The Five by Hallie Rubenhold


I don’t often read non-fiction, but as I typically enjoy historical novels I was intrigued by Hallie Rubenhold’s latest book which relates to an infamous historical figure responsible for taking the lives of five women. I must confess that prior to reading I was of course familiar with the name Jack the Ripper, but less aware of the names of his victims. This is something that Rubenhold addresses in The Five, as she tells the untold stories of these women.

‘The victims of Jack the Ripper were never “Just prostitutes”; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women.’

From the opening pages Hallie Rubenhold sets the scene well, with a vivid description of life in Victorian London, the aspects of its history that are well documented, and those that are less so. From this point the book is split into five parts, each one providing fascinating insight into the lives of five women; Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. And in each of these individual stories we learn of the challenges faced by the general population in Victorian London, and in particular the experiences of the women. As is to be expected, there were challenges to be faced in relation to employment, and making a home for a growing family. What is most harrowing, but not necessarily surprising, is the way in which men and women were treated differently, particularly in matters of relationship and sexuality, with women found themselves discriminated against. This subsequently resulted in lives taking a very different path, in which there were further dangers to be faced, and desperate measures to be taken to ensure food and shelter. I found each of the women’s stories to be compelling reading, as the intricacies of their lives were mapped out and bought to the page.

The Five is clearly very well researched and there is a lot of information to take in as we are introduced to these women, their families and their journeys. Their stories were each rich in detail, building up a picture of their lives whilst also speculating on other aspects of their character based on extensive archival material. What I liked most about the way this book was written was the fact that there was very little recounted about their murders, with the book instead focusing on these women as living human beings, and the impact they had on their own world and others. This despite what flaws they may have had, or the unfavourable way in which they may have been portrayed amongst the public and the media. Drawing upon a wealth of knowledge and information, Rubenhold has pieced together the untold history of five women, and the harsh world into which they were born, changing the perception of their lives, and to tell the story of them as mothers, children and friends.

I found The Five to be an interesting read rich in detail which provides the reader with a fascinating insight into an untold aspect of history. It effectively highlights the plight of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane, and those who they loved and left behind.

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