Nancy Schoenberger is a professor of English at the College of William & Mary specializing in creative and nonfiction writing, such as poetry, biography and journalism. She is the author of three books of poetry and co-author with her husband, San Kashner, of several acclaimed biographies of Hollywood personalities such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and pianist and actor Oscar Levant.
Now she is in the process of putting the finishing touches of her fourth volume of poetry, called "The Whitechapel Arias." The centerpiece of her new book of poetry will be the poem, "London Foundling Hospital," which won recently the Graybeal-Gowen poetry award from Washington & Lee's University literary journal, Shenandoah.
"It's always been interesting to me that the Whitechapel murders - aka Jack the Ripper murders - have continued to fascinate us over a hundred years later, given the number of serial murders and war atrocities that have occurred since then," said Schoenberger in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "Perhaps it's because it was one of the first of its kind at the dawn of the 20th century. Apparently motiveless murders, preying on prostitutes in London's East End - and the fact that the murders have never been solved to everyone's satisfaction has added to its mystery."
Schoenberger, was in London several years ago, doing research for her book about the writer and Guinness heiress Caroline Blackwood. She took the "Jack the Ripper" tour in the Whitechapel area of London. The tour was conducted by the Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow, and she found herself caught up in the mystery.
"It struck me that the five 'canonical' victims, those believed by the Scotland Yard to have been murdered by the figure we've come to know as Jack the Ripper, are known to us only as victims of these savage crimes. My intention was to research their lives and write poems in their voices, restoring their humanity beyond that of being remembered only as murder victims," Schoenberger said.
The facts are known about their lives, but Schoenberger, exercising her poetic license, imagined other details.
"Because these are written as dramatic monologues, and they are emotional and poetic expressions of these five women, I am calling them 'The Whitechapel Arias,' imagining London's Victorian streets as a kind of three-penny opera," she said.
Having had visited London a number of times, Schoenberger has been struck by how present the past is.
"London no longer has its mysterious fogs, but parts of the city are still haunting, and, perhaps, haunted," she said. "I wanted to give the murdered women voices, but also to try to capture what the streets of London must have felt and looked like in 1888."
While visiting the Colonial Williamsburg exhibition "Threads of Feeling" at the DeWitt Gallery, Schoenberger was inspired by what she saw there. The exhibit displays pieces of fabric that London's Foundling Hospital retained from mothers who left their babies there in the mid-18th century. It was a small token, as a means of identification.
"My Whitechapel Arias" poems are intended to give back a measure of humanity, an imagined inner life, to women who are remembered only as victims," Schoenberger said. " I researched their lives but have added poetic embellishments, and made certain leaps of faith. Such as assuming that Mary Jane Kelly, the youngest and the last of the five murdered women, might well have given up an infant to London's Foundling Hospital. And one of the beautiful fabrics displayed at the exhibit might have been her token of identification."
This is incorporated into the poem "Mary Kelly Aria," and that's the poem that won Shenandoah's poetry prize.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.