Hallie Rubenhold is a historian, historical consultant and novelist. Her latest book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper reconstructs the biographies of Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, Mary Ann Nichols and Annie Chapman. A Sunday Times bestseller, it has been called “an angry and important work of historical detection” by the Guardian and “an eloquent, stirring challenge to reject the prevailing Ripper myth” by the Mail on Sunday. Fellow HWA member Matthew Plampin spoke to her for Historia.
The Five has received a fantastic response. Why do you think it has struck such a chord?
Well, the time for this book has definitely arrived. After 130 years we are finally allowed to hear the voices of these women. I think that the tide is turning in terms of the idolisation of Jack the Ripper, and other serial killers as well. When I started The Five, #MeToo hadn’t yet happened – the movement gathered pace as I did my research and wrote the first draft. It was a fantastic piece of serendipity, one of those wonderful and extremely rare situations where the book you’re working on actually catches a wave. The Five is effectively my fifth book, with the first coming out back in 2005. It’s taken that long to get on a bestseller list.
The book offers a very vivid and distressing portrait of extreme poverty – of hitting rock bottom in 1880s London.
I wanted to give a view of what the Victorian period was really like for the majority of the population. The workhouse looms large in each of the victims’ biographies.
It was intended as a deterrent rather than a safety net. When you went into the workhouse you were shamed. You lost your freedom. It was believed that you had failed. You’d often end up there due to circumstances that were not of your own making, because Victorian society was just structured that way.
People got caught in the system and it was very hard to get out. They would try to avoid going in due to the massive stigma associated with it. Your neighbours would know, your wider family would know and you would have to live with that for the rest of your life.
There’s a terrible, inevitable trajectory to each of the lives…
It could have gone a number of other ways for each of the women. But it is society, in a lot of instances, that is effectively making decisions for them. That’s not to say that they didn’t have agency, but at many points they were simply overwhelmed by their circumstances. Human weakness plays a part here. The common thread between the five women is not prostitution, as is so often assumed, but alcoholism. They were addicts.
This is one of the things that makes the book very relevant to today. Urban problems that we tend to think are recent have been around for a very long time. One could argue, in fact, that the way the poor lived in the 19th century was not greatly different to how they lived a hundred years earlier, in the Georgian period. I was struck by the similarities.
Prior to The Five, you were known for your work on the 18th century. How have you found the transition to writing about the Victorians?
I think that in both periods the established histories offer a skewed outlook that I’ve come to find incredibly disturbing. What we’re taught about these eras are the lives and practices of the middle classes. They’re not representing the way that the majority of people lived. We hear about ‘Hogarth’s London’ or ‘Dickens’ London’ – this isn’t helpful. It’s reductive and inadequate, and draws a boundary around experience.
We need to turn this on its head. The majority lived like the women in The Five. And these are very much Victorian lives. Most of these women were born around the time Victoria came to the throne, and their biographies include some of the great events of the era: Victoria’s wedding, the Crystal Palace, the Trafalgar Square riots, the Sepoy Mutiny…
What brought you to the subject?
I’d written two books of 18th-century history about sex workers and women who fell of the path of virtue (The Covent Garden Ladies and Lady Worsley’s Whim), and decided to see if I could do the same in the nineteenth century. So I asked myself who were the most famous or infamous women of the Victorian period, and my mind went almost immediately to the victims of Jack the Ripper.
I was expecting to write about prostitution in the nineteenth century, but as I started my research I simply did not find this overwhelming evidence that this was the case. You ask people, “what’s the one thing you can tell me about Jack the Ripper?” and they reply that he killed prostitutes. But this is fundamentally inaccurate. These were not sex crimes but gender crimes – crimes against women. My theory is that they were actually killed while they were asleep. The coroner found that all five were killed lying down or in reclining positions. There was no evidence in any case of a struggle. No screams were heard.
Your efforts to confront certain aspects of the Ripper ‘myth’ have drawn criticism from Ripper historians – the ‘Ripperologists’. What is it about The Five that they object to?
Ripperologists grasp at straws and make all sorts of assumptions to support their theories. They ignore a wealth of evidence to support the most obvious explanations. There is far more evidence in the cases of three of the victims that they were rough sleepers taking refuge in familiar spots rather than prostitutes. The fact is that this book represents an existential threat to Ripperology. I’m questioning the validity of the evidence on which much of Ripperology is founded – and if they embrace my theories then they have to embrace the fact that their hobby, that all of their theories, are basically founded on nothing.
I feel the two disciplines are totally interlinked. Writing narrative non-fiction is about finding a way not just to sling facts at people but to look for a narrative arc in a life. This is done by finding where the moments of drama are, and using those as touchpoints to tell their story – not disregarding other things, but looking for that arc that will carry a reader through.
I wanted to write this book in a way that a lot of history books aren’t written. There isn’t a body of letters for any of the five women, but you can feel certain things from the situations they were in. It’s a mistake to leave that out – not to talk about someone’s potential emotional state when you’re talking about all the other things going on in their lives. I’ve avoided any unsubstantiated assertions. I create a range of possibilities that comes out of the research – about what we know about women’s lives and experiences at that time in history. It’s layered on very carefully, but the wonderful thing is that it creates an illusion which makes the read more immersive and pleasurable.
Television does this really well. I’ve learned so much about writing – about how characters are developed and narratives structured – from watching really good box sets, things like Deadwood and Better Call Saul. In essence, writing is story-telling, character development and scene setting. What do I feel gripped by when I’m watching something televisual? What do I find compelling? And this can all be translated into the writing of a novel or a narrative non-fiction.
Will we be seeing a TV adaptation of The Five?
The Five has been optioned as a drama series by Mainstreet Pictures, who did Unforgotten. The company was set up by Laura Mackie and Sarah Haynes, the producers who commissioned Downton Abbey and Broadchurch. It’s very exciting. They really get this book. And we’ve attached a writer – Gwyneth Hughes, who did the big Vanity Fair adaptation last summer.
What are you planning to write next?
Probably another true crime murder from roughly the same period, examined from the female perspective.
A ‘crawler’ from Street Life in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, via the LSE
Homeless people by Gustave Doré from London: A Pilgrimage by William Blanchard Jerrold, via the British Library
Descriptive Map of London Poverty by Charles Booth, via the LSE
Matthew Plampin lectures on 19th-century art and architecture. His first novel, The Street Philosopher (HarperCollins), was picked as one of Waterstone’s New Voices for 2009. His second, The Devil’s Acre, was picked for the Channel 4 TV Book Club.