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Iris on Books

Iris is a PhD student and book blogger who's favourite pastime is curling up under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book.

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Harriet - Rachel Cooke, Elizabeth Jenkins [review copy from the publisher
Originally posted at: http://irisonbooks.com/2012/04/25/harriet-by-elizabeth-jenkins/]

Harriet is a novel written by Eizabeth Jenkins. Most may know her from her work The Tortoise and the Hare. In Harriet Jenkins tackles a heavier subject matter, for the book is based on the 1877 Penge Murder Mystery, a case against family members who murdered a young woman by the name of Harriet through neglect in order to get to her money. In her novel, Jenkins traces the story of Harriet’s marriage to Lewis, who designs to marry her for her large inheritance from the first, up to the trial of Lewis and his partners in crime, by which time Harriet has died of neglect.

Harriet was a young women who we would describe today as having learning disabilities. Her mother, in the novel, calls her “a very simple-minded girl”. Because of this, Harriet is raised protectively by her mother: Harriet lives a sheltered life of luxury and loves pretty things, she also spends a lot of her time visiting relatives. At the house of one of these relatives, step cousins of Harriet, she meets Lewis, who, when he learns about her fortune, relinquished his intended engagement to one of the step cousins, in order to gain money through a marriage to Harriet. From there on out, her mother, and Harriet herself, are powerless to protect Harriet from harm.

The subject matter of Harriet is harrowing, which is why I was a little hesitant to start reading this book at first. How horrible would it be? How disturbed would I feel? Will it focus more on the horror of the crime, or on the psychological aspect of it? In short, would I have nightmares, and end up disliking the book for it? I am glad to say that the latter proved untrue. The book maintains a balance between storytelling and highlighting the disturbing nature of this occurrence, which turns this not into an enjoyable read, per se, as it will not have you laughing at the world much. However, it is enjoyable in a different manner, for it is a highly readable and very worthwhile read.

Three things in particular stood out to me.

First of all, Jenkins highlights the limited possibilities to protect a woman, let alone a woman who is considered “simple-minded” legally from unhealthy designs by men, or fellow humans. She does so through the storyline of Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet’s mother.

“And may I ask,” he said, “how you propose to put a stop to it?” He saw that she was for a moment nonplussed and went on, “Your daughter is considerably over age; she is her own mistress; her money’s her own. I want to marry her – she wants to marry me. May I ask you again what you think you have to do with it?”

Harriet, having received numerous pretty gifts from Lewis, fancies they are in love and wants to marry, for she feels, and sees around her, that marriage is the suitable station for any girl. In the face of this, Harriet’s mother is helpless, for the reasons expressed by Lewis in the quote above. But also, because she cannot give enough proof of Harriet’s disability to renounce her as mistress of her own money, since her mother never wanted to diagnose her as such before, happy in the knowledge that she could offer Harriet a comfortable and sheltered life. A question that is implicitly raised in the book is whether Mrs. Ogilvy would not have achieved more to protect Harriet by letting her husband handle things, but Mrs. Ogilvy is proud of being able to handle her own business (as Harriet is the daughter of a previous marriage) and Mr. Ogilvy, though recognising that he might do more, concedes in letting her try. It is sad to realise that, as a reader, I sometimes felt that perhaps the mother had better concede her agency for the greater good, a pattern that I think only underlines the marginal position of women in law at the time more.

The manner in which these interactions and power relations based on gender, class, and position of authority, play out in the book were fascinating.

Second, and this is where I come to Jenkins’ strength as a storyteller, is that she allows the reader a wide perspective of Harriet’s life and death through the eyes of several of the characters involved. We not only learn about Mrs. Ogilvy’s actions and points of view, but also about the four main characters involved in the murder case (Lewis, Patrick, Alice, and Elizabeth), as well as the maid of Patrick and Elizabeth, Clara, although none of them become narrators themselves. This scope of characters guarantees that, as a reader, you get to know the possible psychological motivations of most people involved with Harriet, one way or another. And, as happens in the case of the women described, how inaction and passive cooperation, are in many ways actions that have consequences too. Elizabeth Jenkins manages to weave such an intricate web of views and tacit understandings between several of the characters involved that is hard not to get caught up in the events and the bleak view of humanity expressed.

Interestingly, and this is the third thing that stood out upon my reading of Harriet, the character of Harriet herself, her voice, thoughts, and actions, are described almost as secondary. You learn so little about her, apart from her hopes turning to hurt in the end. Things happen to her, things are decided for her, and everything is described for, instead of by, her. And so the utter helplessness of her situation comes across very powerfully. Furthermore, Jenkins allows many of the things that occur to remain unsaid. She lets the reader gauge the cruelty of the situation from the details, that almost seem to accidentally slip through for most of the story. For example, at one point the reader finds out that Harriet is pregnant, and it is not until then that you realise that Lewis actually had intercourse with her. It might be a natural thing, in marriage, at the time, but knowing how Lewis speaks and feels about Harriet, it becomes an act of cruelty. When Harriet comes to stay with Elizabeth and Patrick for a while, you learn that she is beaten and abused by the latter. But you do not really learn about the extent of this treatment until the court case. Before, you can only infer it from passages such as this one:

In the meantime Lewis had walked over to the Woodlands to fetch Harriet and drive with her to the station. Elizabeth had taken pains to produce her looking respectfully dressed and as became a woman about to endow her husband with a large sum of money. Harriet’s boots had been cleaned and her hair carefully done, not without some distaste, by Elizabeth herself. The dark green dress she wore, after a shaking and brushing, still looked good; her jacket had been little worn since she came down, so that was more than presentable; gloves were found, and Clara brought out Harriet’s hat from behind the curtain. Elizabeth took it, and then paused, considering. It was unfortunate that there should be a bruise on Harriet’s cheek under the right eye. Elizabeth went into her room and returned with a bonnet of her own, which had a black fall attached to it.

I cannot tell you how painful it is, in many ways, to read this short passage again. Knowing what happens later, knowing what evidence is brought to light, it is extra hard to read all the small details that hide the larger facts. But, at the same time, I am a little bit in awe of Jenkins for so precisely, so levelheaded and almost humanely, portraying the thoughts and actions of those involved in Harriet’s neglect, and also being able to evoke the sense of inhumanity in the treatment of Harriet through small details and glimpses of the larger picture.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins is a worthwhile, though never a light, read. She managed to evoke horrid circumstanced through subdued and precise prose, and furthermore paints a picture of the slipping scale of morality, and, perhaps, the loss of the broader view of circumstances, actions, and consequences, for some of those involved in a crime of the magnitude of the Penge Murder Mystery, without painting those involved in a positive light. Really, the more I think about it, the more I respect the clever manner in which this novel was set up.