I read about The Five by Hallie Rubenhold on the Waterstones email and knew I had to have it. I ordered it immediately and received it on publication day. (I actually have to avoid reading the Waterstones email every week, otherwise I would buy far too many books.)
The Five is a non-fiction book which gives the five victims of Jack the Ripper their stories back. Since 1888, their names have been synonymous only with their deaths and the (unknown) identity of their killer. In all those years, nobody has ever really looked into who Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane actually were. To the media and public at the time, Jack the Ripper was a prostitute killer and his victims were all prostitutes.
The Five is a remarkable book. Considering how poor record keeping was and how sensationalised the press was at the time, Hallie Rubenhold has done an incredible job of piecing together the women’s lives. It is so good that it is sometimes easy to forget that it isn’t fiction.
The book is divided into five so that each woman has her own story. With the exception of Mary Jane, who seemed to lead the most mysterious life, each woman’s story is divided into four chapters. Their story begins with their birth or a little bit of family history. It paints a picture not just of the lives of these women, but of the lives of women in general.
Times were very hard in Victorian London if you didn’t have much money. All of these women had to fight for survival – for somewhere to sleep and a few pennies to eat. Survival was very much dependent on having a husband who could earn enough money to care for his wife and their family. Many of these women and their mother before them were having children over the course of 20 years, many of whom died long before adulthood.
All of the women found themselves without a husband or partner to care for them and all of them relied heavily on alcohol. But, contrary to popular belief, they weren’t all prostitutes. Mary Jane was the only victim who definitely was a prostitute, while Polly, Annie and Kate definitely weren’t. It is possible Elizabeth may have dabbled in a bit of part-time prostitution.
Perhaps surprisingly, and to its great credit, The Five doesn’t go into any detail at all about the women’s deaths. It is literally just about their lives. At the end of the book, there is a short conclusion, which is more of an academic and feminist piece of writing.
With the exception of the conclusion, The Five isn’t a heavy read at all. If you are interested in history, feminism or the lives of women, I would definitely recommend this book.