They are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for; they were children who cried for their mothers, they were young women who fell in love; they endured childbirth, the death of parents; they laughed, and they celebrated Christmas. They argued with their siblings, they wept, they dreamed, they hurt, they enjoyed small triumphs.
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five admirably fulfill’s Rubenhold’s stated ambition for it: to restore “their dignity” to five women whose individual life stories have been subsumed by the horror of their deaths and the horrifyingly glamourous mythology of their murderer. These women, the “canonical five” victims of Jack the Ripper, have long been cast as bit players in his drama, in parts that, Rubenhold shows, reduce or misrepresent who they actually were.
I’m not going to reiterate the life stories Rubenhold has (somewhat astonishingly) managed to reconstruct in The Five, partly because it’s the sheer accumulation of detail that matters to the book’s effectiveness. At times I did wonder if we really need so much detail—Rubenhold risks bogging us down in minutiae, and I admit that sometimes I found myself starting to skim, looking to reconnect with a storyline, to regain some forward momentum. But even as I did that, I was aware that I was going against the grain of the book, which is by design anti-narrative.
What I mean by that (and of course this is just my theory about Rubenhold’s approach) is that we already know something crucial about each woman: we already know how their stories end. For too long that one thing has been considered enough to know about them, or at least the most important thing to know about them, and it has been used to make assumptions about what came before—and about who these women were. In order to undo that ending, to refuse it as the defining moment in their lives, Rubenhold has to repress it almost completely, even as each step of each of her five biographies takes its subject closer and closer to it. It’s a really interesting conceptual challenge.
She is also committed to undoing the sensationalism around her subjects’ lives and deaths: I think that’s another explanation for the way she writes the book. She avoids all the obvious kinds of narrative manipulation: she creates no suspense, she does not set a foreboding tone, use foreshadowing, or create melodramatic scenarios or dramatic climaxes. This is one way The Five differs from Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: although I did not find his treatment of this murderer’s victims exploitive, Jobb does enjoy dramatic irony and foreshadowing, and overall he tells a more melodramatic and grisly tale. He also, obviously, focuses on the killer, whereas Rubenhold refuses to give Jack the Ripper any more attention than is absolutely necessary. (For instance, there is no speculation at all in The Five about who he was.)
This is not to say that The Five is a dull, plodding, or wearily studious book, though it is very much a work of social history. It gets its considerable energy from Rubenhold’s frankly feminist perspective on her subjects’ lives, deaths, and posthumous treatment. “The courses their lives took,” she says early on, “mirrored that of so many other women of the Victorian age.” The book is really one long quietly furious riposte to the still too-common victim-blaming question about women who are assaulted: “what was she doing there in the first place?” She answers that question five times, recounting how one by one these women were worn down by social constraints, by economic struggles, by lack of education, by lack of employment options, by their inability to control their fertility; she shows families broken by disease, by poverty, by alcoholism, and especially by the lack of support and resources to recover from any of these problems. The women she tells us about were not helpless victims of circumstance, but their world was hard, hostile, and often dangerous—and profoundly misogynistic. They ended up in vulnerable situations, not because they made uniquely bad decisions or were in any way “looking for it,” but because they had run out of other options.
And no matter how they came to be “sleeping rough,” they didn’t invite or deserve their horrendous deaths. The idea that any version of their life stories should mitigate our distress at the violence done to them—that in any way their murders open them up to that kind of judgment of their characters—is precisely what Rubenhold is crusading against. The epigraph for her conclusion comes from the judge at the trial of the so-called “Suffolk Strangler” in 2008: “You may view with some distaste the lifestyles of those involved,” he says, but “no-one is entitled to do these women any harm, let alone kill them.” Since the first inquests into their deaths, Rubenhold shows, her five have been dismissed as “only prostitutes,” perpetuating the familiar Madonna / whore dichotomy that “suggests there is an acceptable standard of female behavior, and those who deviate from it are fit to be punished.” She rightly points out how persistent this view is, to this day:
When a woman steps out of line and contravenes accepted norms of feminine behavior, whether on social media or on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that someone must put her back in her place.
Never having read any “Ripperology,” I was shocked at the examples she gives of writers (recent ones!) about Jack the Ripper who casually degrade his victims and “elevate the murderer to celebrity status.” “Our culture’s obsession with the mythology,” she convincingly argues, “serves only to normalize its particular brand of misogyny.” Women shouldn’t have to be nice, good, perfect to be safe; men shouldn’t be able to use anything about women’s lives as justifications for violence against them. It might seem like a stretch when Rubenhold declares that by accepting the “Ripper legend” we not only perpetuate the specific injustice done to her subjects but “condone the basest forms of violence”—but if we understand them, as she wants us to, as representative rather than unique, as important because they are ordinary, not because they are outliers, then she is exactly right, and in that respect The Five is very much a book about the present as well as the past, and it is not just sad but infuriating.