When this book first came out, I put it on the “wait until paperback” list. Then the news about Rubenhold being trolled arrived. She was even compared to David Irving. Surely, I thought, this can not be simply because she is a woman and argues that not all the victim were prostitutes. Surely, it can’t be that. It seemed worse than when a certain mystery author claimed to have solved the case. Surely, if the reaction Rubenhold’s book is worse than reaction to that one by Ripperologists, there must be something wrong with it.
Well, no. There isn’t. Quite frankly, the reaction that Rubenhold has received from some quarters because of her book because just shows how misogynist and sexist people are. The mystery author deserved the criticism for her book was an example of how not to research. Rubenhold’s The Five, however, is an example of what good research does. Rubenhold’s book should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in the Ripper or in Victorian London as well as those interested in Women’s Studies.
The most shocking thing about the book isn’t the thesis, which Rubenhold proves to an academic standard but simply that a historian hasn’t done this before. This isn’t intended as a slight to Rubenhold, but more at Ripperologists. Rubenhold basically puts the women in historical context. In some ways, this book made me think of Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, where history is used to challenge the traditional view of Anne Hathaway as a manipulative shrew. There is an important difference, however, Rubenhold is more conservative in her conclusions than Greer. Greer relied on guesswork and deduction in some places (her most far reaching was having Anne be partially responsible for the first printing of the Works). Rubenhold’s conclusions are back up by data and hard facts. When she supposes, it is a minor way and the supposition is clear.
Elizabeth Stride, Mary Ann Nicols, Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman.
Those are the victims. And Rubenhold is correct. The murderer is remembered, dare we say celebrated, more than his victims. To be fair, this isn’t just true about Jack the Ripper. How many of us can name a victim of Charles Manson outside of Tate? Perhaps, in remembering the name of the murderer as opposed to the murdered not only is it one name to remember in many cases, but the actor is the reason. This in addition to the status of the victims as well. There is a reason why we know the name Sharon Tate as oppose to Rosemary LaBianca.
Rubenhold traces the lives of the women as much as she is able to. The London and because of Stride, the Sweden, she presents is familiar to any reader of say Charles Dickens, Arnold, Judith Flanders, or social history. If you have any detailed societal history, the facts are not surprising or shocking. Or quite frankly, something you should be debating. What Rubenhold does is takes those societal facts and the known facts about the victims and presents the victims as people.
Some of the women were mothers. Most of the women had people who loved them. Who were mourned. All were products of a cultural that did not value women in the same way it valued men. Something that Rubenhold points out, and notes its long shadow. Rubenhold’s mention of the Brock Turner case is a perfect example of how far we haven’t come. We judge victims on worthiness. Take for instance, the Grim Sleeper case in California. If those victims had more money, had been white, would the case have gone unnoticed for so long? Rubenhold also addresses how prostitution was defined and how women of different ages coped with being on the street. Think about it – today, do we think every homeless woman is a prostitute? I don’t think so. So why should we think the same about women back then.
Rubenhold doesn’t present the women as saints, but more of products of an environment. It shows the effect of poverty and limited options. And this is something that still affects and effects today.
More importantly, Rubenhold presents all this – social history, brief biographies - in a format that is easily approachable and readable. You don’t have to be a Ripperologist or a history professor to read this novel. You just have to know how to read.
Two other points – sources are footnoted and documented. She is nothing like David Irving.
The most touching part of the book is the appendix where the belongings of the women are listed.