Summary: an extraordinarily powerful and desperately sad account of five poor women whose lives were brutally cut short
Biography is a common enough form in political and military history often, when used well, providing telling insight into pivotal events. It is certainly a much less common approach in social history. But this is the approach that Hallie Rubenhold adopts in The Five. The result is stunning.
It is a book, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, that demands the reader rethinks their understanding of history. It debunks the myths and falsehoods constructed around a particular time and set of events to serve the interests of the powerful rather that the actual truth of what happened and, most unjustly, who it happened to.
Take for example the most commonly held falsehood: that Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. Apart for Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly, there is no evidence at all that any of the other three had ever had anything to do with sex work. What they had in common was that they were poor women driven by circumstances to the margins. Hence they were exceptionally vulnerable, often forced to spend nights on the streets where several were murdered in their sleep.
Rubenhold ignores all the fevered speculation about Jack the Ripper, instead focussing on the women themselves and how they ended up vulnerable and destitute. As Rubenhold says they were daughters, wives, mothers, lovers and their biographies are as varied and fascinating as any Victorian imperial “Great Man” and, in their ferocious efforts to survive, a damn sight more heroic even if ultimately tragic. Mary Jane, for example, managed the extraordinary feat of escaping from from human traffickers in Paris and, as was disclosed at her inquest, was active in trying to offer protection to other destitute women fearful in the shadow of this apparent serial killing spree.
It is comforting to think that the callous social policies and cultural attitudes that caused these poor women’s destitution are a thing of the past. But the methods human traffickers used to entrap Mary Jane are still commonly used in the trafficking of women and girls to this day. And there is so much in the stories of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane that echo in the life experiences of poor female factory workers and sex workers who I interviewed only last year in South East Asia. Things haven’t changed. They have just been moved on in the same way the homeless were “moved on” in Victorian times. People can tolerate much injustice so long as it doesn’t spoil their view.
The Five is an extraordinary work: rigorously researched, beautifully written, and desperately sad. It deserves to win every prize that it is eligible for.
It should win all the rest as well.
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