I have picked up this book almost two months ago, on one of rare occasions I dared venture out of my flat and go to my local Waterstones. After probably years of reading almost exclusively fiction, this historical non-fiction book caught my eye. From the very title, I was intrigued as I realized that I am one of potentially millions of people around the world who knows close to nothing about Jack the Ripper’s victims. The realization that I know more about the person who killed them than the actual victims made me feel almost embrassed and I decided to purchase it. Although I do feel like I have learned a lot by reading this book, not just about Jack the Ripper but about Victorian society at large, I also found many issues surrounding this book that I could not get past.
Rubenhold introduced the narratives of five women; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Katherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. These five women are canonical victims of infamous Jack the Ripper, but besides that little is actually widely known about them. In reality, in most stories about the events surronding these women, their names and stories come as an almost after thought. This book did quite the opposite; Rubenhold does not describe their gruesome murders, but rather tries to give them back their voices and dispell the myths present for over hundred years. I really appreciated this approach as I have read and watched far too many Jack the Ripper narratives that pay no respect to the victims. As the author herself said in the interview at the back of the book, it is astounding that nobody wrote this book before.
In addition, I appreciated the wide scope that Rubenhold offered and the undoubtedly extensive research that went into writing this book. The readers are led into unimaginable dirty and unhygienic areas of poor people’s London during the Victorian times. Reading it, I could almost smell the stench and the desperation of the people occupying these quarters, which would have been heart breaking. To fully understand the tragedy that befell these women, an overview of important historical events around this era as well as some descriptions of the social class during the Victorian times were also depicted. Given that this is a book about women, special focus was placed on the often contradictory and inferior position of women who had their cards stacked up against them, especially if they had the misfortune of being born poor. I really appreciated these section and I think this is where Rubenhold’s narration is the strongest as she clearly set the stage for the women at the center of the book.
However, there were many aspects of the book that I did not completely enjoy. First of all, Rubenhold set out to prove that not all of canonical victims of Jack the Ripper were sex workers, which would obviously ruffle a few feathers. She spent a lot of time in the book proving this point only to get to the conclusion that even they were sex workers, it would still not warrant their murders. While I appreciated the look into the rigid moral system of Victorians that labeled any woman sleeping rough as a prostitute, it seemed like too much of this work went into providing evidence that Jack the Ripper did not target prostitutes specifically. I wish that there was more about women themselves, not speculations about what they were doing on the night they were killed or whether they were selling sex or not. Rubenhold’s almost desperate attempts to prove that they were from hardworking or ‘good’ families left a really bad taste in my mouth, as I realized that there was quite a bit of bias in these lines towards sex workers. At the end, I found it hypocritical that Rubenhold criticized Victorians for assuming the worst of the prostitutes when she spent so much that proving that cannonical victims of Jack the Ripper were not, as if somehow that makes them more deserving of our empathy and respect.
Additionally, Rubenhold harshly criticized media of the time for scandalizing the story and filling in the blanks in the women’s stories that they knew would sell well. This is not unjustified criticism and unfortunately is something that is still happening today. However, what I have a huge problem with in relations to this book is the fact that there is so little factual information available. While the idea for writing this book is incredibly noble, the reality that a lot of the story are assumptions or circumstantial evidence. The lack of information is visible in the fact that Rubenhold told us numerous times that this is how it should or would happen based on historical circumstances, but we cannot be sure. The information presented are also quite dry and dull and a few times, it it basically a list of years or dates that after a while become hard to understand and follow. Even for somebody who loves history, this was quite difficult to get through.
At the end, unfortunately, I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. While I really appreciated learning more about the women whose lives were cut short by Jack the Ripper, I felt like the strong anti sex worker bias really damaged this work. Instead of providing stories of these women and their heartbreaks and see them as human beings before they were desperate street walkers, Rubenhold seems hell-bent of proving that they were of ‘good morals’. At the end, I wonder if there was actually enough factual information about these women to warrant an entire book. Had this been a really well edited opinion piece or an article at the popular magazine, I felt like it would have worked better. First of all, it would have been more accessible and perhaps more people would learn the true story of these women, devoid of their connection to their murderer. It also would mean that there would not have been so many unimportant details that for me plague this book. While Rubenhold’s intention were clear, I am not sure they translated well into her work.
What do you think? What are your thoughts on this book? I would be particularly interested in your opinion about Rubenhold’s approach to sex work.