Book reviews / History

Book review: The Five

Many people have raved about how good this book is and they were all right. For those of you not in the know, the full title of Hallie Rubenhold’s book is The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.

The central premise rejects the claims that the women were all prostitutes, but more importantly it was to actually give space for their lives to be told. And they are just such heartbreaking stories: domestic abuse, infidelity, alcoholism, bereavement. A whole host of misfortunes exacerbated by Victorian society, norms and laws stacked against poor and working class women.

It made me angry, like all really good books do. Just the simple injustice of it all, from the poverty to the way the women were described with little thought upon their deaths. As it states in the conclusion: “At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer’s deep, abiding hatred of women, and our cultural obsession with the mythology only serves to normalize its particular brand of misogyny.” I’m amazed but infuriated that it has taken so long to understand these women, when clearly there was more than enough evidence to piece together how they had lived.

It was simultaneously a tough and easy read. Tough because it was just an absolute stark portrayal of what happened to poor women in Victorian society. These women started with some enormous odds against them, but Rubenhold told their stories with such compassion. It was easy to read as it was so beautifully written, with lovely touches to humanise the stories of these women. I basically read it in three sittings, reading about the life of one or two of these women at a time.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. I want more and more books like this one to be published, where history has carelessly made assumptions and which those assumptions are methodically ripped apart.

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