May’s Recommended Reads

I recently watched a programme about the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and the impact of the crimes on the families of his victims. The investigation had been hampered by the police’s assumption that the killer only attacked prostitutes ignoring other victims whose profiles didn’t fit their assumptions. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold reassesses the five ‘canonical’ victims of Jack the Ripper whose murders in 1888 appalled contemporary society and whose stories have been dissected ever since. I remember going on a Ripper walk when I lived in London and was appalled by the use of post mortem photos of the victims. These depersonalised images were both salacious and shocking and Rubenhold’s book certainly helps to reclaim the women from the manner of their deaths.

The story of the five victims are told with both compassion and with reference to the wider context of women’s lives in the period. Whether they were deserted by their husbands (Polly Nichols and Catherine Eddows) or victims of chronic alcoholism (Annie Chapman) or simply women unable to escape their pasts (Elizabeth Stride and Mary Jane Kelly) the author shows the limitations of women’s choices at the time. Abandoment by one man necessitated the finding of another to act as both protector and benefactor. Each women’s story stops at precisely the point where most narratives begin – their murder – and this excellent of this book overshadows all the dubious “X is Jack the Ripper” narratives that have proliferated over the years.

I enjoyed Michelle Paver’s two previous novels, Dark Matter and Thin Air and had have been looking forward to her latest. Wakenhysrt is set in Suffolk, a fenland county where marshland wilderness coexists alongside ordinary village life. We meet protagonist, Maud, initially through a newspaper article from 1966 and are catapulted back in time to the Edwardian period where intelligence and curiosity isn’t valued in girls. Her mother, forced into a repetitive cycle of childbirth and mourning finally succumbs to illness and Maud is left alone with her repressive father.

Dark and raw, I particularly liked the way Paver didn’t flinch from the realities of women’s lives, from the bloodied pails after miscarriages, to the choices made by men in relation to the fates of their wives. The countryside is beautifully depicted, the wildness of the fens supporting a community where myths and old stories entwine. Paver has used innovative story telling methods to unfold this Gothic tale and it made a perfect late evening read.


12 thoughts on “May’s Recommended Reads

  1. David Gibson

    I’ll certainly keep my eye out for The Five, Sarah. I have been intrigued by these events for the best part of forty years. There is a swathe of new info coming to hand and the emphasis is always on the who. It will be enlightening to read the stories behind the canonical five (even though that number now varies somewhat). Thank you for the info. Kind regards, Dave from Down Under.


  2. luckygibbo

    I look forward to reading this. I have been intrigued by this series of events for the best part of forty years. There has been changes in thinking re. the Whitechapel Murders over the last decade or so. However, the emphasis has always been on solving the crime. A look at the canonical victims is long over due (though many now question the series and put forward other victims, which adds interest to the debate.). Thank you for alerting me to this book, Sarah. Kind regards from Down Under, Dave.


  3. Margot Kinberg

    You have some good reads here, Sarah. I’m particularly interested in The Five, because I think it always helps us to understand crimes like this when we get a sense of the victims. It brings the enormity of the crimes home without being lurid.


  4. Kathy D.

    I’m squeamish about reading about the victims of Jack the Ripper. This was all gruesome, and since this is based on reality, the murders of the women is so sad. It’s like true crime, which I avoid.
    But The Five sounds like a good book anyway. If I can build up my courage to read it, I’ll try.


    1. What’s interesting, Kathy is that you read about their lives not their deaths so there’s nothing really horrible, just the sad reality of living day to day for some women. I think it’ll be right up your street!


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