholls and Tania Nichol).  Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe,  Fred and Rose West, Myra Hindley – I bet all of those names are familiar to you (if you’re a Brit anyway) and yet I doubt you could name many of their victims.  There are books and books about these cases – and you could fill a library with just books about Jack the Ripper.  After the recent mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed never to say the gunman’s name.  The Five is doing something similar with the Ripper.  We’ll never know who the killer actually was or how many victims they really killed but there is – as Rubenhold demonstrates – a wealth of information about the lives these women lived before their deaths.

And in learning about their lives, you’ll learn a lot about what it was really like to be poor and a woman in Victorian Britain.  When I was little, the geriatric hospital in Northampton was St Edmunds Hospital.  But a lot of the old people in Northampton would do anything to avoid going in to this George Gilbert Scott-designed building.  Why?  Because it was formerly a workhouse and they had been brought up to fear the shame of going into the workhouse.  And once you’ve read The Five you’ll get it – you’ll understand why sleeping on the streets might be preferable to going into one. St Edmunds closed in the 1990s (I think) and has been derelict ever since.  Work has recently started to renovate it – and to turn it into a retirement village.  We’ll see if the elderly of Northampton are prepared to live there yet.

So why do the Ripperologists hate this book so much?  I have my theories – and I don’t think it’s just because Rubenhold’s research demolishes their pet theories or because it feels seedy to be obsessed with a murderer when you know more about the lives of their victims.  But I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.  But if you like social history, and books looking at the lives of women in history, this might be your ideal next read.

My copy of The Five came from the library (after a long wait on hold!), but you should be able to find it pretty much anywhere.  It’s popping up on a lot of summer holiday reading recommendation lists and I’d expect it to be front and centre on the history book table at any (good) bookshop.  Sadly I can’t tell you if it’s got an airport paperback edition – because there was a mix up with our baggage when we went on holiday the other week and instead of browsing the airport bookshop and eating a leisurely breakfast before our flight, I spent all my time running around Luton airport trying to get our suitcase taken off an Amsterdam flight and retagged and put on our flight to Nice – but I hope it does.  It’s also availabe on Kindle and Kobo or from Book Depository.

Happy Reading!