The Murder She Wrote event at 2019’s Birmingham Literature Festival featured; Hallie Rubenhold – a British social historian of women’s lives and author of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper and Jo Baker – a British writer of seven novels including this year’s crime novel The Body Lies. The event was chaired by Dr. Laura Joyce, a professor of Creative Writing at Coventry University.
During the event, the authors discussed literary and media representation of dead, female bodies and what it means to write about female victims in books now. Dr. Joyce explained that Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five takes a story from history that we think we know and removes Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold said, “We didn’t need another book about the Ripper murders but we did need more about the victims.” The author of The Five explained that we often only know these women by their mortuary images which in modern society have become bizarrely fetishized with some authors discussing the victims’ desirability. When she wrote her book, Hallie chose focus on the women before their murders, skipping over the murders themselves and adding a coda about how their families and communities reacted to the news of their deaths. “What needed to be told was their story,” announced Rubenhold.
From right to left; Dr Laura Joyce, Jo Baker, and Hallie Rubenhold
Jo Baker also added that Ripperologists, who have been attacking Rubenhold for writing this book, use female bodies to tell male stories. In fact, this idea is something that Baker is quite concerned with, she explained that she is bothered by women’s bodies being used a puzzles or clues rather than being portrayed as full characters with lives of their own.
With Jack the Ripper, Jo Baker explained, their still seems to be some urgency in finding out who he is despite how far back in history this crime now sits. Hallie Rubenhold added that the fascination of Ripperologists to see the victims as prostitutes, despite a lack of evidence for nearly all these women, merely because they were out at night, alone is a trope that has also been seen in more recent crimes including that of the Yorkshire Ripper. “In 100 years, those assumptions haven’t diminished,” said Rubenhold.
Hallie Rubenhold also added that we live in a society that is still structured around who Jack the Ripper was, so she knew her book would be controversial because she expels many of the myths people believe, in particular that of his victims all being sex workers. However, she did not foresee the social media vitriol she received, even before the book was published. Ripperologists, she explained, seem to have a sense of ownership over these stories that they have dedicated their lives to.
Jo Baker’s latest novel, The Body Lies is a metafictional assemblage of voices creating a debate over who has the right to tell these stories. Baker explained to Dr. Joyce and the audience that she used post-modern writing techniques to construct a narrative rather than interrupt it.
Following this in-depth discussion of crime fiction and true crime in literature and the media, Dr. Joyce gave the audience time to ask their own questions of both the authors. During this Q&A, one audience member asked about society’s habit of victim blaming, particularly when it comes to male violence against women, a theme which was also raised in the ‘Boys will be Boys’ event for Birmingham Literature Festival. In answer, Jo Baker stated that this is a very human thing to do, she said “If you can assign blame to a victim, you can work out how to avoid it.”
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold and The Body Lies by Jo Baker are both out now and available from all good bookshops and online retailers.