For a dedicated true crime fan, I’ve never been that interested in the Jack the Ripper case.
I haven’t really interrogated the reasons why–maybe it’s because my first introduction to the Ripper was in a computer suite in an ICT lesson (does anyone else remember when schools had computer suites?). A boy dared me to go to a specific website–one all about Jack the Ripper–and duly, I did. What greeted me was graphic images of victim’s bodies that left me feeling VERY queasy.
However, when I saw that super historian Hallie Rubenhold was writing a book about the Ripper, I was very excited. Having read and loved Hallie’s previous work, I could not wait to dive into it. And I was NOT disappointed. THE FIVE is probably one of the best popular history books I’ve read; it’s unapologetically feminist and much needed. This isn’t going to be a full and detailed review (check out F Yeah History’s excellent review if you fancy one!) but reasons why you should drop everything you’re doing and read this book now.
1 // A RADICAL REINTERPRETATION OF THE JACK THE RIPPER MYTH
Another aspect of the whole Ripper case which always put me off was the mythology of the case–bolstered by press reports at the time and ruthlessly exploited by many TV shows, books and movies since. Conspiracy theories surround who he was and how he got away with his crimes, and why did he stop killing? To be honest, I’m more than a bit bored of those questions. They don’t seem answerable 150 years after the fact, and the theories that supposedly answer them get ever more ludicrous. In THE FIVE, Hallie dismisses these myths expertly. She makes a world-famous case that has been gone over again and again feel effortlessly fresh.
2 // FEMINIST AS H*CK
One of the ways Hallie demolishes these myths and falsities is by using a distinctly feminist lens to look at this case. I really enjoyed her complete examination of each of the women’s lives–from birth till death. Not only did this personify the victims (as really, they always should have been), but it exposed the myriad of disadvantages they suffered from the moment of their birth.
3 // A SEARING PORTRAYAL OF WORKING CLASS VICTORIAN LONDON
Hallie’s Victorian London feels real and realistic. Part of this is due to her excellent writing (seriously, I AM JEALOUS!) but also due to the wide range of primary sources used to convey a real sense of London–one that is often overlooked on the historical record.
4 // INTERROGATING ASSESSMENT OF THE MERITS OF SOURCES
Speaking of sources, the number and variety that Hallie employed throughout THE FIVE is incredible. This not only adds depth to her analysis, but also allows her to really get to the nitty gritty of what Londoner’s at the time we’re saying. I particularly enjoyed her withering analysis of some of the sensationalist media that surrounded the women after their murders–the cherry picking of quotes by relatives and friends of the women betrayed a specific narrative that the popular newspapers were aiming to create– and it is a narrative that has persisted to this day.
5 // CENTRING THE VICTIMS
Victims, at the end of the day, should be the focus of every crime. Too often we look at the reasons why the perpetrator did what they did, and too often the victims get lost. As a feminist, I am ashamed to say that before reading this book I could not name all five of the women murdered in 1888. I didn’t know their stories, the challenges they faced, the struggles that beset their lives. Now I do. Reading Hallie’s conclusion chapter was so powerful I cried. Not only does THE FIVE humanise and centre the victims of Jack the Ripper, leaving out the graphic and gory details of their deaths (which I find are often almost glorified in some accounts of the Ripper), but she traces a link between the women and the way in which some women–particularly sex workers–are treated today.
This book is truly incredible–one of my favourite reads of 2019 so far. Even if you’re not that interested in Jack the Ripper, I urge you to pick up THE FIVE. It is a feminist history we all need.