I like this author. A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011. I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.
“The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”. From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented. They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise. They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate. Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.
Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888.
The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape. This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope. And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.
The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life. The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another. The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence. Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do. This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion. I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.
The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section. I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging. But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.
The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019. It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.