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Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
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Harriet (original 1934; edition 2012)

by Elizabeth Jenkins

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894135,585 (4.13)11
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Title:Harriet
Authors:Elizabeth Jenkins
Info:Persephone Books Ltd (2012), Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:ALL FICTION READ-OWNED & UNOWNED, Your library- read
Rating:*****
Tags:persephone, MUM-LENT, 1930s, 20th century literature, *GB literature, read in 2013

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Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (1934)

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» See also 11 mentions

Showing 4 of 4
How is this getting such consistently high ratings? It's an uninteresting story overall, and as a bonus, virtually nothing happens until the last 30 pages.

More complete but just as negative review on Goodreads. ( )
  gospodyina | Jul 29, 2014 |
I first came across this story when I heard a snippet on the radio a very long time ago, perhaps as much as thirty years ago. I didn't hear all the book and I'm not sure that I even knew what book it was but I remember being shocked by the events recounted. But as soon as I saw Persephone's description of their new publication [Harriet] I realised that it was the same book and that I should read it.

An only slightly fictionalised account of a notorious and shocking murder trial in nineteenth century London, [Harriet] tells the story of Harriet Woodhouse (in real life Harriet Richardson), a thirty-two year old woman with learning disabilities who lives comfortably at home with her mother and step-father. Harriet can make herself understood (although she sometimes gets her words wrong), can read and write a very little and finds many things difficult to understand. But she has a loving mother and a prosperous home, with the money to indulge her love for pretty clothes and trinkets, and an inheritance of £5,000 (about £500,000) in today's money. Looking after Harriet day after day is something of a strain so Harriet's mother occasionally pays for her to visit some poorer relatives for a few weeks: on one of these visits Harriet meets Lewis Oran who on learning of her fortune (and it is a fortune to someone earning 25 shillings a week as an auctioneer's clerk) hatches a plan to marry her and obtain her money. And marry her he does, despite the horrified protests of her mother who attempts to have her made a ward of the Court of Chancery to prevent it. But once married and in control of Harriet's money Lewis sees little reason to keep Harriet in his own home, so she is farmed out to his brother and sister-in-law who receive a pound a week for the upkeep of her and her child. But her sister-in-law finds so many other things that a pound a week can be spent on other than providing for Harriet's maintenance ...

Harriet's fate shocked the Victorian public when it became known, and the events related are still shocking today. But this is not a book that goes into graphic details: much is implied and much is left to the imagination which is a far more effective way of conveying the horror of way was going on in the Oran household.

Although obviously society has changed a great deal since the 1870's there are issues raised in this book that are still relevant today. By not painting the Oran's as deranged monsters, but rather as selfish, greedy and obsessive people who have convinced thensekves that their actions are justified, Jenkins shows how a culture of abuse could grow up among people who would otherwise consider themselves decent and respectable members of society. And it is worth thinking about that when considering the cases of neglect and abuse that have been in the news in the UK recently, both for old people and for people with learning disabilities. Also, it made me think about the issue of freedom of choice for people with learning disabilities: as I work for an organisation supporting people with learning disabilities I'm aware that the focus has changed very much to one of supporting them to make their own choices in life, rather than the paternalistic attitude that prevailed in the past. But how far should this go, even if the choices made are arguably not in the best interest of the person involved. In this book, Harriet clearly chooses to marry Lewis of her own free will, but if someone has the mental capabilities of a child is it right to allow them to make choices which a child would very much not be allowed to make. Or should the freedom of the individual be all important? I'm not sure about the answer to this, but the book has made me wonder. ( )
2 vote SandDune | Jan 12, 2013 |
I have had this Persephone book on my shelf for a little while now- bought with some lovely Persephone gift vouchers on my Birthday in May. I was so looking forward to it, although I already knew that the story would be a dark one. It almost seems wrong to say I loved it – but I did. The story is a desperately sad one, all the more so for being based upon real events.
“Harriet came with little bouncing steps towards the tea table and looked into the teapot. “This is do Mama,” she said; she sometimes confused small words, though she could always make her meaning clear. At the age of thirty-two she had a sallow countenance, with strongly marked lines running from the nostrils to the corners of the lips; her chin receded, and her eyes were the glutinous black of treacle. Apart from her expression, and the slightly slurred enunciation of her words, however, her appearance was one of rather particular neatness and cost.”
In real life Harriet Staunton nee Richardson lived and died very much in line with the events in Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1934 novel. Like the Harriet in the novel, Harriet Staunton had what today we would call learning difficulties, she had been well brought up by her mother, who had taught her how to care for herself, but she had difficulty expressing herself and was prone to making sudden unexplained noises and flying into rages. She also had a legacy of about £5,000 – something like half a million in today’s money. Only one photograph exists of Harriet Staunton, taken upon the occasion of her engagement.
Despite being based upon real life events, I must stress that Harriet, is a novel, though there are I believe non-fiction works written about the famous case too. Elizabeth Jenkins was fascinated by what was known as the Penge mystery of 1877. Publishing this novel in the same year as F. Tennyson Jesse published ‘A pin to see the Peepshow’ which was also based upon a famous murder trial, Jenkins decided to take the unusual step of calling her characters by their real Christian names. Harriet Staunton became Harriet Woodhouse, Louis Staunton, Lewis Oman, Patrick Staunton, becomes Patrick Oman, sisters Elizabeth Staunton (nee Rhodes) and Alice Rhodes are in Jenkins novel Elizabeth Oman and Alice Hoppner respectively.
The story of Harriet is a desperate one, and Jenkins telling of it is a masterly piece of subtle storytelling, Jenkins had no need of gratuitous descriptions – the slow downward spiral of this unfortunate young woman’s life is enough in itself. The selfish greed which leads to Harriet falling victim to Lewis Oman’s handsome charms is brilliantly portrayed. A vulnerable young woman, who had previously only been in the company of her mother and step father with occasional visits made to relatives, easily has her head turned by the attentions of a handsome young man. Lewis the elder of two exceptionally close brothers is already becoming close to Harriet’s cousin, Alice when the two meet. Much to Alice’s horror, Lewis’s attentions switch to Harriet when he learns of her fortune. Lewis’s brother Patrick a surly bad tempered artist, is married to Alice’s elder sister Elizabeth. Lewis and Harriet become quickly engaged, Harriet’s mother is immediately on the alert and does all she can to stop her daughter marrying Lewis; however Harriet is over thirty and with Lewis’s contrivance sets herself against her mother, removing herself from the family home when her mother tries to make her a ward of chancery to prevent her marrying. Harriet and Lewis are married, and from there on there is a terrible inevitability to the events that follow, with Harriet isolated from her mother, again thanks to Lewis’s contrivance, and removed to the country to board with Patrick and Elizabeth, she becomes the unwitting victim to terrible cruelty and neglect.
This is a wonderfully readable novel, though it is a terrible story, made so much more poignant by the fact that the reader knows that it is a pretty accurate recreation of actual events. In his fascinating afterward to this edition Richard Cooke discusses the trial verdicts and Elizabeth Jenkins’s career and her obvious fascination with this case. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 18, 2012 |
Obituaries of Elizabeth Jenkins observed that she chose strong female characters as subjects for her biographies. In the novel Harriet she chose a heroine who was weak in intelligence, a Victorian ‘natural’ and her story breaks one’s heart. Harriet lives a happy life with her doting mother, fussed over, delighting in afternoon tea and spending a fortune carefully on luxurious and beautiful clothes. Then a fortune hunter enters her life and takes her away to a life where cruelty, neglect and brutality is a quite normal and where Harriet is robbed of everything. Jenkins creates a claustrophobic world – one reminiscent of another victim within a family story, Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Lois the Witch’ - and one only breathes fresh air when towards the end of the novel their world is shattered by a great roar of execration. There are many quietly haunting scenes: the cheap valentine cards and vulgar sweets, Harriet’s oddly furnished marital home, the entrancing blue dress, Harriet sitting at the top of stairs while the family eats and her last journey back into the outside world. It is said the Jenkins upset herself writing this book and that is understandable. It is chilling and all the more so when one learns, in Rachel Cooke’s excellent afterward, that it was based on a real story.
  Sarahursula | Jun 12, 2012 |
Showing 4 of 4
Jenkins's imaginative retelling of the case is as gripping as anything I've ever read. And as horrifying. In an upstairs bedroom at the isolated Kent cottage where Harriet is effectively kept prisoner, the Stauntons' bewildered victim emits desperate animal cries, and scratches feverishly at her lice-infested skin (without her mother to help, Harriet soon loses control of her personal hygiene). Meanwhile, her new "family" carries on as normal, lazing by the fire, eating veal chops and batter puddings. Beside this spare volume, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale's bestselling account of another notorious Victorian murder, starts to seem rather wordy and dry.
 

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Jenkinsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cooke, RachelAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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At half-past five on a January evening of the year 1875, Mrs. Ogilvy's drawing room was a pleasant place; it was a small first-floor room and, though it could not be said to be furnished with taste, there was a warmth and brightness about it which made it very comfortable on such a raw evening.
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Alice watched the pair. Harriet was already practising small gestures, preenings and turnings of the head, which she had never used before in her thirty-two years of life, but which had been called out by half an hour of Lewis's company. There was an inhuman vigour in all her movements; they were so full of life and yet they had not the lithe sureness of an animal; it was as if nature were breathing her inspiration into some curious replica of a living being, neither animal nor human. Alice, standing for a moment on the opposite side of the hearth, caught Lewis's wink. She became convulsed with laughter like a mischievous schoolchild, and to conceal her mirth, she ran round the back of the sofa...now, for the first time...she saw what a very handsome dress Harriet was wearing...a silk, a deep jay's wing blue, and so stiff that it stood out by itself. She knew how much that sort of material cost.
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