Hallie Rubenhold on Winning and Writing History
From the Read Smart Podcast, Presented by the Baillie Gifford Prize
To mark 21 years of rewarding the best nonfiction writing, The Baillie Gifford Prize has launched a new podcast generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. On the second series of the podcast, host Razia Iqbal will explore the increasingly popular world of nonfiction books. Each episode includes discussions and interviews with prize-winning authors, judges and publishing insiders, with guests including prize winner David France (How to Survive a Plague, 2017), publishing director at John Murray Georgina Laycock, 2020 prize judge Simon Ings, 2019 shortlisted author Hannah Fry, and many more.
On today’s podcast, we catch up with 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize winner Hallie Rubenhold and 2019 chair of judges Stig Abell. Hallie won with The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper and continues to work a busy schedule through lockdown; Stig is the host of the new Times Radio’s breakfast program. Host Razia Iqbal finds out what both Hallie and Stig have been up to since last year’s ceremony, how the prize impacted Hallie’s work and together they speculate on how history and future art will document this pandemic. This episode was recorded and produced remotely.
From the conversation:
Razia Iqbal: Did it surprise you that there was nothing really written in any kind of serious way about the victims of Jack the Ripper? It completely shocked me, and it made me very angry.
Hallie Rubenhold: I mean, before I wrote this book, there was a very small… like a pamphlet. It’s about 63 pages of text about these women, and it sets out to detail each of the genealogical aspects of their life and important dates and that sort of thing. But there’s no context. These women have been talked about, but they haven’t been talked about publicly. It’s been aficionados. It’s been researchers who have done it among themselves. But I think the important thing is for their names, for their memories, for their stories to enter our culture more broadly, and what surprised me was that there was no evidence of this anywhere. You walk around the east end of London and people put posters up of Jack the Ripper artwork, various things like that, paintings on walls in the Jack the Ripper tours. His presence is palpable, but those women are not there. And it is their story. So I think this was one of the things that drew me to writing this book.
Razia Iqbal: And the most important thing, really, is there a way in which you can talk about what all these women had in common? Because the general perception was that they were all prostitutes, that they were all sex workers, and that’s certainly not the case.
Hallie Rubenhold: It isn’t the case at all. And what amazed me as I was doing the research for this book was how diverse these five lives were. Each one was totally different. You know, these are five women who ended their lives in abject poverty and how they got there, that’s five different trajectories. It’s not the same poverty. It isn’t the same story for everybody. And I think that taps into … the modern resonances of this. Obviously, I felt that all the way through, and the story of these five women is the story of women in poverty today in London, in the capital, and probably in other places as well. I think that sort of speaks for itself.
Hallie Rubenhold, a social historian and frequent consultant for period dramas, is the author of The Covent Garden Ladies, the inspiration for the Hulu series Harlots, and The Scandalous Lady W. She is also the author of the historical novels Mistress of My Fate and The French Lesson.
Read Smart Podcast is commissioned by The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and is generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
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