British historian Hallie Rubenhold has written some of the most fascinating stories about women in early modern Europe: the history of an 18th century annual ‘guide book’ of the names and ‘specialities’ of London’s prostitutes, including “some of (its) funniest, rudest and most surreal entries”; the story of the Worsleys, the most sensational saga of sex, scandal, and divorce in 18th century England; and the adventures of Henrietta Lightfoot, “a young Englishwoman fleeing from a dishonourable past in London”.
Later this month, Rubenhold releases her latest: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.
All accounts of perhaps the best known serial killer of all time describe him as a man who murdered “prostitutes”. But what if, asks Rubenhold, virtually everything that we have ever known about Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the so-called canonical five who were killed by the mysterious “Whitechapel Murderer” between August and November 1888, turned out to be largely untrue?
The focus of The Five, Rubenhold says, “is entirely on the women and not on their murderer”.
The first “full-length biography to explore and contextualise the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper” promises to “completely change”, according to the book’s publicity material, “the narrative of the Ripper murders”.
A review of the book in The Guardian has described it as a “landmark study”, and “an angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth”.
Rubenhold follows the grimly similar lives of the five women who were “born into hardship, moved from the briefest of childhoods into a cycle of childbearing, alcohol dependence, poverty, emotional despair and homelessness”, living and dying in hell — mostly because they were born female, and “their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it”.