One of the most exciting and captivating books I’ve read in a long, long time. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold isn’t a romantic story about the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. It’s opposite. The Five is a non-finctional historical account of life in the 1800’s London. It’s about (and only about!) the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper – about their lives (and very little about their deaths), about the environment they lived in (and often not by their own choice). About the people they met, the children they bore and lost. About London at a very, very dark and vile time. And I absolutely recommend you read it, especially if you tend to romanticise 18th and 19th century England. This book will – change – your – heart.
Why is reading The Five by Hallie Rubenhold so captivating and eye-opening?
It’s NOT about Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper has become what you’d call a cult serial killer. There are gazillions of books on him – some fiction, some factual, some just a little spiced up. Yet we practically don’t know anything about him. We just imagine a dark caped man with a moustache who rid the streets of London of a couple of fallen women. We imagine dark streets lit in gas green. Dirty people scrambling about in the dark alleys. And among them there’s this Johny Depp kinda guy with a knife romantically murdering 5 (or more) unlucky women. But who were these women? We never ask.
It IS about London in the 1800’s
I always imagined 1800’s London to be somewhat dirty and dark, full of little sad people going to work day and night coughing their lungs out from tuberculosis. It’s the age of Isambard Brunel. The age of top hats and walking canes. The age of tiny bone china cups in thin hands of beautiful women. But London wasn’t like that really. It was full of roaming homeless people sleeping on the curb at Trafalgar Square. Rats and scarlet fever. Children dying before they were born. Or right after they were born. Or within days, months, years of being born. Workhouses bursting at their seams with desperate people. Rape and dirt. So much dirt and smoke and ash. And so little food and money and decency. Hallie Rubenhold’s research into this era is astounding and makes your eyes well up with sadness for all those poor souls.
It gives the victims names, faces – and lives
Suddenly the canonical fives are becoming real women. Breathing, living, dreaming. They experienced happiness in their lives. And they experiences sadness. They lived through deaths and were surrounded by people who loved them. The canonical five were beautiful humans, they were not mere prostitutes. Some of them were not prostitutes at all, which is something that gets misinterpreted very often. It was a desperate time which sometimes pushed people in ways they had never expected.
One might have ended up soliciting because her husband fell for someone else and from one day to another she had absolutely no means of supporting herself. It might have been out of desperation caused by the feeling of failing one’s life as a woman and a mother. Perhaps all her children died of scarlet fever. Perhaps she grew up as an orphan in a workhouse. It wasn’t all just black and white as we imagine. It was ash and mud black, mostly.
It’s written with conviction
The way this book is written makes you feel like you’re experiencing all the sorrow that the people felt. It’s not emotional yet it gives you a very vivid painful image of what was happening. The workhouses. The diseases. The alcoholism. The lack of work and means to survive. The living conditions. The absolute terror of feeling desperate, alone and meaningless. The religion which split families apart. Just imagine.
It’s strange how history and pop culture portrays these murders when in fact the women were much, much more than what we learn to think from the media. Hallie Rubenhold has done a brilliant job researching the time and the women, bloody brilliant.