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.