The Week’s Book, #2: The Five

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The first thing to know about The Five is that it is a book defined by its approach; the second thing is that the approach is long overdue. The facts are these: in the late summer and autumn of 1888, from the end of August to November, five women were murdered in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood. They appeared to have been killed in the same way, and presumably by the same person. That person was never caught, but the persona that solidified around him (though, of course, we can’t know for sure that he was a him) goes by the name “Jack the Ripper”. Victorian society and 21st-century society both possess an unhealthy obsession with the sickening minutiae of Jack’s crimes–the way in which he physically mutilated the women he killed, and the almost supernatural ease with which he seemed to vanish into the gas-lit, fog-bound metropolis. Of the people he murdered, the most that any story about them seems to agree on is that they were sex workers. That “fact” (which is not true) has obscured both the actual lives they lived, and the reality of their murders: that they were not nubile doxies hanging about on street corners with artfully tousled Helena Bonham-Carter hair, but rather were overwhelmingly middle-aged, alcoholic, homeless women whose primary failing was to have been left bereft, in one way or another, of the male protection without which a nineteenth-century woman was considered functionally worthless.

Hallie Rubenhold is redressing the balance. The Five is a group biography; each of the women considered “canonical” victims of the Ripper murders is given a section of her own, which consists of three to four chapters that trace her life history from birth to the night she died. The most deliberate structural choice in the book is that Rubenhold never describes a murder. She’s writing with an agenda about which she is not remotely ashamed: women who are murdered are more than the story of their deaths. Starting with what can be determined about each woman’s early life–her parents, her place of birth, her place in the social hierarchy–she uses a sometimes scanty primary source record, bolstered with intelligently chosen secondary sources that provide contextual information about the experience of working-class life in late nineteenth-century England. Inevitably, she is forced to engage in a certain amount of speculation: in the absence of CCTV or diaries from the women themselves, it’s often difficult to know why they moved house, for instance, or whether the name that appears in parish records is the right one. But she has an excellent capacity for triangulation: she frequently uses that aforementioned historical context in conjunction with a primary source to arrive at a conclusion of what is overwhelmingly likely about a particular woman’s life, and it is convincing.

The most patently false “fact” about the canonical five is that they were all sex workers (or, as Rubenhold writes throughout the book, “prostitutes”; I assume this is for historical continuity and she is using the word as it was deployed in police reports). There is no evidence that four out of the five women were professional sellers of sex. (The fifth, Mary Jane Kelly, who did work both in a brothel and freelance, is the one about whom we know the least.) However, every single one of them is known to have struggled with alcohol addiction. Mostly, drinking problems and the resultant financial strain were responsible for the implosion of their marriages or common-law relationships. They were all–again, except for Mary Jane Kelly–murdered outside, in the middle of the night. The unbearably sad conclusion is that their killer was targeting, not youthful sex workers who were lying down to ply their trade, but middle-aged homeless women who were lying down because they were asleep. Rubenhold makes it terribly clear that being a woman “outside” conventional societal roles–a woman separated from her husband or widowed, an addict, a beggar–was conflated, often fatally, with being a woman of loose morals. No distinction was made between the broken and the fallen. Not only is The Five a lucid and frankly addictive group biography (the pages really do turn themselves); it also makes painfully clear that a country whose social welfare programs are limited to the application of shame, humiliation, and a rigid code of so-called morality is not a country anyone ought to wish to return to. (I, like Rubenhold, will leave you to infer the contemporary political resonance.)

It is, in short, an excellent book as well as a much-needed one: it mingles true crime and well-researched history with narrative energy and Rubenhold’s ever-present passion for her subject. It’s going to do well without my help, but you really should read it.

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The Week’s Book, #1: Nicholas Nickleby

imageNicholas Nickleby constitutes this year’s entry in my Annual Winter Dickens project. It’s only the second novel he ever wrote (third if you count The Pickwick Papers, which is arguably more a series of sketches than a fictional narrative per se), and there’s a lot of youthful energy fizzing from the pages. Young Nicholas is very much the action hero: he’s frequently physically violent when he feels honour is at stake, usually either his or his sister’s. Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby, the two villains of the piece, are extremely melodramatic: they clench their fists, turn white, and snarl, with astonishing regularity. This level of implicit theatricality makes a good deal of sense in a novel so given to explicit theatricality; the Crummles family, with whom Nicholas falls in, are traveling actors, and many of the best scenes in the book involve them.

Characterization suffers somewhat as a result of this trait. Better and more informed minds than mine have written theses on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre, and on his use (and subversion) of comic and tragic stereotypes in his fiction. The Brothers Cheeryble, who give Nicholas a chance when all hope seems lost, and who delight in doing good works without being thanked, might be better named the Brothers Implausyble. Kate, Nicholas’s beautiful, vulnerable sister, is a classically boring Dickens heroine, as is Madeline Bray, the object of Nicholas’s affections. There are, though, moments of rupture when characters – usually minor ones – confound expectations: the madman in love with Mrs. Nickleby, for instance, in his small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, falling down the chimney.

All this said, it is a tremendously enjoyable reading experience. For all that it’s extremely episodic (and long – 777 pages in my edition), its fictional world also feels smaller than that of Dickens’s later novels; I’m thinking especially of The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the last Dickens I read and which contains several characters whose relevance, even at the time, thoroughly escaped me, whereas pretty much all of the characters in Nickleby recur frequently enough, and have enough to do, that a reader can keep track. The least successful of these, for my money, is John Browdie, who seems to exist mostly so that Dickens can write bad Yorkshire dialect in the depiction of an honest countryman. It’s not subtle, and it’s nowhere near the heights of elegant connectivity that he reaches in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend: in Nickleby, Dickens’s love of coincidence is still just an excuse for clumsy plotting, instead of a commentary on the fundamental intersectionality of all levels of society. But it’s very fun, and you can sense that with this novel he found his feet.