I always look forward to the new Persephone books; the glee of opening the pristine dove grey cover to reveal the beautiful endpapers and a story that I know I will find fascinating, entertaining and thought provoking is second to none. These are books written with a solid craftmanship rarely found in the modern novel. Unlike today’s bestsellers, they are not attempts to be controversial, flashy or clever. They are not the product of authors who have been on expensive creative writing courses and write with one eye on a prize depressingly sponsored by a corporate giant who has nothing to do with the world of literature. They have no agenda; they are purely and simply good stories, written with passion. I have never been disappointed by one yet.
The latest Persephone is Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth Jenkins, whom many of you will know as the author of the superb The Tortoise and the Hare. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Harriet Staunton, a woman with learning difficulties who died from neglect at the hands of her husband and siblings-in-law in the 1870s. Harriet, who becomes Harriet Woodhouse in the novel (many people have argued that this is a nod to Harriet Woodhouse in Emma, which I am intrigued by and there is a very good analysis here), was brought up in the comfortable surroundings of wealthy middle class suburbia by a kind and indulgent mother who sought to protect and help her beloved only daughter as much as she possibly could. Harriet loved luxury; she especially loved fine clothes, fine food and fine surroundings. Her limited intelligence meant that she could be difficult, but by and large she was a sweet and good girl who was totally dependent on her mother into adulthood. In return, her mother was determined to ensure that she lived as fulfilling a life as possible, and never denied her anything that brought her pleasure.
From time to time Harriet’s mother, Mrs Ogilvy, sent Harriet off to various relatives to stay for a short while. Mrs Ogilvy only trusted Harriet with family; she was due to gain a substantial inheritance on the death of her late father’s sister, and Mrs Ogilvy did not want Harriet taken advantage of. As such, she thought nothing of sending her off to Penge, in South East London, to stay with a cousin for a few weeks when Harriet was in her early 30s. Mrs Hoppner was living in genteel poverty with her beautiful, selfish and sulky teenaged daughter Alice, and the money she received for Harriet’s bed and board came in very handy, especially as she needed some extra cash to help out her older daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick, who lived a hand to mouth existence nearby with Patrick’s brother Lewis Oman (Staunton).
Patrick and Lewis were devoted to one another; Patrick especially was in awe of his older brother and would have done anything for him. Both the Hoppner sisters had been captivated by the enigmatic but penniless brothers, who thought the world owed them a favour and despised their poverty. Elizabeth lived for her husband, and thought he could do no wrong; Alice adored Lewis and couldn’t wait for the day when they would marry. The brothers and Alice especially had a desire for fine things and a sense of entitlement that outstripped their meagre backgrounds; Elizabeth resented the fact that Patrick could not have everything he wanted. Poor Harriet unwittingly stumbled into this family group of desperate, selfish individuals, whose love for and dependence upon one another excluded consideration for any other human being. As soon as Lewis found out about Harriet’s money, he hatched a plan to marry her; artfully, he insinuated himself into her affections, lavishing her with attention and praise. Harriet was soon under his spell, and Mrs Ogilvy was powerless to intervene. Within weeks of meeting Lewis, Harriet was his wife.
With Harriet’s money in his pocket, he packed her off to live in the country with Elizabeth and Patrick, setting Alice up in a house nearby. At first Harriet is treated with some decency, but as her mind degenerates from lack of care, and her imperious, demanding and fractious behaviour becomes a real burden, the four conspirators turn on her. She is an inconvenience and has ‘no right’ to what they think she cannot appreciate; her behaviour and inability to communicate properly lead them to believe that she has no feelings and no ability to love as they do. Alice especially resents her beautiful clothes; why should ugly, simple Harriet get to swan around in sumptuous dresses while she is forced to wear rags? Elizabeth initially feels guilty, but seeing Patrick inconvenienced by Harriet ignites her anger, and her desire to make Patrick happy overrides her morals. After a while, it all seems so sensible, so natural, so right, to deprive Harriet…it is never an active decision, but by mutual unspoken agreement, they all abdicate their moral obligations and turn a blind eye to the suffering that is under their noses in order to further their own interests. Consequences are never considered…until it is far too late.
This is an incredibly disturbing and gripping tale of how selfishness and prejudice can overpower reason and morality and turn perfectly ordinary people into monsters. Jenkins does not blame and she does not vilify; she presents an impressively even-handed picture of the minds of people who have thoughts and reactions that really do seem quite reasonable under the circumstances. It is frightening to read because there are glimmers of things we all think underneath the surface of the Omans’ reasoning; we are all very good at turning a blind eye to the distasteful, after all. We avert our eyes when asked for money by the homeless, we turn over the television when the images of starving children get too distressing; we don’t want to have such unpleasantness encroach on our nice, safe little lives. We don’t actively plan to be cruel; we just choose to look away. Just as everyone does in Harriet.
So, was it murder? Well, I can’t answer that, and neither does Jenkins. Instead, in her sympathetic and fair portrayal of both Harriet’s difficult nature and the grinding poverty and possessive love of the Omans, she leaves us with the highly unsettling impression that perhaps we wouldn’t have behaved all that differently. Despite the subject matter, this really is unputdownable, and incredibly thought provoking. It’s become one of my absolute favourite Persephones. You can read the afterword here, in The Observer. If I haven’t convinced you, that will!