FEATURE: I've Been Reading... Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

FEATURE: I've Been Reading... Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Welcome to a new, hopefully ongoing Assorted Buffery feature in which we wax lyrical about books we've read recently that we quite liked. Our book reviews will continue to focus on newer releases, so this is a chance to talk about older books we have discovered and feel deserve to be shared. 

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins was first published in 1934, set in the 1870s, based on the true story of a notorious criminal case involving a woman called Harriet Staunton. The case of the Stauntons is a shocking one, a tale of unimaginable cruelty and neglect. Jenkins spins it into a domestic horror, telling the tale of the fictional Harriet Richardson; she's over 30, not yet married and is still living with her parents due to what we would recognise now as some form of learning difficulty. When she is sent to stay with family friends, she is wooed by the opportunistic Lewis Oman who swiftly marries her for her money, much to the disapproval of her parents. Not quite able to understand what is happening to her, Harriet slowly finds herself locked in an abusive and exploitative relationship with extremely dark consequences.

The novel begins as many do, with a young woman falling in love with a prospective suitor. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular, the 'marriage plot' was a popular narrative, documenting a couple falling in love, overcoming certain trials and finally promising to marry at the end of the novel. It is a formula that persists to this day, most notably in rom-com formats (When Harry Met Sally is a classic marriage plot narrative). Other novels, such as George Eliot's Middlemarch, Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd and Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall offered alternative, and subversive looks, beyond the initial bliss of matrimony promised elsewhere by Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice (though it is worth noting that all three examples go on to end with a socially acceptable and happy marriage after all).

It is into the latter category that Elizabeth Jenkins' novel slides into, bringing with it a biting critique of the late nineteenth century social and legal systems that forced women to marry and ensured their husbands took control of their property and wealth. Alice, a chief antagonist of Harriet and originally Lewis' intended, buys into this system wholeheartedly and willingly encourages Lewis to abuse it out of her own jealousy of Harriet's much wealthier situation. Harriet's possessions are slowly appropriated by Alice, just as her money is appropriated by Lewis. Harriet's social confinement is still well within the realms of legality by Victorian standards. It is only later in the novel, when that confinement becomes physical, that the true horror of her situation is revealed.

Out of this situation, Jenkins crafts a slow-burning domestic nightmare without ever going into any graphic detail. In fact, any hints towards Harriet's abuse are dropped into the text with little to no fanfare. The first time you realise that she has been subject to physical violence is when she is offered a hat with a small veil to cover a bruise around her eye. Nor is her starvation examined in any great detail. It simply becomes a process that the family and their servant adheres to. As the Afterward by Rachel Cooke points out, there's the implication of sexual assault and, given that Harriet has trouble understanding the world around her, the connotations just keep getting darker.

That almost indifferent approach to Harriet's suffering gives the novel a truly chilling edge that persists right through to the last page. As it is based on a true story, the lack of sentimentality works well, simply allowing that "almost unbelievable callousness and cruelty," as she termed it, to speak for itself. Cooke states that "in Jenkins' hands, the quartet's unspoken complicity is deftly unpicked [...] She presents the Stauntons' crime not as a plan, but as a tacit agreement." Though there were doubts as to whether the Stauntons truly intended to commit the crime they did, Jenkins' fictional iterations of the counterparts are, without doubt, guilty. That judgement is the closest feeling of emotion you get from Jenkins, a quietly simmering fury that this family could agree to something so cruel.

Harriet is perhaps one of the most masterful explorations of the darker side of humanity that I have read; though the truth of the situation renders it horrible already, Jenkins manages to wring that into something so much worse by illustrating the plausibility of it all. She also never loses sight of Harriet at the heart of her tale, a woman victimised not only by those people around her who are supposed to care for her, but a social system that renders her powerless and refuses to understand her.

Harriet is available from Persephone Books.

- Becky

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