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

No Surrender by Constance Maud

I was confounded when I first read about No Surrender on the Persephone Books website. “A suffragette novel” it said. As if that was something remarkable!

And remarkable it was. For all the woman writers, all the books about women’s’ lives I have read I couldn’t think of anything I had read about the suffragette movement.

I must confess that the only fictional creation that came to mind was Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins!

Clearly I had a great deal to learn.

And I have learned a great deal from No Surrender, a novel from the very heart of the movement that strove to give women votes and voices.

The first thing I learned was that it cut across all classes.

I met Jenny, a mill hand whose dark family circumstances illuminated horrible inequalities.

Her mother worked in the mill and her father spent the pittance she earned on drink and on gambling. Her money was his by right. Her sister was beaten by a brutal husband who took her children away from her. She had no right to divorce her husband and no right to even a say in what happened to her children.

It was easy to see why Jenny was drawn to the suffragette movement. Because it wasn’t just about giving women votes. It was about giving them rights at work, and a say in what happened in their families.

That drew Mary too. She was a mill-owner’s daughter, she had a privileged life, but she saw the injustices that so many women faced, and she wanted to do something about it.

Jenny’s and Mary’s paths crossed, and both were drawn deeper into the suffragette cause.

I watched as they did everything they could to forward that cause. They went to meetings and rallies. They made banners. They ambushed MPs and public figures. They drafted women who had votes in other countries to support them.

I heard the stories of so many women. And I saw them winning hearts and minds with passionate and reasoned arguments.

They won mine. I was caught up, and I was swept away.

But the suffragettes had many opponents. Some who were happy with what they had and saw no need for change. Some who were fearful of change. And some who were wary of the responsibilities that would come with rights.

I understood, but I wanted to shake them.

And the establishment moved against the suffragettes. They would be imprisoned for trivial, trivial things. And when they protested, when they were driven to hunger strikes they would be brutally force-fed. It was appalling and it was heart-breaking.

But they fought on …

I have to say at this point that No Surrender in not a great novel. The prose is dull, the characterisation is simplistic and one or two elements just don’t work.

But it illuminates an era and it makes the case for women’s suffrage quite magnificently.

That’s why I’ve been struggling to write about it. because No Surrender is all about that era and that case, and nothing I can write can convey that as the author can. She does it brilliantly.

I was moved by the suffragettes’ stories. I was impressed by their conviction and their courage. I was infuriated by their opponents.

I was educated. And I thought about what they had achieved, about how long it had taken for many of their aims to be achieved, about so many inequalities that still exist. So much to think about.

For all of these reasons, No Surrender should be required reading.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Persephone Endpapers

A few months ago, at a library talk, the Persephone Books reissue of Greenbanks was mentioned, and the delight in the air was tangible.

Some had read and loved the book, and all were thrilled at the prospect of another Whipple novel reappearing.

And now I have been to Greenbanks.

While I was there, I watched the story of an extended family, and the story of their family home, from the years before the Great War, through the years of that war, and into the years that followed.

I came to understand their lives, their characters, their relationships, their hopes, their regrets, their emotions …

Dorothy Whipple illuminated their lives quite perfectly, and I was completely captivated.

At the centre of the story is Louisa Ashton, a woman raised with Victorian values and who has found great happiness raising her family and running her home.

And at first her life seemed quite idyllic. The story opened on Christmas day, snow had fallen, and Louisa’s grown children and grandchildren had all gathered at Greenbanks for the festivities.

But I soon saw that Louisa’s life wasn’t perfect. It was real. Louisa loved and supported her family, but they sometimes took that for granted. Her husband was charming, but he was also a philanderer. Her children were caught up with their own lives.

Louisa doted on Rachel, her youngest granddaughter. As she grew Rachel spent much of her time at Greenbanks with her grandmother, and the two formed the closest of bonds.

Rachel’s own home was less happy. Her father, Ambrose, was rigid and controlling, and quite unable to understand that others might not see things in the same way that he did. And Letty, her mother, quietly subverted his wishes where she could, wishing that she could shake off her domestic responsibilities.

But Letty wasn’t brave enough to do anything about it. Maybe that was because she knew what happened to Kate Barlow …

Now, this is the point at which I would love to say much more, about characters, about stories, about themes. But I mustn’t.

Because one of the things I loved about this book was that sometimes stories played out just as I expected them to, but at other times they played out quite differently, and yet in ways that were completely natural and right. Such clever writing.

I’d hate to spoil that for anyone else by giving too much away.

And such beautiful writing. It is cool, it is calm, and it picks up every detail. Every emotion too, without ever being sentimental. Because the author stands back and allows her readers to see, oh so clearly, the humanity she sets before them.

Humanity captured perfectly. With every side of every relationship gently illuminated. With such understanding of marriage, of motherhood, of sibling bonds, of friendship.

Understanding too of how communities work, for good and for bad.

And an era captured perfectly. An era of change, much of it wrought by war, and an era when the lives of women, the possibilities open to them, changed hugely.

One of the great joys of Greenbanks was watching the evolution. From Louisa, who accepted the values instilled by a Victorian childhood. Through Letty and Laura, who saw other possibilities but were each, to some degree, held back. To Rachel, who saw even more possibilities, and reached for them.

There really is so much here, much more than I can express.

Because, through a quiet family saga, Dorothy Whipple has said everything that needed to be said, and she has said it queerly and beautifully.

And although I have left Greenbanks, I know it will stay with me for a long, long time.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

Dorothy B Hughes

“The germ or seed was always a place, a background scene. And against that background, there began a dialogue or a monologue; whatever it was, a conversation. Then I would begin to recognise the characters. The plotting was the final step; it was people and places that interested me, not gimmicks.”

(Dorothy B Hughes in the MWA Handbook)

When I finished reading The Expendable Man and turned to the afterword it was lovely to see the author’s own words about her writing. And lovely to be able to nod, and think, yes she does, and she does it very well.

The story opened with a man driving through the Arizona desert as he travels from Los Angeles to Phoenix. The opening paragraph sets the scene perfectly:

“Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of the dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading beige of the sun.”

That sense of place continued right through the story, as did the fine quality of the writing.

Hugh Densmore was a young doctor, travelling back home for a family wedding.

He saw a hitchhiker standing by the road. A young woman. And that presented him with a dilemma. Night was falling and he didn’t want to leave her there, alone and vulnerable to predators. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the chance of being seen as a predator, by her or by others, if he stopped and offered her a ride.

Persephone Endpapers

He decided to stop, to try to make sure that the young woman was safe. And she accepted his offer. But he would soon wish he hadn’t stop. She was ungrateful, and he could see that the stories she was telling him weren’t true. And even when he was back home, caught up with family events, he couldn’t shake her off.

And there was worse to come. Hugh’s hitchhiker was found dead. Murdered. And he was the prime suspect.

And so The Expendable Man becomes a classic tale of the wrongly accused man. The man who speaks the truth, but is not believed by the authorities. The man who the real murderer sees he can easily frame. And the man who will struggle to clear his name, and to bring the real murderer to justice.

The story plays out in the way that these stories generally do, but there are many things that make this particular story so very fine.

Time and place were captured perfectly. I was transported across the Atlantic to Arizona, and back in time to 1963.

Each and every character is simply but clearly drawn. I believed in them, their relationships, their conversations.

I believed in Hugh and I had to follow him, even though I hated what was happening to him, even though I hated some of the things he saw and heard.

And then there is what many have called a twist but I am more inclined to call a revelation quite early on. I have to say that it confirmed my suspicions rather that coming as a complete surprise, but that really didn’t matter. It came naturally from the characters, from the place and the time, and it gave the story so much depth and power.

It also means that I can’t say too much more about The Expendable Man.

Other than it is a very fine novel, a very brave story to have written in the early 1960s, a crime novel with important things to say, and a book that I am happy to recommend.


The Expendable Man is my entry for letter X in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.

Yes, it starts with X the sound rather than X the letter, but X is so difficult and I promised myself I wouldn’t read a book just because I had a letter to fill. I had no X books on my shelves, I could find none that I wanted to read in the library, and I did want to read this one.

And I think those are good enough reasons to bend the rules just a little!

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week Y is for … ?

Last Saturday

I awoke to sunshine on the promenade, but that wasn’t where we were going.

I was accompanied through the Morrab Gardens by both fiance and dog, and yet I abandoned them both to go to the library.

Why? The best of reasons!

I’d been gazing at the notice on the kitchen wall for days, not quite believing that it was real. But it was!

Anticipation was in the air as twenty-five or so people gathered in the reading room.

I wondered why somebody was making her way to the front of the room by a rather strange route. And then I realised. She wasn’t a member to know which of three doors was the best to use. She was our speaker!

And what did she say?

She spoke of the great importance of libraries, and we agreed that we were lucky to have both the Morrab Library and the Hypatia Trust in town.

But there was disappointment that so many wonderful works by women writers had been taken from the shelves, removed from stock over the years. Maybe there had been a lack of women’s voices on library committees in the past …

Dorothy Whipple had been a hugely popular author who was completely lost. Many voices were raised in her praise, but there was disappointment that nobody would write a thesis, a learned article about her ….

Delight was tangible when the future publication of Greenbanks was mentioned.

And then there was Marghanita Laski. Why was she not part of the cannon? Surely Little Boy Lost should be there? And who chose the cannon anyway?

Virago was mentioned. What Virago did was hugely important and we must all, our speaker suggested, have at least one Virago on our shelves. I had to smile. Because it was the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing that introduced me to Persephone Books. Because LibraryThing tells me I have 391 VMCs, and that Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession is among them.

But The Whipple Line was roundly condemned.

To not like her writing is fine, but to express that in such a negative, hurtful was is not. An important distinction.

Our speaker told us that she had always had firm views on how Persephone Books should look. Uniform editions with their own distinctive endpapers. That was what made them a little more expensive, and why they were sold by mail order rather than through bookshops. And that was why Persephone Classics had been introduced, to be sold through bookshops.

We learned that the business of selecting endpapers was rather simpler than we might have thought. That there were often few appropriate designs available from a book’s era.

And we learned a little about the Persephone Biannually. Including, sadly, that there were people who thought they should receive it without ever buying a book.

And then there was the whole business of how to choose what books to publish, and just how many suggestions were made. The right title was crucial. Identifying the owner of the right was useful. But, most of all, the book had to be right.

The recent Possibly Persephone event was mentioned, and we learned of a book that was on its way to publication.

Concern was raised that Persephone Books had no working class authors.

Our speaker drew attention to Round about a Pound a Week, but agreed and suggested that for most of the twentieth century working class women lacked the time and spaced to write.

And then there was How to Run Your Home Without Help. There was much praise for the generation who had managed after servants but before modern technology. My grandmother was one of them. How did they do it?

I’m afraid I’ve left out some details. This was far too friendly an event to take notes.

They will come back to me, but I hope that for now I’ve given you a flavour and me an aide memoire.

And there’s one more thing,that left me happy and just a little dazed.

I’m acutely aware that I’m Fleur in the biannually and Jane on the mailing list, and that the two might not have been linked. And so I introduced myself as Jane, and before I could introduce myself as Fleur as well I heard the words, “You must be Fleur …”

Happenstance Indeed!

Strange things are happening!

I was perusing new posts in Google Reader and listening to music when I landed on Simon’s Song for a Sunday.

Worn Me Down by Rachael Yamagata, from the album Happenstance.

A very fine choice, but I was a little spooked because I was listening to that very album.

A differnt track though, and so I wandered over to YouTube to find a video for my track. And I found a video – Rachael Yamagata’s I Want You set against footage from the film of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

What a thing to find when I still haven’t quite recovered from the wonderful news that Nicola Beauman is coming to my library!

Here’s the video:

I’ll get back to writing about books soon – and I do have a few gems to write about – but all of this excitement has me a little distracted right now.

I’m tempted to go and dance around my Persephone bookcase!

A Library Notice that Made My Heart Skip a Beat

It isn’t something that I can recall happening before, but this particular notice really was one of those things that dreams are made of:

I do love my little corner of Cornwall, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but we are a very long way from London and the other major cities and so I miss a lot of things.

But now Nicola Beauman is visiting a library where I am a member!

I can walk there, through the lovely gardens where my lovely fiance is a volunteer, in less than ten minutes!

I am very nearly speechless!

Happiness is … a tatty bookcase …

… that cost just £4, can be easily repaired, and that matches two you already have.

Space for books was a problem when I moved out of London, because when I came home for a while I soon realised that I had to stay to support my mother as she grew older. Every bookcase was full to bursting point when my collection was added to hers, and there were books in the attic, books in boxes, books pretty much everywhere.

My mother bought the first bamboo bookcase and I soon filled it up with a wonderful mix of books.

My fiance found the second, in the same design but a fair bit bigger. It was a wonderful piece of luck – he was passing by as somebody was putting it out on the pavement, free to anybody who would give it a good home. That bookcase is now home to my collection of Virago Modern Classics. They’re double-banked and a few are horizontal on the tops of shelves, but they’re all in, and it’s been wonderful to have them all together and all easy to pull out.

And now he has found a third, smaller but again a perfect match. Isn’t he clever?! My Persephone books were in a rather inaccessible corner upstairs, but now I’ve been able to bring them all downstairs. It’s lovely to be able to see them all clearly, and I even have half a shelf free for the collection to grow.

So now the room in the middle of our long narrow house has a door to the kitchen, an aga, table and chairs, a dresser, and four bookcases. It’s cluttered, but it’s home. What more do you need?!

Just a green bed, so that Briar is comfortable when she is on duty guarding the books!

Crime Fiction Alphabet: H is for Holding

Sometimes things come together beautifully: one book to both round off Persephone Reading Weekend and fill the letter H slot in my Crime Fiction Alphabet.

And this morning my book popped up on a lovely list in The Observer. A list of ten neglected literary works worthy of the BBC1 slot currently occupied by South Riding.

Such wonderful timing!

The book in question is The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding.

Lucia Holley, is a wife and mother, living with her daughter, her son, and her father, while her husband serves in the navy during WWII.

Lucia’s daughter, Bee, is a worry to her. She has become involved with an older man who her mother thinks is quite unsuitable, and Lucia is determined to put a stop to the relationship.

Her efforts though lead to a whole series of events – murder, blackmail, fraud – that threaten to destroy the very things that Lucia is trying to protect.

It’s a simple story, but it’s so terribly well executed.

Lucia, her family, and their relationships are so well drawn. The central conflict between mother and daughter is particularly well done. Lucia went straight from school to marriage and motherhood, but her daughter wants a very different life. Neither can understand the other.

That spoke loudly and clearly of the changing times. So did the many small inconveniences of daily life in a small America town during wartime

Lucia’s life, once so certain, was certain no more.

She had to keep her family safe, but she struggled to balance that with the demands of her children, her father, her home, her community.

Her behaviour, her attitude, became less and less rational, and at times I was infuriated as I watched her, but I really couldn’t have come up with a better plan.

Overall the balance of the book  is lovely: perfect family and domestic details on one side of the scale, and classic suspense on the other.

And a mystery driven so well by character is a wonderful thing.

The ending maybe  tilted a little too much towards melodrama, but it didn’t matter.  I was already hooked by the story and the characters, and it did round things off nicely.

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. I’d have to agree, but I’d say that she is more subtle than the former, less dark than the other, and that she writes lovelier prose than either.

And that suits her dove-grey Persephone jacket very well.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, I is for … ?

Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles

Several Persephone Books called me from the shelves, quite sure that they were the book I should read this week-end though. I deliberated for quite some time, but in the end I was contrary.

I picked up the book that was sitting quietly, not making any attempt to draw my attention.

Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles

The idea of a novel in verse, albeit blank verse, rather intimidated me, but I put my faith in Persephone.

The opening caught my attention. Mrs Delmer, mother of Lettice and wife of the doctor in charge was visiting a “Special Hospital”, an institution for unmarried mothers and young women with venereal disease, determined to do good works and to show her support for her husband.

The bleakness and horror of such a place; the staff’s understanding of that, and that Mrs Delmer’s efforts must be tolerated; and Mrs Delmer’s embarrassment when she misreads situations are all caught perfectly.

But Mrs Delmer is determined to get things right, determined that she and her husband will do as much as they can to give help and support. They will even take a young woman into their home, and reunite her with her infant son.

Their concern is laudable, but of course it will affect their daughter.

A lovely picture is painted of Lettice, eighteen years old, spoiled, uneducated and uninformed, and yet charming. And it is easy to feel sympathetic towards Lettice, because it is so clear that she is the product of her upbringing and because she is so clearly ill-equipped to deal with what life may throw at her.

The arrival of Flora Tort and her son Derrick is not a success, but the Delmers persist.

They can’t understand what is happening to their daughter, that the disruption of her home life, her rejection by the young man with who she thought she had an understanding, will hurt her deeply and lead her to become estranged from her family.

Lettice’s life takes a downward spiral.

She is in many ways infuriating – stubborn, proud, and so often failing to understand the people and the world around he – and yet there is a vulnerability, a feeling that Lettice really cannot cope, so that it is quite impossible not to feel for her.

And her story is counterbalanced by the story of her family, as it evolves into something very different.

Lettice’s is a dark story, of depression, abortion, suicide, despair, death … but it is also a story of faith, hope and redemption.

The characterisation is lovely and the psychological insight is acute. But the failures of communication and understanding are infuriating, and so sadly believable.

I’d love to say more, i’d love to quote, but I’m afraid I can’t without having to say and explain too much.

And the verse? I have to say it works wonderfully well, giving the story and the characters room to breathe and grow, and at the same time giving the story just the right rhythm and urgency.

Very clever.

Lettice Delmer is not a comfortable book, and I found it very unsettling, but it is both moving and compelling.

And certainly worthy of its dove-grey jacket.