If you had never read anything about Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth
Jenkins -- not a review, not a blurb, not anything on the back covers of its
many editions -- you would never expect it to turn out the way it does. From
page one Harriet prepares the reader for a mesmerizing trip into
England's Victorian past from the author's attention to domestic details, to
the class hierarchy, to the painstakingly rendered 19th century syntax and
language. It appears on the surface to be a homage to the age old story of a
ne'er-do-well fortune hunter flirting with an ugly duckling heiress,
successfully manipulating her easily swayed emotions and eventually marrying
her for her money. Henry James told a similar story in
Washington Square, countless romance novelists have capitalized on
this plot in hundreds of cheap entertainments. What makes Elizabeth
Jenkins' novel striking, no less appealing as an entertaining suspense
novel, is that the ugly
duckling heiress is also developmentally handicapped. Harriet Woodhouse is
called a "natural" (a Victorian euphemism for someone who is mentally
retarded) by her mother and those who have an affection for her. She
is called much worse by those who treat her with indifference, jealousy or
outright cruelty. Above all what makes this novel most shocking is that
Jenkins based her story on a notorious criminal case in which four people
were charged with criminal neglect, wanton cruelty and eventual murder of a
young woman and possibly her child. The story of Harriet is not the product of a novelist's imagination. It actually
happened in 1875.
From the outset we know that Lewis Oman is no good. He has no real job, he enjoys using woman, and thinks nothing about turning Harriet into an object of ridicule. He tells his lover Alice Hoppner that he will become the charmer for Harriet. "She's going to fall a victim to my fascinations. You keep a straight face, and we'll have some fun." Alice watches with a combination of revulsion and jealousy as Lewis' aimless flirting transforms into something far more dangerous and cunning. His attentions cease to become fun and games when Alice notices Harriet has fallen in love with him. Then Lewis learns Harriet has a small fortune held in trust that will become hers as soon as she marries and, of course, he homes in on Harriet with relentless charm and smarm. Harriet is no longer a plaything but the means to instant wealth for this schemer.
Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet's mother, is onto Lewis from the start and attempts to prevent the marriage. She tries reasoning with him but is too shrewd. She tries to block the marriage legally by exploiting Harriet's mental disability and making her a ward of the state. But Lewis knows Mrs. Ogilvy who loves her daughter and treats could never take the next step which would require her to put her daughter in a state run institution. He also threatens the woman by promising to tell Harriet of her plans. If he does so he promises Mrs Ogivly that would be the end the mother/daughter relationship she has so carefully cultivated.
But there are others who become involved in the destruction of Harriet's carefully sheltered world. Once she has married Lewis her exploitation begins and with it the inexorable ruin of her health, her personality, and her soul. Harriet has a child almost without Jenkins having told us and she is quickly shuttled off to Lewis' brother Patrick where she is set up as a long term house guest and then months later as a prisoner. The horror of Harriet's story, the ingenuity of the novel as a whole, is the skill with which Jenkins manages to capture a flavor of Victorian comfort and domesticity and how the introduction of an unwanted guest slowly erodes the veneer of civility among the household's would be aristocrats.
Elizabeth Hoppner Oman, Alice's sister and Patrick's wife, seems like the one person who might become an ally for Harriet. But when Harriet moves into her home Elizabeth, once ever proper and courteous, soon grows weary of having to deal with Harriet's childish demands, putting up with her imperfect grammar and most of all Harriet's lack of comprehension in learning how to care for her own son. Elizabeth is more concerned with propriety and her relationship to Lewis and Alice who is now being passed off as Lewis' real wife, though he is legally married to Harriet. Astonishingly, for someone who presents herself as upright Elizabeth turns a blind eye to the immorality and deceit of this pretense. When Lewis tells Patrick that Harriet should remain isolated in an upstairs bedroom and not be allowed outside Elizabeth is relieved to be spared the humiliation of telling everyone that Harriet is the real Mrs. Oman. The ultimate revelation of Elizabeth's remarkably repellent transformation comes when she utters a statement she thinks excuses not only her own indifference but the cruelty of her barbaric husband who beats Harriet: "After all, it isn't as if she feels anything..."
Her achievements are all the
more powerful when you realize that using a non-fictional account
(The Trial of the Stauntons), a copy of the court transcript from 1877,
and her own imagination she envisioned a world two centuries ago in
which something so evil could be carried out with such commonplace ease.
As a side note students of true crime might like to know that the
Staunton trial is now considered a landmark in appeals cases. In real
life though all four individuals charged with Harriet Staunton's murder
were found guilty and sentenced to hang no one was executed. A published
letter written by a group of physicians protested that the true medical
evidence was overlooked during the trial and the judge Henry Hawkins was
prejudiced against all four defendants. The court's verdict was
overturned: Alice was pardoned, Louis and Elizabeth were sentenced to
hard labor and eventually set free. Patrick who died in prison never reaped the benefits of this unusual decision. Jenkins did not agree with the overturned verdict and her characters get the harsh punishments and justice she felt was mocked by real life's own cruel ironies.
Harriet is available in a new edition from Valancourt Books published five years ago. This latest edition includes an afterword by literary critic and Victorian scholar Catherine Pope. Readers can also choose from a wide variety of used editions dating back to the US paperback of 1946 (Bantam 64, shown in two illustrations on this post) to the handsome reprint from Persephone Press. There are also French and Spanish language translations in contemporary reprints