26 October 2017

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Furthering my quest for an appropriately dark read for October, I remembered the discussion surrounding Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins when Persephone Books republished it in 2012.  Having ordered a copy after thoroughly enjoying The Tortoise and the Hare, the time to delve into this fiction based account of a appalling crime from the Victorian era has arrived.

First of all, the serendipity of this novel being set during the same period as my last read, Affinity by Sarah Waters, was irresistible.  Continuing in the vein of life in Victorian London felt right; seamless images of silk dresses, carriages, and bread being toasted over a roaring fire.  And then it all turns quite sinister with the introduction of a scheming man - waxed mustache and all.

Thinly disguising the characters, Jenkins has changed Harriet's maiden name from Richardson to Woodhouse.  When the novel begins, Harriet is thirty-two and lives at home with her mother, Mrs. Ogilvy, and her step-father.  Modern thinking suggests that Harriet may have experienced a lack of oxygen at birth leading her be what Victorians referred to as 'a natural'.  In any case,  Harriet had learning disabilities and exhibited moments of 'horrid uncouthness' and was 'not easily put out of the way'.  She had a fondness for fine clothes and pretty things, all things her mother relished bestowing on her daughter.

Periodically, Mrs. Ogilvy would send Harriet to the homes of relatives for a bit of respite.  One relation, Mrs. Hoppner, relied on the money earned housing Harriet to dress her beautiful daughter Alice, and subsidize the income of her other daughter, Elizabeth.  Willing to forego any pleasure for herself, Elizabeth would consistently do without to allow her artist husband, Patrick, to continue his artwork despite very little return.  Patrick's brother Lewis rather fancies himself and is in love with Elizabeth's sister, Alice.  So we have a very intimate quadrangle of relatives who all aspire to have a bit more. 

Despite shuddering at Harriet's attention (and ten years her junior), Lewis sets out to discover the exact amount of money the young woman is worth.  Realizing she is quite well off, he wastes no time in his flirtations and a swift proposal.  Alice is crestfallen but Lewis reassures her with stolen kisses.  The word 'cad' comes to mind.

Approaching Mrs. Ogilvy with news of his intentions, Harriet's mother gives Lewis an earful.  She quickly realizes the reason for his haste, but the young man has the flagrant audacity to reply...

   'You talk as if the good luck would be all on my side.  I may state that there are several people who'd be glad enough to marry me -- in fact, I'm causing disappointments, a thing I don't like to do: and there'll be a good deal of surprise at my marring your daughter, quite as much as at her marrying me.'
   Mrs.Ogilvy attempted to awe him by calling up all her dislike and contempt into her face, but Lewis sat unmoved under her gaze.
   'Might I enquire why?' she said, with laborious interest, but before his impervious attitude, tinged with a sneer, her tones fell flat.  Lewis did not hurry in his reply; he recrossed his legs and rested one hand on his knee.
   'I am considered handsome by the ladies.; he said.
   It was too much for Mrs. Ogilvy; with a blast of disdain, unmeditated as lighting, bold as thunder, she exclaimed:
   'Handsome!  Yes, you are the sort that housemaids call handsome!'

The most delicious piece of dialogue since Elizabeth Bennet stood up for herself in the company of Lady Catherine de Bourge.

Mrs. Ogilvy sees through Lewis.  A motion to head off the nuptials by way of a document stating Harriet is not of sound mind is refused by the family doctor.  So the wedding takes place, Harriet is away in her wedding finery, and Lewis begins the process of distancing himself from his bride while transferring her wealth.

After the birth of a son, Lewis sends Harriet to the home of his brother Patrick in Kent.  Lewis then buys a house only a mile away and moves Alice in with him, living as husband and wife.  Thus begins the horrifying withdrawal of Harriet's base needs, as well as the needs of the baby.

Elizabeth Jenkins' treatment of this story is remarkably fair and unbiased.  Each character is described in their moments of fear, repulsion, ignorance, greed, and compliance.  I found myself wondering why certain people didn't report what was going on, but compliance is a slippery slope to normalcy.  My heart broke for Mrs. Ogilvy, whose attempts to see her daughter were met with notes telling her stay away and she was physically threatened.  Within the powers she had, she was a dogged advocate but sadly, the outcome was shocking and sad.

Rachel Cooke's afterword is not be missed.  The full nature of the details surrounding the people involved, the trial, and the eventual fate of those involved was far from diminished after reading the story in a fictional account.  A gripping page-turner and highly recommended!

Harriet Richardson at the time of her engagement to Louis Staunton

25 October 2017

Tales and Sales

Last Friday I worked until 6 pm, dashed home, ate a few pieces of sushi (no time to fiddle with chopsticks) before hurrying out for a book talk at the art centre.  My husband enjoys Linwood Barclay's books and I was happy to tag along.  Roddy Doyle was also listed as a speaker but a family emergency kept him away.  Anyone familiar with Linwood's previous life as a columnist knows he has a keen sense of humour but I was going in blind, so to speak.  The only thing I knew about him was that we used the same car dealership.  Linwood's comedic timing and way with a story made the night so much fun that I didn't mind missing out on a chance to meet a Man Booker Prize winning author.  Sorry, Mr Doyle.

On Saturday we drove through the most glorious sunshine and winding roads sandwiched between golden trees, to see what we would find at a large book sale.  Susan, interested in my mudlarking pursuits while in London, contacted me about a detail or two so she could try her hand while on her recent trip.  Trading tips, she told me about the annual Friends of the Library book sale in Guelph, a nearby university town.  Well, it's a city, but so tranquil it feels like a town.

Inside the large building were tables and tables full of books, and quickly filling with customers.  My husband looked at me and said 'I'll find you somewhere' before heading our separate ways.  There are plenty of books on my tbr pile at home so, for me, it was more about the gems than simply loading up - which plenty of people were very successful at.  I came away quite happy with Volume Two 1912 - 1922 of Virginia Woolf's letters, Anita Brookner's A Start in Life, and The Oxford Book of English Short Stories all for seven dollars.  Proceeds from the sale go towards supporting library initiatives, and I was so impressed by the enthusiasm of the many volunteers dedicating their time.  We'll definitely be visiting this sale again!

Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) recently told me about a new English Heritage book called Eight Ghosts.  Quickly placed on my wishlist I was fine with the waiting game.  Then, just over a week ago, while listening to a podcast in the middle of the night, a review of this book was featured.  The starting point for the book was that authors were allowed to spend after hours time at a particular English Heritage site, absorbing details for a story suitably spooky for this time of year.  One story, by Max Porter, is set at Eltham Palace, a beautiful location I visited just over three months ago.  Being able to navigate the setting so clearly suddenly made this book a must-have.  Other submissions by Sarah Perry, Kamila Shamsie, Jeanette Winterson, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley, Stuart Evers and Kate Clanchy will be enjoyed over the next few days, as well.

And speaking of atmospheric reading for October...I finished Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, yesterday afternoon.  It is absolutely gripping, but more on that in my next post.

16 October 2017

Affinity by Sarah Waters

It wouldn't be October without reading something atmospheric with a dash of spooky.  I feel that a  novel set during the Victorian era is something of a prerequisite for this time of year, when the nights draw in.  A lonely Gothic mansion ticks a lot of boxes, but a prison weeping with damp, squeaking with mice, and scattered with scurrying beetles works quite nicely as well.  And then there's the fog...

'....yellow fogs and brown fogs, and fogs so black they might be liquid soot - fogs that seem to rise from the pavements as if brewed in the sewers in diabolical engines.  They stain our clothes, they fill our lungs and make us cough, they press against our windows - if you watch, in a certain light, you may see them seeping into the house through ill-fitting sashes.'

Set during the first half of the 1870s, Margaret Prior begins regular visits to Millbank Prison.  As a respectable woman, she has been assigned the duty of speaking with female inmates in the hope they will be inspired to correct their criminal behaviour.  We won't get into the politics of why some women unjustly end up in prison as we're quite aware that starvation and abuse can lead to desperation. In any case, it soon becomes apparent that Margaret is herself under care, having recently recovered (physically, anyway) from a suicide attempt.

Living in Cheyne Walk with her mother, Margaret has experienced the death of her father and loss of her lover.  Helen has bent to the pressures of society and married Margaret's brother.  Margaret's heart breaks when she learns Helen will honeymoon in Italy, a trip the women had dreamed of taking together.  At nearly thirty years of age and unmarried, Margaret is both a disappointment and dependent on her mother.

'I saw her growing bitter, because her son and her favourite daughter had homes elsewhere - had gayer homes, with children and footsteps and young men and new gowns in them; homes which, were it not for the presence of her spinster daughter - her consolation, who preferred prisons and poetry to fashion-plates and dinners, and was therefore no consolation at all...'

Visiting the bleak prison in her mourning black, Margaret soon focuses on Selina Dawes.  While most of the prison is dark, it's almost as if a light shines from the young, fair woman as she sits in her cell, fingering a ball of wool.  Accused of fraud and assault during a seance which resulted in the death of another woman due to fright, the reader may wonder whether Selina's mystical powers are real or imagined.  Somehow, without visitors or letters, Selina holds a single violet in a room of stone.

As Margaret and Selina form a friendship, Selina tells Margaret things about her father that she couldn't possibly know.  Then items begin to appear or disappear from Margaret's room, leaving Margaret to believe that Selina does indeed possess mystical powers.  It's also possible that the chloral dispensed each night by Mrs Prior to keep Margaret from the verge of hysteria is muddling her thoughts.

Being extremely fond of London, it never fails to thrill when certain streets or places are named.  I found myself wondering how many houses separated Margaret's address from the Carlyles on Cheyne Walk and how the view of the Thames has changed since the 1870s.  The Reading Room at the British Museum is still a mystery but walking up the steps to the front door is not.  And I wondered which side of Great Russell Street the Association of Spiritualists was located on....fictitious or not.

There are plenty of topics to explore within this novel, such as the appalling prison conditions, mental illness, women's rights, housing, why single women were frowned upon but single men fussed over,  women's access to a bank account, and lack of social assistance.  Also, just what was going on behind the curtain during Selina's seances, and who is the mysterious Peter Quick?

A plot twist at the end of the story means I won't be passing my copy on to someone else just yet.  At some point I'm going to read this book again, to pick up on the clues that Waters has cleverly woven throughout.  Highly recommended as an ideal read for October!

15 October 2017

Guillermo del Toro at the Art Gallery of Ontario

(Young Mako Mori's dress, from Pacific Rim, 2013)

The autumn is my favourite time of year.  Pumpkin pie becomes a food group, the temperature is cool enough to wear my favourite cardigans again, fall fairs dot the calendar and the perfect drive in the country is rich with the aroma of wood smoke.  My husband and I have been busy dividing hostas, planting mums, tidying up the edges on the flower beds, and we've finally worked up the nerve to rip the carpet from the stairs.  Youtube gives you all sorts of confidence to believe anything is possible - fingers crossed.

We ladies with dogs in the neighbourhood decided to start a book club.  The idea came about at a birthday party in August, the same party where I was taught how to sabre a bottle of champagne.  My husband couldn't believe how calm I was, to which my reply was 'Not my champagne, not my knife, not my house!'...what could go wrong?  Well, yes, the possibility of a nasty wound but, to my sheer amazement, it worked!  I'm not so sure about the book club though.  The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry was my choice, especially leading up to Halloween, but only one other person finished the book.  It's true what they say about book clubs, and in our case the discussion was even shorter than the norm!  I'm not sure it's a good fit for me and it wouldn't be fair to further twist the arms of my dear friends.  If they didn't get on with Sarah Perry, there's little hope for the likes of E.M. Delafield or Virginia Woolf, and I'm not very keen to leave my favourite authors behind for weeks on end.

 So while I get back on track with my reading and posts, here are a few photos from the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the AGO.  We visited last Thursday as part of an afternoon away from domestic duties and mundane errands, and SO glad we did. 

 Victorian family portrait with deceased family member

 Costuming and set pieces from the film Crimson Peak

 The Angel of Death from Hellboy 2
(the eyes in the wings are very creepy!)

 The Faun from Pan's Labyrinth, 2006

 Statue of H.P. Lovecraft

One of del Toro's many notebooks detailing script ideas.

As you walk through the exhibit a pianist plays suitably atmospheric music, although I did a double-take to notice the sheet music was on a tablet, rather than paper.  So much old, so much new and all an awful lot of fun.