Posts Tagged ‘Persephone Books’

Consequences

February 11, 2013

I loved to play the game ‘consequences’ when I was a child. There was something so exciting about the way you could invent a story with such ease, simply by taking it in turns to write out little more than a boy’s name, girl’s name, where they met, what they said, and the consequence of their meeting.

This game appears at the beginning of E.M. Delafield’s novel of the same name. In this particular round of consequences, which takes place in a smart Victorian nursery, the consequence is ‘a wedding-ring’. However much imagination the children might have, marriage seems to be the only possible way a boy-meets-girl situation can end up.

Delafield examines this scenario in her novel – after all, isn’t a novel, in many ways just an extended game of consequences, albeit without the humour that comes from the randomness of having so many different authors? Can there be any other consequence, asks Delafield, any other way of living for a late-Victorian young woman apart from marriage?

Consequences is the story of Alex Clare, who is a difficult girl from the outset. As the eldest child, she bosses around her siblings, which has the terrible consequence of her sister nearly breaking her back, after Alex made her do a pretend tightrope walk on the stairs. While it may be her sister Barbara who has the literal fall, Alex has the metaphorical fall from grace, and her parents punish her by sending her away to a convent school in Belgium.

Already, Alex is shown to be contrary, to not fit in, to not make friends easily. At home, the closest she gets to feeling loved is when her mother allows her to stay down in the drawing room amongst the grown-ups – a result, Alex tells herself, of being her favourite.

At the convent, there is no hope of being nurtured or loved. Alex suffers from intense crushes on some of the other girls, most pronouncedly on vain, self-serving Queenie Torrance. She lavishes her feelings so intensely on people as she is desperate for a crumb of affection in return.

It is a miserable, lonely childhood, through which Alex feels that she is a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy. And yet, she survives, sustained mostly by the hope that:

when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work out quite according to plan. Alex comes out as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, ferries her around to ball after ball … but with little success:

Lady Isabel had said, ‘Never more than three dances with the same man, Alex, at the very outside. It’s such bad form to make yourself conspicuous with anyone – your father would dislike it very much.’ Alex bore the warning carefully in mind, and was naively surprised that no occasion for making practical application of it should occur.

Alex is made to think that being attractive is the most important thing – the culmination of her life so far is this window of opportunity to ensnare a husband. And yet, she is so intent on being attractive that she completely fails. As she begins to doubt herself, Alex becomes less and less of a success, until she finds herself an unhappy wallflower, miserably sitting out the dances at her mother’s side.

I found this part of the novel terribly painful. However much one doesn’t like Alex, and is annoyed by her childish bossiness, or inability to express herself, surely everyone can empathise with the horror of being a teenager!  Surely we have all suffered the pain of going to a party (albeit perhaps not a debutante ball) and failing to attract a flock of boys? And haven’t we all have felt deeply envious of the beautiful girl who, with seeming lack of effort, has them falling at her feet? I bet we have all had occasion to sit out a dance and feel rather miserably left out. It is such a painful time, when one’s confidence is balanced on a knife edge – a moment of pride in your appearance is swiftly quashed when no one pays it any attention. Worse yet is when someone does pay you attention only to tell you how much they are in love with someone else! Poor Alex, as Maurice Goldstein takes her down to dinner only to go on and on about how much he loves Queenie Torrance. I felt so sad for her as she gets into bed that night and wishes that someone would love her as much as Maurice loves Queenie. It is an ache for love that everyone must have suffered.

But just when all seems to be going wrong for Alex, Delafield gives us a moment of hope. A holiday romance results in Alex’s engagement to Noel Cardew. You can’t help but wonder if somehow Alex has pulled it off. Here is her chance of a happy ending, of achieving the consequence of a wedding-ring on which everyone is so fixated.

But Noel Cardew is unbearably dull, lifeless and self-obsessed. He is more passionate about making plans for the land which he is to inherit – ‘I rather believe in the old-fashioned feudal system, personally’, than in talking about their wedding. Alex endeavours to persuade herself that she loves him, but she grows aware of an ‘ever-increasing terror that was gaining upon her’.

This felt to me like the turning point of the novel. Will Alex follow convention and marry him, or will she be true to her instinct of the loneliness that awaits her in a loveless marriage and break it off? Today, if one were faced with the dilemma, of course you would think the latter is the right thing to do. Delafield tells us that Alex ‘took the bravest decision of her life’ and breaks off the engagement.

And yet, instead of being congratulated for being true to her instinct and averting an oncoming disaster, her family does not approve. Her mother cries, her father scolds her as ‘weakly impulsive’, and we have the feeling that Alex has fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. For what Alex hasn’t realised is that there is no option for her other than to get married.

She says to her mother that ‘lots of girls don’t marry and just live at home’, but Lady Isabel explains that their lack of funds won’t allow for that. The house will go to Cedric, the eldest son. The rest of the money will go to Archie, ‘because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it.’

Alex protests:

‘But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?’

To which her mother explains:

‘Your father said, “The girls will marry, of course.” There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you bein’ able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible.’

This prediction comes back to haunt Alex later in the book, as the reality of her lack of money, and also her complete lack of knowledge about its value and how to handle it, becomes cripplingly clear. The whole Victorian system relies on Alex marrying, and she has just thrown away her only chance.

So, E.M. Delafield begs the question, what can a young lady do, if she doesn’t marry? Alex’s horribly sad story illustrates Delafield’s point that the answer is nothing.

Consequences is a bleak, angry statement, and yet written with a sad lyricism. I read it knowing that it was all going to end badly, and yet I was unable to tear myself away. As the plot twisted and Alex’s life turned steadily downhill, I was appallingly gripped, wanting to know exactly how Alex would reach rock bottom. This horrific addiction to someone’s downfall reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, another Persephone Book.

If there is a strand of hope to which we can cling in this tragic tale, it is that E.M. Delafield purposefully set in the past. She is critical of Victorian values and hopeful of the changes that are to come. Towards the end of Consequences, we see Alex’s youngest sister Pamela happily enjoying far more freedom than her sisters – indeed she even takes the Underground! Pamela can never suffer Alex’s fate. Even in the space of a few years, a great deal can change.

And there is the story of E.M. Delafield herself. Her early life followed a similar pattern to Alex’s, and yet she succeeded in becoming a brilliant and successful novelist. Delafield wrote Consequences in 1919 – much has changed for women since then. And yet, inevitably it makes you wonder how much has improved really. How often do women still struggle to earn enough money to live independently? How rarely do they not marry?

Consequences left me with a great deal on which to ponder – the limitations of a woman’s place, the importance of money, and also the huge progress brought about by psychoanalysis (a fascinating strand of the novel, which alas there isn’t the time or space to discuss here). And yet, to be completely honest, all these reflections which have sprung from the book have only hit me now, after I’ve finished it. Reading it, I found it impossible to gain the distance to look on it with anything like cool, calculated intellect. I was utterly enthralled, totally wrapped up in Alex’s horribly sad story, perpetually close to tears. Alex’s misery and helplessness seemed to seep out of the book and into my spirit. I nearly sacked off a brilliant party from sympathy with Alex, longing instead to stay at home and suffer with Alex to the end. (You’ll be relieved to hear that I did go to the party in the end.) It’s a profoundly affecting book, and only afterwards can one be dispassionate enough to see that it is also an angry and absolutely vital feminist statement.

Black Vodka

January 14, 2013

I’m never sure of the best way to read a collection of short stories. Is each story to be read on its own, appreciated as something in its own right, independent of the others? Or should the collection be read together, each story akin to a movement in a piece of music, possessing its own mood and character yet inextricably linked to the other movements, with room for a cough but no applause in between?

I suppose this is what gives short stories their freedom. You can dip in and read just one – on the tube to work, or waiting for the pasta to cook – or you can sit down and read them together, back-to-back, encountering them as chapters of the same book.

The Persephone Book of Short StoriesOver the past few months I have been greatly enjoying The Persephone Book of Short Stories – a vast, delightfully meaty book, stuffed with brilliant short stories by women writers stretching from Susan Glaspell in 1909 to Georgina Hammick in 1986. Arranged chronologically, there is a tremendous feeling of the twentieth century unfurling as you turn the pages, the preoccupations of its women minutely adjusting as time goes by. No wonder I’ve been reading this slowly, dipping in to one or two in the bath, using them as little bubbles of escape from whatever else I’ve been doing, wanting more than anything to store them up and anxious of the feeling that they will eventually come to an end.

Black Vodka by Deborah LevyWith one book of short stories already on the slow luxurious go, when Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka arrived in the post – always thrilling to get a package and doubly thrilling when it’s from And Other Stories (who I’ve written about at length for the Spectator here) – I knew I’d read it speedily, and indeed inhaled it in the space of a couple of days. Even though, I hasten to add, these stories weren’t written all at once with this specific collection in mind, but spread back to 2001 and have already been published elsewhere, separate from each other.

These short stories don’t feel like stories. There’s no beginning, middle and end in the way that, say, most of the Persephone short stories are structured. These are more like episodes, moments, flashes into lives with sudden, alarming brightness. If these are love stories, then Deborah Levy’s pen is fashioned from Shakespeare’s ‘bright swords’ of Othello – her writing is sharp and cuts to the quick with its unique devastating light.

Levy’s characters tend to be dislocated, alone, inescapably separate from others. From the man with the hump on his back in Black Vodka, to the orphan of A Better Way to Live, and Alice who arrives in Prague stripped of all her luggage in Shining a Light, to Magret, ‘dead inside’, who herself is described as ‘Vienna’ in the story of that title.

The stories seem to me to be about these characters’ struggle – and, more often than not, failure – to connect with others:

I am looking into your eyes and I can’t get in. You have changed the locks and I have an old key that doesn’t fit …

Placing a Call

Her husband who is going to betray her is standing inside the city of Roma. She is talking to him over the wall because she is not invited inside.

Roma

Barriers, locks and other images of separation proliferate in these short stories, frustrating a connection between characters. Often the innate difference of the protagonist – hunchback, orphan, foreign – is what frustrates the connection.

English Alice, in Shining a Light, is befriended by two Serbian women and a Serbian man in Prague. She realises that although they might have some things in common – the same mobile phone, for instance – they have impossibly different pasts:

They have been hurt in ways she has not been hurt. They have left all the seasons in their country behind them.

When a connection does occur, it feels strange, ambivalent, flawed. The hump-backed narrator of Black Vodka is full of loneliness, bullied through childhood, stared at through adulthood. Now he is aroused by the way Lisa, an archaeologist, is fascinated by his deformity. He is electrified as she dissects him:

She stands behind me and presses her hand into my hump as if she is listening to it breathe. And then she takes her forefinger and traces around it, getting an exact sense of its shape. It’s the sort of thing cops do to a corpse with a piece of chalk.

This takes place on Exhibition Road, a road of museums – a fitting place for the narrator to find his own archaeologist who wants to ‘record and classify’ him like an exhibit for a museum. It is a deeply strange connection – as though he is no more than a ‘corpse’ to her – and yet it leaves the narrator exhilarated and terrified by the ‘promise of love’.

This frustration of a true connection between characters is turned inside out in my favourite story of the collection, Stardust Nation. Tom Banbury-Mines is a drunk Ad Exec. His Head of Finance, Nick, calls him from Spain in the middle of the night and says ‘We are stardust, Tom.’ This is the beginning of Nick taking on Tom’s traumatic past, believing that everything that has happened to Tom has in fact happened to himself:

There is a slight shamanistic edge to what we do here at the agency, which is to say that it is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer and broadcast a number of messages that all end with ‘buy this product’. Nick had somehow extended his brief as Head of Finance – and crashed inside me.

I love this idea that someone can somehow be landed with the past of another – that someone else can be forced to try to process everything that the other person won’t deal with and instead suppresses by turning to more and more cognac. This connection between Tom and Nick, this passing of the same past from one to the other, is the impossible articulation of what is missing between the characters in the other stories.

Stardust Nation is the positive to the negatives of the other stories. These two characters have absolute connection, a shamanistic sharing, a channel between their minds, between their pasts, even the eczema in their bodies. And yet here it is Nick’s sister Elena who inserts a barrier, who refuses to let Tom pour his past into Nick’s head, to let Nick suffer for him.

Black Vodka is a sad collection of stories. It is a collection of stories about the failings of love, the limits of connection rather than happy successes. Even the final story, A Better Way to Live, which is about two orphans who marry each other, feels more melancholy than celebratory as the text is pervaded by the loss of the narrator’s mother.

It is a sad collection of stories, but a good one. Now I’ve read it in what felt like one long breath, I look forward to keeping it on my shelf and periodically going back to feast on Deborah Levy’s nuggets of painful brilliance, one by one.

Someone at a Distance

October 15, 2012

‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, famously and quite magnificently, in Howards End. ‘If only we didn’t all connect’ seems to be the sentiment of Dorothy Whipple’s rather less famous Someone at a Distance.

In Howards End various characters recognise a common bond with others outside their immediate social circle. There is Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, for instance, and Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, whose bond is symbolised in their mutual appreciation of the house of the title, Howards End.

Someone at a Distance is also about how we are all connected, how our actions radiate out and touch others, strangers, with their effect. Towards the end of the novel, Whipple writes the following:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

Whereas Forster encourages connection, causing his readers to frown upon Henry Wilcox for refusing to help Leonard Bast, for Whipple this connection is full of menace.

Someone at a Distance focuses on the North family, who live a life of post-war domestic bliss. Avery commutes from their village to his London office at a small publishing house, while Ellen devotes every moment of her life to making a happy home, rushing around cooking, gardening, filling hot water bottles. They have two children – Hugh, who is in the army, and Anne who is at boarding school and loves her horse to pieces. Nearby, lives Avery’s mother, cantankerous ‘old Mrs North’.

At first, I wondered if this would be a kind of Mariana novel – about an improbably rosy domestic life, where everyone larks around laughing in the sunshine, calling each other ‘darling’. We are treated to rather a lot of scenes like this:

Anne North had spent the first day of the summer holidays lying blissfully in the garden under the cherry tree because it had been too hot to do anything else. But after supper it was cool enough to do as she always did on her first day at home, which was to go out on Roma, the mare, with her father wobbling along on the old bicycle, never used for any other purpose, beside her.

But it’s not long before a stranger disrupts the happy scene. Louise Lanier, a dangerous and determined young lady from a small town in France, moves in to be old Mrs North’s companion. Recovering from heartbreak, she is bored of her provincial life in France and can’t bring herself to accept her fate to marry the local chemist. She has come to England to put this off for a little while, and, one suspects, to wreak havoc.

Louise is a 1950s Emma Bovary, a comparison which Whipple makes explicit:

The only character in literature for whom she felt profound sympathy, with whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.

The scene is set for Louise to make a play for Avery. But Whipple is a fine mistress of suspense. She draws it out, sending Louise back to France for a while, letting us breathe a sigh of relief, before making her return, while we gnaw our nails in dread. A strange, unnerving few months unfold where Louise doesn’t quite destroy the domestic bliss of the Norths, but rattles it, like a child testing a toy’s sturdiness before hurling it to the ground. How much will it take, how much can it stand, Whipple seems to be asking, how long before Avery will fall?

The moment when Ellen and Anne discover Avery and Louise’s affair is one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature. I read it holding my breath, so painful is it, so shocking, so perfectly does Whipple capture the horror. Anne and Ellen are walking down to buy sweets from the village shop, when Ellen remembers she has left letters for the post behind. They go back to get them.

They arrived together at the open french windows of the sitting-room.

On the sofa was Avery with Louise.

As Ellen and Anne stood staring at them, their smiles died slowly, so that all the blood had drained away from their faces while they were still almost smiling.

The embrace endured. It should have had no witness.

Suddenly aware, Avery looked up. No one moved. The little clock ticked. A petal fell from a rose in a vase. Her head hanging back, her mouth open, Louise opened her eyes.

What should last only a moment stretches on for an eternity. There is time for their smiles to die ‘slowly’, for the embrace to ‘endure’. Time beats on, ‘the little clock ticked’, and yet ‘no one moved’, they are motionless victims of this slow agonising death, until, in a hideous pose of ecstasy, Louise opens her eyes.

What has Ellen done to deserve this? Why has Louise decided to ruin the lives of the North family? ‘Only connect’ is the answer. Ellen suffers thanks to Louise’s heartbreak at the hands of a young Frenchman, who Ellen has never met. What a terrifying, alarming consequence of this connection. ‘Someone at a distance’ – a very great distance – can profoundly change your life, and not for the better.

Having this idea of a complex, far-reaching web of connection at the heart of the novel gives meaning to its rather rambling structure. I wondered for a while why Whipple chose to leap from an English village to a French one, from one big house to another, from Anne’s school to Avery’s office and from Louise’s parents’ kitchen to her ex-lover’s salon. Why is it there is such an enormous cast of characters, who are all made so lifelike? This web, these connections and their consequences make it all make sense. Whipple needs all these characters, all these places, to point out that they are all connected, everything links together, everyone is at risk from the rippling actions of another.

I decided to read Someone at a Distance having heard Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books give a very inspiring talk. I came away with a list of authors I felt I absolutely had to read and top of that list was Dorothy Whipple. (Poor lady having such an extraordinary name, forcing the inescapable recollection of delicious Walnut Whip chocolates.)

The only thing I’d heard of Dorothy Whipple, before this talk, was that Virago – notoriously – refused to republish her. As Carmen Callil explained to the Guardian, a few years ago:

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.”

I have to say that Virago, on this rare occasion, were wrong. Whipple is a tremendous storyteller. Not only does she achieve the feat of keeping you utterly gripped by something so quiet and interior, but she uses language so skilfully. One of her tricks of which I grew particularly fond was her habit of using metaphors perfectly suited to each character. For instance, Ellen loves gardening, so she gets the following:

There was something fruitful about this scheme, thought Ellen later. It kept budding and branching all the time.

Whereas, for the two gossiping cleaning ladies:

They wrung every drop of interest out of the topic, as if it had been one of the floor-cloths they also shared at Netherfold. They wrung it out and left it. Later they would pick it up again, soak it in their mutual interest and pass it from one to the other as before.

It’s a clever touch.

Someone at a Distance is a brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’, which shows its horribly dark and threatening flipside. He would certainly have appreciated Whipple’s rendering of the vulnerability of English domesticity. Really it a gem of a novel – thank you Persephone Books for rescuing it from obscurity.

Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

May 9, 2012

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.