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

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