Last year, I was so very lucky to be involved in the first round of blog tours that The Wolfson History Prize had done in a run up to the awards, because I had won the previous year’s shortlist in a Twitter competition. I didn’t even know what a blog tour was back then (sorry for the panicked emails sent…) and when I was allocated a book to read and review, I was excited, nervous, stressed, and everything in between. It turned out being a pivotal moment for me in terms of how I wanted to head with my blog, but also how I felt about myself because of the themes contained. The book I read, Reckonings, touched me on a level that I credited to the author because of her approach in humanizing history; rather than facts on a page, it was people in a room. And, to great but important sadness and surprise, this year’s book has done the very same.
Every now and again, a book comes along that makes you question almost everything you’ve every thought about a subject. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed By Jack the Ripper does just that, and then a little bit more, expanding your thoughts and feelings to a point you almost don’t recognize where you were at before. I’m far from the first to have had an interest at some point in time in the escaped murderer, and unsolved murders. Sitting here now, however, I feel almost embarrassed by that passing curiosity after what I have learned is stood up next to how these killings have been fetishized into fiction books, films, costumes, games, and endless other things that continue to move further and further away from the fact that these are the lives of women we are talking about. Women who thought and felt and laughed and shouted and cried. Five women, who, until this book, have been reduced to footnotes of their own deaths by the forever craze of a whodunit, forgotten about as human beings somewhere along the line.
“Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes” was seen as acceptable rhetoric in 1888, but it is not today. Not only could it never be formally agreed upon what a prostitute was or did legally, but even if they were, all that does is reinforce how disposable women are when they are no longer fitting into the mold that society demands, both then and now. Women had to support their man, back him up regardless. There was no contraception, so women had to have children, often despite not wanting them, and fully aware of the risks of dying in childbirth. Men could up and leave without stigma, so a woman would have to find a job that paid enough to support her family because in the end society just kept hammering her into the ground, hit after hit after hit, expecting her to take it, expecting her to keep a smile on her face and a bonnet on her head. The pressures of not being seen as a ‘fallen woman’, so flaws and irredeemable that there was no way to escape the stigma, were high. That men might be at all responsible for the positions of these women, and millions of others, was intolerable. But if society did this, every day, to Polly, Annie, Kate, Elizabeth and Mary Jane, is it any surprise that at some point, they broke?
The playing field is far from level today, yet in 1888 simply being born a girl put you at a bias that cannot be understated. Sexism might still be rife, but at least the majority of people now will go someway to disguising it until an appropriate moment, whereas these five women – and every other girl and woman with them – automatically was at an acknowledged, accepted, and even encouraged disadvantage. Never destined to bring in a full wage, they weren’t considered worth educating to the level of their brothers. Unable to escape domestic violence because ‘proof’ was required, and unable to leave adulterous husbands because that by itself wasn’t grounds for divorce (naturally, of course, a woman having even ‘been seen’ with another man was as much). Girls without an education could only hope to enter a lifetime of backbreaking service, and the girls that were educated – both Kate Eddowes and Polly Nichols were literate – had no life enhancing chances either. What could they do with that education? There were no options.
Rubenhold states on page 339, “The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births,” and this couldn’t be more true. Page by page as you read through this book, you are struck by the sheer horror of being a poor woman in 1888. You see their situations spiraling down to how we know it ends. It’s devastating to think of just how many women met fates like these, with no system to support them, and only judgement from the rest of society, which, as is true today, only makes situations worse. The only reason that these five have been remembered by history at all is because of the manner of their deaths, and only then because the press exploited and sensationalized to play upon just how awful Whitechapel was, how grim their lives were, and how women could do better
Rubenhold is determined to change that, however. Within The Five she brings back their humanity, and gives them the opportunity to be remembered as women, with discussion of their upbringings, families, and how they spent both the best and worst times of their lives. These are things we might know about our relatives of the same period, as 1888 really isn’t all that long ago when we break it down into generations, and these women deserve to be given the same respect. Dismissed by the media and society of their own time, and continually spun as deserving victims of their fates even now, this is a book that deserves to be read to give them some form of justice. It takes everything we have been taught and turns it, not on its head, but inside out, showing us everything that has been hidden by the blanket treatment that women’s lives are worth a reduced rate.
This book has been written during an uncertain time period in world history, and I am writing these words the year after publication in even more uncertain times. Amidst this, there is something certain in the air: social, political change is occurring around us. We are living through historic times. Rubenhold does not hesitate to hold people accountable for their actions during her work, and there is such reflection to a current state of play that we need to pay attention. This book isn’t about hunting down a killer, but about the social history of what the Victorian era considered suitable living for the poor, the damage that does to families, and how we must never go backwards. The Poor Law was only abolished in 1948, after all, meaning that the last workhouses were still around – under a different name – after the Second World War was over. We are comfortable talking about military history as a norm of the time, but not about the circumstances that people were forced into within living memory.
The Five isn’t a quest to solve who killed these women, but is about bringing them back from the brink of obscurity. Say their names, discuss their stories, talk about where it went wrong, because improvement is a continual act that we can do individually and as a society. This book doesn’t search out whodunit because at the end of the day, he only matters if he could be held accountable. And as he can’t, let us celebrate these women. Not as the perfect icons of Victorian life, sexualized and morphed into other things, but as the women they were; to quote the author: “The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings.”
My gratitude to Midas PR and to The Wolfson History Prize for allowing me to be involved in this very special tour, and to talk about this book, which I feel hugely passionate about.