A Monthly Book, #2: The Five

9780857524485

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.

Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.