To tell something untold is often to attempt to tell something unspeakable, with all that word’s connotations of unutterable or inexpressibly bad; horrendous. The vicious murders of five women by the figure the Victorian media dubbed Jack the Ripper in the year 1888 are in many regards unspeakably ghastly, taking place amid “the broken pavement, dim gaslights, slicks of sewage, stagnant pools of disease-breeding water” of London’s most neglected East End neighborhoods.
In “The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper,” 130 years after the unsolved crimes, Hallie Rubenhold correctively sets out not to tell of the murderer, but rather to bring the names of these largely forgotten women — Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary-Jane Kelly — into the light.
Rubenhold resists rehashing the sensationalist details of the slayings and instead concentrates on these so-called “canonical five” to “hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.”
A social historian and a historical novelist, Rubenhold is a painstaking researcher and a lucid wordsmith. Without lionizing or sentimentalizing her subjects, she writes of these women with clarity and compassion, pointing out that much of what we think we know comes wrapped in the condescension of officials who were “male, authoritarian, and middle-class.”
Although these women are commonly described as prostitutes, Rubenhold makes clear that not all of them were.
More important, to dismiss them as such is to replicate their era’s prejudices, because it “suggests that there is an acceptable standard of female behavior, and those who deviate from it are fit to be punished.”
Sifting through mountains of misinformation, Rubenhold pulls out as much truth as she can, offering the reader a jewel-like portrait of each one. Born into truly Dickensian circumstances, Nichols was uncommonly smart, and permitted by her parents “to remain in school until the age of 15,” for instance, and Chapman had aspirations of social mobility, lovingly insisting “on having photographs taken of her little girls.”
An exploration into their milieu’s vicious poverty, misogyny and sexual double standards, Rubenhold’s accounts unfold in a vivid style that often feels as immersive as a novel, even as it is backed by extensive quotations and a formidable bibliography.
Serving to remind true crime fans that the people who lose their lives to murder are precisely that — people — Rubenhold’s “The Five” eloquently makes the case that while we will likely never know the identity of Jack the Ripper himself, we can and should understand and respect the identities of the individuals whose lives he took.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk,” and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”
By: Hallie Rubenhold.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 333 pages, $27.