Another Ripper rock riff that I’ve just remembered was a track by The Band of Susans called ‘Elizabeth Stride’, named after the third of the ‘Canonical Five’ (even this sounds like the name of a potential Bad Seeds spin-off?) to be found, on the same night that the body of Catherine Eddowes was also discovered. Hallie Rubenhold brilliantly reconstructs the life stories of Stride, Eddowes and the other three murdered women, and their tragic tales portray social conditions that have not only not gone away, but have become re-instituted in the welter of the many and various welfare and social care cuts/ ‘necessary rationalisations’ instituted in this country since 2010 by the Conservative Party’s wet dream of ‘austerity’. Universal Credit is but one example of the headlong flight back toward the ‘Victorian Values’ ideology so trumpeted by Margaret ‘There Is No Such Thing As Society’ Thatcher and John ‘Back to Basics’ Major. Ian Duncan-Smith is merely one of the many keen heirs of this underhand method of punishing those deemed ‘unworthy’ of the state’s bounty.
I’d like to just create a few bullet-points, in no particular order of importance, to illustrate a few of the factors that affected the five women concerned in ‘The Five’, factors that are still at play in 2019, and that seem to becoming more pronounced every day:
- The paucity of ‘safety nets’. All it took to ‘fall out of the system’ was a significant change in life circumstances, e.g.the death of a spouse, especially of the main wage-earner, usually male; the birth of yet another child, allied to which was the poor awareness (and strong societal condemnation) of birth control methods; sheer ‘bad luck’, a factor that affected all of The Five, in one way or another; loss of employment and, linked to this, of a decent place to live; poor health, including unrecognised mental health and alcohol/drug dependence issues. As we can see on the streets of our cities today, people are increasingly losing their accomodation, and being forced to sleep rough, which, as Rubenhold makes clear, was a completely accepted feature of the Victorian London landscape, as it is now of ours.
- Mysogyny in all its scum-coloured manifestations was at the heart at how The Five were judged (and found wanting) by the patriarchy that made and implemented the laws that represented the double standards of the day. One of Rubenhold’s main points is that all the women were labelled as ‘prostitutes’, despite evidence to the contrary in most of their cases. The mysogyny infected laws around divorce, separation, adultery and extra-marital dalliances in general. the #MeToo’ movement’ of today would have shocked and appalled the entire Victorian legal edifice which ensured that women were punished for perceived sexual and behavioural incontinence. If you the use of/dependence on alcohol to sexual independence, you were definitely beyond the pale. Alcohol issues affected all five women, but the concept of treatment (outside of religious rehab) barely existed then, and the nightmare world of the workhouse and the casual wards awaited those who stepped out of line, and out of the male-dominated marketplace of financial renumeration for the various ‘services rendered’ by women of the day
- Allied to the notion of financial transactions was the fact that marriage can be recast as a form of indentured labour, which included sex on demand for the husband, something that he was legally entitled to as part of the’ deal.’ The ‘prostitute’ label was a clear signifier that our five were considered by their male judges as ‘bottom of the pile’ in societal terms. The patriarchy had no other framework to help it understand how a woman could be sexually independent of a significant male other. Domestic violence, still a huge issue today, was just one obvious manifestation of the control/coercion formula that was largely accepted (if loftily disapproved of by the more affluent and fortunate, even if DV occurred in their own houses, which it did).
- The horrendous statistics for infant mortality in Victorian times are clearly laid out by Rubenhold, who reminds us that most of these women had several children, of whom a significant amount died young. The concept of post-natal depression was unformulated then (although the middle-classes had the handy ‘neurasthenia’ diagnosis to explain away significant changes, particularly in women). The awful toll that continuous childbirth and death inflicted on the mother of Catherine Eddowes, for example, makes for difficult reading - gone at 42 years of age, Catherine senior had nevertheless reached the average age of death ” for a woman of her class”. There still exists, even in today’s society, significant discrepancies between the age of death of the average person from somewhere in, say Oldham, and that of a person from, say, Kensington.
- Finally (far from it actually, but this is all we’ve got time for), the issue of housing looms large throughout ‘The Five’. Unscrupulous and greedy landlords, substandard buildings, public health infringements, etc, etc, have an uncomfortable resonance with one of today’s biggest societal problems, and one that has been, very conveniently, sidelined along with much else, by the morass of Brexit. And, throughout it all, there is evidence that the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ (which The Five certainly were members of) is getting larger and larger. Look forward soon to Trafalgar Square regularly ‘housing’ over 200 rough sleepers, a phenonenen that was commonplace enough at the absolute epicenter of the British Empire at the height of its power and self-importance. Yet this was a time that some still look back towards with a bogus, yet dewy-eyed, faux nostalgia. O tempora, o mores!, as Boris Johnson would no doubt say.