Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

I love Persephone Books. I admit that they momentarily sank a little in my esteem when they were featured on Made in Chelsea, but I can’t get too high and mighty about that as I was the brainless fool guiltily watching Made in Chelsea and noticing.

To clear up any possible resulting confusion, Persephone Books is not in Chelsea. It is in Lambs Conduit Street, which is one of London’s best streets, full of other Bloomsburyish delights, such as Folk, The People’s Supermarket and (nearby) Ben Pentreath. Persephone Books sells, with a few exceptions, books written by women, usually ones that were written during the fertile-yet-overlooked years between the wars. Best of all, not only do they sell books, they publish them too. Their books are paperbacks, yet have sturdy jackets, which are plain grey, drawing attention to beautifully patterned endpapers, chronologically appropriate to the book. They are printed on good thick paper, with nice solid print. To date Persephone has published 98 books. (Incidentally, there is also a very beautiful collection of Persephone Classics which have lovely paintings on the covers. I wrote about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, one of these classics and also one my all time favourites, here.)

You can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, writer and feminist extraordinaire, had discovered EmilyBooks. It made my month. In her fortnightly letter to keen Persephonites she noted my mention of Persephone in a Spectator article. It just so happens that Persephone have just published Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, so when she found my blog and saw my piece on The Tortoise and the Hare, also by Elizbaeth Jenkins, she saw fit to link to it. Oh joy! When I wrote to thank Nicola for the mention, she very generously sent me a copy of the new Persephone book.

And what a book.

Harriet is terrifying. I was gripped by it in a truly horrific way, like the way people can’t help but turn to stare out of the window when they drive past an accident on the motorway. Here is the gist of it:

Harriet is a ‘natural’. (Yes, it’s an old-fashioned word but it sounds kinder and less clumsy than saying she’s not quite right in the head.) In spite of this, she has quite a happy life, having a substantial amount of money, a well-meaning mother and taking pleasure in pretty trinkets and fine clothes. Along comes Lewis Oman, a handsome auctioneer with not much money and very bad intentions. He carries on with young, pretty, terrifically vain Alice Hoppner, whose sister Elizabeth is married to Lewis’s brother Patrick.

Lewis decides to get Harriet’s money and to this end he woos her and persuades her to marry him. Harriet may be thirty-two, but she has never yet been romantically pursued and she falls at his feet. Her mother realises something is up but can do nothing to stop them. Harriet is too old to be under her legal protection, the circumstances are too suspiciously sudden for her to be able to get Harriet certified as a lunatic, and so powerful is Harriet’s love for Lewis that she pays no attention to her mother’s objections.

So Lewis marries Harriet and gains her fortune. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated the situation so that he has farmed her out to Patrick and Elizabeth for a pound a week, as they need the money. Lewis, meanwhile, sets up a very comfortable home nearby with Alice, who pretends to be his wife.

Harriet is gradually deprived of more and more. First her fine clothes, then her own place to wash, then food, then even the freedom to move. Eventually she is reduced to a filthy, lice-infested creature, regularly beaten, kept in a small dirty room with a boarded up window, starving to death.

Worst of all, this is the fleshing out of a true story, tightly based on court records of a notorious Victorian court case – the Penge Mystery.

Elizabeth Jenkins certainly had it in for marriage. You might remember how upsetting I found The Tortoise and the Hare. Well this makes the dying marriage in that look positively heavenly! I wonder what drew Jenkins to examine unhappy marriages to such an extent in her novels. If these fictional portrayals of married life are really how she imagined it to be, then it’s no wonder that she refrained from tying the matrimonial knot herself.

A little aside here to say that I read the majority of Harriet on Saturday night when I was feeling rather unwell. I had cancelled all my plans and had slept through most of the afternoon. The husband was out on a stag do. I awoke at elevenish, feeling ghastly and not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing much to eat, other than a dwindling supply of frozen hot cross buns from Easter, and I was feeling too shaky and fragile to go out and buy anything. So I ate a hot cross bun and felt sick and read Harriet on the sofa. I finished it at about two o’clock in the morning and was in a terrible state. There I was, confined to our flat, feeling dreadful, starving to death… not unlike Harriet herself!

When the husband arrived home a little later, reeling from the stag, he found my behaviour to be peculiar to say the least. ‘What is it, Ems?’ he asked. ‘Why are you so tearful and upset? What’s wrong?’

The dreadful thing was that because I’d reacted so miserably to The Tortoise and the Hare, sobbing uncontrollably in a way that he’d found completely puzzling, I felt I couldn’t admit to being in such a state thanks to another Elizabeth Jenkins novel. All I could say, quite feebly, was that I was all alone and wasn’t feeling well and he hadn’t left me any food. He was terribly unimpressed.

Yes, this is a very upsetting and shocking novel, but it is completely brilliant. It would be so easy to write it badly. Here’s a sensational court case, full of drama – greed, murder and evil. How easy it would be to overdo it! Jenkins takes an altogether different and masterful approach. Instead of revelling in the horror, she employs a magpie’s eye for finery.

The book is as much a fashion magazine as a chronicle of despair. When we first encounter Harriet, we learn not only of her ‘sallow countenance’ but of her ‘garnet earrings and a shield-like brooch of pinchbeck pinned to the front of her dress, which was a handsome blue silk’. Throughout the novel, everything is rendered in exquisite detail, be it the rose-red velvet looped on Harriet’s mother’s mantelpiece or the lilac crepe dress of Alice’s fantasies. Appearance is everything.

Perhaps paying so much attention to fabrics and surfaces is a kind of feminising of a horror story. Certainly a surprising amount of horror lies dormant in these luxuries. For instance, Harriet’s mother catches Alice wearing one of Harriet’s favourite brooches, which confirms her suspicions of something being wrong. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Elizabeth sees Alice ironing:

Then she saw for the first time what Alice was doing. All around were spread pieces of a dress that had been unpicked and was being pressed before it was made up again; pieces of stiff silk, a beautiful, deep blue like a jay’s wing. Elizabeth looked away without saying anything.

The same comparison to a jay’s wing was used earlier in the book to describe one of Harriet’s dresses. Alice wanted the dress and now Alice has got it. What a metaphor! Alice is taking Harriet to pieces. She is taking her finery and refitting it to her own design. She is stepping into her shoes – or into her dress – as Lewis’s wife. It is a brilliantly revealing scene.

This keenly focused attention to appearance also calls up its opposite – disappearance. Harriet’s mother eventually realises something terrible is happening to her daughter and tries to find and rescue her. She looks and looks, but to no avail. Harriet has been made to disappear. Alice has ostensibly become Mrs Lewis Oman in her place. Harriet is confined to an upstairs room, seen by scarcely anyone. On Harriet’s mother’s suspicions, a policeman is stationed at the end of the road to keep an eye out for anything untoward, but Harriet doesn’t leave the house – she never appears – so he has nothing to report.

It is with tragic irony that when Harriet does actually disappear – when she dies – it is her physical appearance that gives the others away. In the words of the doctor at the subsequent trial:

The body was fearfully emaciated and filthily dirty all over, particularly the feet. The skin of the feet was quite horny, as if from walking without shoes for some time. There were lice all over the body. On the head I found real hair and false hair very much matted. We pulled the false hair off with forceps to get to the scalp.

It’s too terrible for words. Except, of course, against the foil of so many words throughout the novel describing beautiful tactile things, here Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.

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2 Responses to “Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    I love Persephone Books! I haven’t read much Elizabeth Jenkins, and I have yet to encounter Harriet – I will have to muster the necessary courage, it seems! PS – Love, love the blog.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hi Elizabeth – thanks very much! So lovely to have found a fan of the blog and a fan of Persephone Books too. DO read Harriet. It’s really a tremendous book. I’d advise not reading it when alone/ill/feeling vulnerable, and then you should pull through in one piece.

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