Basket (0)

Persephone book no:

Harriet

by Elizabeth Jenkins

Order This Book

In stock
£13.00

* Required Fields


Harriet Richardson (later Staunton) at the time of her engagement in 1875

PREFACE BY RACHEL COOKE
320pp
ISBN 9781903155875

 

Published in 1934, Harriet fictionalises a cause célèbre and in this respect is in a long tradition of ‘real life' crime novels, of which The Suspicions of Mr Whicher describing the 1860s Constance Kent case about the murder of a child is a recent, bestselling example. Harriet is based on the 1877 'Penge Murder Mystery’, the death by starvation of a wealthy young woman called Harriet Richardson, who had led a protected life because her very limited intelligence meant that her mother kept her at home (‘my daughter was a very simple-minded girl’ were her words in testimony at the trial) in the belief that she would never be able to lead a normal existence. But one day she has the misfortune to meet an attractive, unscrupulous young man who decides to marry her for her money.

The novel describes the years from 1875-7 during which Harriet changes from the sheltered, beloved only, if grown-up, child of a comfortable middle-class household, with beautiful clothes and an orderly life, to an abandoned, abused wife unable to look after herself and at the mercy of her uncaring husband. Whether the Staunton family plotted her death or whether they were only guilty of wilful neglect is the question at the heart of a book, which, although it could loosely be called a crime novel or horror story, should really be called a psychological novel, since an unspoken question runs throughout its pages: how on earth could this happen?

Virginia Woolf described Elizabeth Jenkins’s first novel as a ‘sweet white grape of a book’ Elizabeth wrote: ‘Her [Virginia’s] critical acumen had led her to put her finger on my inherent weakness: a lack of strength. This has always, I fear, come out in any novel I have written purely by imagination: a fictional version of a real story of real life, a transcript of experience or a straightforward biography, has been needed to supply my deficiency.’ Rachel Cooke comments: ‘Elizabeth Jenkins was right about this – and this is why Harriet is so masterful. Forged from the unpromising prolixity of a Victorian courtroom, a powerful synthesis of truth and imagination renders it indelible.’

Harriet was a commercial success and won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse (the runners-up were Antonia White’s Frost in May and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust). But Elizabeth Jenkins always had ambivalent feelings about her book: ‘the horror of the story weighed on my mind and became more acutely painful as time went on.’ Rachel Cooke writes in her Afterword: ‘Elizabeth Jenkins’s story grips because the horror takes place in familiar surroundings, and to a quotidian beat... To call it the stuff of nightmares really is no exaggeration... Harriet is a remarkable and singular achievement: highly controlled, deeply revealing, quite brilliant.’ We recommend this bleak, wonderfully-written book very highly; but the palpable sense of evil means it is not for everyone.

Endpaper

'Small Syringa' 1875, a woven silk by EW Godwin for Warner & Ramm.  

Read reviews about all Persephone books
Read blogs about all Persephone books

Categories: History    Thrillers   
 

Back to top


To top