Hallie Rubenhold is a social historian with a nose for a good story. In addition to being an author, her passion has led to her presenting TV documentaries and advising on period dramas, while also teaching, lecturing and curating for exhibitions.
Her now-bestselling book, The Five, changes the narrative around Britain's most famous serial killer while calling time on the sexist narrative around the Ripper myth – that his victims were 'just' prostitutes. It gave the five women he callously murdered – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane – back their stories, after 130 years of being ignored by history.
We spoke to Hallie about the personal importance of reclaiming these women’s voices, her love of libraries and why she never rereads a book for pleasure.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
There are so many writers I admire that choosing just one is an impossibility. There are those that I admire for their personal courage as well as for their talent, like Elif Shafak and Maya Angelou. There are journalists I admire, screenwriters and playwrights I admire, historians, novelists and biographers I admire. Some transport me with their stories, others move me with the beauty of their words or their abilities to create complicated and flawed characters. I enjoy learning from all of them.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
In order to help fund my postgraduate studies in Leeds, I worked for a time as a bookie. It was in a large telephone betting centre and I did a couple of shifts a week, usually one during the weekend and one in the evening, during the week. This was in the day before the internet and online betting, so people would ring up and place bets on horse races and dog races. It provided quite an interesting glimpse into another world.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
I’m going to be very honest about this – I generally don’t reread books that I’ve read for pleasure, simply because there are so many good books to read and I would rather experience a new story. I also rarely rewatch films, with the exception of a handful of my most favourite. Books that I use for my research, for writing my own books, I read repeatedly throughout the process of formulating my arguments. I suppose rereading books has come to feel too much like work!
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was writing my second book, Lady Worsley’s Whim (which would later become The Scandalous Lady W), I had the great fortune of working under the direction of Jenny Uglow as my editor. In addition to her skills as an editor, Jenny also brought some keen insights into my work in her capacity as a brilliant biographer. She told me that when writing biography I should select important moments from a person’s life to highlight, and build the discussion or investigation of their experiences around these. It helped me to see a person’s life experience as non-linear.
What makes you most happy?
Sunshine, warm weather, empty, sandy Atlantic or Pacific beaches. Portuguese beach bars. Santa Barbara, California. Long, deep, meaningful conversations with friends and riotous dinner parties with those same friends. Dogs. Travel to foreign countries and time to explore the culture and history. Really good music. Really good films. Really good television series. Really good art galleries, exhibitions and museums. Discovering obscure books. Fireplaces. Old buildings. Stunning modern architecture. London. Cooking imaginatively with wonderful ingredients and being cooked for imaginatively with wonderful ingredients. Feeling inspired. Feeling secure. Feeling loved.
What’s your biggest regret?
Je ne regrette rien.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
I love working in libraries that are open into the evening so I don’t have to stick to conventional hours of working. I find that it’s a constant battle to keep email, messages, social media and phone calls at bay and to carve out thinking time as well as writing time. Late library working, when most people have gone home is ideal for this and I often hit my writing stride well after 5 pm.
...and your ideal reading one?
A long transatlantic flight. I love the companionship a book offers when there are no other distractions. Also, going to bed early on a cold, dark winter’s night when the rain or sleet is lashing at the windows. Deliciously cosy.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Her writing is just like a ribbon of velvet – smooth, flowing and tactile. I was completely seduced by the stories of the three women whose lives she explored. I found the book absolutely gripping.
What inspired you to write your book?
This is the one question I get asked the most! So many books have been written about Jack the Ripper and about the murders of the canonical five victims, and I couldn’t believe nothing had been written about the women who were murdered. Who were they? They had lives apart from their deaths and identities separate from those of their murderer. I wanted to discover who they were and tell their stories.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold is out on paperback now.