Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: The Five

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the second year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2020 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on Monday 15 June 2020 in a virtual ceremony.

Today I’ll be reviewing one of the shortlisted titles, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, which fits nicely with my teaching interests (I don’t focus on the nineteenth century in my own research, but have taught a number of undergraduate modules on gender and sexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.)

The Five - Cover

The obsessive study of Jack the Ripper, or ‘Ripperology’, has been a persistent if unpleasant trend since the series of Ripper murders were committed in Whitechapel in 1888. The Bishopsgate Institute, located in Spitalfields, holds a collection of more than three hundred books on the Ripper (though to be fair, when I toured their archives, they seemed pretty embarrassed by this, and much more keen to talk about their brilliant collections of LGBT+ and protest history). In The Five, Rubenhold wants to face firmly away from this accumulation of misogynist morbidity and focus on the lives of the five women believed to have been killed by Jack the Ripper: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane. To be honest, it’s a great idea for a joint biography even without the aim of debunking Ripper myths: we often think about the diverging life courses of people who started in the same place, but here we have five women who started in very different places but came to the same end. It makes the five life stories that Rubenhold presents feel increasingly claustrophobic, as each bottlenecks towards its descent.

One hugely important result of this is to blow apart Victorian myths of what social investigators called the ‘residuum’, the people who lived in the very worst circumstances, skirting between criminality and vagrancy in the inner cities. Rubenhold shows that we cannot think of the nineteenth-century poor as a miserable, identical mass. Several of these five women – who experienced their childhoods in the period before the establishment of compulsory universal elementary education in England in 1870 – were literate. Polly spent much of her adult life in one of the model Peabody estates built to hasten slum clearance, which only admitted working-class residents seen to be of exceptional character and industry. Elizabeth was an immigrant from Sweden. Annie was the daughter of a cavalry trooper, growing up between London and Windsor barracks where ‘the sight of landaus filled with ladies in expensive silk bonnets and titled gentleman whose uniforms clanked with medals would have seemed an ordinary occurrence’. Kate often made a living, alongside her husband, as a chapbook seller and street singer. Mary Jane, the last of the five victims, offered other women sanctuary from the streets when she heard about the Whitechapel murders, and was heard singing in her room for more than an hour on the night she herself was killed. The Five brings home the fragility of Victorian respectability, familiar to academic historians of this period, to a popular audience, indicating how easy it was for working-class support systems to fail, even among the families of the most skilled craftsmen.

The Five is also concerned with shattering a myth that is central to Ripperology, and which remains the one thing that most people know about Jack the Ripper’s victims: the assumption, made by the press at the time, that the Ripper deliberately targeted prostitutes. Rubenhold argues that four out of five of the victims did not regularly engage in selling sex, and therefore, this framework, which contributes to the gruesome notoriety of this series of murders, is wrong. But, as Rubenhold makes clear in her conclusion to this book, the word ‘prostitute’ did not have a straightforward meaning in Victorian England. Selling sex has never been illegal in England, so to be convicted as a ‘common prostitute’ [the legal term which was used at the time] under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, you needed to also be behaving in a ‘riotous or indecent manner’ in pubic. However, because these two claims (soliciting and bad behaviour) needed to be combined for a charge to be brought against you, the identification of which women were ‘common prostitutes’ was to a large extent left to the judgement of the police.  ‘Common prostitute’, therefore, became a legal category that ‘manufactured prostitutes’, in the words of the first female inspector of women’s prisons in 1918: it was not an offence to be a prostitute, but once you were designated as such, you could be accused of crimes that other women could not commit. [1]

As Rubenhold writes in her conclusion: ‘very few authorities, including the Metropolitan Police, could agree as to what exactly constituted a “prostitute” and how she might be identified’ as the moral codes of the time did not firmly distinguish between casual sex outside wedlock and sex work. She emphasises that four out of the five women were not legally labelled as ‘common prostitutes’, and that there is also little evidence that they engaged in ‘casual prostitution’. Nevertheless, I was a little concerned by the way that this argument was handled throughout the course of The Five. In the four sections that deal with these women, Rubenhold spends quite a lot of time emphasising that they were not prostitutes, and her return to the subject in the conclusion seems to frame it as a central finding of the book. Moreover, it’s only in the conclusion itself that Rubenhold explores the contested meaning of the word ‘prostitute’ in the nineteenth century in detail; before that, the casual reader would likely think that ‘prostitute’ = ‘sex worker’. In short, I worried that, by putting so much emphasis on this issue, Rubenhold was giving ground to the Ripperologists by debunking a claim that they clearly consider to be important. But ultimately, it should not matter whether or not these women sold sex. The Five is a significant book for so many other reasons; there’s no need to lean on this one.

Make sure to check out the other stops on this blog tour as it enters its second week:

Blog Tour Week 2 Twitter Card

[1] Julia Laite, ‘Taking Nellie Johnson’s fingerprints: prostitutes and legal identity in early twentieth-century London’History Workshop Journal, 65, 1 (2008), paywalled.

12 thoughts on “Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: The Five

  1. I’ve had a copy of this sitting on my shelves for ages, so this is a handy reminder to actually pick it up sometime soon! I’ve seen so many glowing reviews that it’s good to read a slightly more balanced take before heading into it myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely worth reading, and I’m aware that because I’ve read so much on this subject, I’m probably getting less from it than someone who’s less familiar with the literature.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The thing that broke my heart the most in The Five (well, one of the many things, but this really did hit me hard) was the analysis Rubenhold puts forward with regards to where/in what position the women’s bodies were found. Because most of them were outdoors and lying down, people have assumed that the killer was targeting sex workers, but she convincingly argues that instead, he was targeting a group even fewer people tend to care about: middle-aged homeless women—they were lying down not to fuck, but to sleep. And the fact that almost all of them had serious problems with alcohol, either their own issues or a partner’s, that led directly to their homelessness… it just makes the murky nineteenth century feel so terribly close to the modern day, to put it in those terms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. Although something I omitted to mention in my review, but thought was very important, was how Rubenhold refuses to give any details of the women’s murders except what’s absolutely necessary to tell their stories. It’s such a break with Ripperology and a more successful ‘turning away’ from previous accounts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, the focus on the women rather than the ripper highly appeals. I’m sorry to see it wasn’t a perfect read for you, though very glad that you found it interesting and worthwhile despite possible flaws! And it is helpful to know going in that one shouldn’t conflate the term ‘prostitute’ with ‘sex worker.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Rubenhold’s obviously aware of the complicated historical meaning of the term ‘prostitute’, but I didn’t think that she managed to explain it in such a way that the casual reader would get it. That’s a criticism of her writing rather than her research, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I really loved this book and the way it explored the daily lives of women at this time. My main takeaway from the book was something you highlighted -> “The Five brings home the fragility of Victorian respectability, familiar to academic historians of this period, to a popular audience, indicating how easy it was for working-class support systems to fail, even among the families of the most skilled craftsmen.” I thought that was fascinating.

    Thanks for expanding on the definition of prostitution at the time! I hadn’t understood this clearly from the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yes, the individual biographies worked so well to make that point – it’s something I knew theoretically from academic reading, but the book brought it home emotionally.

      It’s clear from what Rubenhold writes that she knows how prostitution was legally categorised in nineteenth century England (although shockingly the term ‘common prostitute’ was not removed from the statute books until 2009) but yes I didn’t think she explained this clearly enough in text.

      Liked by 1 person

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