Reading Group 1 Book Review – April 23 – The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the RipperPolly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.
For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

Group Reviews:

This book led to more discussion than usual at our meeting.  Everyone enjoyed it.

1.  Surprisingly, I really enjoyed this book and wouldn’t have chosen to read it normally. It was a very clear  insight into the  lives of the five victims killed by Jack the Ripper.   With the author describing  their early years,  how the life path they chose led them  becoming alcoholics, sleeping rough,  perhaps going into prostitution and what they had in common which led to their murders.  It was definitely a different take on all the books about Jack the Ripper.  Although,  very sad at the way these women’s lives were and ended it was written in a very informative and respectful manner.  Well done Hallie Rubenhold.

2.  There were some common themes running through the stories of the five women who were alleged to have been victims of Jack The Ripper – namely their lives were all filled with unfortunate circumstances, there was a reliance on alcohol at various points of their lives, they came from under privileged backgrounds. Misfortune had taken them to a dangerous area of London. It was assumed that they were all prostitutes but the stories showed that only one, Mary Jane Kelly, considered herself a prostitute.

3.  The stories of the women were that of the social history of the time. Each came from a different part of the country with one originating in Sweden.  I felt that the detail of conditions these women lived in was fairly generic and perhaps not altogether relevant for each one. Although the social history for the era was interesting the detail was too much and at times repeated. Women who had received a rudiment of education could still not escape their circumstances. There were also gaps in the knowledge of circumstances of each woman and how they arrived in this notorious part of London so it seemed that without real evidence it was made to fit the overall story.

4.  I enjoyed the book and thought it was well written, an easy read, whilst giving information and being thought provoking.  Although the women prostituted themselves I do not think that was their original aim, it was forced on them by  the times; they had to have a man ‘behind’ them and if they lost the support of one quickly had to find another.  At least today’s women have a choice.  Poverty and alcohol were the major factors in the downfall of the women although lack of family support contributed to their problems.  Nowadays the media can be intrusive but it helps to publish information about available help.  It was interesting to read about the lives of the women rather than speculation as to whom the Ripper could have been.


Posted in Reading Group 1.