Culture Literature

Women writing about women: Baillie Gifford Prize announcement

Jack the Ripper, the 19th century serial killer, has become almost mythologised in popular culture, spawning or influencing countless works of fiction and film, and an entire field of “Ripperology”. Less attention is paid, however, to his victims, the exact number of whom remains unknown. The “canonical five”, the five women whose murders are considered most likely to be linked and committed by the killer, have historically been overlooked.

Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper goes some way towards rectifying this injustice. The book has just won the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction from a shortlist of six books – an astonishing five of which were written by women. Rubenhold, a social historian, told The Guardian, “For too long there has been this idea that these women were all the same. A nameless, faceless mass of grubby, disgusting people, indistinguishable from one another. And they aren’t…They only ended up in the same place.” She is also critical of the modern-day media’s treatment of victims, singling out the case of  Russian historian Anastasia Yeshchenko, who was murdered earlier this month. Rubenhold wrote on Twitter, “there is virtually no coverage in the English language press about who she was but a lot about her murderer…At 24, she had her whole life ahead of her…I wish the press cared a bit more.” Her book, which has been optioned for television, was described by Frances Wilson, one of the judges, as, “so urgent…so eloquent…it’s so angry and beautifully put together.”

According to the chair of the judges, Stig Abell, The Five was a clear winner of the prize. But the other books on the shortlist should not be forgotten. Casey Cep’s New York Times best-selling debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is an account of Lee’s (the author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird) attempt to write a true-crime book about a murder trial in Alabama, and was described by the Washington Post as “absorbing”.

Longlisted for the prize, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth is the first of two volumes by William Feaver, an art critic who became a close friend of the artist himself. In interview, Feaver said of his book that it was a product of “countless hours of conversation, collaboration…knowledge and contributions from his friends (and enemies).”

Art critic Laura Cumming’s book On Chapel Sands is even more personal, delving into the author’s family history. Cumming’s mother was abducted at the age of three, turning up safe and well a few days later; the book reveals secrets and abounds in twists, most of which “come out of the blue”, according to The Guardian.

Julia Lovell’s expansive Maoism: A Global History, also made the shortlist. A professor of Modern China at Birkbeck College in London, Lovell’s previous books include Opium War (2011) and The Great Wall: China against the World (2006); she also translates Chinese language fiction.

The final shortlisted book, Azadeh Moaveni’s Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS, asks challenging questions of our society, detailing the stories of 13 women who left their homes to join ISIS. Moaveni, a writer and Senior Gender Analyst at the International Crisis Group, described her methods of research in an interview following being longlisted: “I sought out dozens of people across multiple countries…I poured over social media archives, lingered with women’s relatives and friends, and saturated myself in the neighbourhoods and milieus relevant to each character.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that, in a post-#MeToo society, books by and about women are so well represented in the shortlists for esteemed book prizes. There is no room for complacency, though. The previous female author to win the non-fiction prize (when it was still called the Samuel Johnson Prize) was Helen Macdonald in 2014, and of the 21 times the prize has been awarded, only seven winners have been female. The trolling to which Rubenhold was subjected for daring to question the traditional myth that Jack the Ripper’s victims were all sex workers (Rubenhold could find no evidence for this regarding three of The Five, but writing about it has led some “Ripperologists” to compare her to the Holocaust denier David Irving) is testament to the systemic bias against female writers.

Anyone who thinks that women writers are afforded the same respect as men would do well to consider Rubenhold’s tweet from earlier this year: “Woman writes book about women. Woman gets trolled, constantly. Welcome to 2019.”


Image: Penguin Random House