Reviewing: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold, Read by Louise Brealey

Content warnings: Addiction, alcoholism, sexual assault, physical assault, domestic abuse, sexism, homelessness, mistreatment of sex workers, murder

Highlights:

  • It was such a lovingly crafted portrait of these women
  • Honestly the level of research is just phenomenal
  • Will make you want to punch a large amount of historical men

It is for them that I write this book. I do so in the hope that we may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.


Everyone knows about Jack The Ripper, the shadowy and uncaught murderer of London prostitutes in 1888. The victims were brushed off as just that, prostitutes, drunks, nobodies whose only memorial has been headlines degrading them after death, photographs of their bodies, an unsaid conclusion that they brought it upon themselves through their profession, their lives of sin.

This book is a lovingly researched and deeply respectful look into the lives of the five: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane. Mothers, daughters, human beings in their own right – and by and large, not prostitutes at all. In her careful recounting of their lives, Rubenhold reveals a world that was determined from the very start to deny these women and so many like them any form of happiness. A world in which they were the possessions of drunken men, where day in day out drudgery wore down their bodies and their spirits until they seized any freedom they could. Usually and tragically in the form of a bottle of gin. 

This book made me very emotional, and deeply angry. You knew from the first word where this story would end, with bodies in the streets, and it was made all the more terrible by the journey. As with any life, the lives of the five were complex and human and it was so difficult to see them happy, newlyweds, mothers, loving family members, working and loving and living, when you knew exactly where it would end. Often came the downwards turn, accompanied by the bottle – no book can make you despise gin quite like this one – with the raised hand or betrayal of the person who once made them so happy. Nights in shelters, filthy and cold, babies born they could not feed, disease, humiliation, and then finally a lonely death on the Whitechapel streets. 

It is easy for us to look back on history and make sweeping assumptions about how people lived, but to hear the truth of how the very poorest in London lived day to day was chilling. It was a game stacked against them. They could not live independently, they became dependent on men who gave them child after child with no means of feeding or housing them, no way of preventing the inevitable slide into too many mouths to feed, if your lover was in the army he may not be allowed to marry you, if your husband chose to leave you for another woman you would have no choice but to abandon your children – because alone and betrayed, you could provide them with nothing. 

Louise Brealey read this beautifully, with compassion and empathy, and to listen to this book in audio form truly gave such life to these women. Coupled with Rubenhold’s meticulous research and refusal to discuss the murders themselves – we’ve heard far too much of that, and far too little of the women behind the bodies – she helped create a genuinely wonderful listening experience. I would definitely recommend it, though I may buy myself the physical copy to re-read in future, I adored this book so much that owning it in multiple formats only seems fair. 

This is a book that made me look at my life now, at how I would have lived in 1888, and be deeply grateful for the world I was born into. Though not perfect, it is at least a world that has afforded me an education, the ability to marry for love, to work for my own money and to make my own reproductive choices. I wish these women had had even a fraction of the freedom and happiness I have in my life, an ounce of compassion for their suffering in a world determined to grind them down to nothingness. The man who murdered them has gone down in history for the crimes committed against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane who became the nameless prostitutes, because it makes us feel better to see them as lesser. He deserves nothing, not his name, not his legacy. He deserves to be forgotten, and they deserve so much more than they were given. In my opinion, though I know it counts for very little, Hallie Rubenhold has created an incredible tribute to them, and all like them. The forgotten women of history. It is a masterpiece, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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