What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
Acquiring a unique insight into the lives of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and an understanding of the challenges that life presented to working class women in the Victorian era. The story of Jack the Ripper has always focused on the details of the murders and on piecing together the mystery surrounding the killer’s identity, and so the lives of his victims have gone largely unexamined for more than 130 years. Most people have been exposed to the mythology but not the actual history. The experiences and backgrounds of the women were not what we have been conditioned to believe.
Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
When I started my research on the victims, I was amazed at how little had been published about them. There is such an absence of in-depth work on their lives compared to how much has been written about their killer. I was surprised by how close I could get to hearing the voices of the otherwise voiceless in society – to understanding their world, their expectations of life and their physical experiences. I found hunting for even the smallest shred of information about these five women and their families almost compulsively addictive. The detective work really is quite thrilling.
Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…
Most people think that the Victorians were completely bound by strict moral codes when it came to courtship, marriage and sex. This is true for some, but certainly not the case for everyone. The espoused ideals of an era are frequently not what happened in reality; for example, the social imperative to legitimise a romantic union in a church was not so much of a factor among poorer communities. Among the working classes, men and women were often content to cohabit and many relationships were quite fluid. People dissolved relationships and moved on to others quite easily, even if there were children involved.
Where is your favourite historical place to visit?
I would say that anywhere redolent with history is probably my favourite place – there is always something new to learn by visiting a historic site from any era. I never get tired of Roman ruins, and Pompeii and Herculaneum completely blew me away when I first visited them – Pompeii was much larger than I had imagined. I also love stately homes and the layers of history and personal stories contained within their walls.
Which history book made the most impact on you?
Lawrence Stone’s The Family Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1990), introduced me to the discipline of social history. I first came across the book as an undergraduate; prior to reading it, I didn’t know that social history as a subject existed. It was truly eye-opening; literally, my life can be divided into pre-Lawrence Stone and post-Lawrence Stone, as it was only afterI had delved into his work that I truly understood what sort of history I wanted to pursue. Social history is so rich; it’s the story of how we lived our everyday lives in a physical world that was so different from the one in which we currently inhabit. We definitely underrate the degree to which the physical experience influences the larger panorama of history.
Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?
I think it’s a real shame that there hasn’t been a recent big, bold drama series set during the French Revolution. In fact, I would most welcome a series that wasn’t told from the perspectives of the usual suspects, such as Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. It puzzles me how this complex, extremely dramatic and surprisingly modern conflict seems to have dropped off our radar altogether. The Terror [a violent period of history in which radicals took control of a revolutionary government] alone foreshadows the horrors of the modern totalitarian state – a place where neighbour informed on neighbour, and people lived in fear of being dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night by the authorities. What could be more gripping than a series set against a backdrop like that?
Hallie Rubenhold is an author, broadcaster and social historian. Her first work of non-fiction, The Covent Garden Ladies became the inspiration for the TV series Harlots, while her second book, The Scandalous Lady W was adapted as a drama for BBC Two.
She will discuss the research she undertook to bring the experiences of Jack the Ripper’s victims back to life at our 2019 History Weekends.