Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins
Valancourt Books, 2015
My hat is off to Valancourt for bringing this book back into print. Originally written in 1934, Harriet is based on an actual British murder case from the 1870s known as "The Penge Murder Mystery." It is one of the more disturbing books I've read, although I must say it is also one of the best historical crime novels I've had in my hands in a very long time. While information is widely available online about the Penge Murders or The Staunton Case (the real name of the fictional title character), I held off reading the facts of the actual case until I finished the novel, because I didn't want to have any expectations at all going into this book.
The titular Harriet is an only child and still living at home at age 32. She is rather simple, as the novel says, what would have been called "a natural," which in an afterword by Catherine Pope is explained as "having learning difficulties." Harriet's "continued presence in any household was a strain." After her mother remarried, Harriet was often sent to stay for a time with "various relations," who were paid to have her at their homes. As the novel opens, Harriet has been sent to stay with her mother's cousin Mrs. Hoppner, who has two daughters. Unlike Harriet's family, which is very well off, with Harriet having her own money and a future inheritance, Mrs. Hoppner and her daughter Alice have need for the eight pounds a month they'll get from having Harriet stay there. She shows up just after the arrival of Mrs. Hoppner's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick Oman, who are on the verge of moving to the country for both economic reasons and because living there would be "more suited to the pursuing of Patrick's profession" as an artist. Patrick, "made scarcely a penny and kept Elizabeth in a poor way." Patrick's brother Lewis, who is particularly fond of Alice, is also at chez Hoppner, and is warned by Alice to be nice to Harriet because they don't want Harriet complaining to her mother and going home. Once Lewis finds out exactly how much Harriet's worth he is beyond nice to her and it is not long before he comes up with a plan to marry her for her money. A rift forms between Harriet and her mother over marriage plans because Mamma has seen right through him, and eventually, without her family there with her, Harriet becomes Mrs. Lewis Oman. And that's when the trouble begins.
At this point, I found myself totally unprepared for what happens next, and I'm not just talking in terms of events. Here I am sitting at my breakfast table, reading in between bread risings, and I was so taken aback that when the timer beeped I literally could not move from the chair. It's bad enough that the principals take advantage of Harriet for her money; even worse is how conscience, compassion and basic morality fall by the wayside when self interest is involved. It's absolutely frightening how these seemingly ordinary people can sink to a subhuman level, all the while able to justify their actions to themselves. The author's strength in this novel is showing exactly how this sort of thing can happen -- how festering resentments, lack of money, a need for control and other factors can easily change seemingly decent people into monsters. She employs the use of contrast and irony to great effect, she spends a great deal of time in her characters' heads so that the reader can see exactly how such behavior is justified, and through it all, she never has to resort to graphic detail to get Harriet's horrific situation across to the reader.
To say I walked away from this novel completely floored is an understatement. One the one hand, it was extremely disturbing in the sense that it's amazing how anyone could do what these people did for the sake of money without ever batting an eye. On the other, this book was so well done that even without knowing anything about the case, I could see it all happening right in front of me.
I love these old books and I am in awe that Valancourt continues to find such great works to bring back into print. I highly, highly recommend this novel to anyone who is appreciative of good writing, to anyone who reads and enjoys writers of the Interwar period, and to anyone who wants something far above ordinary crime fiction. It's also a great choice for people who enjoy crime fiction based on real cases. Oh my god, people, this is one of the best historically-based novels ever.