The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Another Nonfiction Book Club selection! This one was a highly anticipated read for many of our members.
From the publisher marketing:
Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London—the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.
Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, 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 coffeehouses, lived on country estates; they breathed ink dust from printing presses and escaped human 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, but 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 women.
Since it’s Nonfiction November, I figured I better catch up on some of the Nonfiction Book Club selections from this year. Though book club is on hiatus until May (I am so burnt out on virtual meetings), it is still a very near and dear piece of my heart that has helped me, and many other members of book club make it through the pandemic.
The Five quickly became a favorite of my coworker, Marielle, who joined Nonfiction Book Club after her own book club, YA for all flamed out. She’s recommended it countless times at the store and made it one of her summer picks this year as well, she absolutely loves it. The book itself focuses on the lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Their deaths are barely mentioned and there is no gruesome true crime style recounting of how they died – Hallie focuses exclusively on how they lived. She also does not go into speculation about who Jack the Ripper was, and besides a cursory mention in the introduction, he is not mentioned again in the book. So if you are looking for an actual true crime book about about him, this is not it.
The five women of The Five were a fascinating group of women, most of whom fell to the circumstances of being a woman in the late 1800s – it wasn’t an easy time for women on the whole. Their backgrounds were varied, some had wealth, others poor, one an immigrant, one a pathological liar – they were all people, people with friends and families who cared about them, people who were more than just victims of a terrible crime.
One thing that did tie them all together, however, was that at the time of their deaths, they were all in some sort of destitute situation, either due to circumstances beyond their control, mental health crises, or addition. In book club we had a fascinating discussion about female freedom and oppression as well as the lack of agency women of the late Victorian era experienced and compared it to our own. We’re lucky, in book club, to have a number of generations represented by our members and our best conversations always arise when we get to discuss the different experiences we all had with feminism and sexism growing up.
The Five is a snapshot of London and the lives of the people who lived and worked there in the late 1800s. As we always do when we find a book categorized in a genre that we do not agree with, with discussed in book club where we should shelve it at the store. We made well reasoned arguments for true crime (because that’s where we found it and we may not have found it otherwise), sociology, history and biography before ultimately landing on biography. We found ourselves appreciative that Hallie Rubenhold went on the search she did to reclaim this women’s voices so we found biography to be the best fit.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.