Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins: A book for the Persephone Readathon

Jessie at Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons this week and as I am also taking part in this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, I decided to read a book that would count towards both. Harriet, first published in 1934, is based on a real life crime which took place in 1877 and is a much darker story than you would usually find between the dove-grey covers of a Persephone book.

Harriet Woodhouse, the thirty-three-year-old title character, is referred to in the novel as ‘a natural’ – someone whom, today, we would probably describe as having learning difficulties. Her use of language – both written and spoken – is sometimes not quite right, she can appear to be insensitive and she is often slow to understand what people really mean. Mrs Ogilvy, her mother, is very loving and protective towards her daughter and although Harriet still lives at home, she encourages her to be as independent as possible and to visit family and friends now and then. It is while visiting her cousins, the Hoppners, that Harriet is introduced to Lewis Oman. Lewis is the brother of Elizabeth Hoppner’s husband, Patrick, and it is through this family connection that Lewis has heard that Harriet is in possession of a small fortune and due to inherit more on the death of an aunt.

When Lewis asks Harriet to marry him, his motives are very obvious to the reader: he is only interested in her money and feels nothing for Harriet herself. Mrs Ogilvy is horrified, but as her daughter is an adult she finds that there is nothing she can do to prevent the marriage, especially as Harriet thinks Lewis is charming and wonderful and believes everything he tells her. The wedding goes ahead and, having achieved his goal, Lewis quickly tires of his new wife, sending her to live in the country with Elizabeth and Patrick.

From this point, the story becomes very disturbing with Harriet completely isolated and cut off from the people who love her and care about her. Her treatment at the hands of Lewis and Patrick, and Elizabeth and her younger sister Alice, is quite painful to read about, particularly as their acts of cruelty are rarely described explicitly – instead, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the hints we are given. It is not quite clear whether the Omans and Hoppners had set out to treat Harriet so horribly or whether they just see her as an inconvenience, not worth paying any attention to, and so the neglect happens almost by accident. Either way, it’s cruel and inhumane and the complete lack of compassion displayed by these four people is shocking.

Something that struck me while I was reading was that we never really get into Harriet’s head and never know what she is thinking or feeling. We see her only through the eyes of other people, as a nuisance to be ignored and kept out of the way, or in the case of Mrs Ogilvy, a beloved and vulnerable daughter whom she is powerless to help. The one person who could possibly have done something to help is Clara, the young maid who works for Elizabeth and Patrick – she knows something is not right, she knows Harriet is in danger, and yet still she does nothing. I found this very frustrating and I had to keep reminding myself that Clara was only a teenager, probably afraid of losing her job, and that Elizabeth Jenkins was constrained by the historical facts of the case – if somebody had intervened when I wanted them to, it could have changed the whole outcome of the story.

It was interesting after finishing the book to look up the details of the real Harriet and what happened to her – it seems that Elizabeth Jenkins has kept the same first names of the characters, but changed the surnames, while most of the other basic facts are correct. It doesn’t feel right to say that I enjoyed this book, but I did find it a fascinating and gripping read, as well as a very sad and harrowing one. Knowing that it is based on a true story makes it even more poignant.

This is my third book read for the R.I.P. XIII Challenge (category: suspense/thriller)

Are you taking part in the Persephone Readathon? What have you been reading?

13 thoughts on “Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins: A book for the Persephone Readathon

  1. Lisa says:

    I’ve had my eye on this in the Persephone catalogue, but it does sound like quite a harrowing read – particularly knowing that it was based on a person’s real-life experiences. I think yours is the first review of it I’ve read.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a very powerful and emotional book – I would definitely recommend it, despite it being so harrowing. I felt so angry and frustrated as I approached the end, especially knowing that Harriet really existed and really had to endure the treatment described in the book.

    • Helen says:

      The book itself is very readable and I did enjoy it (although that isn’t quite the right word), but it does become very disturbing, especially towards the end.

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    Oh no, I think I’ve got confused, I thought the readathon was the second half of October and had been saving a book for it! I’ve never fancied this one as too disturbing and also I don’t love fiction books based on real life events, but it’s important to know about how people like this operate and a lot of people have rated it highly.

    • Helen says:

      Oh, that’s a shame – but Persephones are great at any time of year, not just for the readathon! I liked this book but it certainly is disturbing, so I can see why not everyone would fancy reading it.

  3. Karen K. says:

    I’m about halfway through Alas, Poor Lady which I’d been putting off forever — it’s quite long and it sounded so dire, about spinster sisters in the Victorian era. It’s excellent and the description of life in Victorian and Edwardian eras are spot-on and well-researched, but it is so frustrating sometimes — the women are so badly treated, I want to throw the book across the room sometimes.

    • Helen says:

      I read Alas, Poor Lady a few years ago and thought it was a great book. I remember feeling frustrated too at the unfairness of society in those eras. The options available to unmarried women were so limited.

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