Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet Staunton
Harriet Staunton

This novel is a title from the 2012 Persephone Books catalogue of reprinted twentieth century works of forgotten or neglected publications. Between the soft, dove grey covers of this edition with its beautiful endpapers copied from a Victorian printed silk, there is a great story of nightmarish horror. The description on the back cover boasts of it having beat out Evelyn Waugh’s, A Handful of Dustfor the ‘Femina Vie Heureuse’ prize which in itself a remarkable recommendation, although in another way it might demonstrate that some awards are not successful in distinguishing the great from the popular. The story is based on the tragic life of a woman named Harriet Staunton, living in mid nineteenth century Victorian London who was tricked into a loveless marriage by her cousins in order that they might gain control of her inherited fortune. The author makes a slight change to her name calling her Harriet Woodhouse in order to emphasise that this is a work of the imagination. I am assuming that by revealing these and the following details I am not in any way ruining the story for interested readers no more than were I to mention at the end of a story about the Titanic that it sank, but if I am… read no further.

The Harriet Woodhouse of this novel was a woman who we would describe today as being intellectually challenged. She did not develop mentally or emotionally beyond the age of a six or seven year old. Her father died when she was young leaving her an inheritance that made her the equivalent of a present day millionaire . Her mother was an attentive and loving person who made sure that Harriet was cared for in everyway and grew up in a household that spared no expense in providing for her comfort and well being. Even after Mrs. Woodhouse remarried and became Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet remained the center of her life. Their main occupations were visiting friends, shopping with frequent visits to the dressmaker. Although Harriet was for the most part well behaved she did have a bit of a temper and occasionally staged an adult tantrum or bout of stubbornness so that her mother felt the need for a respite from her responsibilities as parent to a little child in an adult’s body. Therefore from time to time she would send Harriet for a visit of a month or so with some of her relatives. Among these was a widowed cousin, Mrs. Hoppner, who was living with and supporting a teenaged daughter and under a good deal of financial strain. Mrs. Ogilvy made sure that Mrs. Hoppner was compensated for looking after Harriet so that she was welcomed into the household as a source of some badly needed income. In addition to her teenaged daughter, Alice, Mrs. Hoppner had an older daughter, Elizabeth married to and totally infatuated with a poor, struggling artist named Patrick Oman. Patrick had an older, charming and very good-looking brother named Lewis who worked as an auctioneer’s clerk, a job that paid poorly and did not promise a prosperous future. It is while Harriet was visiting this house when she was thirty-two that these four gradually conceived the plan of having Lewis court and marry Harriet for her money. Harriet’s mother tried to regain control of the situation by having Harriet declared mentally incompetent but the courts did not agree that making a poor choice in husbands was evidence of insanity.  Lewis succeeded in marrying Harriet and eventually moved out of London to an isolated cottage where she was confined to her room and reduced to a life of filth and degradation until through neglect she and the child she bore succumbed to starvation and died a horrible death having been reduced to but a skeletal frame.

This is not a nice story; it is quite disturbing but it is a compelling read. I found the author’s development of these nasty characters to be quite engrossing. The task she took on was to show how four seemingly ordinary middle class young people pursuing their quiet ordinary lives could develop into four heartless and murderous monsters. The novel describes four  physically attractive people who felt that the world owed them a living and convinced themselves that Harriet, whose features were witheringly limp and distorted by a lack of animation, did not deserve the comfort and wealth she possessed. Although they did not deliberately set out to kill her, over time they came to think of her as being less than human and not deserving of any regard. As she became ill from neglect and hunger they hid her away in a locked room because they could not stand her presence. There is certainly an art in creating a monster and Elizabeth Jenkins obviously spent time working through the details so that the progression creeps up on the reader. For example, she starts out by describing the teenaged   Alice Hopner as a beautiful but spoiled child, raised by her mother like a little princess, not expected to help with any of the house work and deeply resentful of her mother inability to provide her with the fine clothes that would soothe her all consuming vanity. When Harriet comes to visit with a trunk full of exquisitely made dresses and hats and shoes she sinks into a mood of total resentment of what she considers evidence of an unjust world that would have a beautiful person such as herself live in want while Harriet whom she thought of as ‘the creature,’ could dress in silk and velvet. Her sister Elizabeth is equally seduced into this way of thinking because she is unable to provide proper food or clothing for her artist husband whose only real concern in life is his work. She longs to give him more comforts but has only his meagre earnings from his commissions with which to run her household. Then there is Lewis who is caught up in a totally self-absorbed sense of entitlement with only the talents and education of a charming rogue with which to make his way in the world. His true nature comes through when he is eventually brought to trial with the others. The author has him enjoying the public attention and secretly smiling to himself at the sight of a packed courtroom despite the likelihood he might hang for destroying the unhappy Harriet Woodhouse. This lust for publicity must be the worst feature of a narcissistic personality and reminds me a certain infamous Canadian serial killer who relished the notoriety of having his name in bold headlines in every newspaper across the country.

This is a skilfully constructed book. Though the details of the story are distasteful it can be read just to see how a writer can convincingly analyze an actual occurrence through a work of fiction.

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