Friday, July 19, 2019

Book Review | The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Okay, so realistically, this is a five-star read, but it was truly so good that I could not stop myself from adding more stars. I was in the library hold line a long time for this one. It was absolutely worth the wait.

The Five has earned a place among my 'Best of 2019'. It's beautiful and brilliant and tragic and haunting, but it is more than anything a memorial to the women who have become but a footnote in their own lives, and deaths, cast aside for the thrill of trying to figure out who could have so brutally murdered them.

How many books have you read about their murderer? If the subject interests you, I can think of five or so off the top of my head who have attempted to shine a spotlight on a man who has for over a century eluded capture, and most likely always will. But how often are his victims in those works only mentioned in passing, gleefully describing his handiwork, often showing pictures of the women who were mutilated almost beyond recognition? We are told they were prostitutes, as if that statement alone tells us everything we ever need to know about them, implying that had they been moral, upstanding women, they would not have been so cruelly dispatched.

Guess what? Fuck that noise. Seriously.

I don't care if they all were prostitutes and honestly, that is the very last thing that should matter. Unfortunately in Victorian England and the world today, it still matters very much, thus the need for this book. It is frustrating that it even needed to be written, to show people that, "Hey, guess what, not all were prostitutes", but it is so important; it brings the women out of the shadows and shoves their killer back into the darkness where he belongs. It also shows just how misogynistic society continues to be to this day.

There is so much incredible detail here - so much of this was completely new to me. As the title suggests, this book only focuses on the women, each given her own chapter, in the order that their lives were brutally cut short. I could not believe just how much the author was able to uncover about these women, their places of birth, childhoods, and so on. There is some conjecture but for once this did not bother, as it was not rampant and was necessary to provide context and a fuller picture. For example, did you know that not all of the women were even English? One was from Sweden, and another was Welsh. I am trying to not give too much away, because this is something I want everyone to read, there is so much to discover. These women were so much more than the terrible endings they suffered.

One major difference you will notice in this text compared to others about the crime, is that there is almost no reference to the murderer himself. Nor does the author humiliate her subjects by recounting the horrific conditions he left their deceased bodies in. Throughout it all, she treats the women with the dignity and respect that they were denied in life. 

Not only did the author recreate the lives of these women, but she also placed them in their era with stunning imagery. I am usually not terribly interested in UK history much beyond the reign of Mary I, but for some reason, Victorian London is enthralling. Here the author describes the neighborhoods, slums, back alleys, doss houses, orphanages, and the people who walked those streets looking for work or drink. An incredibly vivid pictures seems to rise from the pages and you can practically see and smell and hear all there is to take in during that stretch of of time in 1888.

Instead of all being strung together with the prostitute label, what better suits the group's characteristics is that all struggled with addiction to alcohol. Most of the women were born to working-class families, where life was tough from the start and the deck was already stacked against them. But they fought hard just to survive their childhoods, and most went on to marry and start families. For various reasons that the author describes, all became stuck in the grasp of alcoholism. If you think the social stigma placed on people struggling with addiction today is bad, rest (not so) assured that it was even worse for people in the 19th century, and worst of all for women. If you were a woman without a family to care for, and a man to care for you, you had no value. You were broken, You had failed at the one thing expected of you in life, regardless of station. And that is one of the many reasons that no one thought twice about lumping all of these women together in one heap, newspapers gleefully showing off the horrible photos of the women, who would not be afforded dignity or privacy even in death. There killer knew this, knew that these were women no one would miss, that they were viewed as deserving what happened to them because they chose to live outside society's expectations of them.

These women were poor and homeless, and contrary to popular belief, the author comes to an obvious conclusion when taking all of this into consideration: The women were not murdered by an all-but-invisible fiend who killed them as they plied their trade on the street. They were, in fact, murdered as they slept. All but one (Mary Jane Kelly) had been "sleeping rough", the term used when one was not able to secure enough money for lodging that night and instead had to find somewhere out of the way to try and catch a few hours' sleep. Survival was difficult, and was day-to-day when you made ends meet however you could, but still needed to dull the pain of losing your family, your home, your children was the alcohol which all relied on. Yet, all five women were described best by those who knew them, that they were kind and gentle - when not drunk.

Much like our media has only recently started to do when a terrible crime has been committed, the author asks you to remember not the name of the murderer, but the women who lost their lives for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols

Annie Chapman

Elisabeth Stride

Catherine Eddowes

Mary Jane Kelly

"It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never 'just prostitutes'; they were women. They were human beings, and surely that in itself is enough" (page 295)

Meticulous research of both the women and the period. Incredibly thorough notes and references. Highly, highly recommended.


  1. Jack the Ripper stuff has always freaked me out (not really freaked out, but it just seems so gruesome?) so I've never tried much of it, but you make a great point- how about memorializing these women who were so much more than "just" prostitues or victims? Nice to see that was done here.

    1. I have always been put off by the gruesome-ness of it all, and how these "Ripperologists" have built him up to epic proportions. It's like they're so obsessed with him, they've forgotten who really mattered - and treated his victims so poorly. We're never going to know who he was, and that's okay, because he deserves to be forgotten. If you get around to reading this one, let's talk about it, I want to know what you think!

  2. Excellent review! Emma Donoghue published a novel about a woman from that period called Slammerkin. It is great.

    1. Thank you so much Judy. It was a pretty emotional write, and it took me a few hours. I will take a look at Slammerkin. Someday I will have room for fiction...possibly...hopefully... :)

  3. This is a book I will certainly be interested in reading at some point in the future. Now I just need to find more time to read!

    1. It was seriously so good. I'd even go as far as to say, make room ASAP. I was thoroughly impressed by it and the wealth of information the author was able to turn up about these women.

  4. I'm so excited to see how much you loved this one. I had it out from the library but had to return it. I've always been fascinated by Jack the Ripper but I love how the focus of this one is on the victims - something that I think is way overdue. Thanks for your review - back on the hold list I go!

    1. YES!! I feel like I was literally and figuratively waiting for this book my whole life. Or at least the span where I knew who Jack the Ripper was, and had the sense to be furious over the fact that everyone seemed to care more about who he was, than who his victims were. Please, please, read it ASAP. It's so good. Then come talk to me about it!!


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