RAD Book Club’s second title in Series 5 was The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by social historian Hallie Rubenhold.
Published in 2019, Rubenhold’s non-fiction book, shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, is an exploration of the lives of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold breaks new ground by focusing on the lives of these women, exploding the myth that they were all prostitutes and purposely omitting all description of their murders and any discussion about their killer, thus distinguishing herself from other authors who have written before her. Eleven of us met to discuss this piece of Victorian social history as we pondered about the fortunes and failing of these five women.
We all appreciated the masterful research undertaken to produce this work. Many were amazed at how much of the lives of people who are often ignored and discarded by society can be reconstructed. We enjoyed the depiction of Victorian times and the rich and diverse elements the author has chosen to portray to bring these women to life. But what we most welcomed was the book’s refusal to sensationalise the murders or killer, instead, providing an important work on social and local history and making these women the protagonists of their own lives.
We thought each self-contained chapter was an impressive attempt to bring each of these women alive, keeping the reader or listener engaged and interested with data and details. This was done by providing diverse and fascinating insights into social and working conditions, class expectations, travel and geography, family relations, among many other aspects. Housing and living conditions was an aspect of the book which was particularly relevant for some of us as it gave us an understanding of the creation of the Peabody estates, the function of the work houses, and homelessness, among other features. Some pointed out that it is often the case that accounts of that period often emphasize the extremes of those times. However, we thought that the author did a good job of humanizing the victims and showing their decline into hard times in a relatable, credible way. For many, this book managed to open up a whole different aspect of the Victorian era which made us aware of the fragility in which these women and the working classes endured, but not in a sensationalised or romanticised manner.
Although we struggled to find negative features that, we did come up with a few minor ones; we felt that at times the author’s attempts to give character to the women strayed too far into fiction, assuming emotions and assigning details that cannot be known. The author’s constant reiteration that these women were not prostitutes, although convincing, becomes a bit repetitive. Although we all found the text to be very accessible, some found each chapter read too much like an individual essay and felt some summing up was needed.
We extended our discussion into the predominance of alcoholism and the nature of addiction in the book and we wondered how far these women’s lives (and deaths) could be explained by the presence of alcohol and their dependence to it. To our shame, we did digress into a discussion about the killer but quickly reprimanded ourselves and agreed that the lives of these five women were much more interesting and valid.
Our group score perfectly reflects how much we enjoyed reading this book and how important we think it is: 8 out of 10.
Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 3 December 2019 at the usual time of 1-2 in the Library to discuss the recent work by novelist Madeline Miller Circe, a Greek myth retold from a new, feminist perspective.