The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

the five hallie rubenhold

It is difficult to find someone who has not heard of Jack the Ripper, however far fewer people have heard of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine (Kate) Eddowes and Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly. These are the names of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and The Five is their history.

 

Historian Rubenhold managed to work out something that has bypassed most of us and that is how little is known about the women murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. But not only that, how little time and thought has even gone into understanding the lives of these women. History has known them only for their deaths. This book sets out to shine a light on their life stories and restore their dignity. Rubenhold does a remarkably good job at achieving this.

 

The book is broken down into five key sections; giving space to investigate the life of each of the five. Aside from being an interesting micro history of each person, the book also tackles the ‘fact’ that they were all prostitutes. This was effectively decided upon in 1888 when the newspapers latched on to the more ‘salacious’ details of their lives in order to shift papers. At the time the lines between sex work, coupling up for preservation, and full – time prostitution were so blurred as to be invisible. This was compounded by the fact that homeless women were looked down upon and assumed to be ‘fallen’ or ‘broken’ in some way. In 1887 the Metropolitan police force had been embarrassed when mistakenly arresting a woman for being a prostitute.

“Sir Charles Warrens order of the 19th July 1887 was issued in an attempt to make an        official clarification on how the police were to formally define a prostitute. It was              stated that “the police constable should not assume that any particular woman is a             common prostitute and that the police were not justified in calling any woman a      common prostitute unless she so describes herself, or has been convicted as such”.”

 

I found Kate and Marie Jeanette particularly compelling. Partly because Kate comes from the midlands like I do but also because of her restlessness and desire not to fall into the inevitable path of constant work, childbirth, lack of money and eventually death. She met Tom Conway; soldier, raconteur, chap book writer and seller, and he offered the promise of a different life. They travelled together selling chap books and making up their own songs and stories. Eventually however they fell into poverty and their partnership became strained under the weight of providing for their children, her alcoholism and his violence. It is remarkable how much about her life can be established from surviving records. It is often thought that as most people did not leave behind written sources that little can be known about them, however Rubenhold’s forensic research has given us the bones of Kate’s life that can then be shaded in by what else is known about the lives of women at the time.

 

Marie Jeanette is the one who the least is known about. At some point in her life she decided to separate herself from the place she came from and forged herself anew in London where she became a sex worker. She told some that she was from Ireland and others that she was from Wales. Her accents, interests, mannerisms and so on suggest that she had a better off start in life than most of her compatriots, so it is not surprising that she wished to keep her past to herself. Only 25 when she died, she had worked in a high – class brothel before being trafficked to the continent. She escaped and found her way back to London where she began working in Whitechapel. It would be fascinating to know more about her but after so many years it is doubtful whether more will be known than in presented here. The Five details all we know and we now have a good source for information about her life, rather than just her death.

 

The Five made a splash upon publication. Largely because it’s emergence suddenly made it clear how much of Ripper mythology has bypassed the actual lives of the women, but also because so many ‘ripperologists’ became so angry with Rubenhold and the media surrounding the books publication. Although the lives of the women have been written about before, The Five offers the most clear and extensive history to date that focuses on their actual lives rather than how their lives led them to their ultimate fate. It is excellently and diligently researched. This leaves one again wishing that there is a way to access the references with audiobooks. This is a book that is suitable for the historian and casual reader (or listener) alike. One other highlight is the insight it gives into the social conditions of late nineteenth century Whitechapel; a warren of tiny alleyways, cramped, dilapidated accommodation, often the last chance saloon for the down and out, full of alcoholism, darkness and also teeming with life. The Five was recommended to me by a friend and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

 

Fresh, focused and full of information and detail The Five is an important, vital and engaging history read.

 

Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

(Doubleday 2019)

How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran

How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran is an enjoyable romp through Britpop London seen through the eyes of fearless music journalist Dolly Wilde.

Dolly’s move from Wolverhampton is complete and she is determined to embrace the new world of music, sex and friendship that is now outside her front door. This is the pre – internet London; full of drizzle, pints, cigarettes in restaurants and blistering gigs in tiny venues. This is also the London that was once a magnet for working class creatives who came together and made great art out the melting pot of the city’s influences. Dolly’s family, who featured prominently in preceding novel How to Build a Girl, pop up with joyful regularity, and are offset by a new cast of characters from best friend and guitar wielding feminist whirlwind Suzanne Banks, to indie record label exec Zee. For those hoping for a love story John Kite also re-emerges, but Moran doesn’t follow the traditional route of having Dolly pine at home for him while he is off conquering the music world. At heart How to be Famous is a love letter to fans and to the teenage girls that invest themselves in their musical heroes

Anyone who has read some of Moran’s journalism will recognise her in these pages and at the end there is a slight feeling of using fiction to right past wrongs while bringing a modern feminist light to bear on the past. Although perfectly good, it is unlikely that it would have been published if authored by anyone else, and if Moran has indeed set out to mimic Dickens in bringing social politics into people’s homes via the medium of fiction, she hasn’t quite managed to reach this goal with How to be Famous.

Moran is improving as a fiction writer book by book and her fans will not be disappointed by this latest offering. How to be Famous is an easy, bouncy read that takes the reader on an enjoyable romp through love, friendship, music and self – invention.

 

How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran (Harper, 2018)

Public Displays of Emotion by Roisin Ingle

This is Ingle’s second collection of articles and it makes the reader yearn after the time she wrote a weekly column for the Irish Times. A life lived with her nerve endings on the outside, Ingle feels and experiences everything around her and time has given her the ability to turn the everyday into something profound. I intended to only dip in and out but ending up reading from start to finish without a break. A particular favourite was her talking about how she met her partner. In the middle of a riot during marching season our intrepid reporter found herself applying lipstick and creating reasons to spend more time with this handsome man. This is typical of the beautiful, surprising and endearing life chapters that Ingle chooses to share with her readers. It doesn’t take long before we feel like we are on first name terms with Roisin and I defy any reader not to find themselves looking up when they pass The Times building to see if they can spot her. Exuding warmth and the beauty of the everyday Public Displays of Emotion shows growth from her last collection and displays her mastery of the language of feeling. With such a great talent for living her life in words we can only hope she will resurrect her weekly column.

roisin ingle pde

Public Displays of Affection, Roisin Ingle, Irish Times Ltd, 10th Sept 2015. Paperback. 279 pages. ISBN-10: 0907011470.

 

Sally Rooney Conversation’s With Friends

conversation's with friends

Short Review

Sally Rooney’s first novel focuses on Frances as she comes into herself as a woman and a writer. A performance poet, student, and ‘not quite writer’ who is drawn into a world of art and culture by an older photographer and essayist Melissa. Alongside her former lover and second half Bobbi, Frances’ life is disturbed by the entrance of Nick, Melissa’s husband and Frances’ future paramour. A summer spent in the continental sun and in Dublin’s culture hotspots Conversation’s With Friends interrogates class, culture and conversation with wit, intelligence and precision. Rarely captured in literature Rooney depicts a post – crash Dublin that has dispensed with religion and is aware of its fragile roots. This was the book that broke me out of a reading drought. Absorbing, thought provoking and enjoyable Conversation’s With Friends is worthy of the praise lavished on it and demonstrates Rooney’s precocious writing talent.

Nutshell

nutshell

“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams” Hamlet

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan is an unusual short novel with an intriguing premise. It is written in the first person from the point of view of a foetus. At eight and a half months old (if that is the correct way of phrasing it?) and soon to enter the world he has a one of a kind view on the feelings and actions of his mother. His mother, who he loves deeply but isn’t always sure he likes, is having an affair with his paternal uncle. The pair are plotting to murder his father. They are not exactly star crossed lovers, more a highly sexual and somewhat sinister pairing who spend their time drinking and going over the steps they will take to carry out this act. The unborn child seems to take up little of their thoughts or interest.

 

The unnamed narrator is exceptionally intelligent, having consumed information and knowledge through his mother. At times he goes off into analysing the modern world. There is a wonderful section that looks at liberalism, safe spaces, freedom of thought, the increasing censorship on University campuses and so on. Nutshell is in part a way for McEwan to address issues of the day indirectly. Well written and a speedy read at times it feels as though McEwan is using his unpoliticised protagonist to look at some of the absurdities of the modern world. Terrorism, the global markets and pop culture all get a look in.

 

Set in the middle of summer the atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic. Mess, dirt and clutter pile up in hallways. Laundry is never done and the kitchen is cased in filth. Trudy, the mother, spends her time sunbathing, listening to podcasts and drinking wine. Caught beneath the relentless gaze of the sun the household feels like it has been stopped in time. Once the father has been removed the pair hope to inherit the house and set themselves up for life. On one of the few times the foetus is mentioned it is in passing. He is something to be offloaded, passed on. Trapped inside the womb he hears everything but has no control over his fate. He can however see the obvious flaws in his mother’s plan and he often exhibits more wisdom than the adults. The title is reminiscent of a 1957 poem by former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, The Newborn, which includes the lines “This morsel of man I’ve held – / What potency it has, / Though strengthless still and naked as / A nut unshelled!”. Celebrating the birth of a child this is a beautiful image that contrasts with the treatment of Nutshell’s protagonist.

 

The novel is littered with sex scenes that feel very uncomfortable. This seems to be one of the few activities that unify the pair however reading about it from the point of view of the narrator inside his mother is a strange experience. Claude is a dull and unpleasant man. It is difficult to see why Trudy would be so interested in him. McEwan is of course a very good writer and their relationship begins to make sense when one sees how cruel and vindictive Trudy can also be. Neither are very pleasant and this story would probably not work if it was told from another perspective because it would be too hard to empathise with the murderous duo. Unlike typical murder focused narratives here the reader is given the who, why and how from the off. The murder is clearly detailed and the reader follows each step towards cold blooded murder. It is interesting to be given an insight into the actions and thought processes behind this action.

 

Nutshell received positive reviews from the book club. Although this is our first Ian McEwan novel between us we have read his entire back catalogue. It is a unique novel and one wonders whether it was also created as a writing exercise to come up with something different that would allow the author to comment on world affairs without having to deal with comments sections and twitter. Coming in at only a few hundred pages this is one of McEwan’s quicker reads and it has a fluidity that some of his earlier novels lacked. If you are looking for something different this is worth a read.

 

Nutshell, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, London, 2016.

Once by Morris Gleitzman

*This review contains spoilers*

once morris gleitzman

When Felix sits down to an uninspiring bowl of soup he is stunned to discover a whole carrot. He hides it in his pocket for fear of causing a riot. This is how the extraordinary Once begins. An English A Level teacher gave me this to read to provide an alternative insight into war literature. This is one of the few books that nearly made me cry and I was curious to know how it would affect me ten years later.

Written by Morris Gleitzman for older children Once takes place in wartime Poland and is told entirely from the point of view of the young Felix. Set in 1942 Felix has been kept away from the war until now. His parents left him in the care of Mother Minka, in a Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. It is when they pray “to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler” that the reader knows that this will be a different type of story and that for Felix, the world he left behind three years and eight months ago is has almost been erased.

Felix’s imagination serves a barrier between himself and the horrors of the world. It is his imagination has protected him from so much over the years and his ability to conjure stories from thin air saves Felix and his friends over and over again. Early into his journey Felix hears gunfire and assumes the Nazis must be hunting rabbits. The spare prose makes the reader shiver. “Look at that. The river has suddenly turned red. Which is a bit strange, because the sunset is still yellow. The water’s so red it almost looks like blood. But even with all those gunshots, the hunters couldn’t have killed that many rabbits. Could they? No, it must just be a trick of the light”.

The reader has so much more knowledge than Felix does that at times this book is heart breaking. His path through life evokes fear in the reader, and yet for the most part he does not feel the same fear. At times Felix sees awful things. Gleitzman should be credited for not shying away from the darkness of the period. Seeing these things through the eyes of the child strips away the history and politics and shows them for what they are.

When Felix finds a man and a woman lying dead, still in their nightclothes, their house aflame, he reasons that they must have been Jewish booksellers who put up a fight to protect their books. Their young daughter Zelda however has survived. She joins Felix on his journey to find his parents. They end up joining a convoy being marched into the ghetto. Here they meet other children hiding from the clear outs. Looked after by Barney, a dentist who survives by treating the soldiers in the ghetto, they carve out a life in a cellar, only venturing out after curfew. When Felix has the chance to save himself he chooses instead to join his friends. This is how he finds himself being loaded onto a train that will carry him and hundreds of others to their deaths.

Felix does not die, nor does Zelda. They are some of the few to escape. Barney stayed behind with the children who didn’t want to take their chances and jump. When they hug goodbye Felix feels the needles in Barney’s pockets. It is here that he realises that if needs be Barney will inject the children with an anaesthetic that if used in sufficient quantities will put them into a sleep they will not awaken from in order to protect them from the advancing horror. This is portrayed as a moment of mercy and kindness, as a man is prepared to go to his death in order to spare the children any suffering. Here Felix finally understands what sort of world he is living in. It may sound strange but this is beautifully portrayed and leads up to the books final few lines, “I’ll never forget how lucky I am. Barney said everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.”

It is important to emphasise that Once is suffused with hope and moments of friendship and kindness. Although deeply sad Gleitzman also shows how imagination can save, how unlikely friendships can grow in the most unusual circumstances and how, in the form of dentist Barney, humanity and decency will always survive. Once also suggests that innocence can be lost, not just from children but also from adults. A man who once lived alongside Felix’s family has become too scared to help the boy when he returns to his home village. A Nazi officer takes a story home for his young daughter the same day that he ushers Jewish children into trains to be taken away. A young girls parents are murdered by Polish partisans. The ending is a wonderful mix of the hope, fear and devastating sadness.

Although technically a children’s book there is much here for adults too, who will approach Felix’s story with the knowledge of the atrocities and heartbreak that boys like Felix witnessed, but will perhaps still be surprised and uplifted by the hopeful ending, and the feeling that as life continues, there is always a chance.

 

Once, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 2005, Australia

Exit West Mohsin Hamid

“He understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

Exit West was listed by Barak Obama as one of his most inspiring reads of 2017 which makes this an interesting novel to review. I read this after I had finished reading but I wonder how much external reviews and recommendations affect the way we approach a novel? Exit West has been lauded by literary critics with the Guardian describing it as “magical”, in the New Yorker as “instantly canonical” and as one of The New York Times top ten books of the year 2017.

As it is the first half of Exit West is very enjoyable. We meet Nadia and Sayeed who live in an unnamed country (general consensus was Syria) as conflict and extremism starts to encroach on their lives. They are very different people when they meet. Nadia lives alone and has a wanderer’s spirit. She wants experiences and isn’t afraid to follow her feelings.

Clocked in black she separates from her family, has sex, indulges in recreational drugs, goes to underground concerts and does not pray. In contrast to this Sayeed has a comfortable home life with his parents but he dreams of travel and the stars. Far more devout that Nadia neither are quite what they seem.

Hamid allows us to peak inside the early days of their romance. First dates at Chinese restaurants, the reliance on smartphones and social media for communication, the slow path of discovery. It is sweet and believable. Although their city is swelling with refugees who have fled conflict they are preoccupied by everyday concerns and interests.

However, over time their lives become threatened. The government loses control to rebels and fighting breaks out; edging closer and closer to their city. Soon their city is under military control. Hamid does not dwell on the horrors that plague the city from this moment but there are moments that capture the brutality of life and the lack of control individuals soon have over their destiny. The novel begins to reflect the traumas of the past few years as the time spent under military control is resonant of the stories pouring out of areas previously held by ISIS. Soon we are taken on a journey to join the thousands of refuges who wash up on foreign shores.

Nadia and Sayeed hope they are not too late to find a way out of the city. They scrape together all the money they can and set out to find a trafficker who can get them to Europe. Hamid has a novel approach to their journey. A touch of surrealism seeps into the narrative and pulls Nadia and Sayeed along.

At one point there is a beautiful and clear description of the feelings of Saeed’s father, as he realises that the best thing he can do is to let the young pair go. He understood that they had a better chance of survival without him slowing them down. Again, the way Hamid describes this echoes the feelings that surely all parents must have at some point when they have to let go of their child’s hand. This was one of my highlights. “He had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent …”

Hamid has a way of writing that is full of colour and precision. His sentences are very long and one thing that is surprising is exactly how short the novel is. Although I really enjoyed the way he writes there were other book clubbers who were not so keen, struggling with the way he played with grammar and sentences that were so long they felt unwieldly. One thing we all agreed on though was that the second half wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the first. As Exit West progressed it failed to hook the audience and lost much of its purpose. Arguably literary technique took the place of narrative control.

The dystopian cities they encounter are frightening in their possibility and as civilisation becomes harsh, spiky and then begins to crumble, so does Nadia and Sayeed’s relationship. The life of the land reflecting the changes in their partnership. Whereas Nadia is freed from her home and her upbringing Saeed struggles. The further he travels the more he begins to identify himself with his homeland and all that was left behind. The way in which Hamid understands and captures this change is striking. Very rarely does one find such a nuanced depiction of migration. This is something that can be seen and experienced whether in regard to moving away to study or fleeing unimaginable violence.

Hamid details the dislocation and strangeness of the refugee experience with the human reality side by side with black magic of lost spaces. A worthwhile read for the new year.