Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

“It was a crime involving almost unbelievable callousness and cruelty. A half-witted young woman named Harriet who had inherited a small fortune was living happily, and securely in the care of her mother. Lewis Staunton, a good-looking young man and a relentless criminal, saw his opportunity, and making love to the innocent, ignorant creature, got her away from her mother’s protection and married her. He then arranged for her to be boarded with his brother Patrick Staunton and the latter’s wife Elizabeth, while he set up home with his mistress, Elizabeth’s sister, Alice. The most horrible feature of this case was the slow starvation by neglect of Harriet and her baby. She was kept in a fireless room with half the window boarded up, despite the frantic efforts of her mother to reach her. The baby died, and she herself was nearly dead when she was taken by the three Stauntons to Penge. Here a nurse was engaged but the victim, emaciated and filthy, died within a few hours. The Stauntons tried to have her buried immediately, but the doctor who was asked to sign the death certificate demanded a coroner’s inquest. This brought on an inquiry and finally the trial.”

From ‘The View from Downshire Hill’ by Elizabeth Jenkins.

*******

Elizabeth Jenkins learned of the terrible events that became known as the ‘Penge Case’ when her brother became an articled clerk with a firm of solicitors whose founder had led the prosecution. She was intrigued, she read about it in ‘Great British Trials,’and then she wrote the story as a novel.

It was a commercial success, it won a major literary prize ahead of some very strong opposition, and now it has been reissued by Persephone Books.

It is a very dark story than many of those who love Persephone Books may shy away from, but I suspect it will also draw in others who didn’t realise quite how strong, and how diverse, the Persphone list is.

I hope they will learn, and I hope that those who are wary will place their trust in a fine novelist and a lovely publisher. Because this really is an extraordinary piece of writing.

I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.

I was particularly moved by Mrs Ogilvy, Harriet’s mother. She loved her daughter, but she was clear-sighted and practical, and she did her very, very best for her. She encouraged Harriet to take an interest in her clothes and nice things, she involved her in the running of their household, and she encouraged her to pay visits to family and friends. It sounds simple, and yes it is, but I think it is the finest portrayal of mother love that I have ever read.

Mrs Ogilvy was horrified when Lewis Staunton began to court her daughter after meeting her at a cousin’s house. She saw him for what he was: a charming, clever, unscrupulous, amoral young man.

Harriet would be described today as having learning difficulties. Her expressions were a little odd, she was childish, and she was insensitive to the feelings of others.

Her mother realised that Harriet’s suitor had been drawn to her wealth and the expectation of a significant inheritance from an aunt of her late husband. And she learned that Lewis Staunton was clever, that he could play on her daughter’s love of romance, that he could twist her mother’s concerns into something dark and sinister in her daughter’s mind.

She tried, but she couldn’t save her daughter. My heart broke for her.

I grew up with a brother like Harriet – but with more serious problems – and I see so many echoes of my mother in Mrs Ogilvy. My brother’s death shattered my mother, and she has become, steadily more mentally frail since then. That’s why I find it difficult to move away from that side of the story. And why I am so very, very moved by Mrs Ogilvy, by the way she kept her daughter by her side and devoted her life to her in an age where it would have been quite acceptable to have her daughter put away.

I so wish I could reach out to her, but I can’t and I must move on.

Mrs Ogilvy’s story is set against the story of her daughter and her relationship with the Stauntons. There is never a plan to neglect, or to rid themselves of Harriet. But envy of her wealth and possessions slowly turns into a belief that they should be theirs; irritation with Harriet slowly turns into a belief that she should be kept out of their sight.

It’s horrible, and it rings so horribly true. Because Elizabeth Jenkins illuminates the inner lives of all her characters so wonderfully well.

The story is full of well-chosen details, and it is told with wonderful subtlety. Harriet’s decline is not viewed directly, but understood from the behaviour and attitudes of those around her.

I wish I could say more, but I am emotionally drained, and I am very nearly lost for words.

This is a true story made into  a wonderfully literary, beautifully written, acutely understood psychological novel.

And it is true story that needed to be retold, so I must applaud Elizabeth Jenkins  for telling it and Persephone Books for bringing it back into the light.

Persephone Endpapers

11 responses

  1. There sounds like a very moving account….thanks for sharing the personal side of this read….Hugs!

  2. Your post is every bit as moving as I am sure the book will be and I am all the more determined to read it no matter how hard it will be to read both as a mother of four myself and from the point of view of my late mother in law who never got over the death of her youngest daughter who had educational problems too.
    Thank you.

  3. Oh Jane, this would not have been an easy read for you but thank you for reviewing it with such insight. When I recently read that Elizabeth lived opposite Keats’ house which I visited in September I was so disappointed to have missed it. Hopefully her autobiography will be reprinted with the renewed interest in her work.

  4. Just reading the excerpted paragraph one feels a range of emotions. But it is your own tie to the story that has moved me. In one paragraph you expressed such love and honor for your mother. I can see that this would be an emotionally draining read for you. I am going to join Staci above in sending you hugs.

  5. Your opening extract really hit a chord with me; I feel as though I have come across this story before, possibly in Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder’. This post has made me want to read the book and find out more so thank you.

  6. Thank you for sharing such a personal, insightful review. Reading your post has made me want to read this book, even though I am dreading the heartbreaking parts involving Mrs Ogilvy. Am currently listening to Judith Flander’s The Invention of Murder, which I think will give me a very good introduction of the background to the times and circumstances involved in this story.

  7. I haven’t finished formulating my own thoughts and feelings about this one, but I wanted to be sure to comment how truly touching and heartfelt your post on it was.

  8. Pingback: Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins | Iris on Books

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