Hallie Rubenhold's The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper was released last year; finally in lockdown, I read this "angry and important", "gripping" and "devastatingly good" account of Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Reading like a thriller meets social history, it is the most astounding book I have read for some time and deserves the praise heaped upon it.
Ever since Jack the Ripper's 1888 Whitechapel killing spree, attention has focused on who he was and the grisly details of his crimes rather than the victims who were dismissed as "just prostitutes". Rubenhold more than rights this wrong, exposing how Jack has slipped into popular culture as a cartoon villain rather than cold-blooded killer: "At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer's deep, abiding hatred of women, and our cultural obsession with the mythology only serves to normalize its particular brand of misogyny."
Rubenhold tells the stories of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane who, each in their own way, led fascinating and tragic lives made extraordinary and poignant by circumstances well beyond their control. You'll learn a lot about many aspects of late 19th century London life in a book that's ground-breaking, radical and, using abundant and intriguing detail, backgrounds the appalling conditions of and attitudes to the poor, poverty, addiction, destitution and class that linger today. If we're heading into a time when more people will – some for the first time – find themselves dependent on welfare, we'll need to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of these dated and hurtful ideas. Someone take this story to the big screen – stat.
The Five: The Untold Story of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (Black Swan, $24)