16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 1 May 2012
The Penge Murder Mystery was a notorious crime which came to light in 1877. Harriet Staunton - a woman with learning difficulties who was then deemed `simple-minded' or `a natural' -died of starvation and neglect along with her baby. Her husband Louis Staunton (Lewis Oman in the novel), his brother Patrick, his wife Elizabeth and her sister Alice (who was also Louis' mistress) were tried and convicted of her murder.
It was and still is a horrifying case which later merited a volume in the Notable British Trials Series which is where the author Elizabeth Jenkins came across the case and became `obsessed' with the Stauntons and the death of poor Harriet.
Harriet, written in 1934, is one of the very first novels to take a real life incident and fictionalise it in a way which is now very much in vogue. Elizabeth Jenkins had such a deft hand with characterisation that no-one in the novel comes across as overtly villainous as they might do in the hands of a lesser author. The reader is shown how greed, vanity and possessive love can lead these four people to commit such unimaginable crimes.
I felt a terrible sense of pity for Mrs Olgilvy (Harriet's mother Mrs Butterfield) and the despair which overtakes her when she realises she cannot prevent her daughter from marrying the fortune hunting Lewis Oman (Louis Staunton) and from then on there is an impending sense of tragedy because the reader knows how it will end.
Harriet is sensitively drawn and I felt her confusion when all the things she has known - care, comfort and love- from her mother are taken away from her and she is pushed more and more callously out of the picture so that the four can live the blissfully happy life they have always wanted if only they had had the money before. The coldness and disgust which Lewis, Alice, Elizabeth and Patrick begin to treat Harriet is terrifying and filled me with mounting shock and pity.
Harriet is a brilliantly accomplished and chilling read and I was gripped from start to finish and I read it in one sitting.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 23 April 2012
It doesn't seem right to call a book 'wonderful' when the subject matter is as grim as this. It's a novelised version of a true crime which happened in Penge, now a suburb of London, in the 1870s, and Jenkins wrote it in the early 1930s (it beat 'Frost in May' and 'A Handful of Dust' to a prestigious literary award). The eponymous Harriet is a rich young lady who had what we would now call learning difficulties, and she was married for her money and then shut away and neglected until she and her baby died of starvation. The stuff of Victorian melodrama is here rendered in a chillingly matter-of-fact, unflinching way which only heightens the tragedy of a vulnerable, trusting young woman in the hands of predators. Jenkins was apparently upset herself, by what she'd written, wondering how such a terrible thing could happen. All credit to her that she doesn't portray the Omans as soulless monsters, but corruptible, selfish and weak-willed human beings. What shocked Victorian and inter-war society should perhaps be less horrifying in an age of genocide and terrorism, but the tragedy here is undiminished.
I have also read two other Persephone titles, 'The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes' and 'The Victorian Chaise-Longue' by Marghanita Laski and both were great, well-written reads. If you like the sinister, the tragic and the Victorians in a quality package, this is definitely worth a read.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 10 March 2010
This novel by Elizabeth Jenkins is beautifully written as you would expect from such a distinguished author. Her work has largely been forgotten but recently her Tortoise and the Hare was re-issued which lead me to want to read more. Harriet is now out of print but I obtained my copy from a seller in USA. It is a dark tale of selfishness and the helplessness of such women as Harriet and her Mother around the turn of the last century.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
'At half-past five on a January evening of the year 1875, Mrs Ogilvy's drawing room was a pleasant place.'
Yet from such a cosy outset - Mrs Ogilvy living a luxurious life with her retarded 32-year-old daughter Harriet - who could guess the horror just around the corner? While staying with relatives, Harriet is noticed by the charming and unscrupulous Lewis Osman. At once turning aside from his true love, the sulky but beautiful Alice who yearns for nice things, he starts courting Harriet. But his marriage proposal is not for romantic reasons:
'He did not shudder now, as he had done on the evening of their first meeting, at the idea of marrying her, but he was in no hurry to do it.'
Yet Harriet's wealth propels him on, much to the anger and frustration of her loving mother, who comes to realise her impotence in the face of this 'pert, undersized, vulgarly good-looking person of the lower middle-class, he impressed even her stalwart bosom with a sense of foreboding.'
How the story works out makes for a shocking and unputdownable read. Based on a real-life case.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 26 June 2012
A superb book,with pace and action aplenty. Unmissable. However, I advise anyone who buys this book NOT to read the back cover-it will spoil your enjoyment, as a crucial part of the plot is revealed.
Harriet Woodhouse is, in the language of the 1870s, a 'natural' - today we would say she had learning difficulties. Brought up by her loving and wealthy mother she has been cosseted to life's harsher realities. During a stay with relatives she is assiduously courted by Lewis Oman, a charismatic young man, who realizes that as her husband he can live very nicely on her inheritance of £5000 a year...
Jenkins's novel becomes more and more frightening as events gradually move towards a terrible crime. The perpetrators don't see themselves as guilty and their self-justifications at each new stage of their cruelty feels horribly authentic. "Harriet" is gripping and despite being deeply disturbed, I read it almost in one go - the characters seared in my mind.
"Harriet", first published in 1934, is closely based on a real Victorian case. In her afterword Rachel Cooke discusses the novel, its author, and what happened next to the characters' real-life counterparts.