Finding a moment to talk to historian Hallie Rubenhold right now is nigh on impossible. If she’s not on the set of historical dramas, she’s booking flights, organising charity events or responding to media requests. The Five, her new non-fiction book about the women killed by Jack the Ripper, is not released for another week, but has already soared up the Amazon bestseller list, been optioned by a TV drama company, generated news pieces in almost every national publication and had a raft of glowing reviews.
For a historian whose entire career has been defined by pushing the stories of under-acknowledged people to the fore – from authoring The Covent Garden Ladies and Lady Worsley’s Whim, to serving as historical consultant on City of Vice and Harlots – the attention is long overdue. “Oh my god. It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s exciting and stressful at the same time because you are so open to scrutiny.”
Very few historical topics have been as picked apart and analysed as the Whitechapel murders of 1888. There have been Hollywood films, TV documentaries, video games and countless books attempting to unmask the killer – so it’s unsurprising that The Five is one of 2019’s most anticipated works of historical true crime.
But unlike a lot of what has gone before, it is not a book about a killer. Rubenhold has no interest in adding to the discourse about the identity of Jack the Ripper: “We’re never going to solve that mystery. Over 130 years have passed now, nobody has found anything new and they’re not going to.”
This is instead a book about five women, whose stories have taken a remarkably long time to be told. “History is literally a goldmine of epic stories,” Rubenhold says, “and they do not all have to revolve around kings and queens and wars and battles and generals and dictators, the stories of whom we have heard over and over again. Everybody has a story to tell from the time that they live through and we desperately need to hear these stories in our society and in our culture.”
Many of the headlines thus far have focused on Rubenhold’s assertion that the women were asleep when they were murdered, but the book is so much more than this. It is a highly readable work of rigorous scholarship that plunges the reader into the claustrophobic world of late 19th-century London. We find poverty, working-class aspiration, childhood mortality, broken marriages, alcoholism, depression, love affairs and disease. In one particularly uncomfortable passage, we find a place where “parents, children, siblings and extended family dressed, washed, engaged in sex and, if there were no ‘adjacent conveniences’, defecated in front of one another”.
Through Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols we discover the horrors of the workhouse; through Annie Chapman we experience a life for those with middle class aspirations; through Elizabeth Stride we follow an immigrant’s story. Through Catherine Eddowes we unravel the intricacies of the working-class hierarchy, and through Mary Jane Kelly we get a glimpse into what life must have been like for a 19th-century sex worker. They are, as Rubenhold asserts, “a core sample of the time they lived through”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of their story is the sheer number of children lost along the way. The world these women inhabited was one of high childhood mortality, where married women were almost constantly either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy. The emotion and physicality of the time is something Rubenhold really wanted to get across: “You have these women with horrible birth injuries from repetitive childbirth and really terrible antenatal care… Women just gave birth until their bodies gave out.”
In addition to this, there was the ever-present spectre of alcoholism. For a family on the breadline, Rubenhold explains to me, an alcohol dependency “really could become the tipping point. You may become negligent at your job, you may lose your work or spend the money that needs to be used to feed your family and keep a roof over their head”.
This was certainly the case for Annie Chapman, who had enjoyed a lower middle-class existence for a large part of her life. Rubenhold her position in society in terms of Downton Abbey: “Annie Chapman’s father was basically Mr Bates… he was a gentleman’s valet. He was in the top tier of servants, as was Annie’s coach driver husband. They had their own house on the estate and, were able to put money aside for their children to go to school.” But in a world where “alcohol was everywhere and in everything”, Chapman developed a dependency on alcohol which saw her life unravel with tragic consequences.
The story of these five women – Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – is not one of death, but one of life, in all its sad, strange and saucy glory. These women, Rubenhold writes in The Five “are worth more to us than the empty human shells we have taken them for.”