Tuesday 17 January 2017

Harriet: A Cold Hand

When I tried the page 117 trick the other day to see what 2017 held for me, the book that came to hand was Harriet, the latest novel by Elizabeth Jenkins (see here and here) that I've tracked down.
 Like Dr Gully, Harriet is a fictional treatment of a Victorian murder case. Unlike Dr Gully, it is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read. The case it is based on - dubbed the 'Penge mystery' - caused a sensation at the time, involving as it did the apparent starving to death of a young woman by members of her family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it was that the young woman, the Harriet of the title, was a 'natural' (or, as we would say today, had 'learning difficulties'). Her mother had raised her with care and affection, encouraging her to dress well and present a good front to the world (that's her in the photograph, posing for her engagement portrait), and she spent a good deal of time staying with various family members, who were glad enough of the money they were paid to look after her. All was well until a handsome and utterly ruthless fortune hunter with connections to the family found out about her inheritance, wooed and married her, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Harriet's mother, who could do nothing to stop him...
 The facts of the real-life 'Penge mystery' are not entirely clear-cut (as evidenced by a successful appeal against the initial death sentences on all the defendants), but Elizabeth Jenkins sees in the case a stark and terrible lesson about the depths of evil to which outwardly normal, quite decent people are capable of sinking. She drives the lesson home by establishing the comfortable milieu in which Harriet, when we first see her, is settled, and by depicting the characters around her as normally, humanly, fallible, with normal human weaknesses, no more. There is a hint of danger in one of them - Patrick, an aspiring painter, self-centred and short-fused - and, more obviously, in Lewis, the brother who hero-worships him. Lewis it is who single-mindedly sets his sights on marrying Harriet and getting his hands on her money. Once he has done so, that comfortable milieu dissolves away and Harriet is gradually drawn into a wholly alien world of deprivation, degradation and suffering.
 The events that unfold are, as they draw near their terrible denouement, almost too painful to read. The pain is less in the details of Harriet's ordeal, hideous though they are, than in the depiction of the steady growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of indifference. The novel was published in 1934, and reading it I couldn't help but think of how a similar process was about to unfold across Europe ('and the seas of pity lie, Locked and frozen in each eye'), as quite ordinary people found it easy enough to believe that certain of their fellow humans were untermenschen who could be mistreated and killed without compunction. I also found myself thinking of more recent events, particularly of the horrific cases of child neglect, starvation and cruelty that are continually coming to light...
 In Harriet, Jenkins's vision of humanity is bleak indeed - which wouldn't be so unbearable if she wasn't such a damned good writer, with the gift of drawing you into an entirely convincing world. A review in The Observer described this novel as 'like a cold hand clutching at the heart' - and that, for once, is no overstatement.


  1. You touch upon an issue that fascinates me: when history becomes fiction, which is the truth? So-called "historical novels" force this question upon me. Historians view through particular lenses, and novelists view through different lenses. Which gives us the most truthful image? I wonder.

  2. Well, I'm inclined to believe there is more truth in 'historical fiction', if it is really good, than in 'history'. Consider how little in the way of written history is still read for generations after its time, and how many fine novels set in the past survive, as fresh and readable (and revealing?) as ever...