Hallie Rubenhold On History and The Problem with Great Men

Hallie Rubenhold On History and The Problem with Great Men

"We don’t learn history from statues in our squares. You learn history from books, and we learn history from public discussion”, said historian and author of The Five, Hallie Rubenhold in conversation with Sheena McDonald at her Edinburgh International Book Festival Online event today. Rewatch the session in full on our website now.

When asked about the importance of statues in the wake of the Edward Colston statue pushed into Bristol Harbour earlier this year she said, “Statues are not history. Statues were put up at a particular time to represent a particular mindset, it’s a representation of where that culture was at a time and its values.”

Rubenhold is firm that we should continue to interrogate history and bring it into our lives today. The Five is a close examination of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper: “It really surprised me when I started writing this that there had been no book written in 132 years about them …. And I thought, my god, there is a whole world here to be explored.”

In her extensive research into Victorian England Rubenhold explains why it’s necessary to offer historical context around the women’s stories. “These five women are kind of an everywoman for the poor Victorian women who have been written out of history.” Of those she says, “if you think of the majority of people in the past were poor, that’s vast waves of history that have just vanished.”

Response to The Five has been overwhelmingly positive, with the book winning the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. However, in disproving the common myth that all the women killed by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes, she has received considerable negative feedback from those who study Ripperology. “I couldn’t believe the outrage surrounding this, and also the inability to try to understand that history is not something static. History is something that we are constantly investigating.”

Rubenhold re-examines history in her new chapter, The Problem with Great Men, commissioned by the Book Festival and supported by Baillie Gifford. In it she responds to Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory and writes, “For so long [history has] been defined by great deeds by great men. That is a Victorian definition of what it is and there’s no reason we should be carrying the ideals of Victorian England into the 21st century with us.” Instead, she calls to give more opportunity to social history, “Social history puts the human experiences front and centre and for this reason it is one of the most accessible entry points to understanding the past.”

As a historian looking to the future, Rubenhold is hopeful. Since finishing The Five she is already working with teachers and educators who are keen to widen the history syllabus to include women in the Jack the Ripper narrative, and more social history generally. When asked about our current situation in the global pandemic, she said,  “Being a historian allows me to understand and recognise that the truly good things that people enjoy – being together, going to the theatre, being entertained, being in groups – they always come back. … the things that are important to us as a society, as a culture, as human beings will always find a way back, that is what history tells us. So perhaps it’s a note of hope for anyone feeling a bit despondent out there.”


This event was supported by The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. You can watch the discussion in full on-demand now: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/hallie-rubenhold-the-problem-with-great-men/player

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