Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins
Persephone Books have republished this story as one of their Spring/Summer offerings. Originally published in 1934, Elizabeth Jenkins won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse with Harriet over Antonia White and Evelyn Waugh but in more recent years the book seems to have fallen by the wayside having been out of print for some time.
The story is a fictionalisation of a horrific murder case known publicly as the ‘Penge Mystery’ that took place in 1877. In the novel, the title character is a lady named Harriet with what we would call today ‘learning difficulties’. She is thirty-two years of age and lives a perfectly happy and content life with her mother in London. Harriet has a caring mother and a fair amount of money of her own, left to her by family. Her mother has cultivated in her a love of clothes and finery and a strong sense of personal cleanliness and neat appearance.
Harriet takes regular trips to stay with family and on one of these occasions she is introduced to a man named Lewis Oman who is currently courting Harriet’s cousin Alice and whose brother Patrick is married to Alice’s sister Elizabeth. When Lewis learns of Harriet’s own wealth, he switches his courting tactics from Alice to Harriet and manages to convince her to marry him. This alarming premise leads the reader into the story of Harriet’s forced estrangement from her panicked mother and the manipulation by Lewis of his new wife into signing her money over to him. He then convinces her to go and stay with his brother and wife for which Lewis pays them a fee and then moves Alice into the marital house in Kent which is near to his brother and passes her off as his wife to outside parties.
Successfully blocking any attempts made by Harriet’s mother to contact her, Lewis buries the existence of his real wife in the Kent countryside and he and Alice enjoy themselves with her money. In the meantime, Elizabeth and Patrick grow weary of Harriet’s difficulties but still rely on the money being paid to them by Lewis. Patrick is fiercely loyal and protective of his brother and will willingly remove any blight on his new enjoyable life. The result is a descent into neglect and cruelty that ultimately results in the tragic death of their charge. This death is dealt with by the family in a way that is calm and expectant but in order to cover their tracks they take her to a doctor when they know it is too late as they assume this will show them to have tried to help Harriet.
This is obviously a harrowing story, more so because it is based on truth. It is interesting to read an early book that would be classed in the large genre today of ‘True Crime’. Elizabeth Jenkins has dealt with this story very well and very subtlety. It is obvious where her beliefs lie in terms of the truth of the case but she does not hammer it into her storyline. The change in the people involved in this horrible tale is slow and naturally written. The shifts in their attitudes and tolerance towards Harriet, their slow realisations in the way they are behaving and their justifications of it to themselves are cleverly woven together. Elizabeth Jenkins takes us inside the minds of these selfish and ignorant people but does not portray them as such, she gives us the space to decide that for ourselves whilst insinuating as much quietly in the background.
It is a fascinating read but I would recommend that you brace yourself first and bring a hardened sense of humanity and a lower sense of a shock factor than you normally would because it isn’t a pretty story.