Hallie Rubenhold longlist author interview
Hallie Rubenhold hopes her longlisted book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper will give life to five real women who have typically been reduced to mere clues towards revealing the identity of Jack the Ripper.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
Quite incredible, actually. Authors spend so much time in isolation with their thoughts and their writing that sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how the finished work will be received by the outside world. Being longlisted is a tremendous honour.
What inspired you to write this book?
Initially, I sought to write a book about nineteenth century prostitution and the lives of working class women. The five victims of Jack the Ripper struck me as the perfect subjects for this study, but when I began the research and really started to examine what remained of the documentation, I very quickly discovered that everything we thought we knew about these women was entirely wrong. It also amazed me that, beyond a very short book on the subject, no one had thought to undertake a wide ranging historical investigation into these five women’s lives since their deaths in 1888.
How did you research?
Very carefully! The first thing I had to do was strip away nearly 130 years of speculation, rumour, prejudice and conspiracy theory. So much of what comprises the ‘Ripper legend’ has been built off the back of wholly unreliable evidence. Much of the police documentation and the inquest reports are missing, and nineteenth century journalism has traditionally been used to fill in the gaps without the application of much critical analysis. I went through a great deal of documentation and newspaper reports and weeded through the more spurious claims. I always attempted to find some additional (reliable) source with which to cross reference certain assertions. In many instances I found no hard evidence at all for claims, such as that Jack the Ripper was a killer of prostitutes. He simply wasn’t, and this is a construct of the era in which the murders took place.
In addition to building up a picture of these women’s lives from sources such as birth and death records, censuses, workhouse records, and army records, I also did a tremendous amount of reading about the minutiae of various aspects of nineteenth century life from the tinplate trade to Victorian rehabilitation centres for ‘female inebriates’. Basically, I gave up reading for pleasure for 3 years.
What do you hope people will understand about the five women at the heart of your book?
Most importantly, that they were real people with real lives. Our culture has diminished them to such an extent that most of us have never even considered this. Jack the Ripper has become an icon – but he (or she) was also a real person, not a fictional Halloween character like Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. He killed these women, and we have made light of these horrendous crimes for 131 years. The women have only ever been treated as clues in the hunt to discover his identity. I’m hoping that the publication of The Five is starting to erode this injustice and that people will now be more inclined to stop and think about how we perceive these crimes.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I don’t even know how to begin to answer this question, as my favourite non-fiction book seems to change constantly. There is so much fantastically researched and written non-fiction on which to feast one’s mind. Most recently, I really enjoyed Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser which contextualises and explores the life of the American writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little House on the Prairie books have become part of the mythology of the American frontier and this detailed and exquisitely written biography really wipes away a lot of the white washing and creates a more balanced picture of the author and the times in which she lived.
What are you working on next?
An announcement about this should be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks. I’m going to stay in the area of historical ‘ethical’ true crime and examine a very well known murder which took place in London not long after the Ripper murders. It’s quite a panoramic transatlantic story which will be told from a perspective previously not explored or considered. Watch this space!