Sunday, 10 June 2012

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet is the tragic story of a young woman's exploitation.  Based on a real case, the 'Penge Mystery' that gripped 1870s London, the novel explains how Harriet, a woman with what we would now call a learning disability and also a three thousand pound legacy, falls into the hands of Lewis Oman and his brother Patrick.  Patrick is an unsuccessful artist with a wife, the beautiful Elizabeth, and two small children; Lewis works as an auctioneer's clerk and is, at the start of the novel, romantically involved with Elizabeth's sister Alice Hoppner.  Harriet is living with her mother, Mrs Ogilvy, who genuinely loves her daughter and has cared for her as best she can; Harriet likes the theatre, nice clothes and shoes, is fastidious, and can hold simple conversations.  However, she is not easy company and her mother occasionally sends her away for a few weeks as a paying guest.  The Hoppners are cousins of some sort, and it is while staying with them that Lewis meets Harriet.  Discovering the extent of her fortune (Harriet's wealth would have the purchasing power of over a million pounds today) he determines to marry her.  Mrs Ogilvy's attempts to prevent the marriage by legal means fail, and Lewis and Harriet marry.  For a while, they live together in London; Mrs Ogilvy attempts a reconciliation with her daughter but is rebuffed.  When Harriet becomes pregnant, Lewis uses this as a pretext to bring Alice to live with them, but once the child is born he decides to take things even further.

Elizabeth Jenkins makes a compelling and horrifying novel out of this story.  As Rachel Cooke's  Afterword to the Persephone edition explains, she stuck very closely to the source material, barely changing the characters' names and keeping the suburban south London location for much of the action.  What the novel does so well is show how people slip by degrees into crime, how acquiescence turns to commission, and how much guilt can be ascribed to those who see what is happening, but choose not to understand it.  Much of this narrative focuses on Elizabeth, who agrees to house Harriet and her child and, slowly, is drawn into perpetuating her neglect.  Midway through the novel, she realises that Alice has taken one of Harriet's beautiful dresses and unpicked it to remake for herself, but she "looked away without saying anything".  This connivance is the foundation for Elizabeth's eventual conception of Harriet as inhuman: "It wasn't, after all, as if Harriet felt anything" and her collusion is fuelled by her overpowering love for her husband, Patrick.  The network of relationships between Lewis, Patrick, Elizabeth and Alice is deeply intense, the brothers in particular shown as enmeshed in a folie à deux that clearly cannot end well.  What is most troubling, however, is the four's calm acceptance of the luxuries provided by Harriet's money while she is imprisoned and neglected upstairs.  In this scene, Patrick has just announced that he has boarded up Harriet's window:

"They all stretched out their feet to the comforting glow; the afternoons were drawing in fast, and the firelight turned them in their afternoon drowsiness to Egyptian figures, ruddy and black."

Patrick and Elizabeth can hardly afford coal under normal circumstances; the news that Harriet can no longer see out of the window, or have her bare room ventilated, does not disrupt their comfortable afternoon drowsiness in any way.  But Jenkins, while she is convinced of the guilt of the Omans and Alice, also carefully notes those who could have done something, but did not; passing tradesmen who saw Harriet, the servant Clara, Mrs Hoppner, the police and other authorities to name a few.  However, she also shows their reasons for not acting on their suspicions, particularly in the case of naive and powerless Clara.  This reminded me a lot of the debate around various recent and ghastly child abuse scandals, and the debate around individual and collective guilt for crimes of this sort.   I also really enjoyed Jenkins's writing style, which is lucid, expressive and powerful.  Here, suburban Alice, rejected by Louis for Harriet,  has her first encounter with the delights of a Kentish spring:

"But when in one of her solitary walks she came across a thicket of whitehorn, standing in ethereal brillance against the dark wood-side, it gave her a pang of such sharpness that she almost felt her unhappiness had never really come upon her until this moment.  She retraced her steps in horror, and from that time she half unconsciously shunned anything beautiful in scent or sight or sound that the countryside offered [...] when the time of the full moon grew near, she would wake within the narrow space of four bare walls, the patches of radiance reflected on the wall as if through prison bars, and the great golden face gazing in upon her, forbidding her to sleep; forbidding her, in that strange silence and light, to cry."

Jenkins cleverly evokes the early signs of Spring, which most readers would find pleasurable, to explore Alice's psychology; her rejection and fear of natural beauty helps establish her as someone who might well reject prevalent moral standards.

This book is without a doubt disturbing, without being in any way gratuitous, but, as I said above, entirely compelling.  I've not read any of Jenkins's other work but will be seeking it out.  The Persephone edition is, as always, beautifully produced, and the Afterword is enlightening on the real case that inspired the novel.  Desperate Reader and Harriet Devine have both written interesting reviews of this book, and there is an Observer piece by Rachel Cooke about the real case behind the text.


  1. Glad you loved it. Elizabeth Jenkins novel The Tortoise and the Hare is also an excellent novel -- do try it!

  2. This book sounds so, so good. I need to add it to my reading list.