Another seven fabulous reads to celebrate six years of RBRT
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.
What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.
Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become far more famous than any of these five women.
Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories.
This is a fascinating book in a lot of ways. I have always found the obsession some have with Jack the Ripper quite worrying – yes, his identity is intriguing, but the interest does seem to lean to a fascination with the grisly deaths of women, with these women almost side characters to the whole nasty, cruel business. We have tourist attractions and even museums about him, with the women reduced to mere props. I remember going to Madame Tussauds as a child and walking through the Ripper exhibition, with the recorded voices of women trying to attract clients, a wax model of a women, bloody and gory – a tourist attraction built on horrible, terrifying, painful tragedy visited on real people. The Jack the Ripper Museum sells fridge magnets and bloodstained memorabilia. There’s a lot to unpick there and probably not in a book review, but it goes to show how twisted our fascination with these murders has become.
So a book that focuses on the five victims as people is welcomed, and this book treats them warmly and with compassion, while setting out clearly and unflinchingly the way in which a patriarchal, classist and frankly misogynist society forced women into an endless life of toil, childbirth and misery. Life was grim and unrelenting for these women. The social structures that forced them into these lives is well-described, and absolutely fascinating.
There were a couple of issues for me though. At first, it felt as though, in proving that four of the five victims weren’t actually prostitutes, this meant we should feel more sympathy for them, that their reputations had been sullied by this assumption. But I don’t see why a prostitute is less deserving of our sympathy. A prostitute doesn’t deserve to be murdered. And while it is important to show that these women were mothers, and wives, and daughters, and sisters, and that they laughed, and cried and worried about money, and were human beings, and that while it is important to take the narrative away from the murderer and to show the women he destroyed as people, I’m not sure that so much focus should be on whether or not they were prostitutes, because it doesn’t matter.
It’s tricky, because the popular narrative is that the women were prostitutes, out at night plying ther trade, and they were killed. The author shows that four of the five weren’t prostitutes, and so disproves this narrative. Which is important, because there is a nasty kind of titillation around the prostitution narrative. But, we are left with the feeling that the death of a prostitute is less of a tragedy – which it isn’t. And there is so much hypocrisy around the whole issue of sex work, that it’s important that we don’t add anything to the idea that it is somehow shameful.
Later on in the narrative, the author does address this to an extent, but the emphasis on the idea that four of the five women weren’t prostitutes did leave me feeling a little uncomfortable. There is still this idea whenever women are killed that if they were prostitutes killed by a client, or if they were women who sometimes slept with men for money or a home or security, or if they were alcoholics or drug addicts, then we shouldn’t care so much about their deaths. We absolutely should.
My other issue is that there’s a lot of conjecture around how the women felt about the things that happened to them in their lives. While there is a place for this, it did become a little wearing after a while. We don’t know how these women felt about anything, because they can’t tell us; we can assume some things, but whether or not those assumptions have a place in a book like this is tricky. While trying to humanise the women, and show them as people, it does feel as though the author sometimes goes too far.
That said, what we learn about the women themselves, the lives they lived, and the conditions in Victorian England, is fascinating. There is so much here that I didn’t know. For me, the best part of the book was the way it showed how society set these women up to fail, and then judged them as they did exactly that. Walking with these women through their lives, knowing their fate, is emotional and poignant. And it made me furious too – furious that this is what they and many others suffered, and furious that women are still judged more harshly than men, that our opportunities are still limited, that prostitutes are still vilified and judged, and judged more harshly than the men that use them.
So, on balance, while there were aspects of this book that didn’t work for me, overall I would recommend it. It’s an important book, and a brave one too (the author has, inevitably, received horrible abuse from mainly male ‘ripperologists’ online), and I’m very glad I read it. When I think of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane now, I no longer think of the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ in Madame Tussauds, but of five women, who lived and loved and who were human.